Monday, June 20, 2016

The Greatest Show in the Arctic

The greatest show in the Arctic: The American exploration of Franz Josef Land, 1898-1905.

By P. J. Capelotti.
University of Oklahoma Press, Norman.
ISBN 978-0-8061-5222-6

Reviewed by William Barr.

The American contribution to the exploration of Franz Josef Land, the Russian archipelago north of the Barents Sea, occurred during what were effectively three separate expeditions – the expeditions which are the focus of Capelotti’s book – over the period 1898-1905. The aim of all three expeditions was to reach the North Pole; ironically, however, none of them attained any significant distance north of Rudolf Island, the northernmost island of that archipelago. The irony was that during this same period a party from the Duke of the Abruzzi’s expedition, led by Cagni Umberto and starting from Rudolf Island, reached the record high latitude of 86° 34’N (Amedeo of Savoy 1903)! On the other hand the Americans did contribute significantly to the exploration of the archipelago.  The first of these expeditions, in 1898-99 was that of journalist Walter Wellman.  He had previously mounted an attempt at the Pole from Svalbard, using sledges and aluminum boats in 1894; it, however came to grief when the expedition ship Ragnvald Jarl was wrecked by the ice off Waldenøya north of Nordaustlandet.

Undaunted by this, in 1898 Wellman tried again, this time from Franz Josef Land.  This time he headed north in a chartered steamer, Frithjof, from Tromsø. Incomprehensibly, he had made no arrangements for a relief vessel to come to retrieve the expedition members the following year,  assuming simply that a Norwegian  sealing or whaling vessel might visit Franz Josef Land in 1899 and that its captain could be persuaded to take him and his men back south.  He sent a message to his brother by the returning Frithjof to make the necessary arrangements. Wellman’s team consisted of both Americans and Norwegians. Second-in-command was Evelyn Briggs Baldwin, an employee of the U.S. Weather Service, with no previous Arctic experience.

After calling at Cape Flora on Northbrook Island, where one of the buildings left by the earlier British expedition of Frederick George Jackson  (Jackson 1899) was dismantled and loaded  aboard to act as the expedition’s main base,  Fritjhof probed the south coasts of the archipelago but was everywhere blocked by ice.  Wellman therefore decided to establish  his main base at Cape Tegetthoff at the southern tip of Hall Island; it was named Harmsworth House. Once the base was established Wellman remained there, dispatching Baldwin with a sledge-and-boat party consisting of three Norwegians, Paul Bjørvig, Bent Bentsen and Emil Ellefsen to head north as far as possible, preferably to Rudolf Island, in order to establish an advance base. They travelled with 48 dogs, two sledges, a wooden boat and a canvas boat. At Cape Frankfurt, at the eastern tip of Hall Island they found that the ice in Austrian Sound had broken up completely.  While Wellman himself remained comfortably at Cape Frankfurt he ordered the Norwegians to make repeated trips (a total of eight) in their small oared boats across the potentially dangerous open waters of Austrian Sound – and this on extremely limited rations.

Ultimately, with Baldwin they reached Cape Heller at the northwest end of Wilczek Land and there built a stone hut which they named Fort McKinley.  This was to be the advance base. Relations between Baldwin and the Norwegians were by this time  almost at breaking point.  Baldwin then returned south to the relative comfort of Harmsworth House from which Wellman had still not stirred, leaving Bjørvik and Bentsen to spend the winter at Fort McKinley with most of the dogs. Bentsen fell ill and died on January 1899. Bjørvik complied with his wishes that his body not be moved outside where it might be  molested by foxes or bears and thereafter Bjørvik shared his sleeping bag with the frozen corpse for the rest of the winter.  He was relieved by a party led by Wellman on 27 February 1899.  Once Bentsen had been buried Wellman and party continued north and by 21 March had reached the eastern end of Rudolf Island.  At this point Wellman caught his leg in a crack in  the ice and fractured his shin.  Unable to walk he abandoned his polar attempt; by 9 April 1899 the party was back at Harmsworth House.

