15-45 Segment 2: In the Kingdom of Ice: The voyage of the USS Jeannette

Back in the 1870s and 80s, the north and south poles were as mysterious and intriguing as the moon and planets are to us today. Many expeditions tried – and most failed – to reach the North Pole, leaving many courageous sailors and their ships encased in the snow and ice. We talk to an author whose new book chronicles one of those voyages about the adventure of arctic expeditions, and the men who risked their lives to find out what was actually on the top of the world.

Host: Marty Peterson. Guest: Hampton Sides, author of In the Kingdom of Ice: The grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette

Link for more info:

­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­­

In the Kingdom of Ice

Marty Peterson: For Americans living in the northern part of the country, the memory of the “polar vortex” winter of 2013-14 is still very much in their consciousness. Sub-freezing temperatures; a biting, relentless wind and foot after foot of snowfall made an impression on millions that will not soon be forgotten. If you think last winter was bad, imagine it times ten – and you’ll somewhat approximate the conditions that the men of the “Jeannette expedition” faced back in the 1880s. It’s chronicled in Hampton side’s new book, “In the Kingdom of Ice: The grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette.” The expedition sought to explore the North Pole by ship, and Sides says it was as exciting a project then as the moon shots were in the 1960s…

Hampton Sides: It was still kind of the heroic age of exploration, as it’s been called. There were still places left that had never been touched by man. And those few places – and especially the Poles – were a source of kind of nagging, gnawing obsession. Like people just had to know what was up there, and was there a civilization? What did it look like? Was there an island? Were there vents that led down into the earth? People just didn’t know and there was a whole lot of scientists and pseudo-scientists, some of them quite wacky, who were not shy about putting forward some pretty outrageous, we can now say outrageous, theories about what might be up there.

Peterson: He says that this spurred national interest and there was a worldwide competition to reach the pole and prove – or disprove – ideas about exactly what was there. One of these theories put forth by a German scientist, August Peterman, was that warm water currents from the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans tunneled under the ice and converged at the North Pole, creating an open warm sea. He also thought that there might be a continent at the top of the world…

Sides: There was a warm climate up there, and there was an island that had been seen by whalers, arctic whalers, called Wrangell Land. And he believe Wrangell Land was actually part of this giant transpolar continent that connected ultimately to Greenland, so that Greenland swept over the entire pole and it was bathed by this warm-water sea, but that there was a transpolar continent. So the Jeanette Expedition was also designed to explore this mysterious Wrangell Land, find out what it was and whether it, in fact, was connected to Greenland.

Peterson: The project itself was unique. It was officially a US Navy expedition, but it was financed by a successful newspaper man – James Gordon Bennett, Jr. He was the publisher the New York Herald which was at the time, the world’s largest newspaper…

Sides: He had achieved some success with an earlier expedition, sending Stanley to Africa to find Livingstone. You know, “Livingstone, I presume” and all that. His paper had enormous success with that expedition in Africa and he was looking for kind of an encore that would be even bigger. So he decided to bankroll an expedition to the Arctic. He paid for everything. So it’s a very unique and, we might say now, rather unorthodox arrangement of public-private funds. It would be almost like Ted Turner joining forces with NASA to mount an expedition to Mars or something.

Peterson: The captain of the voyage was George Washington De Long, a veteran seaman who was yearning for the opportunity to do great things…

Sides: A graduate of the Naval Academy, very smart, very shrewd and very ambitious, who had been to Greenland and had acquitted himself very well in the Arctic during an earlier expedition that was designed actually to find a lost ship and lost crew of a Polar expedition that had ventured north, near the coast of Greenland. He had fallen in love with the Arctic during this expedition and decided that he would go back and try to be the first man to reach the North Pole. He was obsessed with this.

Peterson: He was also a very formidable commander, and he needed to be. Sides says that other expeditions to the Pole ended in mutinies, and De Long knew that to be successful, he had to keep his men in line. And he surrounded himself with the best men he could find – 33 in all — including an ice pilot, civilian scientists, Inuit dog drivers, whalers, two Chinese cooks and De Long himself. Two men of note on the voyage were the navigator and the ship’s engineer…

Sides: There was a navigator named Danenhower who we found out later had syphilis which manifested itself, unfortunately, in this horrible condition called syphilitic iritis which required him to undergo dozens of operations without anesthesia onboard the ship as it was locked in the ice for two years. But Danenhower is a formidable and really interesting character. There was a guy named Melville, a distant relation of Herman Melville who was the ship engineer, this brilliant guy who could fix anything. And, of course, everything goes wrong in the Arctic, especially with this expedition, and he’s always the guy who saves the day and fixes whatever’s broken and improvises some sort of solution to a problem. So Melville is a big guy in the story.

