Lillian Alling was as much of a mystery when she crossed the Canadian border into Ontario in 1926, as she is today. She claimed to have lived in Toronto for a short time and that she had worked as a housekeeper. Although Lillian told border security that she was going to Niagara Falls, she told everyone who questioned her in the next four years, “I go to Siberia”.
Lillian intended to walk to Siberia, a remarkable undertaking of around 7000 km, in an attempt to return home. It is likely that Lillian arrived in the United States from Russia or Poland to work, like many others in the early twentieth century. Wherever she was from, she wanted to return. From 1926 to 1929 she managed to walk from the New York, eastern United States, to at least Yukon, northwest Canada.
She initially planned to return home by boat, as she had come, however she could not afford the trip. In the early 1900s, a ticket would cost around $30 per person and most women were only paid around $7-12 per week, with most of these funds going towards rent and other living expenses. It would have taken months for Lillian to save enough money for the ticket, so she decided to walk home instead. The New York Library noted that she was often there browsing the maps. She meticulously plotted her route to Siberia, through the US and Canada, and began her journey.
From Niagara Falls, Lillian walked to Winnipeg, Kamsack, Grand Prairie, and finally into Pouce Coupe, B.C., a total distance of around 4000 km. Her journey was over halfway done at this point; however the most difficult section was yet to come. There is little documentation regarding her transportation, but she may have accepted rides, or snuck onto trains for small portions. She denied accepting any help and claimed she walked all of it, however she later proved to be unreliable in her accounts, likely because she knew very little English.
British Columbia at this time was largely untravelled, however Lillian had to cross the province to get to Hazelton, her next destination. There were no highways and very few farming roads for Lillian to travel by. Because of this, she likely used the Indigenous Grease Trails to avoid hiking through the thick forests.
The Grease Trails were a network of trails used by First Nations tribes to trade and contact other tribes. They were called Grease Trails as one of the common trade items was Oolichan – or eulachon – oil or grease. The Oolichan fish run annually at the beginning of spring, and the oil produced by the fish was very important to First Nations people in the northwest. The small, sardine-type fish was boiled in water and the grease was then skimmed from the surface of the water. The fish itself was considered inedible, however, the grease could be eaten or used like candles. It was highly sought after in other parts of the province and they would trade with other groups, navigating by using the trails.
There is no documentation that Lillian used these trails, however she was travelling remarkably fast, therefore it is likely. Reports have averaged Lillian’s pace at 50 km a day at this point. William Naismith, a Scottish mountaineer, formed an equation in 1892 regarding the speed an average person could hike. According to this rule, one is only physically able to walk or hike around a maximum 5 km per hour on flat terrain, however with every 2000 km of ascent you must add another hour. Using this undeveloped principle, Lillian was travelling extremely quickly.
Once in Hazelton, Lillian planned to use the Yukon Telegraph Line to travel to the Yukon. At this time, telegraphs were the most efficient form of long distance communication. This was very especially important with the gold rush in northern Canada. The telegraph line ran from Hazelton to the Yukon and operated from 1901 to 1936, until a flood destroyed most of the line. Thirty-seven small cabins were located along the line for linesman to monitor the telegraph wire. In 1925, the odd-numbered cabins were converted to refuge cabins, while even-numbered ones remained in service. This meant that there was around 80 km of forest between each cabin.
In the fall of 1927, Lillian stumbled out of the woods at the first cabin. The telegrapher stationed there, Bill Blackstock, was so shocked by her appearance that he contacted the authorities in Hazelton. Constable J.A. Wyman responded and arrested Lillian for vagrancy on September 21st. He was concerned about her goal, and worried she was not prepared for the upcoming winter months. Upon her arrest, Lillian had only a backpack with small miscellaneous items, including twenty dollars and an iron bar.
Because of the twenty dollars, the judge was unable to convict her with vagrancy, however he was able to charge her with concealing a weapon, due to the iron bar. Lillian was fined twenty-five dollars, an amount they knew she didn’t have, with the alternative of 3 months (just long enough to make it through the winter) in the Oakalla Prison Farm in Burnaby. The authorities hoped that this would deter Lillian from continuing her outrageous adventure. It did not work, however, as Lillian only remained in Vancouver until May before heading north again.
