Before Now – The Girl from Wyoming
I have a weakness for wanderers. The idea of taking off across the world on foot, with open eyes and little else, excites my stay-at-home personality. A holy man in search of enlightenment or a hobo taking cover with the moon both sound like a good story to me. Who wouldn’t want to have dinner with Edward Payson Weston or the Peace Pilgrim? Imagine the stories …
Most long-distance travelers that make the news are not truly wandering. A typical “feel-good” media story will highlight a walker (or bike rider) trekking across the country for cancer research, Haitian earthquake relief or opposition to corporate personhood. Other cross-country walkers are publicizing more commercial or personal interests like freedom and liberty, and some mosey for the sake of the moseying.
Whatever the motivation, San Francisco is a common starting or ending point for the transcontinental trek. Today, the iconic Golden Gate Bridge makes for a nice finish line and photo opportunity, but before the picturesque bridge’s construction in the 1930s many long-distance wanderers chose the symbolism of dipping their toes in the waves of the Pacific at Ocean Beach. The Pan-Pacific International Exposition of 1915 really brought out the ramblers, many of whom sold souvenir postcards along the way to finance their expedition. Some journeyed alone, some with fellow travelers and a few with animal companions.
This small craze was partly inspired by one of my favorites voyagers, Miss Alberta Claire, generally known as the “Girl from Wyoming.” From 1910 to 1912, Alberta took a well-publicized 10,000-mile ramble around the United States on her pony Bud, accompanied only by a half-wolf, half-Newfoundland dog named Mickie. (Some newspapers claimed he was half-coyote.) Miss Claire was in her early 20s, just less than five feet tall (her dog outweighed her by 30 pounds) and dressed the part of a cowgirl with a wide sombrero and rattlesnake-skin belt, and a six-shooter pistol on her hip. Newspapers gave varied reasons for the transcontinental sojourn. Most accounts mention a bet between two Wyoming ranchers to see if Alberta could ride from ocean to ocean on the same horse; another story claimed the state of Wyoming, in search of publicity, had a standing challenge for a rider to visit all the states. Both tales had $1,000 and a cattle ranch as Alberta’s reward for completing the ride.
Alberta headed west from Sheridan, Wyo. in April 1910 with $2 in her pocket. The wager that supposedly set her on her way required her to support herself on the ride without borrowing or begging. Employment undertaken by Miss Claire on her trip included sewing, domestic service, acting as nursemaid and occupations considered less feminine for the time: driving cattle and participating in exhibitions of expert shooting. Through Montana and Idaho, and over the Rocky Mountains Alberta camped out, bunked at lumber camps and told her story in small town theaters and vaudeville houses along the way. Described as “a little bunch of grit and determination,” Alberta Claire was national news by the time she reached Portland, Ore. in February 1911.
She arrived in San Francisco in late March 1911. The Hudson Motor Car Company gave Miss Claire one of their roadsters to tool around Golden Gate Park and along the Great Highway. The Girl from Wyoming gave the rising auto industry her endorsement: “While I would never give up my horse, I must admit that I occasionally desert him for the allurement of an auto spin.” On another publicity event, Bud the pony and Mickie the dog had a scuffle on their way to the fourth floor of a downtown department store. The Humane Society arrived to find that the animals, which had forded rivers and survived snowstorms, were able to survive a freight-elevator ride. Before leaving San Francisco, Alberta, Bud and Mickie posed on Ocean Beach in front of the Cliff House for a photo postcard.
After losing and finding Mickie in Death Valley, having her pistol confiscated in an Arizona hotel, and worrying the entire nation after disappearing in an Illinois snowstorm for days, Alberta made a triumphant tour of the eastern seaboard, officially finishing her ride in New York City in June 1912. She was granted the privilege of climbing to the top of the under-construction Woolworth tower to drive the ceremonial last rivet.
Along the way, Miss Claire had become a hero to women across the country. In an era when females were still being told to ride sidesaddle, Alberta showed how tough and resilient “the gentler sex” could be. She used her fame to talk up the suffragist cause, explaining how granting women the vote improved her state of Wyoming. On her way back across to California she made a detour into Mexico to join and perhaps even direct a film crew documenting battles in the Mexican Revolution. Coming back to Texas, she started a clothing drive for women and children seeking refuge from the fighting.
As with many good stories, there is a lot of evidence Alberta wasn’t exactly what she appeared. She had an excellent publicist in her husband, J.H. Moore, who was generally not mentioned in the news. In fact, Alberta was often said to be “alone in the world” and without family. Moore made sure that his young wife was photographed with mayors and dignitaries, and he sent these photographs ahead to newspapers along with letters Claire wrote about near-death adventures she supposedly experienced just before her arrival in a new town. Instead of collecting on her winnings of the purported bet, and retiring to her Wyoming cattle ranch, Claire acted as an agent for carnivals and vaudeville shows and toured with her footage of Mexican battles. In later years she taught dancing in Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania and appeared in dramatic plays, advertised not as the former wandering cowgirl but as an actress having “splendid training at some of the foremost schools of dramatics and dancing.”
Artiste or real cowgirl, Alberta Claire’s confidence, drive, panache and true adventures were marvelous and inspiring. Not for the first time do I wish that the Ocean Beach time machine existed. Take me back a bit more than a hundred years, because I have a dinner invitation to deliver.
Trivia Answer: Last column I asked what La Playa Street was originally called. A couple of people knew it used to be 49th Avenue.
New Trivia: The King Phillip, whose remains were recently exposed on Ocean Beach, went aground in 1878. What are the names of the twin oil tankers that crashed almost in the exact same spot at Lands End fifteen years apart in 1922 and 1937?
Woody LaBounty is the founder of the Western Neighborhoods Project, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the history of western San Francisco, and the author of “Carville-by-the-Sea: San Francisco’s Streetcar Suburb.”
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