For the first time in history this continent is traversed
on foot by women.… They crossed the borders of
fourteen commonwealths, dined with governors,
hobnobbed with railroad presidents, and saw the
sights of the continent and now are homeward bound.
—MINNEAPOLIS TRIBUNE JUNE 2, 1897
While grieving the death of Bertha and fearful that diphtheria had entered their home, Helga learned that the city of Brooklyn refused to help, so she announced they would look for private funds. Helga’s break came when famous New York railroad titan and afterdinner speaker Chauncy Depew was “greatly interested in the remarkable women” and “was touched” for a free railroad pass on his line to Chicago.1 Helga probably personally solicited Depew’s help. He also may have read about their plight in the newspapers. On May 4, almost one year since stepping out from Spokane, the women boarded a train in New York, bound for Chicago. From there, they walked to Minneapolis where they arrived on June 2 and stayed at the Scandia-Excelsior Hotel.2
This fortuitous stop drew the attention of interested news media and two lengthy articles appeared in the Minneapolis Tribune and Minneapolis Times. Reporters visited the women in their hotel where they were entertaining the kitchen staff with their adventures. In the month since Helga and Clara learned of Bertha’s death and Helga made her plaintive plea for public assistance to return home, the mood of the mother and daughter had changed considerably. Before leaving New York, Helga evidently negotiated with the sponsor or sponsor’s representative once more, attempting to get her book published. They left with an agreement that gave both Helga and Clara a strong sense of direction and satisfaction, even peace. After telling of their remarkable accomplishment and the failure to receive the wager, the Minneapolis Tribune mentioned that the matter was finally satisfactorily adjusted, and “the women will receive $10,000 when the book is written by them and describing their travels and adventures is completed.”3 The Minneapolis Times mentioned a similar settlement over the contract “between the two pedestrians and private parties in New York” adding that a book “will be published under the direction of the eastern parties.”4
On their way home, Helga and Clara stopped in Minnesota where the Minnesota Times and Minnesota Tribune carried extensive articles about their adventures.
Courtesy Portch/Bahr Family Photograph Collection. Detail of this photograph on this page.
Part of the new agreement included funds for Clara to traverse by rail during the next summer on practically the same route over which she and her mother walked “for the purpose of securing illustrations for the book that is to be published.” They seemed enthusiastic and trusting of these new arrangements.5 These two lengthy June 1897 articles framed the scope of their historic achievement and set a tone suggesting how their “story” would be received by readers in America. After listening to Helga and Clara describe their adventures, both reporters used words such as “wonderful” and “marvelous” to summarize this 3500-mile transcontinental trek. After hearing Helga and Clara tell stories in the hotel, the Minneapolis Times recognized that the unique view of America these women experienced was comparable to best-selling British travel fables of the era. “A story was unfolded that would shine among the thrilling tales of Munchausen’s adventures. This one was vastly superior, however, because true.”
Then, in recognition of the rarity of such an effort, the Minneapolis Times writer mentioned that no women unattended had ever attempted this feat before. After detailing some of the narrow escapes from death the women encountered on the trip, the reporter concluded, “The incidents of the trip are certainly enough in quality and quantity to fill a good-sized volume.”6
A description of the women in the Minneapolis Tribune used language that assured readers of the normalcy of the remarkable women who “presented a very home-like appearance” as they “modestly made themselves comfortable in the kitchen at the hotel, and were busy telling their story to the proprietor and waiters of the place.” Interested in nineteen-year-old Clara, who “looks more like a maiden in some of the rural districts of Europe than an American girl,” the reporter assures that “she appears in the vigor of health-budding womanhood.” Helga is described as “of somewhat slender build, but has rosy cheeks.”7
With the new contract arranged, the book plans made, and Helga and Clara homeward bound, they expressed excitement to soon be under their own roof in Washington State. Then they spoke of the value they placed on their experiences. Clara, who earlier admitted to being sick of the trip, now said she “considers that the trip is worth as much to her as a college course, for she has gained an extended knowledge of the country and has become adept in the reading of human nature.”8 Clara also expressed confidence that she could now handle rough situations when they arose. She usually carried the gun filled with insect powder and “brought it into play several times” when highwaymen and tramps attempted to accost her mother. She told how effectively the gun filled with red pepper worked: “a generous charge of the blinding pepper was as good as a whole police force.”9
The newspapers stressed the women’s mental abilities. “Both are women of high intellect and possess fine conversational powers.… and are enthusiastic over their work and adventures,” noted the Minneapolis Times reporter. The Times also commented on the different political perspectives the mother and daughter held on the presidential candidates and free-silver election issues, recognizing their ability to think independently and disagree.10 The Minneapolis Tribune reporter agreed, stating that both were apt talkers, and “although of Scandinavian birth, spoke the English language fluently and entertainingly.”11
Declaring that “Mrs. Esby [sic] and Clara are the wife and daughter of a respectable Washington farmer,” the Times added that the trip was partly planned for the health of Mrs. Estby, who “was threatened with consumption” and has now “regained entirely her fast failing health.”12 In no other newspaper was this reported. The women planned to remain in Minneapolis for a few days and then “endeavor in some manner” to secure train tickets home.
