In Which Nellie Bly Exhibits Her Role in History

Peat O'Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum. Washington DC.

L Peat O’Neil (r) and David Stanton at the Newseum. Washington DC.

Washington DC was not on Nellie’s world trip itinerary,  but it had to be on mine.  The satchel she carried around the world is on display at  the the Newseum there, courtesy of Nellie Bly biographer Brooke Kroeger.  I had to see it.

Nellie Boy on display at the Newseum

Nellie Bly on display at the Newseum

Adjacent to the Capitol, the Newseum transports you across five centuries of journalism through multi-media presentations, hands-on exhibits and galleries.

I’d been hoping to be able to carry Nellie’s satchel or gripsack as she called it — just for a minute — but it’s  well- protected and inaccessible inside a Plexiglas display.  Even so, it was exciting to see an icon of her epic journey that so totally captures her spirit. When Nellie’s editor said he’d have to send a man around the world because a woman required a chaperone and innumerable trunks, Nellie showed him by stuffing everything she needed in a 16×7 inch satchel and travelling alone. Go Nellie.

Aside from her own display, Nellie stars  in a 4-D ‘film experience’ designed to introduce us to the power of journalism.  It recounts  the 10 days she spent in the Blackwell’s Island Insane Asylum for Women in New York and the reforms that followed her exposure of the cruelty there. It was terrific to see her role in investigative journalism celebrated so vividly — even if we had to endure shaking chairs and flashing lights to ‘heighten’ the 4-D experience.

Joseph Pulitzer

Joseph Pulitzer

Nellie is in good company at the Newseum with exhibits monitoring press freedom, a memorial to fallen journalists, a large section of the Berlin Wall, front pages from around the world and vivid Pulitzer-prize winning photographs. The legendary Joseph Pulitzer, creator of the  prizes, was the owner of The New York World and Nellie Bly’s boss.

I visited the Newseum with my great friend Louisa Peat O’Neil, a travel writer and former journalist at The Washington Post, and my husband David Stanton who flew over from London. We were met by Peat’s friend John Maynard, Senior Manager, Exhibit Progamming at the Newseum.

Where Nellie Bly Lives On

APOLLO, PENNSYLVANIA
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.

In Which Nellie Explores Tokyo

Tokyo, Japan 

Emperor's Palace, Tokyo

Emperor’s Palace, Tokyo

“It would fill a large book if I attempted to describe all I saw during my stay in Japan,” Nellie wrote. I wish she had described more, but at least I was able to track what she did recount in Tokyo.

Nellie went to see the Mikado’s Japanese and European castles. Today the Emperor’s Palace can be viewed from the outer garden. To get inside, as Nellie did, advance reservations must be made.

DSC03509

The Sangedatsumon Gate is said to deliver us from greed, anger and stupidity.

All that remains of the great Shiba Temple – today’s Zojoji Temple – that Nellie saw is the majestic vermillion-lacquered main gate built in 1622 and the enormous Diabonsho Bell dating to 1673 weighing 15 tons.

Dianshon Bell

The Dianshon Bell is tolled six times a day

The gate, soaring 21 metres high, is called Sangedatsumon—meaning a gate of deliverance from three earthly states of mind – greed, anger and stupidity. The gate itself was ‘delivered’ from World War II air raids that obliterated the rest of the site.  A memorial service packed the main hall at Zojoji Temple, overlooked by Tokyo Tower, when I went. Many hundreds of people were lined up for their turn to pray and bow before the Buddha. Zojoji is now one of Japan’s principal Buddhist temples.

Garden of the Unborn Children

Garden of the Unborn Children

With row upon row of small statues shaped like little children, a garden in the temple grounds is devoted to unborn babies. Keeping in mind Nellie Bly’s crusading journalism on behalf of mothers and children, I’m sure she would’ve been drawn here. With uplifted faces and hands folded in prayer, the statues wear crocheted hats and scarves. Alongside them are vibrant flowers and whirring pinwheels that gently lighten the solemnity.

Tokyo’s Ueno Park, like London’s South Kensington and Berlin’s Museum Island, is home to first-rate state museums; but also temples, pagodas, gardens and amusements. Nellie described only a memorial tree and a very clever monkey.

I found the tree, but not the monkeys.

Trees planted by !8th US President Gen Ulysses S Grant and his wife Julia at Yuei Park

Trees planted by 18th US President Gen Ulysses S Grant and his wife Julia in 1879 at Ueno Park

In fact there were two trees, planted by General Ulysses S Grant and his wife Julia during a world tour they undertook following his US presidency (1869-1877). The cypress planted by the General and magnolia planted by his wife on 25 August 1879 still stand. Fearing ‘that few people knew about the history of the trees’, a monument was erected 50 years after their planting by ‘those who had the privilege of participating in the welcome event.’  You can find it between the ice cream stand and bumper cars at Ueno Park, adjacent to the area set aside for smokers.

