Estby, Helga (1860-1942)

  • By Margaret Riddle
  • Posted 9/23/2011
  • Essay 9926

Norwegian immigrant and suffragist Helga Estby is remembered for her heroic seven-month walk from Spokane to New York City in 1896, a publicity wager that she expected would pay her $10,000 and save the family farm from foreclosure. Leaving a husband and five children at home in Mica Creek, 36-year-old Helga and her 17-year-old daughter Clara set out from Spokane on May 6, 1896, and walked rail lines east. Helga skillfully handled a publicity campaign, stopping at newspaper offices along their route. Inspired by journalist Nelly Bly (1864-1922), Helga hoped one day to publish the story of their trip. Mother and daughter worked for food, lodging, and other needed items along the way -- never begged -- and were graciously aided by supportive and hospitable people, including famous politicians, Native Americans, journalists, and suffragists. But the journey was arduous. They climbed mountains; survived severe storms, floods, bitter cold, and heat waves; confronted wild animals; and escaped highwaymen. Together they wore out 32 pairs of shoes. Helga and Clara survived the trip of 4,600 miles and reached New York City on December 23, 1896, only to find no cash prize at the end of their amazing journey.

Early Years of Hardship

Helga Avilda Ida Marie Johanssen was born in Christiania, Norway (Oslo) in 1860 and was only 2 years old when her father died. Her mother, Karen Hendrikstatter Johanssen, eventually remarried, this time to a merchant with the surname of Haug. He had the money to send Helga to private school, where she learned English, science, and religion.

From 1874 to 1914 Norway suffered from severe economic stagnation, and a large number of its citizens emigrated to other places, with many coming to the United States. Perhaps the Haugs foresaw the pending financial problems -- they decided to move to America around 1870, before the economic turndown began. Helga's stepfather came first and secured work and a home for his wife and stepdaughter in Manistee, Michigan. Karen and Helga left for the U.S. aboard the ship Oder and arrived in Manistee on October 12, 1871. Helga was now 11 years old. She enrolled in school, improved her language skills, and began adapting to the customs of the new country.

Manistee was a thriving town, with a large population of Scandinavians. Although fire destroyed the town the year they arrived, it was quickly rebuilt. It is likely that Helga first learned about the woman suffrage issue while living there. In 1874, Michigan males were given the chance to extend the vote to women. Although the measure failed statewide, it was strongly supported in Manistee.

At 16 years of age, an unmarried Helga became pregnant and her parents arranged for her to marry a solid prospect, Scandinavian immigrant Ole Estby, who was a logger and skilled carpenter. Helga and Ole married on October 12, 1876, and daughter Clara was born in November.

Moving West

In many ways, Helga and Ole's story mirrors the stories of numerous immigrants who came to the United States at the end of the nineteenth century. Arriving with great hopes for a prosperous lifestyle, they mostly labored hard just to make ends meet. From letters Ole sent to his family in Norway, it is known that he had long dreamed of having a 160-acre homestead, and he soon moved his family west, settling on prairie land in Yellow Medicine County, Minnesota, near the South Dakota border. Here the family built a typical prairie sod house with a dirt floor, certainly a step down from accommodations they had previously known. Three Estby children were born here: Ole, who died as an infant, Olaf, and Ida.  

Farm life on the prairie was hard. In the summer of 1880 the harvest was excellent, but that winter turned out to be one of the coldest ever recorded. Somehow the family survived. Then fires threatened, and one afternoon the Estbys battled a blaze that nearly reached their home. Both house and barn survived, but some of their neighbors were not so lucky.

Diptheria threatened. Little was known at the time about its cause or cure, but health warnings pointed to the dangers of living in filthy conditions. When a storm known as "Black Friday" (Bold Spirit, p. 40) reached the prairie on June 19, 1885, causing considerable wreckage, followed by another severe storm only a month later, Ole and Helga decided to move on. This time they settled in the rapidly growing city of Spokane Falls, Washington.

Spokane Falls (Spokane)

By the early 1890s, the U.S. economy was booming and Spokane Falls was prospering. Ole found work easily and the Estbys were able to purchase three lots on Pine Street and 4th Avenue, a block east of Division Street. Their family was growing, with the additions of children Henry, Hedwig (Bertha), Johnny, Arthur, William, and Lillian. By the time she was 35, Helga had given birth to eight children, six of whom lived.

Spokane Falls grew too quickly, the population rising from about 6,000 to 20,000 in a few years. City officials could not keep pace with infrastructure needs. Sewage flowed in the streets and the Estby home now was only blocks away from a tough red-light district. On one dark evening, Helga stepped in a hole in an unrepaired street and badly damaged her pelvis, requiring surgery. Once again, it was time to leave. Ole purchased a farm about 25 miles southeast of Spokane, in Mica Creek, a small town populated mainly by Scandinavian immigrants.

