Month: November 2014

Where Nellie Bly Lives On

Nellie Bly’s hometown

The Apollo Area Historical Museum is located in the former Women's Christian Temperance Union building.

The Apollo Area Historical Museum is located in the former Women’s Christian Temperance Union building.

If it were not for Nellie’s 150th birthday on 5 May 2014, I might not have known about the Apollo Area Historical Society in southwestern Pennsylvania and its esteem for Nellie Bly, their famous hometown girl. Run by local volunteers who look after their own Apollo Historical Museum, the Society keeps alive the spirit and pluck of Nellie Bly and honour her each year on her birthday. Her 150th was commemorated with a films and a performance by Apollo-Ridge High School drama club members. It made the Valley News Dispatch and I found the article on the internet which included the Society’s facebook page.

I got in touch with Vice President Sue Ott and said I wanted to visit Nellie Bly’s hometown the weekend of 5-6 October which just happened to coincide with the Society’s monthly meeting. Of course I would be delighted to address the Society about my trip. I’d be in Washington DC anyway, a mere four-hour drive away. In any case, I would be eligible for the Apollo Area Historical Society discount at Dolly McCoy’s Guest House if I wanted to stay in town. I did.

Dolly McCoy and I outside Nellie's childhood home with a historical marker honouring her.

Dolly McCoy and I outside Nellie’s childhood home with a historical marker honouring her.

It feels like most people in Apollo, 35 miles northeast of Pittsburgh, know each other — or may even be related. Apollo’s heyday seems to have passed, but the Historical Society keeps alive its vibrant past as a prominent steel and iron town.

Locals gather at Lackey’s Dairy Queen, or the authentic Yakkity Yak Diner just down the road. Lackey’s Dairy Queen opened in 1955 and is owned by Dolly McCoy’s sister-in-law. It closes for the season as autumn approaches. When I was there, people were stocking up on  ice cream supplies ready for the harsh Pennsylvania winter. They know it will be harsh because so many furry black caterpillars have been spotted – a true omen in these parts.

After dinner at the Yakkitty Yak Diner, we headed to the Apollo Area Historial Museum for the monthly meeting. It’s in the former Women’s Christian Temperance Union building. An entire case is devoted to Nellie Bly. Bliss.

Mayor of Gerberoy, France Pierre Chavonnet salutes the Apollo Bicentennial coming up in 2016.

Mayor of Gerberoy, France Pierre Chavonnet salutes the Apollo Bicentennial coming up in 2016.

Going upstairs to the meeting room, I was presented with a hand-stencilled hot pink poster announcing the bicentennial of Apollo in 2016 by Donna Darlene Dunmore  who wanted me to take it to England in hopes that the Queen might see it. I did. I took it with me on a recent visit to  Gerberoy, France – the country’s smallest city and one of its most beautiful, where I snapped a photo of Mayor Pierre Chavonnet, holding it in front of Gerberoy’s own historical museum.

It felt really good to be in the company of true blue Nellie Bly fans—where they knew as much, or more, than I did about her. I basked in their knowledge; nothing needed to be explained from scratch as it had in Sri Lanka, Singapore, Hong Kong, China and Japan, even the UK. And they were pleased as punch that I was celebrating Nellie’s record-breaking world journey.

Dolly McCoy Arnold and I visited the millstone holding a tribute to Nellie Bly in her birthplace Cochran Mills.

Dolly McCoy, Arnold Blystone and I visited the millstone with a tribute to Nellie Bly in her birthplace Cochran Mills.

In nearby Cochran Mills where Nellie Bly was born, a mill stone is embedded with a special plaque honouring their hometown girl. She was born Elizabeth Jane Cochran at Cochran Mills, Pennsylvania on 5 May 1864 to Michael and Mary Jane Cochran. Her father ran a prosperous grist mill there on the banks of Crooked Creek.

Cochran Mills, where Nellie Bly was born, has disappeared.

Cochran Mills, where Nellie Bly was born, has disappeared.

