“Thus far,” said Mrs. Estby, “we have had a pretty hard time … I assure you when the trip is over we will never undertake such a trip again.”
SALT LAKE CITY, JULY 8, 1896
A few days after leaving Boise, Helga and Clara took the grievous shortcut that led to their stark days lost in the Snake River lava beds. They followed the Union Pacific rails down to Gooding and cut east to Shoshone where they arrived on June 26. They evidently then tried correcting this by leaving the rails and crossing over the Snake River Plain. Clearly unprepared for this mistake, they wandered around the molten maze of lava for three days “without a mouthful to eat.”1 While growing hunger drained their energy, they also needed to stay alert for rattlesnakes hidden among the charcoal rocks. On the third night, a headlight from a distant Union Pacific train shone in the night and provided a beacon to direct their way back to the rails.2
After this near catastrophe, they continued south to Utah, committed now to staying with their original plan to follow the rails. The sparsely populated land in southern Idaho provided no alternative but to walk through miles and miles of hot, dry, lonely territory, with no towns, railroad stations, or even farms to find meals or shelter. It was not unusual for them to find only one meal a day and they felt fortunate when they ate twice a day. The barrenness of Utah, generally bereft of foliage except here and there in narrow, rock-ribbed gorges, seemed inhospitable after living in the lush land of the Pacific Northwest. By now, electric storms, flash floods, rain, and snow had slowed their walk, caused detours, and changed Helga’s almost cavalier confidence that crossing this vast American continent on foot might be easy. In classic understatement, she describes these dangers and difficulties to a reporter, “We had considerable trouble in making our way through Idaho and over the mountains.”3
Entering northern Utah, which had just received statehood in 1896, Helga and Clara saw the land chosen and settled by members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in their great migration for religious freedom in the 1840s and 50s. Coming into Brigham City, Helga gained a sense of the magnitude of Mormon influence in this region when she saw her first tabernacle rising high above this small town located about forty-five miles north of Salt Lake City. After tromping for days in arid land and bleak isolation, Helga and Clara marveled at how the hardworking citizens irrigated the desert and built a town with schools, churches, businesses, and sycamore-lined streets.
Knowing of hostilities between Native Americans and white settlers during the westward expansion made Helga nervous when they first encountered Indians. One day, while Clara and Helga walked through Utah, a band of young Indians spotted the women and stopped them. One spoke a little English and directed them to empty their satchels on the ground. After looking over Helga and Clara’s skimpy supplies of sketchpads, pencils, lanterns, revolvers, and medicine, he seemed puzzled by the women’s curling iron. He signaled he wanted to see what it was used for, so Clara demonstrated how she curled her silky brown hair into ringlets. He seemed satisfied, returned all their items, and left the relieved women to continue on their journey.4
These late June days also brought Helga and Clara near the Great Salt Lake and wetlands, one of America’s prime resting places for waterfowl. Surrounded by salt flats and sage plains, hundreds of thousands of migratory birds nest there in the spring. During the month of Helga and Clara’s arrival, the white-faced ibis, Canada geese, great blue herons, snowy egrets, white pelicans, shorebirds, cormorants, and dozens of other species made this their home. They likely saw the thousands of colony-nesting California gulls—the common white, black, and gray gulls that are legendary in Mormon history for rescuing the settlers’ crops in 1848 from an infestation of crickets.5
The blistering July heat forced them to begin walking at night, and they arrived in Salt Lake City at 8 o’clock in the morning on July 8. They stopped by the Deseret News because they intended to remain for a week or so to rest up and work to “get a few pennies to help us further along.” They also admitted to their first discouragement, describing the trouble making their way through Idaho and over the mountains.
“Thus far,” said Mrs. Estby to the local reporter, “we have had a pretty hard time. The journey, however, is not what it is cracked up to be and I can assure you that when the trip is over I will never undertake such a trip again.” But then her confidence returned with her hope that “it has to get much better now” as the districts through which they will pass are more thickly settled than those which they have already traversed.6
After the previous days of desolation, Salt Lake City renewed Helga’s spirits like a refreshing oasis. With a population of over 100,000, Salt Lake City was the pride of Utah settlers because of its vital commerce, arts, and industries, and as the pilgrimage destination for their faith. Helga and Clara planned to tour many of the points of interest and looked forward to visiting temple square and the stunning elliptical sandstone tabernacle with its bolted latticework and dome-shaped roof.7 Designed for exceptional acoustics, the tabernacle drew local citizens and visitors alike to hear the beauty of the choir’s performances.
The women visited W.W. Wells, the governor of Utah, on July 11, and saw the Mormon Tabernacle in Salt Lake City.
Courtesy Denver Public Library, Western Historical Collection, photo by H.S. Poley, P378.
Detail of this photograph on this page.