Helga evidently did not mention to the Minneapolis newspapers information on the death of her daughter Bertha or that diphtheria had invaded the home. It had been a month now since they had heard this disheartening news in Brooklyn. By this time, Helga and Clara may have come to some sense of peace, perhaps helped by the Norwegian Lutheran perspective on eternity. In this belief system, pastors often gave solace to grieving families that their beloved ones lived on in Heaven. Bertha’s brief life belonged to God, and as a bereft mother and sister they likely found comfort in their church teachings that one day they would be reunited with their loved ones. Because they had been on the road with no reliable address, it is doubtful they knew of Johnny’s death.
These two extensive articles conveyed the excitement the reporters felt about the value of Helga and Clara’s upcoming book. Shorter newspaper articles had left much unsaid, especially concerning day-to-day life. Helga’s book promised the possibility of a sweeping eyewitness record of American life in the great cities and unknown frontiers during the turbulent turn of the century. Stories showing their encounters with the humble and famous, including the nation’s political leadership, could offer a glimpse into the fabric of American character. During an era where “the woman question” loomed large, Clara’s differing ideas would add a fascinating generational viewpoint.
Their voices could also augment the male nature writers of the era in revealing how the grandeur and the harshness of the American landscape refreshed or intimidated them. And a book would offer insight into the emotional landscape of Helga, an articulate, complex, and intelligent immigrant woman living in an in-between era for women. Her own ideas about women’s rights were clearly awakened as she encountered progressive women and men who insisted on reform in America. She may have found the solitude of the trip, especially after spending all her adult life caring for several children, a time of inner renewal, a sanctuary of silence. Although perhaps she longed only to be near her family each and every day that she walked farther away.
Her book could shed light into the mysterious sponsor of the trip, although it appears she never knew the exact identity of the wealthy New York woman who preferred “not to indulge her name.”13 Helga consistently stated that central to the sponsor’s motivation was to prove the physical strength and endurance of women, and their ability to provide for themselves. For almost 3500 miles Helga and Clara had proved this splendidly. In light of the immense jeopardy in such a venture, it is conceivable the calculating sponsor never expected to have to pay up, and Helga and Clara arriving a few days late gave the unprepared sponsor a way out. A $10,000 wager is worth over $200,000 in 2002 dollars, a considerable gamble for the sponsor and presumes a person of exceptional wealth.14 Clearly there appears to be a connection to the clothing industry that benefited from the women demonstrating the controversial short skirts. The San Francisco Chronicle indicated in the first announcement of the trip that the women “are under contract to a manufacturer of a health costume.”15 This same information came forth in another article stating, “Mrs. Estby and daughter will be paid a certain sum of money on their arrival in New York for their services in advertising the dress.”16 Two articles mention the Weary Waggles that they wore, perhaps the name of a company that produced the bicycle skirts.
Helga consistently refers to her plans to write a book, but this appears to be her own idea, not the initial sponsor. An avid reader, perhaps she harbored a desire to become a writer. She mentions writing in her notebook daily, sending hundreds of pages home, and one article quotes her as saying “we write a complete account of the day’s experiences and mail these immediately to the New York people who put up the wager. These daily letters will be published in book form at the conclusion of our trip.”17 If the original sponsors were primarily connected to the publishing world, however, nothing in Helga and Clara’s late arrival altered the adventuresome transcontinental story. Their accomplishment offered living proof that women were a lot stronger than most people believed in the 1890s, a direct refutation to the lingering Victorian belief that physical exertion endangered women. It is unlikely a publisher would reject such a fascinating story on a technicality of arrival time. Most of their accounts spoke of publishing a book as an additional way to earn money beyond the wager.
The New York World, a progressive Pulitzer paper, was the first to announce their proposed trek in the April 26, 1896, newspaper under their “new women” column. Helga and Clara needed to go directly to the newspaper office on their arrival, so this newspaper likely served as a conduit for the mysterious sponsor. Newspapers at the turn of the twentieth century liked to draw attention to contests and wagers to interest readers. William Randolph Hearst, owner of the New York Journal and San Francisco Examiner, capitalizing on the bicycle craze in 1896, staged a San Francisco to New York cross-continental bicycle relay race during the same summer as Helga and Clara’s walk. Much like riders of the Pony Express, the cyclists carried a news item across the nation in 13 days and 29 minutes.18 What her book could tell readers is how she first heard of this wager and whether any Spokane connection existed, which was only mentioned in Indiana. All other articles refer to New York or eastern sponsors. The Spokane connection is unidentifiable, and if one did exist, it seems that a “wealthy suffragette” would have provided money for Helga and Clara to return on train to their family. She states that the wager “was arranged through the instrumentality of a friend in the East,” a plausible explanation. A Spokane friend may have “conceived the idea” and helped make the connection with an eastern friend. But all this information has been lost.19
Exuberant to be homeward bound, and renewed by the strong press coverage they received in Minnesota, they now knew their distinctive accomplishment intrigued others. They looked to the future to write and illustrate the book, apparently confident they would finally receive the $10,000 to solve their family’s difficulties. When they read the newspaper’s glowing and thorough accounts of their adventure, they gathered copies of the articles to take home to show Ole and the children. These two treasured articles of their triumphant trip eventually became the only thin membrane of memory that kept this story alive.