One of the ways a journalist is punished for being a good feature writer is that when some loose odd person wanders into the newsroom, you are the writer to whom the editor directs said odd person.
Guy dressed all in silver who wants to paint flagpoles? Check.
Guy driving a fire truck with a lock of Abraham Lincoln’s Hair collecting fire fighter helmets? Check.
Couple hiking across America? Practically a standard stock item.
When you are the whacko editor, all this and more is yours. It helps to have a sense of humor, and an appreciation for the ridiculous.
So if I’d been working for the Ogden Junction on March 4, 1879, I know precisely what my assignment would have been: Go interview R. Lyman Potter, “The Wheelbarrow Man” who was staying at the Union Depot Hotel.
Mr. Potter was one of those folks who pretty much define the “everyone will have their 15 minutes of fame” maxim by Andy Warhol. In Potter’s case, he got nationwide news coverage for almost a whole year 1878-1879 through the simple expedient of accepting a bet to push a wheelbarrow across the country.
The blog “Historica Albanica” out of Albany, NY, ran these lovely pictures and a story about Mr. Potter in 2015. (click here to read it!)
The short version is that Potter was hanging around with some friends, discussing a famous race walker who’d apparently set a record of some sort. Potter said the walker was a slacker, and the friends suggested that it would be worth $1,000 to them if Potter would put his feet where his mouth was and walk across the country.
Potter took the bet, loaded up a wheelbarrow with 40 to 60 lbs of gear and off he went, leaving Albany, NY., on April 10, 1878. with his wheelbarrow and $3.55, which wasn’t a lot of money even then.
He made it, too, arriving in San Francisco on Oct. 27, 1878.
He did pass through Ogden on Sept. 2, but the Ogden paper did not interview him then. The only mention I find is in the Deseret News two days later.
So what about March, 1879?
When Mr. Potter got to San Francisco another wheelbarrow pusher, Leo Pierre Federmeyer, a recent immigrant from France, challenged Potter to a race, doing the same thing only back to New York. A $1,500 pot was raised, Potter accepted, and on Dec. 8 off they went.
Potter hit Ogden on Friday, March 4, 1879, according to the Ogden Junction, in a story appropriately headlined “The Return.”
The author had fun, describing him as “bringing his inevitable companion, the ‘old-time phaeton.'”
It refers to the $1,500 bet with Federmeyer and notes “The latter genius is already a long distance east of here, having gained on Potter, who has been seriously sick on this trip.”
The story ends saying that “Wherever he goes and wherever he stays, this plucky man has our best wishes for his success. Hurrah for Potter, his wheelbarrow and their tramp of nine thousand miles.”
The race did end, with Potter coming in second, but whether the prize was ever paid is uncertain. What is certain is that the Ogden Junction was one of the few newspapers to speak of him with respect.
More typical was the Philadelphia paper, which called Potter that “wheelbarrow lunatic,” and other papers across the nation took a similar attitude. The Salt Lake Herald, for example, called him “the lunatic pedestrian.”
The Deseret News of Nov. 20, 1878, was particularly disdainful of the attention Potter was getting. The paper noted that, when it comes to pushing small carts across the country, nobody could hold a candle to the Mormon Pioneers, who had done the same thing 30 years before across much harder country, and pulling more.
“Quite a number of eastern papers have noticed in glowing terms the successful journey of Potter, the wheelbarrow-man, who trundled his light vehicle across the country,” the paper’s editorial writer sniffed.
“His journey is nothing to be compared with the journey of Mormon women with hand carts across the Great American Desert, before there was any railroad to mark the path, and where there were no houses or stations to rest and and recruit by the way.
“The wheelbarrow man’s trip is merely Pottering at hardship,” it says with some playful sarcasm, “and nor worthy of mention by the side of the Mormon hand-cart experience,” even as it finished up doing precisely that.
In 1883 Potter apparently accepted another wager to push his wheelbarrow from Washington DC to New Orleans. Remember his travels were made possible by the building of railroads, since highways and paved roads didn’t exist yet.
So it was ironic that, in the spring of 1883, he was killed, hit by a train as he pushed his wheelbarrow over a railroad bridge on the Yadkin River, North Carolina.
As always, folks, look both ways before crossing the rails.