“He started from Albany five months ago,
And trundled his wheelbarrow steady and slow.
In storm and in sunshine, through dust, wind, and rain.
Four thousand odd miles trudged the wheelbarrow man.”
“The Wheelbarrow Man,” Samuel Booth, 1879
The name of Robert Lyman Potter may not stand out in the annals of our ancient city, but he was a man who did exactly what he said he wanted to do – “to do something no one had ever done before.” R. Lyman Potter is credited with the feat of having walked across the continental United States with a wheelbarrow.
Mr. Potter was born about the year 1840 in Marietta, Ohio. At about the age of twenty, he found himself in Albany, working as an upholsterer. He had a wife and two or three children. There is no doubt that Potter was an eccentric. When Grant was elected President in 1868, Potter vowed that he would not shave his beard until a Democrat was in the White House. Potter left this world forever before having to make good on that vow. His ‘queerness’ was ascribed to a disease he contracted while a prisoner at Andersonville.
As Potter himself told the story, he and some friends were discussing the accomplishments of Edward Payson Weston, the professional race-walker who had recently covered 110 miles in 24 hours. Potter, eager ‘to do something no one had ever done before,’ thought he could do better. And so, his friends were able to put up a purse of $1,000 if Potter could walk, with a wheelbarrow, 4,085 miles in 215 days, going from Albany to San Francisco. By the terms of the wager, Potter was not allowed to walk on Sundays. The weight of the wheelbarrow was usually between 60 and 80 pounds, though never less than 45 pounds. Potter claimed he started out with $3.55 in his pocket.
By his own account, Potter set off from his home at the intersection of Warren and Swan streets on April 10, 1878, between 2 and 3 o’clock in the afternoon, pushing his wheelbarrow, followed some distance by a crowd of friends and well-wishers. By 7:30 pm that evening, he was in Schenectady. He arrived in Utica the morning of April 15; the next day, he was in Rome. He continued through Syracuse, Rochester, Buffalo, Cleveland, Toledo, mostly following the railroad tracks. Continuing through northern Indiana, he arrived in Chicago on May 23, staying there for three days, the first time he had stayed anywhere for more than one night. By now, Potter was a national sensation, with newspapers across the country reporting on his progress. And he was now invariably known as the Wheelbarrow Man.
Potter crossed the Mississippi River over a railroad trestle at Davenport, Iowa. Before crossing the Missouri River at Council Bluffs, on June 24, Potter was asked to give a talk on the topic of temperance, which, according to Potter, ‘was proclaimed by all to be an admirable address.’
Not far into Nebraska, Potter nearly met with disaster. He was felled by sunstroke near Plum Creek and was laid up for fifteen days as he recovered. But he seems to have made up for lost time, arriving in Laramie, Wyoming Territory, on July 30. On August 13, from Table Rock, Wyoming Territory, Potter penned a letter to the Toledo Daily Sentinel, as he had promised the paper he would when he had earlier refused an interview while passing through that city. He told the Toledo readers that he was “in excellent health and spirits” and that he had gained eight pounds since beginning his trek. He reassured them that the ‘weary traveler had not lost his scalp,’ that the Indians were all friendly and often wished him “a good wind.” He noted that one squaw had even named her papoose ‘Wheelbarrow’ in his honor.
Finally, on October 27, he arrived in San Francisco. He came by way of San Jose, since he was not permitted to cross the bay. Several thousand people greeted him at Woodward’s Garden, a popular entertainment venue on the outskirts of the city. He ‘paraded in to tumultuous applause, suitably recognized.’ Potter actually had nearly 100 more miles to go to reach the 4,085 mile goal. But being nearly a month ahead of schedule, Potter took his time, finishing things up on a track at Woodward’s Garden on November 7, 1878. Overall, Potter had averaged about 27 miles a day (including just the days he walked).
