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Nellie Bly Special Broke All Records

The Nellie Bly Special broke all records. It was the final leg of her 24,899-mile race to beat Jules Verne’s fictional record of Phileas Fogg’s trek Around the World in Eighty Days. Had her publisher, Joseph Pulitzer of the New York World, not chartered a private train to bypass record blizzards across country, she would not have made it to New Jersey in time to make her stated goal of 75 days.

Newspapers across America had been following Bly’s journey since she set sail from Hoboken, New Jersey on the Augusta Victoria on November 14, 1889. Games, songs, clothing and dolls launched in her honor. The World held a “Nellie Bly Guessing Match” in which the reader who came closest to the actual time it took Bly to circle the globe won a trip to Europe. Readership soared.

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Bisland of the Cosmopolitan challenged Bly. She left later the same day Bly set sail, heading in the opposite direction across the United States by train. Her itinerary was nearly a mirror image of Nellie Bly’s.

Although Joseph Pulitizer and the World’s editors were adamant that Bly would only take normal transportation, The Miss Nellie Bly Special was anything but that.

Nellie Bly Left Japan On The RMS Oceanic

It was January 10, 1890 and day 58 of Bly’s journey. The RMS Oceanic was older than other ships Bly had taken with its launch date in 1871. It was also slower. But praising the quality of service and food Bly wrote:

“… the Oceanic is the favorite ship, and people wait for months so as to travel on her.”

She was undoubtedly referring to first-class accommodations for roughly 167 passengers. Below, the Oceanic typically crammed 300 to 1,000 people in steerage. Conditions were unsanitary and the food barely edible. Surprisingly, Bly did not write about conditions in steerage.

The Pandemic of 1889 to 1891

Both Nellie Bly and Elizabeth Bisland encountered what newspapers called the hurricanes of the century. Fortunately, both women remained untouched by another kind of challenge facing the world. By November of 1889, newspapers were reporting on an influenza that was raging in St. Petersburg, Russia.

As the virus spread across Europe and into Asia, it became known as the Russian or Asiatic flu. It was one of the first pandemics of influenza to occur during the period of the rapid development of bacteriology. It was the first epidemic to be so widely commented on in the intensively developing daily press. The media now had access to telegraph and the Associated Press enabling them to chart its spread almost in real time. Finding that fear sold papers, some publications pumped up the anxiety levels.

According to the National Institutes of Health-U.S. National Library of Medicine:

“Press reports not only referred to the local spread of the disease, but also discussed the situation in numerous, often distant, European cities, such as Paris, London, Vienna, and Berlin. Apart from data about where and when the illness occurred, the reports provided: descriptions of symptoms, treatment methods, data on morbidity and mortality, effect on individual people of high rank in the country, information on the activities of public authorities, and impact of the epidemic on daily life.”

Ironically, it was also spread quickly, thanks to developments in train and ocean travel that Bly had set out to celebrate.

“Changes that took place in the nineteenth century fostered the rapid spread of the disease. Substantial increase in the population, especially in towns, facilitated the expansion of infectious diseases transmitted from person to person. The intensive development of railways also contributed to this effect because they linked distant places, with numerous intermediate stops, and enabled large numbers of people to travel within a short time and across vast distances.” 

Clinical evidence suggests that the 1889-91 pandemic might have been an earlier coronavirus. According to the Society For Applied Microbiology:

“Most notable are aspects of multi-system affections comprising respiratory, gastrointestinal and neurological symptoms including loss of taste and smell perception; a protracted recovery resembling long covid and pathology observations of thrombosis in multiple organs, inflammation and rheumatic affections. As in COVID-19 and unlike in influenza, mortality was seen in elderly subjects while children were only weakly affected. Contemporary reports noted trans-species infection between pet animals or horses and humans…”

Both Bisland and Bly stayed ahead of the Pandemic. Bisland however, might have encountered larger-than-normal crowds across Europe due to people changing travel plans as the virus spread.

The RMS Oceanic Arrived Days Late

Nellie Bly arrived in San Francisco on the White Star liner Oceanic. She was two days behind schedule due to rough weather on her Pacific crossing .

According to the Daily Alta California, January 21, 1890, Nellie Bly the Globe Girdler:

“…left Yokohama January 7th, and judging by the recent records “made by the Oceanic it was expected that she would have arrived here yesterday. Had she done so Miss Bly would have taken the regular Atlantic and Pacific train, which leaves here at -8:30 A.M. today. If she arrives here today, as |is probable, she will leave on a special engine and car, for which arrangements have been made with the Southern Pacific. This will take her to Mojave. There the Santa Fe management will have a special train, which will take her to Kansas City and on to Chicago.”

Other passengers were left on board due to a possible quarantine at the word of a case of small pox. But officials were ordered to get Bly to her train as soon as possible.

“In fact the correspondent will not set foot in this city, as the tug Millen Griffith will take her off the steamer as soon as sighted and go direct to the Oakland pier.”

The Daily Alta was betting on Bly to win the race.

“Miss Bisland will embark at Queenstown on the Bothnia for New York. The Bothnia is a twelve-day boat, and the chances are that the representative of the Cosmopolitan will be beaten by Nellie Bly.”