In Which Nellie Falls for JAPAN

Nellie’s dates: 2-7 January 1890
My  dates: 19-24 September 2014

Yokohama 

Port of Yokohama in Nellie Bly's time

Port of Yokohama in Nellie Bly’s time

Nellie simply adored Japan. “If I loved and married, I would say to my mate: ‘Come I know where Eden is,’” she wrote, “and … desert the land of my birth for Japan.” She called it ‘the land of love-beauty-poetry-cleanliness.’

She idolized the people there too heaping praise upon them — ‘charming, sweet, happy, cheerful, delightful, graceful, pretty, artistic, obliging and progressive.’

“In short I found nothing but what delighted the finer senses while in Japan,” gushed a usually rather snide Nellie Bly.

Her port, Yokohama, 20 miles outside Tokyo, had a ‘cleaned up Sunday appearance.’ That was in 1890. By 1923, almost everything had vanished – swallowed by the Great Kantō earthquake that claimed the lives of 30,771 and injured 47,908.

Yokohama water tap that once lined the streets of Yokohama in 300 foot intervals.

Yokohama water tap

An ornate iron water tap, one that lined the streets every 300 yards when the city’s waterworks were installed, was among the scant physical evidence of Nellie’s time. It was in the garden of the  Yokohama Archives of History – the former British Consulate built after the earthquake.

The Grand Hotel described by Nellie as good ‘barring an enormous and monotonous collection of rats’ was long gone. The city’s celebrated Doll Museum has taken its place.

The Grand Hotel which Nellie described as good despite a colony of rats.

The Grand Hotel which Nellie described as good despite a colony of rats.

A new Grand Hotel built in 1927 still stands in Colonial splendour at the port. The concierge there took time to explore the area’s history with me.

Yokohama's Doll Museum now occupies the spot where the Grand Hotel once stood.

Yokohama’s Doll Museum now occupies the spot where the Grand Hotel once stood.

So did Yuki Saito at the Museum of Cultural History. She combed her collection for books, photographs and vintage postcards to bring Nellie’s time in Yokohama to life for me.

Nellie landed at the Port of Yokohama, now the  31st largest in the world, at Osanbashi Pier.  The port’s oldest pier, today  Osanbashi is the site of an ultra-modern wave-shaped international passenger terminal, one of Yokohama’s premier landmarks.

In 1890, the port hosted the American sloop USS Omaha where a luncheon was held in Nellie’s honour – “one of the pleasant events of my stay,” she wrote. Several days later, when Nellie set sail from Yokohama to San Francisco, the band on the Omaha played ‘Home Sweet Home’, ‘Hail Columbia,’ and ‘The Girl I Left Behind.’

shared postcards of Yokohama's Colonial Period.

Yuki Saito shared postcards of Yokohama’s Colonial Period.

In Which Nellie sees Stars and Stripes

 Nellie’s dates: 25-26 December 1889
My dates: 16-17 September 2014   

Shamian Island, Canton, China

19th Century Shamian Island map

Charming white stone footbridges lead to Shamian Island.

Charming white stone footbridges lead to Shamian Island.

Predictably, both Nellie and I felt most at home on Shamian, a tiny island once set aside for Europeans.  Surrounded by water, Shamian or Shameen, resembles a large ship mooring alongside a wharf. Crossing to the island over charming white stone footbridges, you enter another reality.

Nellie wrote it was “green and picturesque, with handsome houses of Oriental design, and grand shade trees, and wide, velvety green roads…”, broken only by a single path, made by the bare feet of the chair-carriers.”

American Consulate in Nellie's time.

American Consulate in Nellie’s time

More than 150 western-style buildings  — consulates, churches, banks, post offices, telegraph offices, hospitals, residences and hotels —  were built on Shamian. Proud of its colonial heritage, the little island signposts its splendid past seen in gracious foreign consulates that have since opted for Canton’s soaring Central Business District (CBD).

Many of Shamian’s fine buildings are labelled — directing you straight back to colonial times. I found the former American Consulate where Nellie challenged her companions.

“Here for the first time since leaving New York, I saw the stars and stripes. It was floating over the gateway to the American Consulate. The moment I saw it floating there in then soft, lazy breeze I took off my cap and said: “That is the most beautiful flag in the world, and I am ready to whip anyone who says it isn’t.”

Former British Consulate on Shamian Island.

Former British Consulate on Shamian Island.

“No one said a word.  Everyone was afraid,” she wrote. “I saw an Englishman in the party glance towards the Union Jack, which was floating over the English Consulate, but in a hesitating manner, as if he feared to let me see.”

Many of the places Nellie saw on Shamian 125 years ago still exist in their original roles — the tennis courts, Christ Church and Queen’s Park.

Christ Church

Queen's Park on Shamian  Island

Queen’s Park

In Which Nellie Spends Christmas in Canton

CANTON (GUANGZHOU) CHINA

Nellie’s dates: 25-26 December 1889
My dates: 16-17 September 2014

Typhoon Kalmaegi  at peak intensity when I was leaving Hong Kong. WIKIPEDIA

Typhoon Kalmaegi at peak intensity when I was leaving Hong Kong. WIKIPEDIA

Typhoon warnings

Typhoon,  or no typhoon,  I had to get to Canton. It was one of the most exotic stops on Nellie’s world tour and the place where she spent Christmas Day. Besides, I invested time, money and untold stress to get a visa for mainland China. In any case, I would’ve been homeless in Hong Kong because there was no room for another night at the ‘inn’ – the heartless Bishop Lei International House in the business district Wan Chai.