As if to compensate for this failure on 26 April Baldwin set off with four Norwegians to explore the eastern boundaries of the archipelago. On 4 May the party reached a large unknown island which was named Graham Bell Land.  They skirted around its eastern and northern sides before returning to Harmsworth House.  On 27 July 1899 the surviving expedition members were picked up by the sealing vessel Capella and by 20 August they were back in Tromsø.  By 8 October Wellman was back in New York.

On his return to the United States Baldwin resigned his position with the U.S. Weather Service but negotiated a special contract to write up the meteorological and auroral results from the year on Franz Josef Land.  But he became fascinated by the fate of Salomon Andrée the Swede who, with two companions had disappeared in the Arctic in an attempt to reach the North Poole in a hydrogen balloon Ornen in 1897, and became obsessed with the idea of mounting a search for Andrée and his companions, in combination with a further attempt of his own from Franz Josef  Land, clearly undismayed by his earlier failure.  By pure luck he was able to interest a well-heeled sponsor in this idea: William Ziegler a multi-millionaire who had initially made his fortune in the Royal Baking Powder Company.  By October 1900 Ziegler had committed himself to funding another polar attempt.  Baldwin chartered the Dundee whaling ship, Esquimaux which he renamed America. Under a Swedish sailing master, Carl Johanson, and with a Swedish crew, it sailed from Dundee on 28 June 1901, initially to Tromsø; there it made rendezvous with another vessel, Belgica which had been chartered to establish a depot on northeast Greenland in case Baldwin returned south by that route. On board America were 15 Americans and double that number of men of other nations.  At Honningsvaag  America was joined by a third vessel, Frithjof, also laden with a vast quantity of expedition equipment, supplies and provisions.  First the two ships called at Arkhangelsk where they took aboard 428 dogs, 15 ponies  and 6 Russian dog-drivers and pony handlers. From there the two vessels headed north to Franz Josef Land.

Although Baldwin had hoped to establish his base as far north in the archipelago as possible, he found all the channels between the islands blocked with ice and elected instead to establish his base on Alger Island, one of the most southerly islands, which America reached on 18 August.  Unloading from both ships proceeded immediately; the base was named Camp Ziegler.  Frithjof then returned south. Baldwin then procrastinated for two months, allegedly hoping to take America further north, but allegedly blocked by ice on each attempt; he prevaricated by establishing a second base, West Camp Ziegler on Alger Island and making further trips east to the south end of Austrian Channel, which was still blocked with ice.  America then became frozen in off Alger Island.

Frictions between Baldwin and sailing master Johanson, who considered himself the ship’s captain, and indeed between Baldwin and almost every member of the expedition, rapidly developed over the winter.  However they all optimistically assumed that he was still serious about trying to reach the North Pole.  The first sledge party, using dogs and ponies, left East Camp Ziegler on 3 April 1902, bound for a halfway station, Kane Lodge on Greely Island, almost in the center of the archipelago.  Then in April Baldwin established a further depot on Coburg Island and finally, on 3 April managed to reach Rudolf Island, where the northernmost depot was established just short of Cape Auk on the west coast of the island. On 3 May Baldwin tried to reach Teplitz Bay, the site of the Duke of the Abruzzi’s main base in 1898-99, but was stopped by open water.  Thus his depot at what Baldwin called Boulder Depot would be the most northerly point reached by the Baldwin-Ziegler expedition. Baldwin started back south on 5 May.  From Kane Lodge he made a side-trip west to Jackson Island where he found the primitive stone hut in which Fridtjof Nansen and Hjalmar Johansen had “hibernated” over the winter of 1895-96 after they had left the icebound Fram in an attempt to reach the North Pole (Nansen 1897).  He found a message which Nansen had left before continuing south to a fortunate encounter with Frederick Jackson at Cape Flora.  During this side-trip and on the final lap south to Alger Island Baldwin did make a useful contribution to unraveling the complex geography of the central part of the archipelago.  He was back on board America by 21 May 1902.