Dolly McCoy of the Apollo Area Historical Society (and Dolly’s Guest House) and Arnold Blystone, co-founder of the Burrell Township Historical Society took a morning off to show me around Nellie’s birthplace. The house where she was born and the mill run by her father are long since gone. The only vestiges of the once thriving mill town are a few foundation stones shrouded in moss. But Nellie remains the area’s most famous resident and her legacy carries on.






125 Years Ago Today: Nellie Steams Into History

Nellie Bly 125 years ago

Nellie Bly 125 years ago

Exactly 125 years ago on November 14, 1889, crusading journalist Nellie Bly left New York Harbour to start what would become the fastest-ever  journey around the globe.

She  raced through a ‘man’s world’ —  alone and literally with the clothes on her back — to beat the fictional record set by Jules Verne’s Phileas Fogg in Around the World in Eighty Days.  Seventy-two days later, she won the race and became a global celebrity.  125 years later, I set out to follow in her footsteps around the world.

We both travelled alone with one small case. She went by ocean liner and train. I flew. She raced, I didn’t. She covered 28,000 miles in 72 days, I completed 22,500 miles in 32 days. She journeyed through the Victorian age, breaking conventions along the way. I travelled through the Information age, blogging along the way.  She started from New York. I started from London.  We both finished with book-length memories and a profound appreciation for the kindness shown to us everywhere we went.

Nellie crossed the Atlantic on the  Augusta Victoria.

Nellie crossed the Atlantic on the Augusta Victoria.

To this day Nellie Bly is one of the top 10 female adventurers. But what seems to have been forgotten is her role as a pioneer of investigative journalism who paved the way for women reporters.

Nellie’s crusades in print brought about sweeping reforms in asylums, sweatshops, orphanages and prisons. Back in 1887, she had herself committed to the Women’s Asylum on Blackwell’s Island (now Roosevelt Island)  and exposed the cruelties and hardships the patients endured. She burst into male-only newsrooms proving that women were more than capable and was the first woman to report from the Eastern Front in WWI.

Nellie exposed the abuses taking place inside the Women's Asylum.

Nellie exposed the abuses taking place inside the Women’s Asylum.

Let’s pay tribute to the courage, spunk and determination of Nellie Bly on the 125th anniversary of the day she steamed out of America on the Augusta Victoria … and into history.



Epilogue: Nellie Bly’s Final Resting Place

Alice Robbins-Fox, cmetery historian Susan Olsen and Sally Emery at Elizabeth Bisland's grave.

(l to r) Alice Robbins-Fox, cemetery historian Susan Olsen and Sally Emery at Elizabeth Bisland’s grave.

After following Nellie Bly so intently around the world, I wanted to visit her gravesite when I arrived in New York City to pay my respects. She is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark in the Bronx.

Elizabeth Bisland, who was circling the globe at the same time as Nellie, is also buried at Woodlawn along with newspaper magnate Joseph Pulitzer publisher of the New York World, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Duke Ellington and many other notable people.

My friends Alice and Sally and I were met by cemetery historian Susan Olsen who took us by car for a tour of this fascinating burial ground stretching more than 400 acres and home to  300,000 graves.

We passed the tombs of America’s most-loved people, some adorned with Tiffany glass. The first stop was at Elizabeth Bisland’s gravesite where I laid one of the 12 white roses I brought for the occasion.

Joseph Pulitzer's grave at Woodlawn

Joseph Pulitzer’s grave at Woodlawn

Our second stop was the tomb of Joseph Pulitzer, Nellie’s boss at the New York World.  He built a newspaper empire from scratch. It was his idea to send Nellie to the asylum on Blackwell’s Island to uncover the abuses that mentally ill women suffered. That story resulted in sweeping reforms in the care of mentally ill people.

Nellie's gravesite

Nellie’s gravesite

At last we were on our way to Nellie’s tomb — plot 212, section 19 in the Honeysuckle Lot. It’s where many victims of the influenza epidemic of 1918 are buried, according to Susan Olsen. Nellie’s was one of the few graves in the Honeysuckle Lot that boasted a headstone. But it wasn’t even erected until 1978 when the New York Press Club dedicated it ‘in honor a of famous news reporter’.

