The latest "Historically Speaking" column appeared in the December 24th issue of the Exeter News-Letter.
by Barbara Rimkunas
In June of 1896, Albert and Lucy Tyler set out from Exeter for a trip west. The two had been married just over two years earlier and must have been looking for a bit of adventure. The trip would not turn out exactly as expected, although it definitely did become an “adventure” and they would justly earn their 15 minutes of fame.
The trip appears to have begun as a pleasure excursion. The Exeter Gazette, a rival of the Exeter News-Letter, noted that they set out from Kingston, “in a pneumatic run-about wagon, drawn by a horse, Peter. At Des Moines, Iowa, they purchased another horse and then made the rest of the trip to the Pacific with two horses. They were nine days on the Great American desert, and arrived at Los Angelos, Cal., after being on the road just 180 days.” A “run-about” was a small lightweight carriage. It was the favored type of transportation for doctors and fire chiefs because it could be pulled by a single horse and hitched up quickly. With air-filled tires, it was well-suited to town and city roads that were well maintained. But it was hardly the type of transportation one might take on a long arduous cross-country trip. It had neither fenders nor heavy tops to weigh it down and little space for luggage.
The two lingered in California for a while before heading to Seattle. It may have been the lure of gold that brought them north. Gold had been discovered in Alaska and the Yukon River basin in Canada while the Tylers were making their trip and 1897 would prove to be the summer of the Klondike Gold Rush.
Albert and Lucy were nearly there, but their finances had mostly run out. Albert had tried to support them by “trade” – perhaps dealing in merchandise as his father, Rolla Tyler, of Exeter, did back home, but it wasn’t enough. The Gazette reported that the couple found themselves, “living in a tent near the corner of Second Avenue and Virginia Street.” At this point, they decided they had to get out of Seattle one way or another and hatched a plan to get out. Mr. Tyler would later tell a railroad official that, “little obstacles to a pleasure trip across the country like those they had just encountered, did not discourage them, and that sooner or later they would go out of Seattle.” And so, they determined to head back east to Boston.
“Being without funds,“ the Gazette continued, “they hit upon the scheme of getting a piano box and fitting it out for a transcontinental trip to the bean-eating town.” An upright piano box would have been three feet deep, five feet tall and six feet long. Not roomy by any stretch of the imagination, but they weren’t planning to spend too much time actually in the box. “One side of the box was fixed so that the boards could be removed and thus allow exit. The plan was to open up the box, once on the road, and then enjoy the freedom of the car,” noted the Gazette.
Unfortunately, once they had packed themselves inside, the freight wagon delivered them to the rail station 15 minutes after the train left. The box was moved to storage where someone began to hear noises from within. Opening the top, a woman’s voice piped up and said “Hello!” “Freight Agent Allen could hardly believe his ears. He looked down into the box and discovered that the salutation came from a little woman clad only in her night gown. Further inspection revealed also a man clad in abbreviated costume. The remainder of the box was taken up with a supply of provisions, including apples, crackers, figs, bread, onions and water. The human freight was not shipped.”
Because they hadn’t actually been taken on the train, Albert and Lucy hadn’t broken any laws. Albert produced his marriage certificate as proof of their identity and they were apparently free to go. They called an express wagon, packed up their supplies and, “as they went away from the station the man waived his hand derisively toward the railroad people saying: ‘Ta, ta, I’ll see you in the Klondyke!’” perhaps to throw them off his track.
But the railroad got its revenge on Albert and Lucy, releasing the story to the newspapers. It hit the wires and was picked up by the Boston Journal, which quickly relayed the story to Exeter. When the couple finally arrived in Exeter a few weeks later – by train, no less – they were embarrassed to find themselves a media sensation. The Gazette caught up with them and asked about the incident. “This story they both deny, and say that the parties who made the attempt, were caught and gave their names, thus making it appear as if it was Mr. and Mrs. Tyler, when in fact, it was not.” But the News-Letter gave them no such denial, stating only, “Mr. and Mrs. Albert Tyler, whose attempt to ship themselves east from Seattle, Wash., in a piano box, was a recent sensation, are now at Mrs. Tyler’s old home in Kingston.” And with that, their brush with fame ended.