HELGA ESTBY—The woman who walked across America.
By Robert James Taylor
Helga Estby, a Norwegian immigrant, had married her husband Ole in 1876; they settled on a 160 acre farm in Mica Creek, Spokane, Washington. By the time she was 35, Helga had given birth to eight children, six of whom survived, and in 1893 when the deep economic depression occurred, the family was faced with financial difficulties. They struggled through until 1896 when the Estby’s borrowed against the property: matters became more desperate when Ole had a back injury which limited his ability to work. The prospect of losing the farm became imminent.
Helga Estby was a strong-minded woman, a suffragette, who did not conform to the general role of womanhood in that Victorian Era. She was determined to save the family from eviction and destitution and sought out every opportunity she could to find the much needed funds. She responded to a most unusual East Coast challenge whereby a sponsor would offer $10,000 to any woman who would walk across America. This would mean a journey of 3500 miles from Spokane to New York City, but, it had to be done in a specific time frame. Helga chose her eldest daughter, level-headed and shy 18-year old Clara to accompany her. However, the family saw the trip as an abandonment of her motherly duties; Helga’s courage and determination won her no admirers.
And so it was arranged, the sponsor announced the event in the press and they departed on May 6th; the local Mayor gave them a letter of introduction and they carried calling cards that read- “H. Estby and daughter. Pedestrians, Spokane to New York.” They travelled light, and would do domestic work along the way to provide for their needs. Using the railroads tracks of the Northern and Union Pacific lines they averaged 30 miles a day and citizens offered overnight lodging. Helga could rightfully foresee that public awareness would increase along the way by visiting newspaper offices of each town they passed through, and meeting local dignitaries help spread their increasing fame. They were eventually welcomed on their anticipated arrival in many towns. The seven month trek would take them over mountains, through floods, heatwaves, native Indians, and, on one occasion they were threatened by a stalking hobo, who Helga shot in the leg with her gun- this incident was featured in the Minneapolis Tribune, giving them an added ‘wild west’ status. In Pennsylvania Clara broke her ankle; Helga asked the sponsor to give them some extra time for it to heal. Between them they wore out 32 pairs of shoes.
They finally arrived in New York City but they would soon face the devastating news that the sponsor would renege on the $10,000 award because they were a few days late. (It is still not known whether in fact the sponsor even had the funds.) While in New York, Helga’s written journals which she would use for writing her book later, disappeared, possibly stolen, and to add to her grief, Helga learned that diphtheria had taken two of her children back home. Now destitute, unable to even afford the train fare home they were at the mercy of hoped for benefactors. Railroad tycoon Chauncey Depew took pity on them and gave them tickets to Minneapolis.
It was now the Spring of 1897. On their arrival home they faced resentment by the tight-knit local community. Many felt that Helga should have stayed with her children; the hostility was so great Clara left home and did not return until 20 years later. The seven month sojourn was a bitter blow and the farm was not saved.
When Helga Estby died in 1942, aged 82, one of her daughters burnt all of her mother’s records and journals, the same ones she had written from memory for the book that she wanted so much to write. The family still felt that she had shamed them and wanted to suppress all memory and mention of the story. Much later a daughter-in-law would discover newspaper clippings of the long walk, that gave rise to Helga’s forgotten story. Decades later Helga’s “scandalous and irresponsible behaviour” was perceived in a much more heroic light: the strict social codes of the Victorian era were long gone.
Today, Helga’s story has received increasing awareness everywhere and her name and reputation in Spokane, where she died, is now respected. But she never did write her book, a considerable loss, because that unfulfilled intention could have given us a unique travel odyssey portraying American life across those vast lands that she and her daughter travelled against such great odds.