On the history of American hiking

Theodore Roosevelt hiking with John Muir

I just finished reading the book, On the Trail: A History of American Hiking by Silas Chamberlin. If you love hiking and conservation (as I do), this is a delightful tome. I had not thought much about how hiking was an unintended consequence of the growth in industry and the introduction of sophisticated infrastructure into cities.

Before the late 19th century, nature walks were the province of aristocrats. Ponder for a second how much of Pride and Prejudice is devoted to talking about natural beauty and jaunts through the countryside, and how Mr. Darcy takes this as evidence of Elizabeth Bennett’s autodidact-aesthetic and intelligence.

In post-Civil War American society, however, the popularity of walking grew out of the anxiety of increased industrialization and the sense that “progress” might not be commensurate with certain notions about a life well-lived:

On the one hand, Americans welcomed improvements in their quality of life and took pride in innovations as mills, canals, steamboats, and trains. On the other hand, they recognized the potential for technology to create larger, dirtier cities inhabited by a class of workers with no means of escaping factory life. These dichotomous responses were embedded in the culture of the period and permeated discussions of politics, literature, and society. Nineteenth-century Americans adopted the pastoral ideal, or “middle landscape,” as an alternative, more desirable vision.

Most people will remember this from studying transcendentalists and the Hudson River School artists in school. (I was impressed that the author devoted a section to what a total charlatan Henry David Thoreau was, talking about hanging out by Walden Pond in the middle of the city as if he were David Livingstone trekking through deepest Africa.)

But walking as a form of leisure and moral improvement became a sort of national obsession during the period that was hardly limited to philosophers and artists.

Investors started funding walkways along the canals and factories they financed to ensure their ventures would be better received by residents and local politicians. (During this era, canals competed with railways as a form of mass transit, with railroads eventually winning, at least until automobiles came around.)

This improved the quality of life of the working class significantly, as they took advantage of new greenbelts and public parks in droves:

One of the most remarkable – and least known – examples was the canal-turned-greenway in Lowell, Massachusetts. Lowell’s canal system consisted of several short canals that provided waterpower to the city’s famous mills. The Boston Associates – the wealthy group of investors who owned most of Lowell’s mills – became concerned about the town’s stark appearance. Beginning in the 1820s, they embarked on tree-planting and landscaping projects along their canals and in their factory yards. The first plantings were adjacent to the company’s boardinghouses, home to the young women who worked in the mills. Although the land between the street and the canal had been used as an informal promenade for several years, the new landscaping evoked a parklike setting that encouraged more people to use it as a public walk. Textile workers were encouraged to publish their poetry, short stories, and other writing in a monthly periodical called the Lowell Offering…

When the Northern Canal along the Merrimack River was completed in 1847, city residents could follow the Merrimack, Western, Pawtucket, and Northern Canals in an approximately four-mile circuit of the city that took them through the rural countryside west and north of Lowell. By design, canals are relatively flat, so these four-mile jaunts were hardly strenuous, but they did offer an opportunity to experience walking in a natural setting, especially outside of town.

From such projects, a sports craze developed, with the introduction of professional pedestrians:

As a formal sport, pedestrianism emerged from the British aristocratic practice of placing bets on how far and how long their footmen could walk behind their carriages or around a circular racetrack… By 1809, the stakes, audience, and prestige of the pedestrian had grown. In July of that year, Captain Robert Barclay, a wealthy Scot with royal blood, completed his well-choreographed and widely celebrated “thousand miles in 1,000 hours for 1,000 guineas.” Barclay, who along with a small team had planned and strategized his approach for more than a year, circled a track for nearly six weeks straight, walking at least one mile every hour. When he completed the task, he earned, along with side bets 16,000 guineas, or the equivalent of 320 years of income for the average artisan who composed his audience of thousands. American newspapers picked up the story from London…

By the mid-nineteenth century, reports like these had inspired a small group of celebrity pedestrians in the United States. In the winter of 1861, a professional pedestrian named Edward Payson Weston walked between Boston and Washington DC in eight days. The walk originated in a casual bet with a friend: Weston promised to walk to Abraham Lincoln’s inauguration if Lincoln were to be elected.

In the end, Weston had gained such notoriety that he had the opportunity meet President Lincoln. Lincoln offered to pay for the man to ride back to Boston on a train. (He walked instead.)

In the 1860s, social groups emerged not only to take nature walks but to take on aggressive hikes (like climbing Mt Washington in the White Mountains of New Hampshire). I found this development interesting for a couple reasons: (1) you would not think about recreation being an all-consuming pursuit for people during the middle of the Civil War (it almost goes to show you how removed some northerners were from the Civil War as a political concern with a direct impact on one’s ordinary life) and (2) women were included in these hiking groups from the very beginning (perhaps because city infrastructure gave women the chance to become physically athletic too).

Nowadays, female athletes make a big deal out of “trailblazers” like Katherine Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon, who had her bib number ripped off of her by organizers mid-race. But women were climbing some of the highest peaks in the Appalachians in hoop skirts a century earlier.

Anyway, the book from that point transitions into accounts of the founding of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Sierra Club, and similar groups, along with the fights to establish state and federal parks. The further you get into it, the more it becomes a sort of directory of early members and their pet causes, and the tension between people who were in hiking for the sake of sport and people who turned it into political activism – which is interesting, though way too much for a blog post.

A fun, though very esoteric read.

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