To me, Nellie Bly was so much more than a famous news reporter. She not only paved the way for women in journalism;  she  pioneered investigative journalism – the kind of reporting that brings about change and reforms….and makes the world a better place. When most women were relegated to the home, she travelled the world on her own with a small gripsack and the clothes on her back.

With that in mind, I laid the 11 remaining white roses on her grave.

I’m not sure whether it was the discovery that she was buried in a pauper’s grave unmarked for 56 years, or if this visit represented the culmination of a special journey for both Nellie and I, but I was overcome with emotion.

Rest in peace Nellie Bly.

In Which Nellie Bly Begins and Ends her Race Around the World

Hoboken, New Jersey

Nellie’s date: 14 November 1889
My date:  25 September 2014

Nellie took the train to Hoboken Terminal to board the Augusta Victoria.

Nellie took the train to Hoboken Terminal to board the Augusta Victoria.

The Start 

“On Thursday November 14, 1889 at 9.40.30 o’clock, I started on my tour around the world,” wrote Nellie Bly in Chapter 2, entitled The Start, in her book Around the World in 72 Days.

Nellie was not an early riser.  She scolded ‘the good people who spend so much time in trying to invent flying machines’ saying they should devote more energy to promoting a system in which boats and trains would always make their start at noon or afterwards’ to be of greater assistance to a ‘suffering society.’

Nellie crossed the Atlantic on the  Augusta Victoria.

Nellie crossed the Atlantic on the Augusta Victoria.

Departing with a lump in her throat, Nellie encouraged herself by thinking:  “It’s only a matter of 28,000 miles and 75 days and four hours until I shall be back again.”

“The morning was beautiful and the bay never looked lovelier,” she recalls of her departure from Hoboken, New Jersey in New York Harbour. “But when the whistle blew and they were on the pier and I was on the Augusta Victoria, which was slowly but surely moving away from everything I knew, taking me to strange lands and strange people, I felt lost,” she wrote.

“My head felt dizzy and my heart felt as though it would burst.  … the world lost its roundness and seemed a long distance with no end.”

Nellie had never ever been on a sea voyage before.

Re-tracing the start … and finish 

The President and First Lady's departure from the United Nations on Air Force One temporarily closed the harbour.

The President and First Lady’s departure from the United Nations on Air Force One.

The morning was grey with sudden squalls when we headed to Pier 11 near Wall Street  for the ferry to Hoboken to retrace Nellie’s departure. Two ominous Osprey aircraft suddenly came swooping onto the Downtown Manhattan Heliport nearby. They were followed by a drove of helicopters and police cars with flashing lights. A Coast Guard cutter plied the waters. We looked up to see snipers atop the roofs of nearby buildings.  President Obama and the First Lady were leaving town by Air Force One after  three days at the United Nations of discussions on climate change, foreign terrorist fighters, education for all, and the Ebola epidemic. Soon the harbour was shut and ferries were frozen. Flocks of people in black suits delivered in long black cars strode towards the aircraft so we even never knew if we saw the President and  Michelle Obama. Within minutes of lift-off, the scene was cleared, the ferries were back in business and the Obamas were on their way to the White House.

And we were on the way to Hoboken where Nellie started,  and then Jersey City where she finished her epic travels. Nellie’s train pulled in to Jersey City at 3.51 p.m. on 25 January 1890, 72 days, 6 hours,11 minutes and 14 seconds since she had left. No one had ever gone around the globe as  fast. By then she was the most famous woman in the world.

After traversing 18 waters from New York Harbour to San Francisco Bay , she was at the end of her ‘flying trip’ by train across America.

“I only remember my trip across the continent as one maze of happy greetings, happy wishes, congratulations, telegrams, fruit, flowers, loud cheers, wild hurrahs, rapid hand-shaking and a beautiful car filled with fragrant flowers attached to a swift engine that was tearing like mad through flower-dotted valley and over snow-tipped mountain on-on-on! It was glorious!” she wrote.

Nellie arrived to a packed Jersey City station on 25 January 1890.

Nellie arrived to a packed Jersey City station on 25 January 1890.

