They lit a huge bonfire at night for protection, but stayed awake with guns in hand.
—LEBANON EVENING NEWS,
DECEMBER 19, 1896
Staying focused steadily on their goal, they headed northeast from Salt Lake City to Wyoming, stopping on the way in Park City, Utah, to visit the silver mines. Perhaps emboldened by their new leg freedom and Helga’s strong curiosity, they claim “they went 1500 feet underground to observe”—clearly unusual actions for women.1 From there they traversed through the Heber Valley along the Union Pacific rails through the Wasatch Mountains, across wetland meadows into Silver Creek Canyon. Here they described climbing halfway down the canyon whose sides descended three hundred feet almost perpendicularly. “We managed to get part way down,” said Helga to a reporter, “but had to return after nearly losing our lives.”2
They entered Wyoming through Evanston at a time when violent clashes in northern Wyoming among big ranchers, rustlers, and settlers in the Johnson County War in 1892, and the murder of Chinese mineworkers in the Rock Springs Massacre in 1887 had given the new state a reputation of vigilante lawlessness. Sparsely populated, far more men than women lived here. But it was not just romanticized cowboys on the ranges. Miners were needed to extract the coal, and workers toiled for the railroads. Mine owners and railroad captains recruited cheap laborers from around the world, including Mexico, England, Ireland, Scotland, Denmark, Finland, and China. A climate of racial tension pervaded the workforce, and outbreaks of violence persisted.
Helga and Clara needed to walk more than 350 miles to Cheyenne, first crossing an area known as the Red Desert, a dry land receiving less than ten inches of rain a year. This sagebrush land fed some of the world’s largest herds of pronghorn antelope, thousands of head of sheep, plus cougars and grizzlies. With long distances between towns, they again faced problems finding food and shelter, and spent hours and hours of tedious trudging in the vast great basin. For three days and nights they walked without food and slept in the open air.3 The scorching heat in August, coupled with bouts of hunger, made reaching their twenty-seven-mile goal each day a grueling challenge.
While in the wilderness, their terror of mountain lions often kept them awake, especially when they heard them prowling nearby. In Wyoming they had a narrow escape from a gray mountain lion “as big as a man” that followed them for twelve miles. “Being acquainted with the animal’s traits, we knew they never attacked from behind and never except by running and springing upon a victim,” explained Helga to a reporter. “We kept up a steady pace and kept the animal about ten feet behind us.” They lit a huge fire at night for protection but stayed awake with guns in hand.4
Helga and Clara needed to cross the Union Pacific’s highest bridge, the Dale Creek trestle near Laramie, Wyoming. The bridge was an engineering marvel at 150 feet above the creek, but terrifying to walk across.
Courtesy Colorado Historical Society, photo by Wm. H. Jackson, CHS-J1046, 20101046.
Most of the time they spent the nights in Union Pacific section houses along the railroad tracks, and sometimes farmers and ranchers invited them into their homes. When Helga and Clara traveled through Rock Springs, they found tangible evidence of the racial tensions among coal-mine workers when they saw armed federal troops in the city. Ever since the powerful Union Pacific Railroad hired low-paid Chinese laborers in 1875, tensions flared between the union miners who sought better wages and working conditions and the foreigners they resented for taking their jobs. When a strike situation arose again in 1885, a labor riot erupted and a white mob torched Chinatown, a section of Rock Springs. They killed at least twenty-eight Chinese miners, forcing miners to flee into the desert hills where more died of exposure. Federal troops, called in by the governor, stayed in town for thirteen more years to protect the interests of the Union Pacific and the lives of the Chinese miners.5
Many nights Helga and Clara slept in railroad depots, such as this one in Rock River, Wyoming. The depots were often the only shelter across long, desolate stretches of the West.
Courtesy Union Pacific Historical Collection. Detail of this photograph on this page.