On 25 June the ice around America began to break up and the ship drifted away from Alger Island.  For two weeks the ship tried to fight clear of the ice and during one bout of ice pressure on 15 July there were serious fears that the ship would be crushed and/or lose its rudder, already damaged in the ice.  On the 18th the ship broke out of Aberdare Channel.  Inexplicably Baldwin then proposed heading west to Cape Flora.  Ice pilot Magnus Arnesen and engineer Henry Hartt disobeyed his order to this effect and turned the ship south.  It emerged into open water on 28 July and, with less than two tons of coal left, reached Honningsvaag, northern Norway on 1 August.

As the American members of the expedition returned to the United States assorted newspaper articles began to appear, revealing the almost total failure of the expedition in terms of its stated objective. Summoned to Ziegler’s office on his return to New York Baldwin was raked over the coals by the multi-millionaire.  What particularly enraged Ziegler was that Baldwin had forced eight of the men to stay for the winter at Camp Ziegler, while he returned south (a plan which he quickly abandoned) and worst of all, had made them sign a contract of service to him personally rather than to Ziegler.  This was the last straw and Ziegler relieved Baldwin of command of the expedition. He replaced him as leader of yet another attempt at reaching the North Pole, starting in 1903, with the photographer from the previous expedition, Anthony Fiala (Fiala 1906). On 23 June 1903, under the command of Edward Coffiin, an experienced American whaling captain, and with Henry Hartt again in charge of the engines, America put to sea from Trondheim, where  it had been undergoing repairs.  After calling at Tromsø and Arkhangelsk the ship finally sailed from Vardø on 10 July with 39 men, 218 dogs and 30 ponies on board.  This time Ziegler’s agent, William Champ, had made arrangements for a relief vessel to call at Cape Flora in the summer of 1904.

America reached Cape Flora on 12 August and from there fought its way north through ice-infested British Channel.  It passed Cape Auk and Teplitz Bay on the evening of 30 August but was finally brought to a halt by heavy polar pack at 82° 13’ 50”N – the highest north latitude reached during any of the three expeditions.  Fiala then retreated to Teplitz Bay.  Coffin recommended that the ship winter at Coburg Island but Fiala overruled him and insisted that the ship winter in dangerously exposed Teplitz Bay. Ponies, dogs,  and cargo were unloaded and the vast quantity of pemmican and provisions previously hauled north to Boulder Depot was retrieved while a large tent was erected on shore and named Camp Abruzzi and a stable for the ponies raised next to it.  The expedition then settled down for the winter with the 15 members of the expedition (scientists and support staff) in Camp Abruzzi, and the ship’s crew on board America, locked in the fast ice about 1500 m offshore. But in the early hours of 12 November the ship was severely damaged by the ice and was finally crushed and abandoned on the 21st, although still supported by the ice.  The entire crew and all the expedition personnel were then housed on shore at Camp Abruzzi.  During a storm on 22 January 1904  the ship, along with a large cache of coal and half the expedition’s provisions which had been left on the fast ice, disappeared.  There were barely 60 bags of coal left.

Nonetheless Fiala planned for a sledge expedition to the Pole involving 26 men, 16 ponies and nine dog teams, which would leave on 20 February, later postponed to 1 March.  The expedition finally set off on the morning of the 7th, but, having reached only Cape Fligely, only some 7 miles away, on 8 March Fiala ordered the expedition back to Camp Abruzzi, allegedly due to five or six men being disabled.   A smaller group which set out on 24 March attained barely a mile north from Cape Fligely before having to turn back, defeated by chaotic pressure ice.