People dressed in their Sunday best flocked to the train stations along her route to cheer on Nellie Bly. Multitudes of well-wishers filled the stations as she travelled through Albuquerque, Columbus, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia. At Pittsburgh’s Union Station, not far from her hometown of Apollo, thousands turned out at 3.10  in the morning to wave her on. Nellie stepped onto the rear platform of her car and waved with tears in her eyes to all those who came in the middle of the night to see her.

When she reached on the afternoon of January 25th, 1890, she had won the race. The station was overflowing. On her victory parade to the New York World‘s headquarters at Park Row, the streets were choked with people and the windows of skyscrapers lining Broadway were filled with faces as Nellie’s carriage made its way.

“I wanted to yell with the crowd,” Nellie wrote. “ Not because I had gone around the world in 72 days, but because I was home again.”

In Which Nellie Bly Poses on the Great Buddha’s Thumb

Diabutsu is Nellie's time

Diabutsu in Nellie’s time

There were only two places in my entire journey where I could be certain that I was standing where Nellie stood. The first was the in home of Jules Verne in  Amiens, France where I shared his salon, study and winter garden with Nellie.  The second was inside the belly of the Great Buddha of Kamakura, Japan.

Diabutsu, 50 feet high with a waist circumference of 96 feet, was built in 1250. The size of a 5-story building, he commands the entire region. Diabutsu has survived earthquakes and wars that devastated many parts of Japan. He is one of the country’s greatest icons.

When Nellie visited, she could climb a ladder straight “up into Diabutsu’s eye and from that height view the surrounding lovely country.”

I had to be content with narrow steps into his hollow tummy. Once inside, along with the graffiti, there are illuminated drawings of how this massive bronze Buddha was cast in 30 separate stages –an amazing feat for the time.

“I had my photograph taken sitting on its thumb with two friends,” wrote Nellie. “One of whom offered $50,000 (equivalent of  $1.2 million today) for the God.”

Diabutsu's sofa-sized thumbs. Nellie had her photo taken here.

Diabutsu’s sofa-sized thumbs. Nellie had her photo taken here.

I’d so love to find that photo.  Now we must admire Diabutsu’s sofa-size thumbs from a distance.  A Buddha-sized bowl of fresh-picked fruit and a spray of autumn flowers lay at Diabitsu’s fingertips.

He sits ‘in a verdant valley at the foot of two mountains,’ Nellie wrote. Today the valley —  little more than an hour outside Tokyo — isn’t quite as verdant as pilgrims and tourists alike flock to one of Japan’s most popular destinations.

I might not have been one of them without the kind invitation of Japanese friends from UNICEF Yoshie and Yoshihisa Togo.

Yoshihisa and Yoshie Togo in the Fujiya Hotel dining room.

Yoshihisa and Yoshie Togo in the Fujiya Hotel dining room.

When I told them that Japan was on my Nellie Bly itinerary, they immediately suggested an overnight trip to the countryside, never knowing that Nellie had been there before me.

By the time I reached Japan I was half-way around the world. I’d spent 13 days and nights relentlessly tracing Nellie’s epic journey. I was more than ready to join friends to discover the country she so adored.

View of Mount Fuki from Hakone National Park

View of Mount Fuji from Hakone National Park

With Yoshie and Yoshihisa, I travelled to stunning Hakone National Park with its forest-carpeted hills and to-die-for views of Mount Fuji. We stayed in the wonderfully retro Fujiya Hotel built in 1891 featuring onsens (Japanese hot spring baths), a glorious garden with a waterfall, and real live bellhops complete with round caps.  The hot spring water flows straight into your bathtub; but I relaxed in the onsen and swimming pool, both reflecting another, more gentle, era. Just being in the lavish dark-wood dining room at the Fujiya was a pleasure; not to mention the Silver Star service and yummy French, yes French, dishes. Savouring Coquilles St Jacques in a period Japanese restaurant with dragon flourishes was wonderfully surreal, especially after a series of in-room picnics on paper towels . My first break from Nellie in two weeks was a welcome one.

Bellhops look after you at the Fujiya Hotel.

Bellhops look after you at the Fujiya Hotel.