Nellie travelled up the Pearl River by boat to Canton. Not a good idea during a typhoon so I chose the train.

The roaring winds and thrashing rain of typhoon Kalmaegi actually cleared the way for my journey to China’s third largest city.

On track for Canton

Officially shut down, Hong Kong was deserted and so was Hung Hom train station across Victoria Bay. No queue to buy tickets and before I knew it I was aboard a luxurious train, seated beside a dapper Cathay Pacific flight attendant, awaiting breakfast.

Nellie's global gripsack

Nellie’s global gripsack

Wesley had a bag just like Nellie’s

I was ready to congratulate myself for prevailing over the typhoon when I spotted my seatmate Wesley’s travel bag. It was the spitting image of the small ‘gripsack’ that Nellie Bly carried around the world! Honest. Even Wesley was astonished when I showed him a photograph of Nellie’s bag.

This wasn’t to be the only time that Nellie joined me in Canton, the most challenging of all my destinations.

Canton – officially Guangzhou – totally enthralled Nellie, and me. In the spirit of  Nellie’s times, I’m going to call it Canton. Nellie was enticed by Canton’s macabre side – a leper colony, mortuaries and execution grounds that I never located. Whew. Many of Nellie’s destinations have long since disappeared or been re-classified with Communist-approved nomenclature.  And some were restored for the 2010 Asian Games held in Canton.

Temple-hopping 

Cheng Huang Temple, the Temple of Horrors

Cheng Huang Temple, the Temple of Horrors

Take the once-abandoned Temple of Horrors, officially the refurbished Cheng Huang Temple. Inside, ferocious, larger-than-life gods — poised to torture devils — bring the nickname alive. They were meant to instil fear and inspire good deeds in this Taoist temple that protects the people of Guangzhou and Guanghong Province. Today, I’m told, the aim is show the beauty of the gods to guide the public towards ‘goodness’. From surrounding urns of fire, worshippers lit hefty bundles of incense wrapped in bright pink paper. Grasping their burning bundles with both hands, they stood before the Gods and bowed from the waist as smoke encircled them.

Hualin Temple houses 500 golden saints

Hualin Temple houses 500 golden saints including a look-alike Marco Polo (right)

Nellie’s favourite was the Temple of 500 Arhats, officially Hualin Temple tucked deep inside the vibrant jade market quarter of Canton. Nellie’s golden ‘gods’ are actually arhats or saints that were destroyed in China’s Cultural Revolution, but replaced in the 1990s. Each of the 500 gleaming golden arhats features a different DSC03244expression and meaning, and one is said to represent Marco Polo. I found him… eventually.

Tracking these temples required research and perseverance which were equally applied to sites I never found. Most disappointing was the absence of the ‘Temple of Death’ where Nellie ate her Christmas lunch.

I was not alone in my endeavours. The lovely receptionists at Canton’s Customs Hotel were quick to whip out their phones and scour Chinese cyberspace on my behalf. They also wrote in Chinese characters the sites I was seeking so people on the street could point me in the right direction. I couldn’t have done it without them.

Keeping time

Still, we couldn’t pinpoint the ancient bronze water clock that Nellie raved about. Officially known the clepsydra of Canton, it was described as one of the most extraordinary clocks in the world. Dating back to 1316 AD, it once occupied a city axis line at the northern gate pavilion.

Who would guess what was inside the Zhenai Tower?

Who would guess what was inside the Zhenhai Tower?

Believing I’d found all that could be found, I headed for Yuexiu Park downtown, particularly striking as light showers brightened foliage, flowers and sculptures and encouraged visitors to unfurl their pretty umbrellas.  When the showers intensified, I ducked inside the green-tiled Zhenhai Tower, built in 1380, and home to relics of Canton’s 2,000 year-old history. The city’s centuries unfold in each of the tower’s five stories. I roamed the top floors to gain context for Nellie’s times — late 19th century. On the way down to earlier eras, I stopped dead in my tracks.

There it was. Nellie’s water clock! Right in front of me in all its ancient glory. Stunned and elated, I had the inexplicable, but very real feeling, that I had been led to it. Nellie once more?

The elusive bronze water clock complete with signs.

I took photo upon photo trying to avoid the cherry red universal ‘don’t touch’ signs obscuring this almost timeless timepiece. I used gestures to ask the uniformed guard stationed nearby for permission to move them, just for a few seconds. No, came the swift and resolute reply. When she returned to her post,  I quickly moved them anyway. In a split second she was at my side and I was forced to return the signs to their rightful, but annoying, places.

As I continued to photograph the water clock, the guard appeared again at my side. She let me know that she would remove the signs, but I better be quick. The deal was done and I snapped away. I was grateful and she felt good. But not good enough to let me take her photo in front of the water clock.

A sculpture on the ancient bronze water clock that Nellie described.

A sculpture on the ancient bronze water clock that Nellie described.