Homesickness is a common malady, and today—thanks to improvements in transportation—a relatively easy one to cure. When most of us feel the urge to return to our roots, we get in a car, board a plane, or catch a bus home. But what if you’re a poor immigrant, and your family members are all 5,000 miles away in Europe? Suddenly, going home isn’t so easy.
This was the problem facing Lillian Alling, a young woman of Eastern European descent living in New York during the 1920s. For one reason or other, Lillian decided after crossing the Atlantic that an immigrant’s life wasn’t for her. Lacking the money for a steamship ticket, she took the only option open to her.
She decided to walk home via Alaska and Siberia.
The story of Lillian’s epic journey reads like an episode of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Between December 1926 and August 1929, she traveled on foot from upstate New York to at least Nome, Alaska—a distance of more than 6,000 miles (9,656 km) through some of the most inhospitable wilderness in the western hemisphere. Even more amazing is the fact that she accomplished the feat alone and with little money.
Piecing together Lillian’s story is like trying to follow a trail of breadcrumbs. First-hand accounts suggest she was a secretive person who talked little and avoided social interaction. There are only a few photographs of her, and in them, she appears to be a slight young woman of medium height with Slavic features and a determined expression. Yet thanks to the work of historians like Susan Smith-Josephy, we now know a little more about this incredible woman and her quest to visit kith and kin.
No one knows much about Lillian’s background. Some of the people who met her say she was Russian, and at least one individual speculated that she was Czar Nicholas II’s last surviving daughter. The most reliable information comes from a Canadian customs official who interviewed her when she crossed the Canada-US border at Niagara Falls, Ontario, on Christmas Eve 1926.
According to that report, Lillian told Canada Customs she was a Polish-born Catholic who had been living in Rochester, New York. She listed her age as thirty, said she was married, and claimed to have been a resident of Canada from 1915 to 1921. Niagara Falls, she said, was her destination, and she planned to continue working as a domestic upon her arrival. She had no known friends or relatives in Canada and only $20 in cash.
It would be easy to accept Lillian’s answers at face value if not for her subsequent actions. In the years that followed, she was less than forthcoming about herself and her intentions. Her story seemed to change with the seasons and, as her travels across the continent proved, her destination lay far beyond Niagara Falls. She often gave government officials contradictory information, and there is no record of her ever living in Canada before 1926.
Lillian’s motivation for making the trip is also unclear. One source claimed she was trying to rescue Russian family members imprisoned in Siberia by the fledgling Soviet government. Another said she planning to rendezvous with a husband in Alaska. Others, remembering the unease she displayed on meeting them, speculated that she was fleeing from Soviet spies.
Whatever the reason, Lillian quit Ontario and pushed westward. She turned up in Winnipeg in March 1927, where she allegedly worked in a restaurant. She didn’t stay in the city long, though. She walked across the Prairies, entered BC sometime in 1927, and passed through the Lakes District later that summer.
It wasn’t commonplace at the time for women to travel, and almost none of them did it alone. Two women driving an automobile from Saskatchewan to Hazelton may have passed Lillian on what is now Highway 16. Mrs. A. L. Fakeley and Mrs. J. Newick arrived in Burns Lake during the first week of August, and spent some time here before continuing to their destination. The Observer, Burns Lake’s weekly newspaper, reported their arrival on August 4 but made no mention of a lone female hiker.
This doesn’t mean that Lillian bypassed Burns Lake or failed to make an impression here. There is evidence to suggest the opposite.
Bob Saul, whose family homesteaded in Decker Lake, said that his parents, Gin and Viola, sometimes talked about the young woman who hiked solo through Decker Lake in the summer of 1927.
“Everybody was watching for her at that time because word of her trek preceded her,” recalls Bob. “She was following the [Yukon] Telegraph trail, and the telegraph trail came through our property. The road did as well, and it was possible that Mom and Dad saw her on the road, but they definitely saw her come through. I remember my folks talking about it. And by the time she came through here, she was getting pretty ragged and unkempt. She had minimal resources, you know.”
Lillian continued west after passing the Saul homestead. She reached the community of Evelyn, north of Smithers, in late August. A resident of that burg later said that Lillian had a “plain face” and “long hair,” wore tennis shoes, and carried her meager possessions in a cardboard box the size and shape of a beer case.
At Hazelton in early September, Lillian turned north on the Yukon Telegraph right-of-way. She showed up at the home of Irene Woodcock in Kuldo, an unincorporated community along the Skeena, with only a bit of bread and a big stick. The bread, she told her host, was for eating, and the big stick for defense.
Woodcock described Lillian as a “short, squat person” who told her in broken English that she had worked as a domestic for a doctor and his wife before deciding to go home via Alaska. Her employers, she added, had not treated her well.