But in April of 1893 a national credit shortage triggered a deep economic depression. Banks closed, thousands of businesses went bankrupt, railroads failed, and unemployment was high. No government relief funds existed, and it would take at least five years before the U. S. economy improved.  Ole had suffered back injuries, temporarily limiting his ability to do physical labor. As the economy worsened, they borrowed against the property, taking a loan they could not repay. By 1896 the Estby family was in danger of losing their farm.   

The situation called for unusual courage. Something extraordinary needed to be done and Helga devised a plan.  

The Wager and Preparations

An outspoken supporter of woman suffrage, Helga believed women were capable of doing anything men could do. When an East Coast party -- it was never determined who -- offered a $10,000 wager to a woman who would walk to New York City, Helga was quick to respond. Challenges were not new to her. Inspired by female journalist Nellie Bly, who traveled around the world and wrote about it, Helga contracted with the party (or parties) in New York to walk from Spokane to New York City, a distance of more than 4,000 miles, in a specified time of seven months. While it was not part of the contract and wager, Helga also hoped to publish a book based on the journals she planned to keep of the trip.

The plan must have shocked her family and neighbors. Attitudes toward women were beginning to change, but a woman's place was still considered to be in the home, caring for the family. Helga was not in good health and she was not young. Only the year before, she had given birth and was still recovering from her pelvic injury. But she was convinced that the trip would not only save their farm, it would also boost the suffrage cause, showing the strength and endurance of women. Helga asked her shy, dependable 17-year-old daughter Clara (1877-1950) to accompany her, which must have greatly relieved the family's worries. At least Helga would not be traveling alone.

A contract was drawn between Helga and the sponsoring party promising Helga and Clara $10,000 -- a huge sum of money in 1896 -- if they successfully reached their destination by a specified date. Helga agreed that they would not beg along the way but instead would work for their food, lodging, and clothing. She accurately figured that public awareness would increase as she and Clara spoke with reporters in major cities along the way.

They officially kicked off their departure with a stop at the Spokesman Review in Spokane on May 5 to announce their planned journey and then returned home to spend one last night with their family before leaving the following morning. Spokane's mayor, H. N. Belt (b. 1841), gave them a letter of introduction, which they carried with them. The state treasurer also signed and stamped the letter with the official State seal.

The two women traveled light. In their satchels they carried a compass, a map, a Smith and Wesson revolver, a pepper spray gun to thwart possible attackers, a knife, a notebook and pen, and a curling iron. Helga and Clara had a mother-daughter studio portrait taken in Spokane, which was made into carte de visite prints that they planned to sell as souvenirs. They also carried calling cards that read: "H. Estby and daughter. Pedestrians, Spokane to New York." That, and $5 cash each.

On departure day, Helga and Clara wore long gray dresses and high boots but changed clothes in Salt Lake City, and for the remainder of the trip wore short-skirt outfits designed for the new craze, bicycle riding, thus giving national attention to this new style. Before trip's end, they hand worn out 32 pairs of shoes.   

Along the Way

By the 1890s the railroads ran from coast to coast and portions of the track were still new. To keep "on track," the two women walked rail lines, first the Northern Pacific to the Union Pacific, then the Rock Island line to the Burlington and Reading. This provided them access to some railroad section houses, and citizens often gave them overnight lodging. Such was the code of hospitality in 1896 America. Surprisingly, Helga and Clara spent only nine nights without shelter. To pay for their needs, they cooked, cleaned, and sewed.  Most days they walked 25 to 35 miles and when they arrived in a city or town, their first stop was the local newspaper office, where they gave an updated version of their story to reporters. The trip took them to major cities: Boise, Salt Lake City, Lincoln, Des Moines, Davenport, Chicago, Fort Wayne, Chicago, Pittsburgh, Harrisburg, Reading, and New York City.

Helga and Clara battled snowstorms, heat waves, flash floods, and washed-out bridges. They climbed mountains. Defending herself from a persistent hobo near La Grande, Oregon, Clara shot him in the leg, a story Helga relayed to a reporter at the Minneapolis Tribune. This incident gave rise to their press image as tough, gun-toting women of the Wild West. While facts often varied in newspaper accounts, each reporter found Helga and Clara articulate, well-educated, and intelligent. 

By the time they reached Pennsylvania, citizens greeted them as celebrities, amazed that they had come so far. Helga and Clara collected the autographs of many notables along the way, including governors and mayors in Utah, Colorado, Iowa, Chicago, and Pennsylvania; populist General Jacob Coxey (1854-1951); and presidential candidate William McKinley (1843-1901). They also visited the wife of his opponent, William Jennings Bryan (1860-1925). Bryan himself was away campaigning. Clara sprained an ankle in Pennsylvania and Helga wrote to their sponsor requesting a few days extension of time so that Clara's ankle could heal.   

Winning and Losing

Helga and Clara arrived in New York City on Wednesday, December 23, 1896. There they were shocked to learn that they would not receive the $10,000. Yes, they were a few days over the specified time limit, but they had successfully made the trip. The journey had expanded their own worlds and had certainly proven the great endurance of women. They had proven their own capabilities, achieving something even most men would never have tried. Yet they failed to save the farm.