Peterson: The ship, “the Jeannette,” needed to be outfitted especially for the trip, with plenty of reinforcement to prevent it collapsing from the pressure of the thick, polar ice. Sides says that De Long also brought along plenty of modern gadgets and diversions for his crew…

Sides: Edison’s lights were on board, he was still working on perfecting the mechanisms for powering the lights. But also Alexander Graham Bell’s telephones were on board, and telegraph equipment so that the men could communicate over large distances of the icepack, Budweiser beer, there was an organ and all sorts of musical instruments, an amazing library. He didn’t want his men to suffer. This was the Gilded Age. He knew that there was going to be long periods of boredom and inaction, so the ship was stuffed with all these entertainments and these men were going to get through, presumably, two or three years in the ice and not have to suffer.

Peterson: Sides says they set sail from San Francisco on July 8th, 1879, heading north for the Bering Sea and the coast of Alaska. It wasn’t long before they ran into trouble…

Sides: They were unable to find where this warm-water current, the Kuro Siwo, went and very quickly they met ice, they encountered ice. They rammed their way through it for a number of days, but eventually they became locked in the ice, not very far from this place I mentioned earlier called Wrangell Land or Wrangel Island and they drifted in the ice for almost two years.

Peterson: Two years in, the hull of the Jeannette collapsed and the ship sank, but not before De Long and his crew escaped and headed out on foot with dog sleds, three rickety wooden whale boats and as many provisions as they could carry. Sides says that the captain and crew endured unbelievable hardships trekking across the frozen terrain, searching for open water or civilization off the coast of Siberia…

Sides: There was an outbreak of lead poisoning which the men suffered because they found out that some of the canned vegetables had been soldered with lead, and they ferreted that out and were able to recover from it. Many of the men, I would even say most of the men, suffered from frostbite but several had to have amputations and one died because of it. Obviously food was the biggest problem as they dragged their boats over the ice. They had very little food, and they had to hunt constantly and there were times when they were starving to death, but other times when they were able to find polar bear and walrus and seal and actually ate fairly well.

Peterson: Fairly well, if you consider seal and polar bear entrails to be gourmet dishes. After 91 days of hiking across the ice, Sides says the men found open water and set sail…

Sides: And their initial objective was to stay together, but they encountered on the second day an enormous gale which separated them. The couldn’t see each other, and they couldn’t find each other and, in fact, the three boats make landfall in three very different places several hundred miles apart. So the story really becomes the story of the different fates, the very different fates of these three boats and the men in them. And one boat is commanded by De Long, one boat is commanded by Melville, and one boat is commanded by a man named Chip.

Peterson: This is where Sides trails off when talking about the expedition, because the fates of the different boats reads like a suspense thriller in the book, and brings the entire story of the expedition full circle…

Sides: I will say that in this expedition some live and some die. Of the 33 men, 13 men make it home and are honored in parades in New York, are treated as heroes and everyone knew about this expedition. It was like we had sent men to the Moon or Mars or something. It was the subject of best-selling books and poems and paintings and naval inquiries, congressional inquiries, De Long’s journals were published as a best-selling book. And yet, somehow after that initial fame and popularity, the whole expedition kind of slipped between the cracks and is almost completely forgotten today, at least here in the United States. Actually people in Russia, to a surprising degree, know about the Jeanette Expedition.

Peterson: Sides says he hopes the book will bring back interest in the expedition and the men who survived and those who gave their lives. In the end, De Long and his crew never reached the North Pole, but he says that doesn’t mean the voyage of the USS Jeannette was a complete failure…

Sides: At the time it was viewed as a kind of a noble failure that nonetheless produced a lot of scientific knowledge. All the log books and meteorological measurements, and some of the natural history specimens, and there’s other things that had been collected, eventually made it back to Washington. The logbooks, ironically enough, are being studied today by climate researchers who are studying global warming.

Peterson: A wonderful addition to the story are the letters De Long’s wife, Emma, sent to her husband via whaling boat during his absence. Sides says a woman found them in a trunk in her attic and he was fortunate that she allowed him include them in the story. You can read those letters and all about the exciting journey of the USS Jeannette, in Hampton Sides’ book, In the Kingdom of Ice, available in stores and online. He also invites listeners to his website at HamptonSides.com. You can find out more about all of our guests on our site at Viewpointsonline.net. You can find archives of past programs there and on iTunes and Stitcher. Our show is written and produced by Pat Reuter. Our production directors are Sean Waldron, Reed Pence and Nick Hofstra. I’m Marty Peterson.

 

 

Advertisements