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 once.
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.
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.
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.
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 possible.
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 at 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, began his journey "with no money in my pocket" It was midsummer, Connecticut, 1891.