Once upon a time, there was a girl who loved to read books. Nellie loved tales of magic, mermaids and brave heroes who saved the day. With each book she read, the story didn’t stop at ‘happily ever after’. Instead, she dreamed of bringing that book to life, going on adventures like her favorite characters did and writing her own stories. 

One day, Nellie read a book called Around the World in Eighty Days about a man named Phineas Fogg who circled the Earth in the most exciting race she’d ever heard. This character encountered all kinds of incredible things in faraway places, things that seemed almost like magic. “I’d like to go on vacation,” Nellie thought. “Why not go to the other end of the Earth? If I could do it faster than Phineas Fogg, I should go!”

When Nellie told her friends about her dream, they looked at her with funny faces. “You think you could travel around the whole world?” They said, “You’ve never done anything like that! Someone else should go instead.”

“Go ahead and send someone else,” Nellie replied. “I’ll start the same day and beat them.” Determined to begin her own magical adventure, Nellie held onto her dream. It grew and grew until one day, it came true. The newspaper she worked for agreed she could try to race around the world faster than the character from her book and write her own stories about it.

Nellie Bly Before Her Departure. Source: Heinz History Center

Nellie hustled around her home to pack for the adventure. She knew there were plenty of things she could bring, but only a precious few would fit in her small bag. If she were going to carry her things around the world, Nellie knew her suitcase couldn’t be too heavy. She grabbed hats, pens, pencils, paper, pajamas and of course, a change of underwear. Her only clothes would be the ones she wore and they would have to last the entire trip. So Nellie visited a special dressmaker to purchase a beautiful black dress that reached the floor and a checkered coat to keep her warm.

On her thumb, Nellie wore her lucky gold ring. She’d worn that ring the day she got her first job as a writer. Now, she slipped it on her finger with a heart full of hope. Nellie had never crossed waters on a big ship, and she couldn’t speak all the languages spoken by people in different countries. Taking a trip around the world could be difficult and dangerous. Nellie would need lots of luck, not to mention plenty of smarts and spunk. 

On a cold November morning in New Jersey, Nellie stepped onto a fancy, new steamboat called the Augusta Victoria. Deep inside the boat, a fire heated water until it made steam.  The burning hot steam pushed pistons in the engine that propelled a huge wheel and moved the boat forward in the water. Most people riding on the ship would never walk down to the engine room, though Nellie couldn’t resist taking a peek. Most of the passengers on board were walking through the boat’s many beautiful rooms, gazing at the glittering grand staircase and seeking out the golden angel statues that decorated the walls. This place was almost like a castle that floated across the ocean. Nellie imagined herself as its princess and made friends with all the people on board, even the ship’s captain. 

After sailing for eight days, Nellie crossed the Atlantic Ocean. She stepped off the ship in the middle of the night and took a train to London, England. Nellie couldn’t believe her luck. The man who wrote the book Around the World in Eighty Days wanted to meet her! Nellie took train after train to reach the writer, Jules Verne, who had inspired her journey. 

When she arrived at the writer’s hometown, Nellie felt nervous. Jules was one of the most famous writers of that time. In the book he wrote, his world-traveling character rides an elephant across India, rescues a woman in need and nearly escapes a falling bridge. How would Nellie’s travels compare to this amazing, imaginary explorer? Nellie pushed those thoughts aside and remembered her determination to make this dream come true.

Jules approached Nellie at the train station. She was a bit frightened by the way his white hair stood straight up but felt reassured by his smile. They arrived at his home and were greeted by his adorable little dog. Jules showed Nellie his large map of the world and asked which way she planned to go that would be faster than the man in his book. Nellie planned to save time by taking more boats rather than trains that stopped at every station. Jules wished her good luck and she gave the kind writer a quick goodbye so she could catch her next ship.

Day and night Nellie traveled to make it back to the coast before her ship left. Missing just one boat on her journey could mean losing the race. With just enough time to spare, she boarded the boat and set off on a journey to Egypt. In this new land, Nellie saw big sandy beaches and a shining bright sun that had her stripping off her long coat. Along the beach were camels that looked like funny horses with big bumps on their backs. 