On the evening of 1 May 1904 some 25 members of the expedition, including Fiala, began a retreat south to Cape Flora, arriving there on the 16th.  There they found abundant supplies left by Frederick Jackson and by the Duke of the Abruzzi; the party settled down in Elmwood, Jackson’s main building and in one of his subsidiary buildings.  As prearranged Champ chartered Frithof  and over the summer that vessel made two attempts to reach Cape Flora but on each occasion was blocked by ice, in one case only 40 miles south of that cape. . Resignedly the occupants of Cape Flora and Camp Abruzzi settled down to spend a second winter in the Arctic. Interpersonal frictions, already widespread and serious, and a general dislike or even contempt for Fiala became exacerbated.  But, allegedly with a view to making a final attempt at the pole, leaving 23 men at Cape Flora, on 27 September 1904 Fiala started back north for Camp Abruzzi; due to various delays he did not arrive there until 20 November.  He set off on his forlorn final attempt at reaching the Pole on 17 March 1905. He turned back, thwarted by a wide lead, on 23 March at 81° 55’N, with Rudolf Island still plainly in sight. He and his party were back at Camp Abruzzi by 1 April.  That base was then abandoned and its occupants headed south to Cape Flora.  Champ arrived on board Terra Nova and evacuated the entire expedition on 1 August; Champ brought with him the news that Ziegler had died on 24 May 1905.  With that the bizarre history of the American attempts at reaching the North Pole from Franz Josef Land, inevitably came to an end. Despite the vast amounts of money which had been invested in them, not one of the various sledge expeditions , optimistically aiming for the North pole, had advanced more than a few kilometers north of Rudolf Island  On the plus side, however,  the vast island of Graham Bell Island had been added to the map of the archipelago and, particularly due to the efforts of Russell Porter, the complexities of the geography of the center of the archipelago had been largely unraveled.

The above summary represents just the bare bones of the story of the three expeditions to Franz Josef Land and barely hints at the bizarre decisions and procrastinations of the leaders, especially Baldwin and Fiala, at the complexities of the interpersonal frictions, and at the endless to-ings and fro-ings within the archipelago.  The frictions, of course, are carefully concealed in the published works of the leaders such as those of Wellman (1899) and Fiala (1906). By dint of his usual painstaking research, based on the journals and papers of at least four of the individuals involved, housed in three different repositories, plus one collection in private hands Capelotti has uncovered the remarkable intricacies of the less-than-admirable behaviour and the often incomprehensible decisions made by all three leaders.

While Capelotti clearly has an impressive command of the details of this particular phase of exploration in this area of the Arctic, there are some errors with regard to general geography  and history of the Arctic. With reference to p. 9, para 1, l. 2, the USS Jeannette became beset in the ice just northeast of Wrangell Island, not north of the New Siberian Islands. With reference to p. 12, para 3, l. 2, the Tegetthoff became beset off the northwest coast of Novaya Zemlya not “northeast of  Spitsbergen”.  Also, with reference to p. 12 (para 3, l. 3) that ship’s engineer, Otto Krisch, was buried on small Wilczek Island, not on the much larger Wiczek Land (Payer 1876), although the juxtaposition of these two almost identical names must have confused many over the years, and not just Capelotti.  And finally -- a simple error of arithmetic (p. 89, para 5, l. 4): 600 nautical miles equals 1132 km, not 850 km. Such errors, however are really peripheral to the main themes of the book and do not detract significantly from a thoroughly-researched and well-written study of a previously little-known aspect of Arctic exploration history.


Amedeo of Savoy, Luigi. 1903. On the “Polar Star” in the Arctic Sea. London: Hutchinson.
Fiala, A. 1906. Fighting the polar ice. New York: Doubleday, Page and Co.
Jackson, F.G. 1899. A thousand days in the Arctic. London: Harper and Brothers.
Nansen, F. 1897. Farthest north. London: Constable.
Payer, J. 1876. New lands within the Arctic Circle. London: Macmillan
Wellman,W. 1899. The Wellman Polar Expedition. National Geographic 10(12): 481-505.