Walking through the Sweetwater region of Wyoming, they passed through Carbon, where the Union Pacific opened up seven coal mines in the traditional lands of the Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians. Helga felt the pain of her son’s death again when she saw the tiny gravesites of the town’s children. Many died from cholera from an imported, contaminated water supply in the early years of mining.6 On their way to Rawlins, they saw more cattle than people in the vast stretches of dry land in the flat plains of the Great Divide Basin. The sounds of songbirds broke the long stretches of solitude.
After Rawlins, they began the climb through the Medicine Bow region. Constant blowing winds that raced through the channel between the Hanna Basin uplift and Elk Mountain dusted their clothes and skin with grit and gravel. By the time they reached Laramie on August 26, they clearly felt they had accomplished another milestone. The Daily Sun Leader described the wager, the threatening moments, and the women’s persistent optimism even though they now had slept out eight nights and sometimes had to go without food. “They had been lost in forests, had adventures with mountain lions, but still they trudged on in their short gray suits and came up smiling.”7
As news of their unusual venture became known among the railroad men, some began to leave bottles of water along the tracks to quench the women’s thirst in the blistering heat. As working-class men who endured the depression of 1893, they understood the vulnerability of a family losing a home. This unexpected “kindly consideration” gave Helga and Clara firsthand experience in the ways men in Wyoming showed respect toward women.8 This respect extended far beyond acts of kindness and courtesy. Since 1869, the Territory of Wyoming had given women the right to vote, and when Wyoming entered the union in 1890 as the forty-fourth state, it became the first with women’s suffrage. Women served on juries and held public office. As a conventional mother deeply immersed in the daily demands of caring for nine children, nothing indicated that Helga held much interest in politics before this extensive journey through America. But sometime during the walk, her interest in politics awakened, perhaps from earlier memories of the suffrage movement in Manistee during her childhood. It is possible that here in Wyoming, known as the Equality State, Helga began to wonder, “Should such rights be given to Washington women too?”
Crossing over the Laramie Mountains, summer storms and flash floods washed away bridges, which caused significant delays in their travel. After one bridge washout, they walked six miles through water two feet deep before they could climb up on the opposite bank of the river.9 In eastern Wyoming, Helga and Clara entered the fabled land of the cattle drives, where wealthy Texas ranchers fattened their cattle on the thick carpet of tall prairie grasses on an open range. Needing to protect their landholdings, small-scale ranchers began to fence in their land from grazing, which infuriated the cattle barons. Helga and Clara heard stories of the serious clashes, strife, and murders in the region from the local ranchers or farmers with whom they stayed.
But during August, excitement stirred around another topic of conversation at the dinner tables and in the towns of southern Wyoming as citizens looked to America’s future in the 1896 presidential election. The dynamic young Democratic candidate from Nebraska, William Jennings Bryan, surprised the Republicans with his magnetic grassroots campaign. The nation still reeled from the sustained financial depression of the early 1890s. Bankruptcies had caused thousands of industries to shut down and left over twenty percent of men unemployed.10 Many rode the Union Pacific rails into Wyoming looking for work.
Hard times devastated farmers, too, who often sank into debt with heavy mortgages, just like the Estby family. Even when farmers produced abundant crops, high interest rates charged by banks and exorbitant shipping costs charged by the railroads ate their profits. This fueled their growing distrust of concentrated wealth, corporate greed, and big business monopolies and trusts. In an increasingly urbanized and industrialized America, ailing farmers felt forgotten, and many joined the Populist party to fight for reform of the injustices they experienced. In rousing language, Bryan built his campaign to tap into the needs of those he called the “struggling masses” and “humbler members of society.” He reaffirmed their worth to the country, citing them as the Americans who produced the crops and goods that allowed the nation to live.
