London journalist retraces the expedition Alle-Kiski Valley’s Nellie Bly took 125 years ago
Dolly McCoy of the Apollo Area Historical Society (left) and Arnold Blystone, co-founder of the Burrell Township Historical Society (right), show Rosemary Brown around Elizabeth Cochran’s — Nellie Bly — birthplace in Burrell Township.
By Braden Ashe
Saturday, Nov. 15, 2014
It was 125 years ago Friday that the Alle-Kiski Valley’s most famous daughter set out on what would become the fastest-ever journey around the globe.
A crusading female journalist, Nellie Bly accomplished an expedition that spanned four continents and led her across some of the world’s most vast mountain ranges, desert canals, densely populated cities and sprawling valleys.
After 72 days and 28,000 miles around the planet, she arrived back in New York, triumphant in her quest to beat the fictional record set by French novelist Jules Verne’s protagonist in the well-read “Around the World in Eighty Days.”
In honor of the 125th anniversary this year, a London woman retraced Bly’s steps and successfully routed a 22,500-mile intercontinental trip that included stops in Bly’s hometowns of Apollo and Burrell Township.
Rosemary Brown, who is a journalist in her own right, said she embarked on the journey after extensively researching Bly’s life and career.
“I’ve always been captivated by woman adventurers,” Brown said in a telephone interview from her home, “particularly in the Victorian Age because they had to go against all odds to get anywhere.
“I started doing some research about 18 months ago and Nellie Bly popped out at me. She was perfect, partly because she was a journalist and adventurer, and it all kind of stemmed from there.”
Bly was born Elizabeth Jane Cochrane in May 1864 to a county judge and businessman in Cochran’s Mills, now a part of Burrell Township. Her family moved shortly thereafter to Apollo, where her father suddenly died and left the family in dire financial straits.
As a result, the family moved to Pittsburgh to run a boarding house.
It was there the young girl read and responded to a sexist column titled “What Girls Are Good For” in the Pittsburgh Dispatch.
The editor was stricken by her enthusiasm and brought her on as a full-time writer.
She assumed the pen name Nellie Bly and later took a job writing for the New York World newspaper. There, she gained national notoriety for her undercover and investigative reporting, particularly through an expose she wrote on a mental institution she admitted herself to for 10 days.
Her popularity only grew in 1889 with her trip around the world when she was 25.
In replicating that trip, Brown saw many of the same sights and stayed in some of the same places, from Paris to Tokyo, that Bly did.
What stands out for Brown, though — even more than the colorful botanical gardens strewn throughout the mountains of Sri Lanka or Verne’s elegant living room in France — is the enthusiasm with which Armstrong County preserves Bly’s history.
“I would say Nellie’s been kind of forgotten,” said Brown, 60. “But the whole town in Apollo and (Burrell Township) knows about her, and they do a very nice job of keeping her memory alive.”
Brown spent a day apiece in Apollo and Burrell Township, meeting with their respective historical societies and touring local sites such as Bly’s childhood home. Calls to the Apollo Area Historical Society were unsuccessful. Arnold Blystone, the co-founder of the Burrell Township Historical Society, could not be reached.
One Apollo Area Historical Society member gave Brown a poster promoting Apollo’s Bicentennial Celebration to take back to Europe. The woman wanted Brown to get the poster in front of Queen Elizabeth II.
That, understandably, didn’t come to fruition. Brown did, however, snap a photograph with the mayor by the sign of Gerberoy, the location of Verne’s home.
“That was a cool thing,” she said. “I felt like I was with like-minded people in Apollo. It was like a breath of fresh air.”
Other American stops on Brown’s trip — which is registered with the Royal Geographical Society and endorsed by Women in Journalism — included New York and Washington, D.C. In New York, she laid a dozen white roses at Bly’s grave in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx.
Brown, a freelance journalist who writes about social issues like poverty and international development, is a native of Ontario, Canada. She lived there until she was 8-years-old, when her family relocated to St. Petersburg, Fla.
Brown worked at the Tampa Tribune for several years. She moved about three decades ago to London, where the majority of her extended family is located.
She lives there with her husband and 19-year-old daughter.
“My daughter, like a lot of girls her age, is sort of caught up with the Kardashians and Paris Hiltons of the world,” she said. “That’s part of the reason I want to see Nellie Bly get put back on the map.
“She should know about Nellie and all of the things she accomplished for women. She should know about woman journalists and the important work that they do.”
Braden Ashe is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-226-4673 firstname.lastname@example.org.