Lillian’s next stop was Cabin Two, the second telegraph cabin north of Hazelton, where she told telegrapher Bill Blackstock that she was on her way to Siberia. Blackstock, worried that she would die on the trail, telegraphed the BC Provincial Police.
Cst. George Wyman arrived at Cabin Two on Sept. 20, 1927, where he found Blackstock in conversation with a scantily-clad woman about five feet five inches tall. She was, according to Wyman, “as thin as a wisp,” and carried “no firearms or anything to see her through that country.”
“When I first saw her she was wearing running shoes,” Wyman told reporter Donald Stainsby of the Vancouver Sun in 1963. “She had a knapsack with a half-dozen sandwiches in it, some tea and some other odds and ends, a comb and personal effects, but no make-up.
“I had trouble getting her name,” Wyman added. “She wasn’t going to say anything to anybody. But I finally got it, and when she said she was going to Siberia, I couldn’t say anything. I thought she was out of her mind.”
Fearing for Lillian’s safety, Wyman took her back to Hazelton. In subsequent interviews, she told him she had immigrated to the US from Russia, and worked as a maid in New York City before deciding to return to the ‘old country.’ Unable to save enough money for a steamship ticket, she had studied maps of the country between New York and Alaska and decided the route was walkable.
Her story stunned Wyman and his colleagues in law enforcement. After much deliberation, they decided to charge her with vagrancy. There was a problem, though: despite having no fixed address, she wasn’t technically a vagrant because she had money.
What to do? With winter just around the corner, Wyman and others were convinced that allowing Lillian to continue north would result in her death. Desperate for a charge that would stick, they decided the iron bar she was carrying qualified as a concealed weapon.
“Lillian effects consisted of a man’s heavy cloth overcoat that hung to ankle length in which she slept,” T. E. E. Greenfield, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police who assisted Wyman, recalled in 1973. “She carried an iron bar about sixteen inches long for defense purposes … [She] was very much in need of a bath, maybe one would not have sufficed!”
Lillian was convicted of the trumped-up charge and fined $26.75. As an alternative, said the court, she could spend two months in Burnaby’s Oakalla Prison Farm. She chose the latter, served her time, and then (it is rumoured) spent the winter working in a Vancouver restaurant.
In the spring of 1928, she was on the move again. She showed up first in Stewart—having presumably come by boat—and there tried unsuccessfully to enter Alaska through the adjacent American community of Hyder. She then hiked to Smithers and checked in with BC Provincial Police officer Andrew Fairbairn, who had previously worked in Burns Lake.
Fairbairn was expecting her because authorities had told him she was headed north. He asked Lillian what she planned to do, and when he heard that she intended to follow the Yukon Telegraph line to Dawson City, expressed concern.
Lillian assured him she would be fine. “I eat anything,” she said. “Leaves, berries, grass. Please let me go.”
Fairbairn reluctantly agreed—on the condition that she check in at every telegraph cabin she encountered between Hazelton and Telegraph Creek. Linemen and operators along the right-of-way were told to watch for her.
Lillian left Hazelton in late June 1928. The Yukon Telegraph right-of-way was a crude affair that took her over rugged mountains, through mosquito-infested swamps, and across raging rivers. When the telegraph was constructed in 1900-01, the federal Department of Public Works built cabins twenty or thirty miles apart along the route, but by 1928, less than half of these stations were manned.
Despite the appalling conditions, Lillian walked an average of 20 or 30 miles per day. By the time she reached Cabin Eight approximately 150 miles north of Hazelton, she was exhausted and hungry.
Cabin Eight’s occupants, Charlie Janze and Jim Christie, were appalled by what they saw. Lillian’s clothing, they said, was in tatters, and her footwear was also in poor shape. Her skin, smooth and fair when Fairbairn saw her in Smithers, was a pitted mess of bug bites. She was so tired that she collapsed in a chair.
The two telegraphers fed Lillian. They tried to discourage her from continuing, noting that the trail ahead (which included the 7,500-foot Nass Summit) was even more difficult than the section she had just completed. It mattered not. Lillian told them she was determined to push on.
“She said she wanted to go to Siberia all right,” Janze said later, “but she had a lot of other stories too. She said she had to get to Telegraph Creek to visit her sister. She had no sister in Telegraph Creek. I think she was crazy.”
Janze, the smaller of the two men, donated some of his clothing to her, along with a pair of boots. Christie allegedly gave her a dog named Bruno and strapped a pack full of food to its back. Then Christie agreed to accompany the ‘crazy lady’ to a refuge cabin south of the Echo Lake station, where another telegrapher named Scotty Ogilvie would meet her. Ogilvie never made it; he drowned in the Ningunsaw River on his way to the rendezvous point. Lillian allegedly placed some flowers on his grave and walked on.