He also excoriated the “capitalistic class” that “owns money, trades in money and grows rich as the people grow poor.”11 Bryan named and identified their fears of abuse from the powerful corporate elite, from Wall Street, and from the railroad and mining magnates. Captains of industry such as John D. Rockefeller (Standard Oil), J.P. Morgan (banking financier), and James J. Hill (Union Pacific) passionately supported William McKinley and the Republican agenda, and they wielded enormous political clout. Bryan fought openly against “the heads of these great trusts” that he believed put corporate profit above people.12 Poor farmers and workers, especially in the West and South, flocked to hear him speak as he stumped as the “champion of the people.” Some supporters even infused him with religious symbolism, calling him the “new Christ of Humanity” who had “come to loose the chains of plutocracy from the people.” Whether voters saw him as a “mouthing slobbering demagogue” or the savior of the common man, his campaign galvanized interest in the election.13
Helga read newspaper accounts of the mesmerizing young orator and saw the hope he ignited in ordinary folk like herself, even while arousing enormous disdain of many powerful business, clergy, and political leaders. One conservative Republican called him “the blatant wild ass of the prairie,” and others feared his demagogic, divisive appeal.14 Helga began to form her own opinion of Bryan. She knew intimately the fear of financial ruin and the callous power of the financial elite who threatened to foreclose and take their family’s home away. Both in Spokane, and now across America, she saw firsthand the growing gap between the extremely wealthy families and the desperately destitute families. Visual reminders existed in almost every town and city within the elegant mansions and enormous ranches of the rich, and the squalid shacks and hovels of the dirt-poor. Walking the rails, she knew “on the other side of the tracks” often meant a literal dividing line in a town, keeping people of different social and economic classes apart as effectively as a moat around a medieval castle. She began to notice another division in America, the racial and ethnic separations, which she had paid scant attention to when surrounded by the Scandinavian community.
Each step she took across America represented her own defiant and last-ditch effort to prevent this destitution to befall her family. The enormity of her risk was linked in direct proportion to the enormity of her fear. It was also a highly personal act. But in Bryan’s vision, and some of the populists he represented, Helga heard a collective effort to reform America. He urged the farmers, laborers, and small businessmen of the country to unite in opposition to the concentrated and arrogant wealth of giant corporations and monopolists. Bryan’s was a fervent crusade for the unlimited coinage of “free silver” and a bimetallic money system to restore the country’s economic health. After Congress closed down the coinage of silver in 1873, the nation used only the gold standard. Bryan argued that this caused a shortage of money that most hurt the poorest classes in America. To restore the depressed economy, he advocated to allow the coinage of both silver and gold, a return to bimetallism, which would stimulate silver production and put more money in circulation. Helga agreed. Important silver mines in Coeur d’Alene and Wallace, Idaho, just east of Spokane Falls, impacted Helga’s hometown economy, perhaps shaping her sympathies toward this position.
Helga knew Major William McKinley, the Republican candidate for the presidency, believed just as ardently that only the gold standard guaranteed a sound money system. Besides, Clara favored him.15 With time on her hands now to think, and the fervor of debate over the 1896 election alive in every town, Helga pondered political solutions to the troubles permeating the country. Rooted with a pioneer’s pride that she and Ole held their fate in their own hands, yet troubled by the turbulent setbacks of the past years, Helga wondered if Bryan’s call for more government curbs on the abusive power of corporations might help in situations like hers. It sounded logical to her when he argued that the government that does not restrain the strongest citizen from injuring the weakest citizen fails to do its duty. During hours of walking, she had a chance to hear why Clara felt differently. Ardent conversations enlivened the monotony of their days.
By the time they reached the Wyoming capital of Cheyenne, their physical stamina and mental toughness had been tested for 350 harsh and lonesome miles across Wyoming. Their challenges came from nature, from wild animals, from the relentless barren distances. But they never mentioned any difficulty with lawless men; in fact, they spoke more of the good treatment and respect they received. In Helga’s experience, the state that gave legal representation and respect to women extended that to personal respect. What other surprises remained ahead?