Bangor lionized Robert Peary on way home from North Pole

Posted Sept. 20, 2009, at 7:03 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 30, 2011, at 11:26 a.m.

Robert E. Peary was probably one of the two most prominent people in the world, said the Bangor Daily News the day after the Arctic explorer stopped in the Queen City on his return from the North Pole. The other “most prominent” person, of course, was Dr. Frederick A. Cook, who claimed to have beaten Peary to the pole by nearly a year.

“Bangor was the first city in the United States to entertain the great explorer for any appreciable length of time,” proclaimed the newspaper on Sept. 24, 1909, the day after the explorer stood on the portico of the Bangor House to receive tribute. But keep “city” and “any appreciable length of time” in mind. Peary had also made brief appearances before cheering crowds in Vanceboro and Lincoln and perhaps other towns on his way to Bangor on the train from Canada to New York. His tour through Maine was “one continuous ovation,” said the Bangor Daily Commercial even before his arrival at Union Station.

Mainers could be excused for being a little confused about whether the real hero was Peary or Cook. They hoped it was Peary. His Maine connections gave him a boost in popularity over the doctor. Not only was Peary raised and educated in Maine, but his ship, the Roosevelt, had been built in Bucksport. He had lectured in Bangor, Bucksport and Bar Harbor — where some of his chief financial backers summered — and in other nearby towns many times. Two other Maine men, fellow Bowdoin College graduate Donald B. MacMillan of Freeport and Chief Engineer George Wardwell of Bucksport were on the triumphal expedition.

The controversy over who got to the pole first (or whether anyone got to the pole at all) exploded in the Bangor press on Sept. 2, just three weeks before Peary made his brief comments at the Bangor House to a cheering multitude. NORTH POLE DREAM REALIZED AT LAST, proclaimed a huge headline at the top of the front page in the BDN. The dreamer, however, was not Peary. It was Cook, the surgeon on Peary’s first Arctic expedition in 1891-92. He claimed to have arrived at the pole on April 21, 1908, nearly a year before Peary.

That afternoon, the Commercial predicted incorrectly, “There will be some disappointment in this state that our own Maine man, the intrepid Peary, has not achieved the great distinction that he has worked so heroically and ceaselessly to win, but this will be lost in the general rejoicing that it is not the flag of Great Britain or of France or of Italy.”

The dispute heated up in daily newspaper headlines. Cook’s discovery had been corroborated by “Danish polar experts,” the BDN said the next day. COOK CAN PROVE HE FOUND POLE, the newspaper announced the day after, and the day after that: DANISH KING HAILS POLAR DISCOVERER.

Then, on Sept. 7, the BDN splashed this blockbuster headline, with a dateline of Indian Harbor, via Cape Ray, Newfoundland, across the top of its front page: ROBERT E. PEARY SUCCEEDS ; NAILS FLAG TO NORTH POLE … WORLD STARTLED BY MESSAGE. The great explorer said he had reached the pole on April 6, 1909. What a “marvelous coincidence,” said the Commercial that afternoon with marvelous understatement.

The newspapers chronicled Peary’s triumphal march to Bangor. The Roosevelt spent more than a week at Battle Harbor, Labrador before heading for Sydney, Nova Scotia where he planned to meet his family and take the train through Maine to New York.

Mrs. Peary and their two children passed through Bangor on the way to Canada on Sept. 9. Bangor newspapermen were disappointed not to get an interview. They were told she was asleep. But Mayor John Woodman managed to slip a note to a family spokesman inviting Peary to stop at Bangor on his way back through town. A week later Peary accepted the invitation.

Meanwhile, the controversy between Peary and Cook rumbled on in the newspapers. Above the din of claims and counterclaims, the Commercial editorialized on Sept. 22: “Thursday will be Peary Day in Bangor, and all thought of the controversy as to the relative merits of rival explorers will be forgotten.”

Peary’s train arrived in Bangor from St. John at 1:15 p.m. and left for Portland at 3:40 p.m., providing little more than two hours for the explorer to have lunch and entertain the Queen City. The multitudes at Union Station shouted “Peary! Peary! Hurrah! Hurrah!” While the great man boarded a carriage for the Bangor House, his wife and children went with the mayor’s wife to the Woodman home on Pine Street for a separate luncheon.

Peary’s appearance showed the strain of months of hardship. “He did not make a distinguished picture,” said the Commercial. “His coarse gray hair rather tinged with red and his straggly mustaches did not proclaim recent encounters with a first class tonsorial artist, and his suit of blue serge was wrinkled and travel stained, but it was not the appearance of the man that received the cheers of the people; it was the man himself. His strong face, deeply furrowed, shows the strength of determination, and is also eloquent testimony of what the trip cost him in physical effort.” At the Bangor House, Peary got his first shave on American soil from hotel barber Elden S. Thissell.

Lunch was “a brief, informal affair” — meaning no windy speeches. Besides city officials the guests included several Bowdoin connections: Gen. Thomas H. Hubbard of New York, president of the Peary Arctic Club and one of the explorer’s chief financial backers, and professor John S. Sewall of Bangor Theological Seminary, who had once taught classes attended by Peary at the Brunswick college. Bangor resident Fullerton Merrill, a member of the Peary relief expedition in 1901, was also there.

At about 2:30 p.m., the travel-weary Peary was ushered to the portico high above Main Street to address the throngs patiently waiting since as early as noon outside the hotel and on the grounds of the Unitarian church across the street. The street became so crowded the trolley cars came to a halt.

In presenting Peary with a solid silver “loving cup” furnished by local jeweler W. C. Bryant on behalf of the city, Mayor Woodman said that the explorer had always been regarded as a “Maine man” (despite the fact he was born elsewhere). Peary responded, “I hardly know what to say in reply to these eloquent words of your mayor. I have always felt the deepest affection for Maine … I have always felt there was something in the pine-clad hills and iron-bound coast of Maine that has given me strength and helped me to attain the prize that for three centuries men have struggled so hard to attain. I thank you. I thank you.” Somebody called for “three cheers,” and the crowd erupted.

Peary was taken to the hotel parlor where he shook the hands of an estimated 1,000 people in a receiving line. As the humidity built up in the packed room, the BDN reported the next morning, beads of sweat formed on the explorer’s forehead and trickled down his face, prompting a female admirer to comment on the heat. “Hot? I guess it is,” the explorer responded cheerily. “And if you had just come from the pole madam, you’d know what this heat means.”

Peary returned to the Bangor area on Sept. 27 to meet with Gen. Hubbard at his summer home in Bar Harbor. There they plotted strategy in the continuing battle with Dr. Cook. As the years went by, Peary’s claim was almost universally accepted until the 1980s when scholars, examining newly available documents, cast doubt on whether he had actually reached the pole or missed it by some miles. For most of the thousands of Bangor residents who greeted the great explorer a century ago, however, Peary would always be the man who, in the words of the BDN, “wrested from the heart of nature the greatest secret she has ever held.”

An illustrated collection of Wayne E. Reilly’s columns titled “Remembering Bangor: The Queen City Before the Great Fire” is available at bookstores. Comments about this column can be sent to him at wer@bangordailynews.net.

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