From Vancouver, Lillian took a ship up the coast of BC to Stewart. From there she had hoped to cross into Alaska, through Hyder. Because of Prohibition in the United States, though, the border crossing was stricter than usual. Lillian had no identification on her and was not a citizen of either the US or Canada. She was turned away, but not dissuaded, and began hiking back to Hazelton.
Once she reached Hazelton she continued east to Smithers. This is because the Oakalla Prison requested that she report back to them if she went through Smithers. Constable Fairbairn in Smithers allowed her to continue her journey because of her remarkable speed. She would likely make it to Yukon before winter. He only requested that she report back from each cabin she reached which she obliged, sending messages at Cabins 2, 4, and 6.
By the time she arrived at Cabin 8, Lillian was exhausted and malnourished. She was surviving on plants and berries because she had little to no hunting skills. Jim Christie and Charlie Janze, the two linesmen at Cabin 8, encouraged her to rest, so she remained at their cabin for 3 days. After this break, Christie telegraphed ahead to Drysdale “Scottie” Ogilvie and Cyril Tooley at Echo Lake Cabin (Cabin 10) and they agreed to meet in the middle at Cabin 9. They insisted on accompanying Lillian due to the high water levels.
Neither Christie or Tooley had heard from Ogilvie, so Christie decided to leave Lillian at Cabin 9 to accompany Tooley in looking for Ogilvie. They found Ogilvie’s body pushed against a tree and believed the creek bank had collapsed and Ogilvie had broken his neck in the fall.
Lillian was reportedly devastated that the man had died trying to help her, and paid her respects at his burial between the Cabins. Some reports claim that other linesmen held no ill will towards her, however others state that they resented her for Ogilvie’s death and created false rumours about the woman. Either way, the linesmen continued to assist her along her trek.
Lillian was next briefly spotted in Telegraph Creek, Atlin and Tagish. She didn’t rest long in these places, however at this point she was a rural celebrity. Her arrival was anticipated, despite her attempt to keep a low profile.
Lillian also passed through Whitehorse, making only a few necessary purchases before continuing. From there, she walked to the Stewart Crossing, where, using a small raft she had built herself, she floated down the Stewart River to Stewart City, where she then switched to the Yukon River. She floated into Dawson City only 39 days after leaving Whitehorse, on October 5th.
Once in Dawson City, Lillian reported to the local RCMP, likely because she was requested to by the Oakalla Prison. The local RCMP prohibited her from travelling any further until winter had passed. She reportedly got another kitchen job, however switched jobs often throughout the winter. By the end of May, Lillian had left to continue her journey.
From Dawson City, Lillian continued down the Yukon River on a slightly improved version of her raft. The Nome newspaper reported that upon reaching the delta, Lillian lost her boat in the tides. It also reports that a ship, the Trader, took her from Kotlik, a local town, to Nome. From Nome there is no documentation of her travels. In her book “Flowers in the Snow: The Life of Isobel Wylie Hutchison,” Gwyneth Hoyle suggests that the Trader took Lillian from Nome to Cape Prince of Whales as well, but this is uncertain.
There are some reports of people seeing her in passing, while others claim she must have drowned. However, it is hard to believe that after around 6000 km of hiking, Lillian drowned. From Cape Prince of Wales, Lillian would likely have taken a ship to the Diomede Islands, where she would be able to seek the help of the Indigenous people there to sail to Siberia. Unfortunately, there is no documentation of this.
In 1972, a journalist named Francis Dickie wrote an article about Lillian Alling in True West magazine. A man named Arthur Elmore wrote to him shortly later, hoping to provide some additional information. Elmore claimed he had visited a friend in Siberia who he believed saw Lillian.
He reportedly saw a woman in torn clothing and three Indigenous men who looked to be from the Diomede Islands. They were speaking to some Russian officials and the woman said that she had come from America. They were then escorted away. If this report is true, Lillian may have made it home after all.
Regardless of whether she reached Siberia or not, Lillian had achieved a remarkable feat and walked across North America. In 1928, a man named Owen C. Eastman attempted to walk the Telegraph line, however he only made it to the fourth cabin before giving up. Although Lillian herself was remarkable, she also owed her accomplishment to the many other people who made it possible for her. Without the First Nations Grease Trails, the telegraph linesmen, and the many other people who helped her, Lillian may not have made it so far.
Jennie Cameron is the Summer Programmer at Heritage Park Museum and a third year Anthropology and Sociology student at the University of Alberta in Edmonton.