Long before the rise of baseball, football and today’s other major sports, America’s favorite spectator sport was pedestrianism. That’s right, people filled stadiums to watch people walk around a track for days at a time.
Matthew Algeo’s new book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Sport, details the history of competitive endurance walking. Algeo joined Bill Littlefield on Only A Game.
Highlights from Bill’s Conversation with Matthew Algeo
BL: Is “America’s favorite spectator sport” in that subtitle an exaggeration?
MA: No, it isn’t, and I guess the number one reason was there wasn’t a lot else to do. There was rapid industrialization, rapid urbanization in the decades after the Civil War, millions of people moving into American cities — working people. And live entertainment at the time was really geared toward the rich. Musical performance or a play, a ticket might cost a dollar or two. A working person was lucky to make that much a day. And so there was this entertainment deficit in the country, if you can believe that, compared to today. And so when the six-day walking matches began in the 1870s, they quickly caught on.
BL: We will get to those arenas full of people shortly, but let’s begin with a cross-country walk undertaken by one Edward Payson Weston in 1861, because he’d lost a bet.
MA: Edward Payson Weston was a door-to-door books salesman from Providence, R.I. In the autumn of 1860, he made a bet with a friend on the outcome of that year’s presidential election. Weston bet that Lincoln would lose, and, of course, Weston lost the bet. The loser had to walk from Boston to Washington in 10 days and arrive in time to witness the inauguration of Lincoln on March 4, 1861.
So Weston set out and made his way south. Of course, this was a very tense time in American history. Southern states began seceding. There wasn’t a lot of good, uplifting news. And the idea that this guy would walk from Boston to Washington in the middle of winter on terrible roads — it really did capture the imagination of the public, especially along the East Coast. Huge crowds would turn out to see him just walk through their town. Weston didn’t make it in time. He was four hours late to the inauguration. He did meet Lincoln a couple of days later and Lincoln offered to pay his rail fare home, but Weston said he would try to walk home. But the Civil War intervened.
BL: In 1875, 14 years after he’d just missed President Lincoln’s speech, Edward Weston became one half of what you call “the first great rivalry in the annals of American sports.” Who was the other half of that rivalry?
MA: Daniel O’Leary, an Irish immigrant from Chicago. And what happened was Weston, to capitalize on his fame, decided to take his act indoors. He began walking inside roller rinks, and he would try to walk say 100 miles in 24 hours and charge people a dime for the pleasure of watching him walk in circles all day. This proved immensely popular — thousands of people would do it. Naturally competitors rose up and Daniel O’Leary actually walked 100 miles in 22 hours. And so he bested Weston’s record and so that set up the big showdown in 1875 that you mentioned. It was a 500-mile race over six days between Weston and O’Leary.
BL: Tell us how one of these two-person walking events worked.
MA: They would draw a dirt track on the floor of an arena. A lot of the races were held at the first Madison Square Garden in New York. The track was about a seventh or an eighth of a mile around and beginning right after midnight Sunday night/Monday morning the competitors would be sent off, and they would walk continuously day and night for six days right up until midnight the following Saturday night. And the rules were pretty simple: whoever walked the farthest was the winner.
Bill’s Thoughts On Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator SportWatching people try to walk around and around a track for six consecutive days was apparently not as dull as it sounds. During the 1870s and 1880s, thousands of people filled the original Madison Square Garden and similar venues to witness such competitions.
Chester A. Arthur was among the onlookers. After Edward Payson Weston, one of the premier pedestrians of his or any other time, walked from Boston to Washington D.C. to hear President Lincoln’s inaugural address, the President met with Weston. The point is that people – even people who were or would one day become presidents – paid attention to accomplished walkers.
Matthew Algeo’s new book is full of anecdotes from this sport that once enthralled a nation, in part because pedestrianism didn’t have a lot of competition, but in part because at least some of the earnest walkers had flair and personality going for them. The aforementioned Edward Weston, for example, carried a cane when he walked and sometimes played tunes on a coronet without missing a step.
Pedestrianism is unlikely to revive the competition about which Algeo writes so entertainingly, but it offers a glimpse into the sport that apparently fascinated this nation’s fans who came along before baseball, football, basketball, or hockey had become attractions, let alone corporate giants.