‘The Pole at last’

Posted April 03, 2009, at 8:31 p.m.

“The Pole at last!!!”

Those were the words that Commander Robert Peary wrote in his journal on April 6, 1909, after he and the crew he led reached what he had calculated to be the North Pole.

Click here for a slideshow of images.

Monday will mark the 100th anniversary of that achievement, a feat that capped almost three centuries of Arctic exploration and a sometimes fierce international race for the pole. Peary’s expedition included three men from Maine — Peary himself, a young Donald MacMillan, who went on to make his own mark in the Arctic, and Chief Engineer George Wardwell, a Bucksport native.

“George Wardwell was crucial to Peary’s success, even though he never leaves the ship,” according to Susan Kaplan, an archaeologist and anthropologist at Bowdoin College who also is the director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at the college in Brunswick. “He kept the ship running and looked after it, making sure it was ready to go when Peary returned. That was no small accomplishment.”

A fourth Maine connection is the ship itself, SS Roosevelt, the sturdy, steam-driven vessel that carried the expedition members, their equipment and provisions to the jumping-off point for the dash to the pole, and brought them back safely again. The vessel was built at the McKay and Dix boatyard on Verona Island near the current-day site of the boat launch area.

Peary’s announcement that he had reached the North Pole came just a week after Dr. Frederick Cook, a former shipmate of Peary’s, announced he had reached the pole in April 1908, a full year before Peary. The competing claims sparked a controversy that continues today over who got to the pole first, or if either of them had achieved that goal. Over the years, proponents and opponents of each man have attacked the scientific information and the characters of both men.

Competing studies have proved and disproved theories during the past century, some putting Peary as far as 150 miles from the pole, others confirming that he made it to the pole. According to Kaplan, there is no way of knowing whether Cook or Peary was the first to reach the pole or if either reached it at all.

“The pole is a point on a shifting sheet of ice,” she said. “There is nothing there that they could bring back to prove they were there and nothing they could leave to show that they had been there.”

Both Cook and Peary left items at what they believed was the pole, but those items have long since sunk to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean.

“We’re never going to know — we’re just not going to know,” she said. “But, in reading Peary’s papers and seeing how he was fine-tuning his techniques and what he was learning, I feel that he certainly got within five miles.”

Experienced Arctic explorer

Peary already was an experienced Arctic explorer when the 1908-09 expedition began. He had made seven voyages to the Arctic, having traveled the farthest north on the 1905-06 expedition.

“Peary was a very ambitious man; he was competitive when the odds were good that he would succeed,” she said. “He wanted to amount to something; he did not want to be ordinary. He wanted to do something significant. At first the North Pole was not his goal. He wanted to be the first to cross the inland ice cap in Greenland. But someone beat him to it.”

It was then that he shifted his eye to the North Pole.

“He got that bit in his mouth and he was not going to let go,” Kaplan said. “But he was not irrational or irresponsible about it. Anytime he failed — and he had a number of failures — he would analyze what went wrong and set about fixing it.”

Peary was meticulous in his preparations for all his expeditions, according to Kaplan, who, with the museum staff, reviewed original Peary papers and journals in preparation for a centennial exhibition at the museum. For example, Peary designed and redesigned sledges trying to find the most efficient method of traveling across the rugged Arctic terrain and shifting ice sheet. When he found all his own designs wanting, he turned to the native Eskimo sledges and modified them for his expeditions.

One of the five sledges that made it to the North Pole with Peary is a permanent part of the exhibit at the museum. Also on display in the exhibition are the American flag that flew over the pole, Peary’s long-sleeved undershirt, his revolver and a page from Peary’s journal in which he recorded his arrival at the pole:

The Pole at last!!!

The prize of 3 centuries, my dream and ambition for 23 years. Mine at last.

I cannot bring myself to realize it. It all seems so simple and commonplace, as Bartlett said ‘just another day.’

I wish Jo [his wife, Josephine] could be here with me to share my feelings. I have drunk her health & that of the kids from the Benedictine flask she sent me.

The page is on loan from the National Archives, just the second time it has been removed from the archives for public viewing.

Routes through and over ice

The 1908-09 expedition left New York City on July 6 and sailed north, stopping at several spots along the coast of Labrador. The farther north they traveled, the more ice they encountered, forcing the Roosevelt to thread, push, wedge and sometimes batter its way through the thick floes and bergs.

By all accounts, the Roosevelt fulfilled its role admirably, although Chief Engineer Wardwell worried about the ice, which had heavily damaged the Roosevelt on the previous expedition.

In the Aug. 26, 1908, entry in his diary, which also is on display at the museum exhibition, Wardwell wrote:

“We got a good squeeze this morning, had to cut away the lines and the tide and ice ran like a racehorse … we are only a couple of gun shots from where we were crushed coming home last trip, and cant get away from here now.”

The Roosevelt eventually inched its way to a safe location where it would winter over, frozen in the ice, while Peary and his band headed north. Over the next several months, the crew prepared for the journey, hunting, building stoves, ferrying supplies to the jumping-off point at the northernmost tip of the island and building caches of provisions at key points along the planned route.

It wasn’t until Feb. 15, 1909, that Capt. Bartlett took the first party north for the trip to the pole, followed by other parties over the next week. On Feb. 22, Peary himself left the Roosevelt and headed north.

For almost two months, the teams traveled north, first over the rugged Arctic terrain and then over the shifting ice. By design, one team at a time turned back, taking with them the weakest of the sled dogs and unneeded equipment.

On April 1, 1909, Bartlett and two Eskimos along with 18 dogs headed back, leaving Peary, Matthew Henson, the aide who had been with him on most of his Arctic journeys, and four Inuit natives, Oatah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ookeah, to make the final push to the pole.

That night Peary wrote in his journal — which has been posted daily on the museum’s Web site along with the journals of MacMillan and Wardwell — and expressed confidence about his chances of reaching the pole.

We are ready now for the final part of the journey, sledges thoroughly overhauled + strengthened, dogs the pick of 133, + dogs + men in training. It is the time for which I have reserved all my energies, + I feel tonight as if I was in turn, + equal to the demands upon me of the next few days.

Assuming the captain’s figures to be correct we are 133 miles from the Pole, nine marches same average as our last 8, or 8 equal to the 3 from 850 48’ or 6 like yesterday will do the trick.

Five days later, on April 6, 1909, the six men reached what they believed to be the North Pole. They spent two days there and then headed back along the track they came in on.

The world, however, would not know of their accomplishment until five months later when the Roosevelt reached Indian Harbor in Labrador, the nearest telegraph line.

The message was short and to the point:

“Stars and Stripes nailed to North Pole. Peary.”

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