Questions remain. It is possible that the sponsor had no money to offer them and never expected them to succeed, but it is difficult to understand why he or she did not provide them the money to get home. To make matters worse, Helga's written journals disappeared in New York, either misplaced or stolen.

Then Helga and Clara received tragic news from home. Bertha had died of diphtheria and the remaining children were quarantined. Ole and the children were coping with the tragedy alone. To most 1890s Americans, Helga's trip now seemed nothing short of reckless family abandonment and folly.

Now destitute in New York, two days before Christmas, Helga and Clara had to figure out how to get home. This time they would not walk. With the U.S. economy still in a slump, and wages for women so low they could not save any amount from what they earned, they visited both the city of Brooklyn and local charities for help, but were rejected. Clara then approached railroad titan Chauncey Depew (1834-1928) and Depew gave them rail passes to travel from New York to Minneapolis.

Upon arrival in Minneapolis, Helga and Clara met with reporters and Helga stated that she had arranged with her New York sponsor to publish a book based on their journey. Then they would receive the $10,000. The women stayed several days in Minneapolis and then headed home, most likely by rail. It was now the spring of 1897.


Helga and Clara met a grieving family when they returned to Mica Creek. Johnny too had died of diphtheria. No one wanted to hear of their trip. To the family, the memory was bitter and the cost too high.

The expected eventually happened. On March 28, 1901, the Estby farm was sold at a sheriff's sale. But instead of this being the tragedy Helga had imagined, it became a new beginning for the family, who moved back to Spokane where Ole and son Arthur partnered in the construction business and did well. They soon built the family a two-story home. Clara graduated from business college and made a career in the financial world.

Telling the Story

Back in Spokane, Helga supported Washington's successful 1910 woman suffrage campaign and continued to dream of publishing a book about the trip. With the travel journals gone, sometime in the 1920s she began writing from memory.

Arthur Estby died when he was only 39, and his 8-year-old daughter, Thelma Estby (later Bahr), went to live with her grandmother Helga. Thelma remembered Helga as a kindly woman who understood the tragedy of losing a parent. According to Thelma, Helga often kept to herself in an attic room where she painted, did needlework, and wrote. Helga asked Thelma to take care of her story, although Thelma did not know what she meant. Upon Helga's death, one family member burned Helga's writing but another saved two news clippings of the trip from the burn barrel. 

In 1984 eighth-grader Doug Bahr was encouraged by his family to enter the Washington State History Day Contest with his essay "Grandma Walked from Coast to Coast." One of the contest judges that year was author and scholar Linda Lawrence Hunt, who was inspired to research more. This led to her writing "A Victorian Odyssey," published in the Summer 1995 issue of Columbia Magazine. She then developed the material into the book Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America, published by Anchor Books in 2005. Folk singer and songwriter Linda Allen composed the song "Helga Estby," which she included in a CD of songs celebrating the 100th anniversary of Washington woman suffrage in 2010.

April 2011 saw the release of two young adult novels. The Year We Were Famous, intended for readers 12 and up, was written by Helga's great-granddaughter and retired Everett Public Library librarian Carole Estby Dagg and published by Clarion Books. Following a day later was a Waterbrook Press book, The Daughter's Walk, authored by Jane Kirkpatrick. All three books are well-researched and well-written. Dagg is following with a sequel that will cover Helga and Clara's year of 1897. It is noteworthy that the two novels use Clara as the main character.

Helga looks contented in portraits taken of her in her elder years. The journey had given her confidence and expanded her world. The trip was life-changing. Perhaps Clara suffered the most. Although she made a career for herself, she separated from the family, uniting with them only during the last years of her life. Their story will never be told in their own words, which is a great loss. Helga's perspective would have been a unique piece of travel writing, giving a priceless feminine perspective on the United States in 1896. Across the years, the story continues to intrigue.

Sources: Linda Lawrence Hunt, Bold Spirit: Helga Estby's Forgotten Walk Across Victorian America (New York: Anchor Books, 2005); Linda Lawrence Hunt, "A Victorian Odyssey," Columbia, Summer 1995, pp. 33-40; Carole Estby Dagg, The Year We Were Famous (New York: Clarion Books, 2011); "Walk to New York: Mrs. H. Estby and Daughter Will Begin That Undertaking Today," Spokesman Review, May 5, 1896, p. 5; "Are Walking for Wages," The Walla Walla Union, May 17, 1896, p. 4; "On a Long Walk," Idaho Daily Statesman, June 5, 1896, p. 3; "Walking to Win $10,000," Des Moines Register, October 17, 1896, p. 2; "Globe Trotters: Two Women in that Role Reach Canton and Call on Major McKinley," The Evening Repository (Canton, Ohio), November 30, 1896, p. 1; "Came From Spokane Afoot," The New York Times, December 24, 1896, p. 9; "Panic of 1893," website accessed May 25, 2011 (

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