Lillian stopped briefly in Telegraph Creek before heading north. Somewhere along the way, Bruno disappeared or died, because she no longer had the dog when she walked into the gold-mining town of Atlin later that summer. It was her last stop in British Columbia, and she stayed just long enough to buy a new pair of running shoes.
A woman traveling alone drew a lot of attention in the Yukon, and it wasn’t long before the Whitehorse Star began reporting Lillian’s progress.
“A woman giving the name of Lillian Alling walked into town Monday evening and registered at the Regina Hotel,” the Star reported on August 31. “Lillian was not given to much speaking but as near as can be gathered from the information she gave at different places, she had walked from Hazelton to Whitehorse, a distance of about six hundred miles, following the government telegraph line all the way … On Saturday last [August 25] she arrived in Carcross and had a meal at the Caribou Hotel. Mr. Skelly [a hotelier] frankly admitted that he had never seen or heard of her before; nor was he able to get any information from her. She left Carcross the same afternoon, traveling in a northerly directly.
“On Sunday afternoon, Mr. and Mrs. George Wilson overtook her between Carcross and Robinson, and she rode in the car with them as far as Robinson, where she got out, saying that she was going to rest awhile. Beyond saying that she was going a little north of Whitehorse she had very little to say to Mr. and Mrs. Wilson … She seemed to be conserving her resources but paying her way. She had no means whatever of killing wild game and was carrying very little food. If she knows her destination she is not telling but she started north from Whitehorse on the Dawson trail Tuesday forenoon [August 28, 1928].”
The “mystery woman,” as the Star began calling her, left Whitehorse with only a loaf of bread, “which she had cut in three pieces, as she said she was not carrying a knife.” Thirty-nine days later, after borrowing a raft and then a boat, she floated into Dawson City. By that time, according to the Yukon’s largest newspaper, “she had a different style of men’s shoe on each foot … Her general demeanor resembles that of a haunted person, who is ever trying to get farther away from the object of her fears.”
Lillian spent the winter in Dawson City, where she found work and managed to save a little money. The following spring, she pushed her little boat into the Yukon River and headed downstream toward the Bering Sea.
We know little of her trip down North America’s third longest river. In late August, though, the Nome Nugget reported that she had lost her boat at the mouth of the Yukon, made her way to the village of Kotlik, and there boarded a larger vessel for the trip to Nome, Alaska, which she reached on August 31, 1929.
“It appears,” the paper reported, “that she is headed for Siberia via Cape Prince of Wales [the most westerly point of the Seward Peninsula].”
That is the last documented reference to Lillian in the Nugget. Anecdotal information suggests, though, that she left the seaside town in September and walked north. In an article written for Alaska Life magazine in 1942, a man named J. Irving Reed claimed he met Lillian on the road leading out of Nome in the fall of 1929. She was, he said, pulling a cart with one broken wheel, which he arranged to have fixed at a machine shop in town.
That was the last time anyone saw her. There were rumours that Indigenous people found her clothing and possessions at the mouth of the Tisuk River northwest of Nome, but they were never substantiated.
For decades, it was assumed that the Whitehorse Star’s “mystery woman” had died somewhere between Nome and the Cape Prince Of Wales. Then, in 1972, an American named Arthur Elmore wrote a letter to True West magazine. He had recently read the magazine’s article about Lillian, and it reminded him of a conversation he had in 1965 with a former member Soviet military.
According to Elmore, the man once asked him how a Russian would be treated if he showed up in America unannounced. Elmore, surprised by the question, asked him why—and was told a story that casts doubt on everything we know about Lillian’s last days.
The Russian military man said that as a young boy, he had lived in Provideniya, a small community on the southern coast of the Chukotka Peninsula about 180 miles west of Cape Prince of Wales. One day in the fall of 1930, his mother sent him to the waterfront on an errand. When he got there, he noticed a crowd gathered around four visitors. Three of the visitors were men dressed in the manner common to Indigenous people from the Diomedes, two small islands in the Bering Strait. The fourth visitor was a woman dressed like a European or American.
Curious, the Russian boy slipped into the crowd. When he got close, he heard the woman tell officials that she had come from America, where she had found it difficult to make friends or earn a living. She said she had been forced to walk a “terrible long way because no one would lift as much as a finger” to help her. Soviet officials listened to her tale and then led her away. She was never seen again.
Could the woman in western clothing have been Lillian? Possibly. The timeframe is right, and Cape Prince of Wales is little more than fifty miles from the Chukotka Peninsula. The region’s indigenous people, including those from the Diomedes, often crossed the Bering Strait in umiaks, and white traders plied the waters as well.
Nearly a century after her epic journey, Lillian Alling is still a riddle wrapped in a mystery. We can only hope, given her ordeal, that she made it home—wherever that may have been.
(c) 2022 Lakes District Museum Society