The Treacherous And Deadly Race To The North Pole

By Heather Ramsey on Saturday, May 23, 2015
USS_Jeannette;h52199
“All explorers are seeking something they have lost. It is seldom that they find it, and more seldom still that the attainment brings them greater happiness than the quest.” —Arthur C. Clarke, “The City and the Stars”

In A Nutshell

In 1879, the USS Jeannette (pictured above) and her crew of 33 set sail from San Francisco with the dream of making the USA the first country to reach the North Pole. But the wooden ship had no hope of safely navigating the icy waters. After it was crushed by ice near Wrangel Island two years later, her entire crew struggled to survive their 1,600-kilometer (1,000 mi) trek from the Arctic to Siberia. Twenty died, including the renowned captain, George Washington De Long. Currently, a Siberian adventurer wants to raise the shipwrecked vessel, although it’s unlikely to happen until US-Russian relations improve.

The Whole Bushel

With great fanfare, the USS Jeannette and her crew of 33 set sail from San Francisco in 1879 with the dream of making the USA the first country to reach the North Pole. Funded by wealthy newspaperman James Gordon Bennett Jr., the voyage was doomed before it began. The Jeannette‘s renowned captain, George Washington De Long, believed in a foolhardy notion, the theory of the open polar sea, that said the North Pole had a warm shallow sea free of ice that could be sailed across easily. It’s unclear why this theory was so popular considering how many Arctic explorations had ended in tragedy due to deadly, impassable sheets of floating ice.

De Long dismissed the risks, believing that the problem was simply that other captains had tried to sail to the Arctic through the waters around Greenland. De Long was charting a course through the north Pacific. He was a skilled mariner who had planned his trip for five years. But in reality, his wooden ship had no hope of safely navigating the icy waters he would encounter.

Within two months of setting sail, the ship became hopelessly stuck in ice near Wrangel Island in the Arctic Ocean. For almost two years, the Jeannette floated along with the ice while the crew survived on the wildlife of the region and the hope of a spring thaw. In 1881, it finally looked like they were going to get their wish for warmer conditions. But as the ice began to thaw, it shifted and crushed the Jeannette.

Luckily, the entire crew had enough warning to retrieve food and three small boats before the ship sank. Marooned on ice, the 33 men struggled to survive their 1,600-kilometer (1,000 mi) trek from the Arctic to Siberia. They pulled their food and the boats behind them as they headed off on foot.

Around mid-September, the men divided up into their three boats and set sail for the mainland. One boat didn’t make it. All eight aboard died. The other two boats landed far apart, making for quite different journeys for their crews.

The men commanded by ship’s engineer, George Melville, were fortunate enough to find the Yakut tribe in Siberia who helped them to survive. The crew of the other boat, commanded by De Long, was forced to cross a nearly frozen estuary. He sent two of his men for help. The rest were too weak. They were trapped by the wind with no food. One by one, they died.

De Long kept his captain’s log throughout the ordeal. One of his last entries of any length was on October 13, 1881:

One hundred and twenty-third day. Willow tea. Strong SW. wind. No news from Nindemann [one of the men sent for help]. We are in the hands of God, and unless He intervenes we are lost. We cannot move against the wind, and staying here means starvation. Afternoon went ahead for a mile, crossing either another river or a bend in the big one. After crossing missed Lee. Went down in a hole in the bank and camped. Sent back for Lee. He had turned back, lain down, and was waiting to die. All united in saying Lord’s Prayer and Creed after supper. Living gale of wind. Horrible night.

After that, his entries were quick and mostly listed the remaining men’s names as they died. The two crew members who went for help found Melville’s party and survived. Melville tried to rescue De Long’s party, but he found only their lifeless bodies in March 1882. He also found their log and other records of the trip. In all, 20 men, including De Long, died. The Jeannette is still in Russian waters. De Long’s crew kept detailed records, so scientists believe they know where the ship sank. Currently, a Siberian adventurer wants to raise the shipwrecked vessel, although it’s unlikely to happen until US-Russian relations improve.

Show Me The Proof

Featured image via Wikipedia
The Siberian Times: Russian plan to locate and raise the wreck of schooner USS Jeannette in Arctic waters
Washington Post: Book review: “In the Kingdom of Ice,” polar voyage of USS Jeannette, by Hampton Sides
National Geographic: The Hair-Raising Tale of the U.S.S. Jeannette’s Ill-Fated 1879 Polar Voyage
Library of Congress: Log of the USS Jeannette