‘Champion Pedestrian of America’ – Alison Healy on Dan O’Leary

An Irishwoman’s Diary

After feasting your eyes on the world’s greatest Olympians, it’s understandable to wonder if you, too, could have been a champion, had certain sports been available to you.

Perhaps you could have been a world-beating Greco-Roman wrestler if the local hall wasn’t taken up with bingo?

Or maybe your untapped talents lie in curling – that winter sport where two people appear to be ferociously busy with a sweeping brush in front of a stone? But for an accident of birth, or geography, might some of us be famous fencers or sensational synchronised swimmers?

Even though I have never shown even the slightest prowess in any sport, I still think I could have been a contender, if only I had found the right activity.


So, you can imagine my delight when I read about the ancient sport of pedestrianism.

As someone who frequently walks around in circles for no good reason, it’s cheering to think that some people actually made a living by doing this in America in the late 1800s. Not to be confused with race-walking, these were more like endurance walking sessions where massive crowds watched pedestrians walking around arenas for up to six days in a row.

Matthew Algeo’s book, Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favourite Sport, is an entertaining gateway into this quaint activity.

Apparently, it began with Edward Payson Weston who started performing walking exhibitions around the dirt tracks on roller-skating rinks in 1870. Huge crowds paid to 50 cents for the pleasure of watching him stride around purposefully, usually with a cane or riding crop, and wearing a ruffled shirt to inject some pizazz into the proceedings. It goes without saying that entertainment was scarce at that time.

For added tension, he did time challenges for bets and won handsomely.

In 1871, he walked 400 miles in five days and won $5,000 in wagers and gate money. And three years later he walked 500 miles in less than six days.

Walking fever took over America with celebrities such as Mark Twain getting in on the act. The writer and a friend tried to walk 100 miles to Boston but gave up after 10 and hopped on a train.

But Weston also inspired someone else – a Corkman who didn't give up as easily. Dan O'Leary, described by Algeo as "a skinny moustachioed Irishman", was from Rathbarry and thrived against all odds. He was born in the 1840s, survived the Famine and made it to America in 1866. He did several jobs before becoming a peripatetic bookseller in Chicago, specialising in gilt-edged editions of the Bible and dictionaries. But misfortune befell him again when the Great Fire of 1871 struck the city. The fire decimated his business and Dan O'Leary was owed hundreds of dollars by people who were either dead or homeless.

He bounced back by taking his books to the suburbs, walking hundreds of miles as he plied his trade. All that walking would lead to his big breakthrough. Algeo’s book relates how the Corkman was in a shop one day when he overheard people talking about the achievements of Edward Payson Weston and claiming that only a Yankee could walk 100 miles in 24 hours.

Determined to prove them wrong, the Corkman hired a roller rink and completed 100 miles with 43 minutes to spare. He tried, but failed, to interest Weston in a challenge. Not long after Weston had laughed him off, the Corkman easily broke Weston’s record by walking 500 miles in five days, 21 hours, 31 minutes and 50 seconds – almost 2½ hours quicker than Weston.

And so began a rivalry which Algeo compares with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. The Irishman outwalked his rival in Chicago and London. He walked in Europe, Australia and Asia, and Algeo estimates that Dan O'Leary earned the equivalent of a million dollars in today's money simply by putting one foot in front of the other. He had a particular style of walking, according to Algeo, as he kept his posture ramrod straight with his arms moving like pistons.

He was on collectors' cards, he was the spokesman for a brand of salt and he was awarded a medal for being Champion Pedestrian of America.

The invention of the bicycle as we know it today brought an end to the glory days of the sport but this plucky pedestrian continued making strides into his old age. It was reported that he was still capable of walking a mile in 10 minutes when he was in his 80s. Surprisingly, for a Corkman, he was occasionally prone to a bout of bragging and once claimed, “I will get my full growth when I am 100 and will be up and going until I am 110. After that, I am making no promises”.

He didn’t make it to 100 but he did outlive his rival Weston by four years. Just like all the greatest Olympians, he kept one step ahead, right to the finish line.