Nellie Bly—A Pioneering Traveler

By July 24, 2020 Blog

A lifelike figure of groundbreaking journalist Nellie Bly will join Franco Harris and George Washington at the Pittsburgh International Airport. Courtesy of Senator John Heinz History Center.

By Brianna Horan, Manager of Tourism & Visitor Experience

Brianna HoranNellie Bly: Investigative Journalist, International Celebrity & Inspiring Traveler!

Elizabeth Jane Cochran, better known by her nom de plume Nellie Bly, was a pioneering investigative reporter. Her journalism career began in her teens at the former Pittsburgh Dispatch. At age 24 while working for The New York World, Bly set out to circle the globe faster than Phineas Fogg, the fictional hero of Jules Verne’s novel, “Around the World in 80 Days.” She set a world record by completing the journey in just 72 days, six hours, 11 minutes, and 14 seconds, travelling by  steamship, railroad, rickshaw, and sampan boat, horse and donkey. Her trip spanned November 1889 to January 1890, and Bly travelled solo with just one small piece of luggage—though she did purchase a pet monkey while in Singapore who made the rest of the journey with her.

Bly’s editors initially doubted that a woman could successfully undertake such a voyage, but upon her return The World’s publisher Joseph Pulitzer heralded her as a heroine on the paper’s front page, declaring her as, “personifying the independent American girl, the fascination of travel and the excitement of journalism.” Crowds awaited to cheer her on at each train station as she made the homestretch across the country from San Francisco, and when she arrived at her final destination, Jersey City, thousands were waiting to celebrate and welcome her home. The January 25, 1890, cover of The World’s Evening Edition proclaims tales of “The Little Lady’s Triumphal Journey Through Her Native State” with “Ovations at Pittsburg, Harrisburg, Lancaster and Philadelphia,” and also marks her arrival time in Pittsburg (as it was spelled in 1890) as 3:10 a.m. One has to admire the tenacity of those who flocked to the train station in the middle of a winter’s night!

Bly gained international celebrity for her race around the globe, but her investigative reporting often spoke for people who were forgotten. She pioneered undercover reporting to expose the abuses of a New York mental asylum, the conditions of working women in various industries, the environment in women’s prisons, and became one of America’s first female war correspondents during World War I.

With her tenacity, wide-ranging knowledge, and sense of adventure, one can imagine that Bly would be the ultimate travel companion! Soon, passengers arriving and departing at Pittsburgh International Airport will be able to tip their hat to her when a lifelike statue of Bly is added to the iconic figures of George Washington and Franco Harris, made possible by a collaboration between the Senator John Heinz History Center and the Allegheny County Airport Authority. One likes to imagine that Bly is keeping an eye out for anyone who might try to upstage her record-breaking race around the world on a new-fangled airplane! Be sure to check out the Heinz History Center’s article about Bly’s big trip – and don’t miss the photo of a “Round the World” boardgame that was inspired by her globetrotting!

Portrait of Nellie Bly, c. 1890. Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

This story is part of a series of transportation-themed articles highlighting modes of travel throughout southwestern Pennsylvania.  Click through to read about Pittsburgh’s early automobile industry or to discover driving itineraries showcasing automobiles and roadways—both part one and part two. Stay tuned for more stories and itineraries through the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, as we continue to explore the region through the lens of transportation.