Before long, the ship passed brown mountains, tall and motionless like sleeping giants. When the ship stopped next, it was right by an enormous volcano. Luckily for Nellie, no lava poured from its crater, but the heat of the land was intense. Nellie peeked over the side of the boat to see mermaid-like children diving into the ocean and splashing back to the top with pieces of silver treasure between their teeth. Nellie wished she could turn into a mermaid with a bright pink tail and join in on the fun. Her home would be an underwater castle where she could keep all her treasures. 

At last, after almost a month of sailing on ships, Nellie had time to explore a new land by foot. She would spend five days in what is now the country of Sri Lanka before she could catch the fastest ship to Singapore. With her eyes on Sri Lanka, Nellie saw beautiful blue waters, lush green rainforests and distant foggy mountains. Nellie rode to shore in a canoe and was happily surprised to see women wearing bright, beautiful feathers in their hair. Nellie spent her days on land having fun with new friends at her hotel, taking naps in the afternoons and watching theater shows in the evening. 

Then it was time for Nellie to get back to her race around the world. The next ship was a smaller one, but she didn’t mind. The weather was beautiful which made for a smooth ride across the Indian Ocean. All these beautiful sights made Nellie wish she had a special friend to share them with. While she made friends on every ship and at every hotel, she was always leaving these friends behind to continue her adventure. 

When the ship stopped in Singapore, Nellie hopped off the boat thinking about her family and friends back home. She decided to see the town from a horse-drawn carriage. After petting the beautiful horse and sneaking him a sugar cube snack, Nellie sat down in the carriage and watched the town pass by. 

“Wait!” she cried. “Stop the carriage!” Nellie had spotted the most adorable little monkey peeking out from a doorway. “What a precious creature,” Nellie exclaimed. “He looks like he needs a friend.” Nellie bought the monkey from its owner and named him McGinty. Now, she would never be alone as she continued her travels around the world. 

As the ship sailed forward to Hong Kong, the storms were stronger than ever. It was almost like an angry sea witch created the storm to carry the ship to the bottom of the sea. Nellie was grateful she had McGinty to cuddle when the boat sloshed back and forth. Still, Nellie found beauty amid the lightning and thunder. “These terrible waves are the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen,” Nellie told McGinty, “even though they make the ship stand straight up like it’s about to walk across the ocean on two feet.” Nellie imagined her mermaid self watching the storm from under the sea. The walls of her castle would keep her safe from the sea witch and her magic. Of course, Nellie knew from reading mermaid books to never make a deal with a wicked sea witch. Nellie, the mermaid dreamer, fell asleep thinking of adventures underwater. 

Nellie and the ship survived the storm to arrive in Hong Kong two days early. Forty days into her trip, Nellie was sure she could make it back home in time to meet her 75-day goal and win the race. As Nellie touched land in Hong Kong, a great big boom fired from the ship’s cannons to announce its arrival. Nellie was impressed by castle-like buildings that covered the mountains of Hong Kong. She decided to travel to the top of one of these mountains during this stop. First, she rode a train up the mountainside. Then, the only way to get to the top was by sitting in a funny kind of chair two strong men lifted and carried on their shoulders the rest of the way. When she reached the top of the mountain, Nellie was amazed by the view of the city below. “It looks like I’m stuck between two heavens,” she said. “There are more stars down below than in the sky above!” Every boat in the water below was lit up with candlelight. It looked like faeries had worked their magic to bring the stars down to Earth. 

The next day, Nellie took a quick boat trip to Guangzhou, China. “Merry Christmas!” A man said when she arrived. Nellie’s jaw dropped. She’d forgotten it was Christmas! She hugged McGinty the monkey a little closer and tried not to feel so far away from home, even though she was on the opposite side of the world. She didn’t have a Christmas tree or a delicious feast with her family, but she could still sing her favorite Christmas songs. 

Nellie left Hong Kong on December 28 to travel to Japan. When she arrived, Nellie discovered she would have to wait a week for the next ship. Would she still be able to win her race around the world? Nellie hoped so. She looked at the beautiful new country where she’d just landed. Nellie could worry and cry about possibly losing her race or she could explore this new place. The adventurer knew just what she wanted to do with McGinty on her arm.

“Japan looks just like a Sunday!” Nellie shouted for joy. The city looked like it had put on its best dress for a delightful day of sunshine and smiles. Nellie heard the most enchanting music and went to find where it came from. She saw women moving to the beat, twirling colorful fans around the dance floor. Nellie couldn’t wait to twirl herself around town.  

Later, Nellie visited a golden statue of a man that was as tall as if seven cows were stacked on top of each other. Nellie sat on the statue’s thumb and smiled to have her picture taken. She felt lucky like the gold ring on her finger. Each day this adventure had shown her wondrous things and unbelievable places. She felt like she was living in a fairytale, exploring a magical land with McGinty by her side.  

When she prepared to leave Japan, a band played a special concert for Nellie. Everyone was thrilled to see Nellie on her way and watch her finish the race around the world. From her boat, Nellie waved her white handkerchief in the wind until the band was out of sight. Once aboard, Nellie discovered that the ship she was on would be one of the slowest of her journey. It moved on the water just slower than an enormous elephant charging across the savannah. Still, Nellie could see her trip coming to an end. She held onto her hope and wondered how quickly she’d travel across the United States.

On day 70 of her adventure, Nellie woke up early to see the San Francisco, California bay. A small tugboat took her to shore where she learned that the mountain passes she planned to cross by train were blocked by blankets of snow. Nellie imagined a wicked witch was working against her, using magic to stop her from saving the day. 

With only five days left, Nellie would have to go a longer way around the United States through the deserts of the Southwest. Luckily, kind people were willing to help wherever Nellie went. Nearly everyone she saw was excited to see her make it to the finish line. Railroad workers stayed up all night just so Nellie could get from train to train as fast as possible. One train she rode was made ready just for Nellie with a single black engine and passenger railcar. Nellie watched out the window with McGinty as the train raced past small towns and farmlands, no wicked witches to be seen. 

That is, until one night while riding through New Mexico, Nellie’s train nearly escaped a broken bridge that could have derailed her journey. Nellie rubbed her lucky gold ring and smiled at McGinty. By her own luck, they had made it through and she was almost to the finish line! 

Everywhere she stopped, Nellie heard well-wishers shouting her name. In each station, people gathered in their fanciest clothes to wish her luck. Nellie felt like a princess on parade as cheering fans gave her fruit, flowers and loud encouragement as she blazed through state after state. 

On a chilly January afternoon, Nellie’s last train pulled into the station in Jersey City, New Jersey. She’d made it! Nellie had finished her trip around the world even faster than she thought she could, making it in just 72 days, 6 hours and 11 minutes. She’d beaten the character from her favorite book by eight days and traveled around the world faster than anyone in real life too. 

Booms fired from nearby cannons celebrating her return. Thousands of people had shown up to cheer her success. Nellie’s mother rushed up to hug her, pausing for only a moment at the sight of McGinty the monkey. Nellie laughed with happiness as she thought of the people who didn’t think she could do it. After 25,000 miles of adventure, she had won the race and made it home. 

Today, thanks to the invention of the airplane, you can travel around the world in less than two days. If you were on a satellite in space, you could make it around the world in less than two hours! Still, Nellie’s race around the world is an important story to tell. She did what no one thought she could — thanks to her courage, determination and wit. Nellie proved that the adventures we read in books don’t always end with ‘happily ever after’. Sometimes, the end of a good book is the just beginning of your own adventure. 


The Brave Girl Behind the Bedtime Story: Nellie Bly

Born Elizabeth Cochran Seaman in 1864, Nellie Bly was the pen name for an American journalist. Nellie became famous for writing investigative reports that put her in the middle of many sensational stories. One of her most famous stories came from when she worked undercover in a mental institution and exposed its poor conditions. She’s widely known for her 72-day trip around the world modeled from Jules Verne’s book, Around the World in Eighty Days. Nellie’s efforts broke the record for the shortest time circumnavigating the globe. Her achievement stood for only a few months before the record was broken again. You can read a detailed account of Nellie’s trip around the world online or in her book, Around the World in Seventy-Two Days.