This lengthy opus had a gestation period of over 30 years. I first read Walter's books in 1965
and found a vividly written first-person narrative describing the life of an unskilled worker in
1890s America. It was sprinkled with a wry and sometimes self-deprecating humor and
leavened with occasional classical references that sent me to various dictionaries more than
In the early 1890s there were many attempts to investigate and report on the plight of the
working class in the then-booming Industrial Revolution. As with other revolutions, this one
came at a price, and with little or no social safety nets, unemployment or illness more often
than not brought disaster.
I came away deeply impressed at not only the scope of his undertaking, but also with the
strength of his character in some pretty trying situations. I wonder how many of us would
have stuck it out, especially in wintry Chicago. Here was a literate man, reared in a privileged
lifestyle, where he could have comfortably stayed, who willingly and stubbornly subjected
himself to the harsh world of 19th century manual labor and did better than just hold his own.
Jack London, Nellie Bly and others tentatively dipped their toes into this icy reality, but
Walter dove in head-first, psychologically naked. Others stayed in for a few days or weeks --
Walter lived it for 18 months.
He initially detailed his experiences in the 1897, 1898 and 1901 editions Scribner's Magazine.
These later were reprinted in under the titles of "The Workers, East" (1897), "The Workers,
West" (1898), and "A Day with a Tramp and Other Days" (1901). The latter fleshed out
incidents he lightly touched upon in his "West" book.
The years following 1965 saw a fruitless on-and-off search for those volumes, leading me to
believe they were the result of a small private printing. When the day of the Internet
dawned, it immediately paid off by finding all three editions within minutes. I quickly
renewed my acquaintance and halfway through "The Workers, East", an idea presented itself.
Each of Walter's chapters dealt with a town where he secured work, with descriptive
comments about other villages and towns he passed through. I reached for a road atlas and
marked each town as I read along. At first blush, mapping his route appeared to be a pretty
straightforward affair, for most of the communities he mentioned still existed.
Understandably, after the passage of 110 years, a few of these names couldn't be found.
Occasionally a town shortened its name or changed it completely, leading to some
geographical detective work via the Internet. Twice it resulted in a "Holy Grail" sense of
satisfaction when its location was finally discovered. Marking each town as I followed
Walter's trail not only brought the extent of his trek into sharper focus, it added a sense of
immediacy that, in the end, generated a desire to retrace his journey "someday" as my
tribute to his effort.
While surfing the Internet one night, I ran across a Maritime Museum located in
Mantiowoc, Wisconsin that docked my old sub, the U.S.S. Cobia (SS 245) as a floating
museum. (It is a jolt to one's sense of immortality when you see the boat you served on
"just a few years ago" (actually 60) now treated as a relic of antiquity.)
I was pleasantly surprised to see the old girl still afloat, as the last time I saw her, she was
destined for the breakers. Now that I was retired, I could think of no better way to spend
some summer weeks than to visit Manitowoc and take a trip down memory lane.
Breaking out the road atlas again, I began to plot the best way to get from lower Nevada to
upper Wisconsin. During the plot, I began running across states that I had marked with
Walter's route. In the summer of 2001, after a short "Plan B" talk with my wife, we
decided to integrate a reconnaissance of a few of his stops into the trip. Morris, Illinois
was selected as our starting point since an Internet map showed the railroad tracks and
canal Walter had mentioned on his way down from Joliet in the spring of 1892. We decided
to go as far as Morris, backtrack a few miles to Ottawa and then up to Manitowoc. From
there, we would cut across the state until we reached Minneapolis, Minnesota where we
would begin to follow Walter out west as far as Kearney, Nebraska. Then, instead of
following his trail south into Denver, we would go on to Utah to visit family.
The trip was a resounding success. Not only did I get to do my trip down memory lane with
the USS Cobia, the viability of retracing Walter's trail was readily apparent. We were able
to visit every town Walter mentioned from middle Illinois to Minnesota and down through
Iowa to Nebraska. The visit to Morris was an opening bonanza for we not only found the
railway tracks he mentioned, we found the Illinois and Michigan Canal he followed into
town still intact and well-kept. It reinforced an earlier Twilight Zone experience I had at
Buda, Nebraska that left me with the eerie feeling that Walter was at my elbow most of
the trip. It was evident that I had no choice. I had to do the entire journey, this time from
his starting point in Black Rock, Connecticut the following year, 110 years to the day, if
Originally, we had only intended to take an occasional snap of each town for the family
album, in a "been there, done that" sense. However, after our preliminary trip I made a
chance discovery that completely changed our plans. While searching for information
about Chicago, I chanced upon a 1900s postcard view of Chicago's Water Street that
matched Walter's description so perfectly that the idea of using cards from that era for a
then-and-now comparison took hold. We thus entered, via a side door, the engaging
world of postcard collecting -- the best approximation of time travel yet devised.
It soon became obvious that under this concept, the effort would be more than just an
album-filler. In his time, Walter's works were widely read among the public and he was
highly respected within the academic community, yet today few if any are aware of him
or his epic adventures. Aside from the scholarly aspect of his journey, the "ripping yarn"
tone remains good reading to this day, with the "West" book having the most adventures
and at least one life-threatening incident. A book or a website appeared to be a logical
next step to get his story out. Unfortunately, with over 200 photographs to display, with
at least half in color, a book appears out of the question due to the high cost of printing on
quality paper, let alone being authored by an unknown.
Each chapter begins with a map of the state Walter traversed, his route traced, and the
towns he mentioned. A relevant quote from one of the Scribner's articles introduces his
next experience. Occasionally more than one citation is used to flesh out the original
statement. These are accompanied by either a pertinent postcard, a monochrome photo,
or a period print, followed by a comparative modern-day photograph of the same area.
In the few situations where a village was too small to warrant a postcard view, a modern
snapshot stands alone.
Picture postcards were not sanctioned by the government until the 1893 Chicago World's
Fair, followed by congressional authorization of private mailing cards in 1898. No
writing was permitted on the address side until 1908 when the postcard format as we
know them appeared. We felt comfortable in using these early cards as scenes from the
1890s were routinely and repeatedly copied until the emerging technology of the early
teens brought a new wave of photographs with more modern scenes.
My wife Phyllis, whose gimlet eye for architecture saved many a fruitless search in the
wrong place as well as acting as pilot while I navigated us into numerous U-turns. Todd
and Denise Andrews who allowed me to tie up their phone line for last minute Internet
searches and map printouts, John and Rose Quillen for providing us with a home base
where I could enter our notes on the laptop in comparative tranquility, Christy Lutz of
Princeton University who went that extra mile and steered me to their Faculty Archives,
Stella Bailey of Highland Falls Historical Society who gave us a treasure trove of
information about the long-gone community of Forest-of-Dean, the many librarians
and members of historical societies and a few Chamber of Commerce representatives
who had that additional sense of history that added neat little tidbits of local history.
Walter was idly chatting with a well-traveled house guest when the conversation drifted
into the emerging social problems of working class America in the new Industrial Age. It
soon became apparent to Walter that his sheltered upper-class life offered no basis for
any meaningful discussion and that he was sorely in need of a Real World education.
Within the hour he developed a plan that would correct that defect. He would work his
way across America as an unskilled laborer in any available job, no matter how menial.
He temporarily abandoned his graduate studies at Princeton, donned an old hunting suit,
and after the butler adjusted his knapsack, naively began his journey "with no money in
my pocket" It was midsummer, Connecticut, 1891.