1879: The Start of a Walking Competition of “Intense Excitement” in New York City

March 10, 1879

A closely watched six-day walking competition in New York City commenced at one o’clock on that Monday morning with thousands of spectators in attendance. This competition took place at Gilmore’s Garden, which was renamed Madison Square Garden later that year. The building was the largest arena in the United States at the time for athletic events. 

This walking competition was one of several sponsored by Sir John Astley, a member of the British Parliament and an avid supporter of pedestrianism. These events were go-as-you-please matches over the course of six days in which participants could walk, run, and rest whenever they desired, with scorekeepers tallying the number of miles logged in by each person around the track. Along with offering prize money, Astley gave the winners a gold-and-silver belt inscribed with the words “Long Distance Champion of the World.” 

The event at Gilmore’s Garden attracted a large amount of attention at a time when walking was the most heavily used mode of transportation for many Americans. Those participating in the race were John Ennis and defending champion Daniel O’Leary, both Irish-born but now U.S. citizens from Chicago; Charles Rowell of England; and Charles A. Harriman, a Maine native living in Boston. 

By that Thursday, O’Leary had dropped out of the race due to physical exhaustion. The fourth day also saw dark-horse contender Ennis surpassing Harriman as the front-runner Rowell’s closest competitor. Two days later, the competition ended with Rowell winning the Astley Belt with a total of 500 miles (804.7 kilometers). Ennis finished second with 475 miles (764.4 kilometers). Brentano’s Aquatic Monthly and Sporting Gazetteer asserted later that month, “Never before in any land was there such an intense excitement as was exhibited by all classes during the progress of this event.”   

The above images featuring Rowell were included with an article about the walking competition. That article was published in the 29 March 1879 edition of Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper. Additional information on the March 1879 walking competition in New York City is available at  https://imjustwalkin.com/docs/astley_belt.pdf and http://blog.insidetheapple.net/2012/08/new-york-thrills-to-6-day-walk.html

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