Mormons, who considered themselves on a mission from God, founded Salt Lake City in 1847 to establish a religious utopia in the wilderness, a model city where they could practice, without persecution, their vision of a close-knit communitarian society. However, with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869 and the development of mining and smelting, their geographic isolation ended. By 1890, the flood of immigrants created diversity with more than fifty percent of the population non-Mormon. Helga and Clara entered a deeply divided city, where Mormons and non-Mormons usually lived in separate residential neighborhoods, attended separate schools, joined separate fraternal and commercial organizations, and battled over social and cultural issues.8
By 1896, the changing city resembled other western cities undergoing rapid urbanization. Similar attitudes toward the “necessity” of prostitution that existed in Spokane allowed prostitution to be tolerated in Salt Lake City, which housed a thriving “red-light” district in the heart of downtown. Legal businesses, such as cigar and liquor stores, lined Commercial Street with “female boarders” in the upstairs of the houses. An urban working-class ghetto emerged west of the railroad tracks. With the extraction of copper, lead, silver, and gold in Utah, five smelting companies caused significant pollution to drift into Salt Lake City through a smoke belt between Murray and the city. But the city had cleaned up another pollution problem in 1890 when a major sanitation effort led to the installation of five miles of sewer pipe in the downtown area, eliminating the fetid sources of earlier epidemics.
Now well-dressed women passed to and from the shops along Temple Street. Through an elaborate canal system, the Mormons transformed the parched land until the city teemed with beautiful flower gardens, backyard orchards, and parks. A well-planned city that some called the Paris of Utah, Salt Lake City presented spacious avenues with beautiful hotels, markets, libraries, and even a museum.
While in Utah, they managed to arrange a visit to the office of Governor Wells and he added his signature to their document from Mayor Belt. He clearly treated the women with respect and welcome as they reported to the Deseret News that Utah had a “very excellent chief executive.”9The Deseret News reporter described Helga and Clara as intelligent women who “converse freely and fluently,” were clad in fairly good apparel, and were taking notes on the way because they expected to write a book at the completion of their journey. Recognizing their stunning achievement so far, the reporter noted that “the only other woman known to have attempted a similar feat left from San Francisco with two men and dogs; when she arrived at Salt Lake City she quickly boarded a train to return home.”10
In Salt Lake City they donned the bicycle skirts that the original contract stipulated they model. For some, perhaps even the sponsor of the wager, the emancipation of women from conventional and deforming fashions became linked with women’s growing freedom in society. “Until woman is allowed to have ankles, there is no hope for her brains,” claimed one advocate for the reform dress.11 By 1896, “women’s leg freedom” had become a hotly contested argument. As the Chicago Tribune stated, “No sane person can possibly dispute the truth that women have just as much right to leg freedom as men. For some inscrutable reason this liberty has been denied them.”12 For fashion designers, popularizing a viable new mode of dressing with knickerbockers or a shorter skirt promised enormous economic gain.
But breaking through the cultural taboos presented a major challenge. Progressive women, wanting lightness, comfort, and ease of motion joined the “rational dress movement” and formed a society that protested against tightly fitted corsets and heavily weighted skirts. Such extravagant fashions rendered healthy exercise almost impossible, but even more important, clearly affected women’s health. As women doctors began practicing medicine, they recognized all the unhealthy effects of irrational fashions and were especially convinced that corsets could cause a displaced or prolapsed uterus, atrophy of abdominal muscles, damage to the liver, displacement of the stomach and intestines, and constriction of the chest and ribs.13
In eastern circles, especially among educated females, women’s clubs began to challenge cultural fashions and linked this to the health of women. At the Brooklyn Health Culture Club, a female physician elaborated on the implications of wearing dresses that touch the ground. “It jars her back violently, hurts her head and tells on her nerves.” She explained how every inch on the bottom of a skirt counted in weight and fatigue and affected a woman’s ability to digest food when their stomachs were so pinched and pressed with bands. “Is it any wonder that we have congestions, tumors and all sorts of things?”14 A teacher of physical culture for women modeled the “short” skirt that she stated was all the rage in Paris; the “rule” was to wear a skirt between five and eight inches from the ground. From reporter’s descriptions, this fits the type of skirts that the sponsor asked Helga and Clara to wear.
Of equal concern was the filth that long skirts picked up from the streets and brought into the home, and the drag upon spine, hips, and abdomen that caused a state of exhaustion. “More women die annually in our country from the effects of faulty dressing than from all contagious diseases combined and the invalids from this cause alone form a great host that no man can number,” insisted Dr. Emily Bruce.15 Yet, a female doctor in 1896 who tried to convince women to discard corsets and wear more sensible dress complained, “In nine cases out of ten a woman clings to her corset as the drowning man clings to a straw.”16
Such radical ideas challenging cultural norms caused the then President of the United States, Grover Cleveland, to distrust and denounce the popular women’s club movement that sometimes fostered these discussions. “These [women’s clubs] are harmful in a way that directly menaces the integrity of our homes and the benign disposition and character of our women’s wifehood and motherhood,” the President insisted. “I believe that it should be boldly declared that the best and safest club for a woman to patronize is her home.”17
When Helga and Clara changed into this costume, their apparel attracted immediate attention, and reporters almost always commented on their shorter skirts. Now perceived by the public as “new women,” it is possible they began to perceive themselves differently, too. While dressed in their long Victorian skirts, they presented a certain conventional and safe respectability to the farmers, ranchers, and small-town people they relied on to provide them with hospitality. These more practical clothes, required by the stipulation of their contract, gave them a new leg freedom as they forged streams, climbed mountains, and walked over twenty-five miles each day. But now, before any one even talked with them, their reform costumes inevitably caused a stir, perhaps even suspicion.
They started wearing shorter skirts in Salt Lake City as part of their contract, a new experience for Helga and Clara.
Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection