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Frozen Fridays: ‘N’ is for North Pole!

This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors.

In this image celebrating the
reaching of the North Pole by
Cook and Peary, a jolly Uncle Sam
sits atop a smiling globe.

To reach the North Pole, adding their names to the short roster of great polar explorers, was the ardent desire of innumerable men in the 20th century. These men “dreamed the dream of accomplishing one last heroic deed—to breath the frozen winds of the unknown North—to seize the White Grail—to exhale the last great heroic gasp before the spirit of the romantic age departed…”[i]  Yet the prize these men sought, fought, and died for is nothing more than a point on the shifting Arctic ice.

The first Arctic explorers were not actually seeking the North Pole at all. Instead, they wanted a passage through the Arctic to Asia (then called the Orient). It took over three hundred years to find such a passage—though there are actually two: the Northeast Passage and the Northwest Passage. Later explorers sought any land hidden amongst the ice, slowly extending the ‘furthest north’ record on their quest. Soon, the Pole itself became the ultimate goal and men realized whoever got there first would be enshrined in history. Today, the identity of who reached the North Pole first is one of the greatest controversies in Arctic scholarship. Amazingly, there are four different contenders spread over a twenty-eight year period.  Finding the North Pole is not easy.  There are no distinct geographic features and the ice pack is constantly shifting.  In the days before GPS technology, how do we prove that we were where we say we were? Verification must come from the explorers’ journals, their ability to navigate with tools, their observations, their character, and corroborating evidence from any companions.

In another contemporary postcard, Dr.
Cook reaches the elusive North Pole.

The first contender for discovery of the North Pole is Dr. Frederick Cook (check out our previous post about Dr. Cook). After a few previous expeditions, Cook began his attempt on the Pole in 1907. Preparing carefully for the journey—including a newly designed type of sled and a collapsible boat—Cook and two Eskimo* companions set out for the Pole with eighty days’ worth of food in March of 1908. Cook was not seen or heard from again until April of 1909.

In the meantime, the explorer Robert Peary, obsessed with becoming the first to reach the North Pole, was in his fifth expedition. Peary began in February of 1909 with a large party. Neglecting to bring a boat to cross leads in the ice, Peary and his party were halted by open water on a number of occasions. Several hundred miles from the Pole, Peary sent all but five companions back to camp, and then made his dash to the Pole in April. However, when Peary returned to civilization in August and announced his success, he found that Cook had returned from his own expedition and was claiming that he had reached the pole in 1908.

A proud Uncle Sam displays the
twin American explorers that
reached the North Pole.

Peary refused to accept Cook’s claims and set out to systematically discredit him. In short, Peary accused Cook of deliberate fraud. There is evidence that Peary and his well-placed friends may have bribed one of Cook’s previous companions to speak against Cook. Additionally, Peary interviewed one of Cook’s Eskimo companions, yet he refused to allow neutral witnesses to interview that same Eskimo when the Eskimo supposedly claimed that Cook had never left the sight of land. Peary’s discrediting of Cook coincided with public doubts about Cook’s claim to have summited Mt. McKinley several years earlier. While several of Peary’s accusations do not hold up to scrutiny, Cook was unable to provide any positive proofs—such as sextant readings in his journals—that showed he had reached the North Pole. In the end, history took Peary’s side, yet Peary’s own accountability soon came into question. Like Cook’s account of events, Peary’s claim also had some holes. He refused to submit several of his original documents to scrutiny and many believe his claimed speeds while traveling to the Pole are nearly impossible. Peary also never produced any positive proofs—no soundings or sextant readings. A United States Senate subcommittee granted Peary official recognition for reaching the North Pole but by a four to three margin and with several members claiming significant doubts. Recent scholarship on the subject indicates that it is unlikely that either man actually reached the North Pole.

If neither Cook nor Peary was the first, it could have been Richard Byrd. In 1926, after one previous trip in the Arctic, Byrd sought to become the first man to fly over the North Pole. An excellent campaigner, Byrd quickly gained the necessary money and equipment and sailed off to King’s Bay, Spitzbergen, Norway. Already encamped there was the veteran polar explorer Roald Amundsen, preparing for his own flight over the Pole. Byrd, while the second to reach Spitzbergen, was the first to set out. He and his pilot Floyd Bennett flew to the North Pole, some 700 miles away, and back in just over fifteen and a half hours. The only hiccup in the flight was a minor oil leak. Upon their return, both to King’s Bay and to the U.S., Byrd and Bennett were lauded as heroes and treated accordingly.

Marie Byrd stands with the Josephine Ford, the
plane of her husband, Admiral (then Captain)
Richard E. Byrd.

Soon, however, doubts began to form. Critics claimed that Byrd had not been gone long enough to reach the Pole, given his plane’s maximum speed, and that Byrd had lied rather than face failure. Byrd attributes his record speed to a tailwind to and from the Pole. One of Byrd’s later companions would later claim that pilot Floyd Bennett had admitted this fraud. In 1996, this controversy sparked again after The Ohio State University’s Archivist Raimund Goerler found Byrd’s flight journal within the massive Byrd collection. Researchers and scholars quickly examined this important document and noted that some figures appeared to have been erased and adjusted by Byrd during his flight. Byrd’s critics claim this as deliberate attempts to fake his way to fame. Byrd’s supporters point out that if they were incriminating, Byrd could have completely removed these pages from the journal rather than just lightly erase them. Nevertheless, the case against Byrd has never been proven and remains of interest to historians and scholars of the history of polar exploration.  Unlike Cook and Peary, whose reputations were tied to their North Pole expeditions, Byrd would go on to lead numerous successful expeditions to Antarctica and would become the first man to fly over the South Pole in 1929.

Roald Amundsen’s airship, the Norge.

If Byrd was not the first man to the North Pole, then the credit for this achievement goes to Roald Amundsen and the crew of his airship Norge. The Norge left King’s Bay within hours of Byrd’s return and spent two days traveling to Alaska, traveling over the North Pole in the process. With this accomplishment, Amundsen and his crew made the first Arctic crossing and Amundsen became the first man to reach both Poles. Amundsen’s claim to crossing the North Pole on the way to Alaska is currently undisputed. If neither Cook nor Peary made it to the Pole, then the first successful overland trip was not until 1968 by a team on snowmobiles.

Without a time-machine or more definitive evidence, it is unlikely that we will ever truly know who first reached the top of the world. Our mission in the Polar Archives is to provide researches and scholars with the primary resources about these controversial achievements, so they can decide for themselves!  If we have piqued your interest about Richard Byrd, Frederick Cook, or polar exploration please visit the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program.

Written by Autumn Snellgrove and edited by John Hooton.

[i] Cook and Peary, Prologue

* ‘Eskimo’ is considered a derogatory term by many to native inhabitants of northern North America. Although it would not be appropriate to use it in this blog under any other context, we are using it here as it is the term used by the explorers mentioned in this blog. More information on ‘Eskimo’ as a slur can be found here.

Frozen Fridays: ‘M’ is for McMurdo!

This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors.

Residents of McMurdo Station enjoy the festivities of
Icestock 2017.

A group of people gather in front of the stage. They are bundled up in puffy coats and warm winter hats or hoods. It is a motley group and the largest gathering of people anyone in the crowd has seen for months. There’s a certain nip in the air, although the temperature is higher than usual. The band on stage seems to have chosen to abandon their fingers to the cold as they refuse to put on gloves for fear of tarnishing their performance. In all, the excitement for the much anticipated performance and the heat of the moment will warm them. The planning committee did their work well. They picked a good day for Icestock this year.

McMurdo Station is located on the cost of the Ross
Sea, represented here.

Icestock has become something of a tradition at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. Every year around the first of January, a stage and audio equipment are set up for musicians to demonstrate their talent in front of a small crowd of the station’s occupants. Several genres of music are played for McMurdo’s mostly scientist population, including rock, funk, electronica, and even bluegrass.[1] The event also includes a chili cook-off, a welcome meal for the eager audience.[2] It is unknown whether this pun was intentional or unintentional at this time.

