Abroadextraordinary emigrants

The Irishman who walked from New York to San Francisco just to prove his rival wrong

In 1910, John Ennis beat the record set by Edward Payson Weston: ‘I’ve got a pair of good Irish legs, and I thought I could turn out as good or better a stunt myself’

One morning in May 1910, Longford man John Ennis set out to cross the United States on foot.

The 67-year-old was already a well-known name in competitive walking, or “pedestrianism”, as it was then called. His latest challenge was to beat a record set by his long-time rival Edward Payson Weston, who had taken 105 days to get from New York to San Francisco a year before.

As Ennis told the press: “I got stirred up by a reported statement of Weston’s that no one except a person born in America could do such a walk. I’ve got a pair of good Irish legs, and I thought I could turn out as good or better a stunt myself.”

Ennis began his journey at sunrise on Coney Island, where he took a dip in the Atlantic and filled a bottle with seawater to pour into the Pacific once he reached California.


He proceeded from there to the city hall in Manhattan, reportedly cheered on by thousands of spectators lining the streets. Here he was met by William Gaynor, the city’s mayor, who gave him letters to deliver to the mayors of Chicago and San Francisco.

The next few weeks proved a tough physical challenge. Ennis trekked in often intense heat along dirt roads and mountainous tracks, at one point injuring his hip in a fall.

What’s more, he determined to swim through every large body of water en route. The hardy Irishman crossed a total of three lakes and six major rivers, even summoning the energy for a paddle in the Mississippi after a 45-mile walk in Iowa.

He completed his walk in 80 days and promptly plunged into the sea at San Francisco.

Mission accomplished.

Ennis’s most vocal supporter was his son, Frank, an unofficial spokesperson for the expedition. An athlete himself, Frank went ahead of his father by train to arrange his sleeping accommodation and tend to him at the end of every day.

“I have no hesitation in saying that I believe my father is the world’s champion pedestrian,” he told one reporter. “Not only is he a champion walker, but he excels in other athletic sports as well. He is a champion skater, a first-class boxer, oarsman, swimmer, fencer and wing shot.”

Sports certainly helped Irish immigrants assimilate into American society, but they were also a source of racial pride. Athletes such as Ennis were hailed as paragons of Irish ability by their fellow country folk, eager as many were to refute anti-Irish stereotypes. As the Boston Pilot, an Irish-American newspaper, once boasted, US athletic records showed that “in almost every form of strength, skill and agility, the highest places are held by men of Irish stock”.

Born in 1842, Ennis had left Ireland for Chicago along with his parents during the Famine. He served in the US civil war with a regiment of Illinois volunteers and later settled in Stamford, Connecticut, where he worked in construction. His first foray into competitive walking came in the 1870s, just as six-day “pedestrian” races were becoming popular in US. Across the country, crowds flocked to arenas to watch participants walk almost continuously around indoor tracks, stopping only for short naps and snacks. The victors won not just acclaim, but huge cash prizes and sponsorship deals. Daniel O’Leary, another Irish-American walker, was even hired to promote a brand of salt.

Ennis had competed against some big names in his 30s and 40s, but had usually suffered defeat. One of his pre-race bios described him as “John Ennis of Chicago, a remarkable but unlucky pedestrian, who on several occasions, with victory almost in his grasp, has been forced to leave the track through sickness”.

Ennis’s 1910 walk must surely have been gratifying, but it was far from his only big athletic feat. He reportedly held the 100-mile skating championship title for 20 years and saved at least 18 people from drowning.

Ennis died of pneumonia at home in 1929, aged 86. True to form, he had been seen skating only two months before on Cove Pond in Poughkeepsie, where he had lost the world’s 100-mile skating championship in 1893.

“The announcement means little to the present generation of Americans, who know their marathon runners, but are ignorant of the long-distance walkers of a bygone day,” said one obituary. “Time was, however, when the country echoed to the fame of John Ennis.”

  • This Extraordinary Emigrants article was written by Dr Catherine Healy, DFA historian-in-residence at EPIC The Irish Emigration Museum, an interactive museum that tells the story of how the Irish shaped and influenced the world.
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