Lillian’s long walk:

🕔Apr 07, 2010

Lillian Alling walked out of New York City in 1926, headed home—to Russia. She planned to walk as far as she could—the Bering Sea—and cross the ocean to the northeastern reaches of her homeland.

This incredible journey, some 10,000 kilometres on foot, has given rise to many published stories, booklets, websites, inspired works of historical fiction and creative non-fiction, at least one song and even a Vancouver opera that will premiere in October 2010.

Lillian Alling’s walk has inspired many researchers to track her trail from New York City in 1926 to her last sighting four years later near Teller, Alaska. Many have searched historical records, read old newspapers, contacted museums along her long walking route and found it challenging to verify facts about her.

It is unanimous, though, that Lillian came to New York City in the mid 1920s from Russia., Author Cassandra Pybus concluded Lillian was a displaced Jew from Belorussia, and her not-so-Russian-sounding name ‘Alling’ may have been “some derivation of Olejnik.”

A small, fair-haired woman in her 20s with intense eyes and a determined spirit, Lillian found 1920s New York difficult to manage with no family or friends and English as her second language. She was frustrated with her various jobs. A 1941 article states, “the swift tempo of life bewildered her…[she] yearned once more for the rugged steppes of her native land.”

When Lillian realized she could not afford steamship passage back to Russia she decided to do what most would never even consider: she would walk. She studied maps at the New York Library and sketched her own plan. She set her determined mind to the massive undertaking: she would walk from New York to Chicago to Minneapolis, over the border into Canada and across the prairies; over the Rockies into BC and on to Hazelton to follow the Yukon Telegraph line north to Dawson, and on to the Bering Sea. The water crossing to her homeland of Russia looked deceivingly easy on the maps, especially when compared to the long overland journey.

It’s hard to separate fact from fiction but Calvin Rutstrum’s articles state that she was seen in Chicago, then Minneapolis, then Winnipeg. The next confirmed reports of the lone woman walking are north of Hazelton on the telegraph line.

Arrested and jailed
In the fall of 1927, the story goes, the telegraph linesmen along the route knew that winter would soon arrive and that Lillian was not prepared. They tried stop her, but when she continued north in spite of their warnings, they notified the police. Sergeant W. J. Service, in charge of the district, went out and brought Lillian to Hazelton.

Journalist J. Wellsford Mills reports that at the Hazelton jail a matron searched Lillian and found she had no extra clothing, no matches, and no snowshoes—just three loaves of bread, some tea, twenty dollars and a short iron bar (which she said was to protect her not from bears but from men).

According to Mills, Sergeant Service, knowing Lillian would freeze or starve to death if she continued her journey, decided to lock her up. He charged her with vagrancy and recommended a fine he knew she could not pay. On September 21, she was sentenced to a fine of 25 dollars or two months in jail at Oakalla.

The Hazelton police and linesmen thought Lillian would go south, serve her time and stay in the city; surely she would come to her senses and never return. But in June 1928, Sergeant A. Fairbairn at Smithers was warned by Vancouver police that Lilllian had started walking north. On July 19 she arrived in Smithers, having walked all the way from Vancouver. When Fairbairn realized this meant she had walked about 30 miles a day he could tell that with that pace she would likely reach the Yukon before winter arrived. The police had no reason to stop her now, but asked her to check in with the linesmen along the Telegraph Trail.

North to Yukon and Alaska
She did just that and messages of her quick pace and short stays came from Cabins 1 through 7. Francis Dickie’s article New York-Siberia, the Astonishing Hike of Lillian Alling states that when she reached Cabin 8 she was hungry, exhausted, eaten by black flies, and the soles of her boots were worn right through. Jim Christie and Charlie Janze were stationed there and occupied one cabin each. Christie turned his cabin over to Lillian for three days and the men went to work, feeding her large meals and repairing her clothing.

Lillian had the linesmen’s support and they reported her progress to Echo Lake, the Iskut River and to the open country north of Telegraph Creek. When the linesmen lost her trail as she walked to Atlin, the Whitehorse Star newspaper picked it up, reporting that Lillian arrived in Atlin in late August and bought a new pair of shoes. She continued walking, received a ride across the river at Tagish, then arrived in Carcross and had a meal at the Caribou Hotel. She rested in Whitehorse briefly before heading out on the Dawson Trail on September 7, 1928.

The Star continued to report Lillian’s progress: she was sighted east of Tahkinna, then at the Yukon River where H.O. Lokken helped her across. Another man, A. Shafer, helped her at Pelly River Crossing. An October storm hit at Stewart and she was cared for by a survey party in their camp for three days. She caught a ride down-river on a small boat, reaching Dawson 39 days after leaving Whitehorse with a different style of men’s shoe on each foot. A few published sources state that she had the hide of one of the linesman’s pack-dogs stuffed with grass on top of her pack (a fact that other articles disagree with as she never stayed anywhere long enough to tan a hide).

Lillian worked that winter in Dawson and repaired a small boat. As soon as the river broke up in the spring, Lillian was on her boat, making the 2,700-kilometre journey down-river to the Bering Sea.

Journey’s end?
Her trail breaks up at this point. Francis Dickie writes that “she reached the mouth of the Yukon safely…left her boat on the beach and trudged into the Artic vastness.” Several historians write that she was seen passing Tanana and arrived at Nome. Francis Dickie reports that, months later, an Eskimo reported seeing a woman pulling a two-wheeled cart beyond Teller, a coastal out-port near a point where Alaksa and Siberia are closest.

Arthur F. Elmore recounts that a Russian friend told him a story in 1965 when he was visiting Yakutsk, in Eastern Siberia. His friend told him that when he was a young boy in the fall of 1930 in the Soviet Far East (Provideniya, 170 miles from the Bering Strait) he recalled seeing a young woman in American dress accompanied by Diomede Island Eskimos. Officials at the waterfront led her away, but he remembers hearing that the young woman had come from America, where she had been unable to make friends or get a good job. The Russian man had been deeply affected by the story and for many years felt that if he went to America he would also be poorly treated.

Lillian’s story is fascinating, her against all odds walk across North America over mountain passes and through all kinds of inclement weather. The uncertainty of her journey’s end does not lessen her appeal. Did she reach her homeland to see her supposed long-lost love, reunite with her family? Did she perish at sea or turn back and live out her days in Alaska?

Some 84 years later Lillian Alling’s story has reached almost mythic proportions. It is the stuff of inspiration, as many writers, artists and even opera composers can attest.