The Nellie Bly Special Worked Around One Of The Worst Blizzards Of The Century

The last decade of the 1800s brought some of the worst blizzards in known history. Two  hit western Kansas the first week of January 1886. The great blizzard of 1888 pummeled the Atlantic coast of the United States, from the Chesapeake Bay to Maine. This trend in massive blizzards was one reason that Nellie Bly’s editors initially resisted sending her on a trip that would end in the winter months. Of course, that did not stop Bly.

Daily Alta California 21 January 1890:

“The blockade on the Central Pacific road in the Sierra Mountains is still on, although there are 1300 men shoveling snow on the Sacramento division, which covers the ground from Colfax to Truckee. On the Shasta division 600 men are similarly employed.”

There are two eastbound passenger trains stalled in the snow. The company this afternoon succeeded in bringing a large number of passengers from Colfax and dispatched them east by the southern route. There are two westbound passenger trains at Truckee and a large number of passengers bound for California are held at Reno.”

The Globe Trotter Caught The Miss Nellie Bly Special

Joseph Pulitzer was not about to let his contestant fail because of a blizzard. He chartered the Nellie Bly Special to set records to her starting place. Crowds of adoring fans waited small towns and train stops across America for a glimpse at the history-making Nellie Bly Special.

According to the New Mexican newspaper, Jan. 23, 1890, the plucky young woman reporter whom the New York World…

“…passed Lamy junction on a special train at 11:25 o’clock last night. The little woman was fast asleep as were also Messrs. Hobson and Jennings, editorial writers on the World, who met her at San Francisco on Tuesday. A special train over the A. &P. was in waiting for the fair junketer when her steamer reached San Francisco, and she was soon speeding eastward.”

In her usual plucky way, rather than snoozing through her trip, Bly was an active participant.

This train ran through to Albuquerque in a little over thirty-six hours, distance 1,135 miles. The distance from Mohave to Albuquerque, 815 miles, was run in twenty-five hours. Over about 100 miles of this line, Miss Bly rode in the engine cab and took lessons in mechanics from throttle pullers.”

Newspapers across country reported on every step of Bly’s trip. It was exactly what the New York World had planned for publicity. At Albuquerque a special A.T. & S.F. tram of a day coach, a Pullman sleeper and an engine awaited Bly. It departed at 9:45:p.m. A stop at Wallace was made to change engines and a second halt at Cerrillos for water. The sixty-seven miles to Lamy was made in ninety-eight minutes.

“The A.T. & S.F. is taking special pride in running this globe trotter over its line in the quickest time possible, with the view to making the run from the Pacific coast to Chicago the quickest on record. Over two-thirds of the way it is expected to the special will show a speed of sixty miles an hour. The train left Las Vegas at 12:45 this morning and according to schedule time was due at Raton, 111 miles, two hours and twenty minutes later. The fact that the northern transcontinental lines are all snow bound makes this a big card for the Santa Fe route.”

Nellie Bly Arrived Triumphant

The now world-famous reporter from the World arrived with time to spare thanks to the Nellie Bly Special. It was 3:51 PM on Saturday, January 25, 1890, seventy-two days, six hours and ten minutes from the moment she left Hoboken, New Jersey. She was two days shy of her predicted goal of seventy-five days. The crowd of an estimated 15,000 fans cheered as Bly’s train pulled in to the station.

She was met with pomp and circumstance of a July 4th parade. The New York Evening World January 25, 1890 Nellie Bly and Sporting Extra Edition, Mayor Cleveland gave this historic speech:

“On behalf of millions of people who have watched your progress around the globe as noted in the press of every civilized country and especially on behalf of the people of the United States, I give you a hearty welcome.
The American Glrl will no longer be misunderstood. She will be recognized as pushing, determined, independent, able to take care of herself wherever she may go.
You have added another spark to the great beacon-light of American liberty, that is leading the people of other nations in the grand march of civilization and progress. Pausing rapidly by them, you have cried
out In a language they could all understand…The American people
from every part of this great and glorious country, shouted back to you, ‘Forward! and God speed you on your wonderful march.’
“‘Forward’ is the very essence and spirit of the age and times in which we live…People the world over have been taught that they are not so far apart as they had imagined…and so have brought mankind nearer together. “

When Mayor Cleveland finished his speech, the shouts were “deafening.”
It was some time before the police could clear the way for the passage of the carriages to the ferry-boat that was to carry Bly and her entourage to New York.When Nellie Bly reached Park Row she found that thoroughfare
packed from the Post-Office to the World Building.

Yellow Journalism Met Tabloid Fever

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Bisland, had missed her steamship from Southampton. In her travel journals, she wrote that a stranger had misinformed her that her ship had already sailed. Believing this, she took the much slower ship, ensuring Nellie Bly’s triumph. Is it possible that the agent of misinformation was sent to throw Bisland off course?

Joseph Pulitzer understood publicity. He introduced what became known as “yellow journalism” to his newspapers in the 1880s. Also called the “yellow press,” it was a style of journalism that utilized sensationalism, exaggerations of real news events, and scandal-mongering. If Joseph Pulitizer had not chartered the Miss Nellie Bly Special, would Bly have beaten Bisland?

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