In Sacramento, Potter had told a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle that he was “tired of the job and wish it were over.” His journey was expensive. He had spent nearly $400 and had to send to Albany for funds more than once. He also earned money by carrying letters (at 25 cents apiece) and by selling ads on his wheelbarrow, including one for Pete’s Eye Salve, which appears in the photo. He limited himself to two meals a day and said he avoided all hot drinks. Otherwise, meals were dear, costing Potter “four bits to a dollar” each. Railway workers apparently took interest in him and gave him “plenty of grub” along the way. He generally sought shelter in hotels and, because of his celebrity, was often not charged for the shelter. Potter said that, in the West, he “never had to pay a hotel bill or a whiskey bill.”
The only weapon he had was a “small six shooter.” He said that he shot a deer, a porcupine, some jack rabbits, and a small bear. He also ‘adopted’ two abandoned wolf cubs in Kansas, who accompanied Potter on his travels for the rest of his life. He would push them in the wheelbarrow “when they got tired of walking.”
The press, while taking great interest in his expedition, presented it as the act of a crazy man. ‘Lunatic,’ ‘idiot,’ ‘tramp,’ and ‘bummer’ were terms frequently used in the papers to describe Potter. But in spite of his eccentricity, the San Francisco Chronicle had this to say about him: “Potter is a fine looking man, of splendid physique and wearing a full beard. There is not the slightest sign of the madman about him, but on the contrary, he exhibits the elation of the winner in a long and arduous contest against time.”
But having done ‘what no one had done before’ did not mean that R. Lyman Potter’s walking days were over. Potter’s trek caught the attention of another noted ‘pedestrian,’ one Leo Pierre Federmeyer, who had recently come to the United States from his native France. Federmeyer challenged Potter to a race across the continental United States, from San Francisco to New York City – pushing wheelbarrows of course. A purse of $1,500 was raised and Potter accepted the challenge. This race was also closely followed by the press. Both men left San Francisco on December 8, 1878 and did not part ways until they were in Nevada. Federmeyer and his travelling companion (both Potter and Federmeyer had local men accompany them during portions of the trip, especially for the more dangerous legs) were nearly killed in a snowstorm while crossing the Rockies in January.
Federmeyer arrived in Albany on July 20, 1879; Potter was reportedly still in the Midwest. Federmeyer was half way to New York City from Albany when he learned that the railroad bridge at Poughkeepsie was out (and he was not permitted to take a ferry). So he had to walk back to Albany, cross the Hudson over the Maiden Lane bridge, and then continue on to New York City, where Federmeyer arrived eight days later. Potter accused Federmeyer of taking the train for part of his route, an accusation that seems to have been believed, although it is unclear whether either contestant collected the prize. When Potter finally arrived in New York City, Federmeyer was unavailable, having gone for some weeks to Manhattan Beach to recover.
After these feats, rather than return to his wife and children in Albany, Potter went on the road again, displaying ‘curiosities’ he had picked up during his travels. These seem to have consisted of snake skins, a bear hide, and some Native American trinkets. But the main ‘curiosity’ was clearly Potter himself, his wheelbarrow, and the surviving wolf cub, now fully grown. Potter travelled through Maryland in 1880, and was in Washington, D.C. in mid-1881. A hoped for trip to Europe not panning out, Potter moved to Richmond, Virginia, setting up a ‘museum’ at the Old Stone House (that city’s oldest structure).
In the Spring of 1883, Potter accepted another wager, for a wheelbarrow trip from Washington, D.C. to New Orleans. But in April, Potter was apparently struck by a train as he crossed the railroad bridge over the Yadkin River in North Carolina. His effects were returned to his widow in Albany. She is a part of Potter’s story the newspapers say little about. When asked why he did not return to his family, R. Lyman Potter responded cryptically, “Reason I don’t go home is that if I get there with my children, I can’t get away.” When Potter’s widow was asked about her feelings, she replied that she hoped to get $1,000 for the wheelbarrow, and that while she liked the wolf, she could probably sell that to a menagerie. The barrow ended up in the hands of James Martin of Martinville, though the price was undisclosed. Monsieur Federmeyer made another appearance too, placing an ad in Albany newspapers, offering to conduct a walking match for the benefit of Mrs. Potter and the orphans. All he needed was a railroad ticket from San Francisco to Albany.
Follow the link to an interactive map of R. Lyman Potter’s original trek from Albany to San Francisco: