Some folks look at a distorted map of the US, where Maine curves up like a hitchhiker’s thumb and think Maine is the last stop before the North Pole. This post is not about Maine’s undeserved reputation as an arctic peninsula, but how many expeditions to the North Pole had something to do with Maine. This was because of Maine’s seafaring traditions, not its proximity to the Arctic. After all, most of France and all of the British Isles lie north of Maine. The googlemap to the left shows how we line up with Europe if the Atlantic Ocean were to disappear. Bar Harbor and Bordeaux share the same latitude. Too bad we don’t have a gulf stream. If so the temperature would have been in the 60s today (Bordeaux) instead of the upper 20s.
Geography lesson (and whining) over. Perhaps the first Mainer with polar ambitions was Herbert Leach. Born in 1858 here in Hancock County he joined the expedition to the North Pole on the steam ship Jeannette from San Francisco led by Lieutenant Commander G. W. DeLong on 3 July, 1879. The long ordeal is beyond the scope of this blog but the ship got frozen into the ice for two years and rode with the ice pack for thirteen hundred miles. The crew survived by hunting polar bears and walruses. After the Jeannette was finally crushed by the ice the crew set out in their three lifeboats to Siberia. Only one of the three survived, the one with Herbert Leach and twelve others. After being fed by natives and a trip to Yakutsk, Siberia, the crew took a long train ride to Europe and back to the U.S. Herbert Leach died in 1935 at the age of 77. He is buried in Hillside Cemetery, North Penobscot, Maine.
The big kahuna of Maine polar explorers was Robert Edwin Peary (May 6, 1856 – Feb. 20, 1920). Although born in Pennsylvania, Robert graduated from Maine’s Bowdoin College in 1877 and lived in Fryeburg Maine. His home is now the Admiral Peary Inn and the island he bought in Casco Bay, near Portland, is now open to all. Find out more about Peary’s Eagle Island here.
Robert Peary’s goal of reaching the North Pole left no stone unturned. He had a special steamship built, the S. S. Roosevelt (after Teddy). It was a shallow-draft, coal burning steamship with extremely rugged construction. It had 30 inch thick steel covered white oak hull planking and a solid battering-ram bow meant to withstand ice crushing and a rounded hull design meant to be frozen in pack ice.
I imagine he read up on the Jeannette. Below decks was so crammed with machinery and coal that crew quarters had to be above deck. The ship was also sail-rigged to save fuel. He made several voyages to the north of Ellesmere Island, Canada’s most northerly land mass and the world’s tenth largest island. Here he positioned men, dogs and supplies in preparation for his 1909 push to the Pole, his third attempt. The island was by no means close to the pole, he still had to travel 500 miles by dog sled and foot, over frozen pack ice with ridges up to 100 feet high. The polar night was no time to travel, so he had to wait until early spring to set out, and had to hurry back to beat the breakup.
Interestingly, Peary send most of his crew back short of the pole and chose as his closest co-explorer an African American, Matthew Alexander Henson (Aug. 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955), who reached the North Pole with Peary on April 6, 1909, along with four Inuits. Henson wrote about his adventures an a book called A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, published in 1912. It is available as a free download at http://www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/20923. Peary wrote the forward, in which he said,
Again it is an interesting fact that in the final conquest of the “prize of the centuries,” not alone individuals, but races were represented. On that bitter brilliant day in April, 1909, when the Stars and Stripes floated at the North Pole, Caucasian, Ethiopian, and Mongolian stood side by side at the apex of the earth, in the harmonious companionship resulting from hard work, exposure, danger, and a common object.
Peary’s motto, Inveniam viam aut faciam, “Find a way or make one”, seems like a requirement for successful explorers. Admiral Peary died on 20 Feb, 1920 at the age of 63. He lies in Arlington National Cemetery.