Some newspapers referred to what Mrs. Lucille Rodney had undertaken that summer of 1893 as a “pedestrian journey” but the only thing pedestrian about it was her mode of travel.
The 23-year-old had set out to walk from Galveston to Chicago to take in that city’s World’s Fair, a colossal event formally known as the Columbian Exposition. If she made it to the Windy City in 76 days, she would win a $5,000 prize offered by Chicago’s Elite Athletic Club. If she did not, she at least got to keep the money she made along the way selling souvenir photographs of herself.
“The plucky little Texan,” as one newspaper labeled her, left the Island City on May 16. Husband, G.B. Rodney and W.W. Holiday, an athletic club representative. However, the men took turns between walking with her and pacing her in a horse-drawn buggy-the 19th century equivalent of a chase car.
In addition to the requirement that she complete the journey before August 1, the athletic club stipulated that she carry 38 pounds of baggage as far as Dallas (after that it could be carried in the buggy) and count the number of cross ties as she made her way to the fair.
Her departure was ignored by the Galveston News, but when she reached Dallas, the Dallas Morning News interviewed her. “Oh, the dreadful [railroad] trestles,” she said. “I don’t like them.” On the upside, as they passed through open country, farm families often provided them meals.
Despite the pleasures of country cooking, by the time the entourage reached St. Louis, Mrs. Rodney had dropped from 125 pounds to 106 pounds. Her husband said he had lost 33 pounds and Holliday reported he’d shed 25 pounds.
Another athletic club stipulation was that the lady walker had to check in with the ticket agent of each depot she reached. After showing up at St. Louis’ Union Station at 9:40 a.m. on July 15, Mrs. Rodney and her fellow travelers spent the night before leaving before dawn the next day.
If she succeeded in making it to Chicago, Mrs. Rodney declared, she would next hike from New York to San Francisco. “If you do,” her husband said, “you will go without me.”
When Mrs. Rodney reached Decatur, Illinois at 5 p.m. on July 21 several thousand people greeted her at the depot. Others had joined her outside of town and escorted her the rest of the way in. As the trio moved up the track toward the station, as the Chicago Inter Ocean reported the following day, “So dense was the crowd on the railroad track that it was difficult for the woman to proceed to the station.” When someone stood in front of her and refused to let her pass, Mrs. Rodney’s husband slugged the man in the jaw, dropping him to the roadbed. Police arrested Rodney but he was later released, apparently with no charges having been filed.
Mrs. Rodney made it to Chicago about 10 a.m. on July 27, some 60 hours before her deadline. She said she could have made the walk even faster, but she lost one day to illness and 10 days to bad weather.
“There was no end of sport on the trip and I enjoyed it,” she told reporters. “I used to carry an umbrella, but one day I was walking a very bad [train] trestle bridge and the umbrella acted as a parachute and came near carrying me over, so I just closed it and threw it as far…as I could.”
She averaged 23 miles a day on her “tramp,” a word that contemporary newspapers used to describe the 1,346-mile journey from the Gulf of Mexico to Lake Superior.
After the party reached Chicago, her name disappeared from the newspapers. What became of Lucille, her husband and Holliday remain a mystery. About all that’s known of her is that she was originally from Manchester, Iowa.
The Galveston News, then one of the better newspapers in Texas, made no contemporary mention of the trip and never ran an article on her at any time after 1893. A Howard Rodney died in the devastating 1900 Galveston hurricane, but whether he was related to G.B. and Lucille is not known.
It’s possible the walk was nothing more than a publicity stunt, the trio’s real mode of travel being by train or buggy. Indeed, on July 16, 1893, one Chicago newspaper noted, “This appears to be a bid for some cheap advertising. Mrs. Rodney, her task, and the wager are strangers here.”
On the other hand, reports from the various newspapers that covered the trek offered details that seemed authentic, including pointing out that she had worn out eight pair of $5 “English walking shoes” along the way.