McMurdo Station’s Main Street with Observation Hill in the
background, circa 1960.

 

 

That the New Year is regularly welcomed by a music concert on Antarctic soil is something of an anomaly. Then again, the idea that there could be a permanent human settlement on the coldest of continents might also seem absurd to the less informed. McMurdo Station is located on the ice-free tip of Ross Island, just around eight hundred miles away from the South Pole, and houses over one thousand people (mostly Americans) every Antarctic Summer.[3] Though the population drops significantly in the Antarctic Winter as residents cycle out, the station is still maintained and operated by the smaller population of around two hundred individuals.[4]

McMurdo Station has the capability of receiving
boats as well as aircraft.

McMurdo Station, named for the nearby McMurdo Sound (which is in turn named for Lieutenant Archibald McMurdo of the HMS Terror), is an up-to-date scientific research station and includes all of the necessary facilities required for a modern-day human presence in Antarctica.[5]  In addition to the world’s southernmost seaport, Winter Quarters Bay, McMurdo Station operates two runways and a skiway (a runway designed for use with ski-equipped planes).[6] McMurdo is also typically equipped with six C-130s, two Twin Otter aircraft, and four helicopters.[7] The station has working telephones, email, and internet, allowing the population to remain in contact with the outside world.[8] The United States Antarctic Program even has several live web cameras from McMurdo Station posted on their website! Diesel engines generate energy while also providing heat to buildings.[9] In terms of scientific instruments, McMurdo has a large multidiscipline laboratory with various facilities meant to support and house scientific work.[10]

McMurdo Station also has a
monument to the great polar
explorer, Admiral Richard E. Byrd.

McMurdo Station is crucial in human Antarctic activities. While McMurdo serves as the primary United States base in Antarctica, it also serves as a support center for other research stations in and around the continent.[11] Located near many natural sites of scientific interest, McMurdo Station is ubiquitous to the modern Antarctic explorer’s experience. Many such scientists, such as Lois Jones and Henry Brecher, have spent time in its halls and many of their collections can be found in the Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center Archival Program. Also, check out our digital collections page, where you can find images of McMurdo!

Written by John Hooton.

[1] Jeremy Day, “Mid-Summer Holidays,” The Antarctic Sun, January 05, 2017, accessed January 18, 2017, https://antarcticsun.usap.gov/aroundTheContinent/contentHandler.cfm?id=4292

[2] Day, “Mid-Summer Holidays.”

[3] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, s.v. “McMurdo Station,” New York: Routledge, 2007.

[4] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

[5] The Geographic Names Information System is our authoritative source on geographic location information in Antarctica.

[6] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

[7] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

[8] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

[9] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

[10] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

[11] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic.

Frozen Fridays: ‘L’ is for Little America!

This blog post is part of the Frozen Friday Series, an A-Z journey of the Polar Archives.  Each week, we will feature some aspect of the history of polar exploration with a blog post written by our student authors.

byrd7803_2

Several buildings in Little America under
construction.

What do you think of when you hear the name “Little America?”  Perhaps a quaint little neighborhood in a bustling European city where American emigrants have made a home? You’d be wrong.  Picture instead, a small upstart “village” near of the Bay of Whales on the Ross Ice Shelf  in Antarctica[1]. The air is frigid and the ground covered in snow. You can see buildings in the snow, prefabricated structures meant to provide the most basic housing and shelter for their inhabitants and their tools. Yes, this was Little America I, the base of operations for the First Byrd Antarctic Expedition (1928-1930), the first American expedition into Antarctica in almost a century (the last being the U.S. Exploring Expedition under the command of Lieutenant Charles Wilkes and ending in 1840)[2]. The purpose of the expedition was geographical exploration and to secure for the United States the prestige of being the first nation to fly to the South Pole[3], a feat that, to many, seemed a foolhardy endeavor[4].

byrd7801_15

Little America had radio contact with the outside
world. Radio broadcasts were both received in and
broadcasted from Antarctica.

