On November 14, 1889, Nellie Bly, the crusading young female reporter for Joseph Pulitzer’s World newspaper, left New York City by steamship on a quest to break the record for the fastest trip around the world. Also departing from New York that day—and heading in the opposite direction by train—was a young journalist from The Cosmopolitan magazine, Elizabeth Bisland. Each woman was determined to outdo Jules Verne’s fictional hero Phileas Fogg and circle the globe in less than eighty days. The dramatic race that ensued would span twenty-eight thousand miles, captivate the nation, and change both competitors’ lives forever
Nellie Bly the pioneering world traveler
It all started in 1888 when Bly suggested to her editor at the New York World that she take a trip around the world, attempting to turn the fictional Around the World in Eighty Days into fact for the first time. A year later, at 9:40 a.m. on November 14, 1889, and with two days’ notice, she boarded the Augusta Victoria, a steamer of the Hamburg America Line, and began her 24,899-mile journey.
She brought with her the dress she was wearing, a sturdy overcoat, several changes of underwear and a small travel bag carrying her toiletry essentials. She carried most of her money (£200 in English bank notes and gold in total as well as some American currency) in a bag tied around her neck.
The New York newspaper Cosmopolitan sponsored its own reporter, Elizabeth Bisland, to beat the time of both Phileas Fogg and Bly. Bisland would travel the opposite way around the world. To sustain interest in the story, the World organized a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which readers were asked to estimate Bly’s arrival time to the second, with the Grand Prize consisting at first of (only) a free trip to Europe and, later on, spending money for the trip.
On her travels around the world, Bly went through England, France (where she met Jules Verne in Amiens), Brindisi, the Suez Canal, Colombo (Ceylon), the Straits Settlements of Penang and Singapore, Hong Kong, and Japan. The development of efficient submarine cable networks and the electric telegraph allowed Bly to send short progress reports,though longer dispatches had to travel by regular post and were thus often delayed by several weeks.
Bly travelled using steamships and the existing railroad systems, which caused occasional setbacks, particularly on the Asian leg of her race. During these stops, she visited a leper colony in China and she bought a monkey in Singapore.
As a result of rough weather on her Pacific crossing, she arrived in San Francisco on the White Star Line ship Oceanic on January 21, two days behind schedule. However,World owner Pulitzer chartered a private train, aptly named “the Miss Nellie Bly Special”. It was was a one-time, record-breaking passenger train operated by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway going from San Francisco, California to Chicago, Illinois. Riding in this special train, that set new speed records over the line, Miss Bly completed the 2,577-mile (4,147 km) journey in just 69 hours, averaging 37 mph (60 km/h) in the process. Along the way, Miss Bly presented each division superintendent with a quart of Mumm’s Extra Dry Champagne. Classy!
This ‘supersonic’ train made that she arrived back in New Jersey on January 25, 1890, at 3:51 p.m. “Seventy-two days, six hours, eleven minutes and fourteen seconds after her Hoboken departure” Bly was back in New York. She had circumnavigated the globe almost unchaperoned. Traveling alone, she became a role model of independence for women everywhere.
It has to be noted that her trip differed slightly from the Verne itinerary in that she didn’t cross India by train but sailed via Ceylon (Sri Lanka).
Bisland – her challenger from Cosmopolitan – was, at the time, still crossing the Atlantic, only to arrive in New York four and a half days later. Like Bly, she had missed a connection and had to board a slow, old ship (the Bothina) in the place of a fast ship (Etruria). Bly’s journey was a world record, though it was bettered a few months later by George Francis Train, who completed the journey in 67 days. By 1913, Andre Jaeger-Schmidt, Henry Frederick and John Henry Mears had improved on the record, the latter completing the journey in less than 36 days.
The trip gave Bly lasting fame nonetheless. Among other things she got a stamp and jigsaw puzzle game dedicated to her.
A great book has been written by Matthew Goodman about this Eighty Days: Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland’s History-Making Race Around the World
The book is “a vivid real-life re-creation of the race and its aftermath, from its frenzied start to the nail-biting dash at its finish, Eighty Days is history with the heart of a great adventure novel. Here’s the journey that takes us behind the walls of Jules Verne’s Amiens estate, into the back alleys of Hong Kong, onto the grounds of a Ceylon tea plantation, through storm-tossed ocean crossings and mountains blocked by snowdrifts twenty feet deep, and to many more unexpected and exotic locales from London to Yokohama. Along the way, we are treated to fascinating glimpses of everyday life in the late nineteenth century—an era of unprecedented technological advances, newly remade in the image of the steamship, the railroad, and the telegraph. For Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland—two women ahead of their time in every sense of the word—were not only racing around the world. They were also racing through the very heart of the Victorian age.”