Despite the skepticism of the time, then-Commander Richard Byrd (later Admiral) and his motley crew of just forty-one men set out to winter in Antarctica[5]. As one would expect, the conditions were harsh. The mean temperature at Little America for the month was often recorded as below zero[6]. On July 28, 1929, it was reported that the temperature was -72° Fahrenheit[7]. It was also recorded that in that same month, one day saw a combination of a temperature of -64° Fahrenheit with winds reaching speeds of twenty-five miles per hour[8]. The winds were such a problem that one of three planes brought by the expedition was picked up and carried almost nine-hundred yards away from camp[9].

byrd7773_5

Admiral Byrd and some of his men gather around a
sound system, presumably to listen to a radio
broadcast from the United States.

The inhabitants of Little America I consisted of Byrd, four trained pilots, “three aircraft mechanics, three radio operators, five dog drivers, a doctor, three surveyors, a tailor, a carpenter, news media experts, a cook, and general hands”[10]. There were also four scientists, including the geologist Dr. Larry Gould, Byrd’s second-in-command[11].  Together these men of “varying temperaments, skills, and backgrounds” would function and accomplish their mission in one of the harshest environments on the planet[12]. Though their purpose was one of exploration and science, the men walking in the tunnels of snow connecting the buried structures of Little America still managed to find amusement on the frozen continent[13].

byrd7801_2

The site of Little America I would be used again in
subsequent expeditions.

Radio broadcasts from WGY, Schenectady and KDKA, Pittsburgh were beamed directly to Little America every Saturday at 4 PM local time[14]. The men would gather to feel that so desired connection to the outside world[15].   The first radio broadcast from Little America, Antarctica, was on February 3, 1934.

byrd-box-475-folder-19-item-2

“Little America” became a cultural icon in the United
States. Many businesses took on its name, including
this place in Wyoming, which still operates today.

The First Byrd Antarctic Expedition (1928-1930) was a success, in part due to Little America itself. The site of Little America I would even be used again several times as Little Americas II-IV (Little America V would be at a different location father east)[17]. Richard Byrd would be the first man to fly to the South Pole and much of the interior of Antarctica itself[18]. The success of the expedition recaptured the American fascination with the southern continent and it proved the usefulness of the airplane, aerial camera, the radio, and the snowmobile[19]. It was this expedition that brought man’s exploration into the Mechanical Era[20]. The site of Little America is now under water, as the ice on which the site was settled has long broken apart.[21]

Written by John Hooton.

 

[1] Kenneth J. Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948. (New York: American Geographical Society, 1971) 296-97

[2] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, 290

[3] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica, 292

[4] Antarctica, 2nd ed., s.v. “Conquest by Air.” (Surry Hills: Reader’s Digest, 1990)

[5] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica, 292

[6] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica, 300

[7] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica, 300

[8] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica, 300

[9] Antarctica, “Conquest by Air”

[10] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic., s.v. “United States (Byrd) Antarctic Expedition (1928-1930)” (New York: Routledge, 2007)

[11] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, “United States (Byrd) Antarctic Expedition (1928-1930)”

[12] Encyclopedia of the Antarctic, “United States (Byrd) Antarctic Expedition (1928-1930)”

[13] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica, 297

[14] Paul A. Carter, Little America (New York: Columbia University Press, 1979) 101

[15] Carter, Little America, 101

[16] Antarctica, “Conquest by Air”

[17] William James Mills, “Ross Ice Shelf Antarctica,” Exploring Polar Frontiers, (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2003).

[18] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, 292

[19] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, 290

[20] Bertrand, Americans in Antarctica 1775-1948, 290

[21] On the Current Location of the Byrd “Snow Cruiser” and Other Artifacts from Little America I, II, III and Framheim,” Taylor and Francis Online, Accessed January 26, 2016, http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/789610142.

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