Trial by Ice: The True Story of Murder and Survival on the 1871 Polaris Expeditionby Richard Parry
“An extraordinary real-life adventure of men battling the elements and themselves, told with ice-cold precision.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In the dark years following the Civil War, America’s foremost Arctic explorer, Charles Francis Hall, became a figure of national pride when he embarked on a harrowing,/b>/i>/i>… See more details below
“An extraordinary real-life adventure of men battling the elements and themselves, told with ice-cold precision.”
–Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
In the dark years following the Civil War, America’s foremost Arctic explorer, Charles Francis Hall, became a figure of national pride when he embarked on a harrowing, landmark expedition. With financial backing from Congress and the personal support of President Grant, Captain Hall and his crew boarded the Polaris, a steam schooner carefully refitted for its rigorous journey, and began their quest to be the first men to reach the North Pole. Neither the ship nor its captain would ever return.
What transpired was a tragic death and whispers of murder, as well as a horrifying ordeal through the heart of an Arctic winter, when men fought starvation, madness, and each other upon the ever-shifting ice. Trial by Ice is an incredible adventure that pits men against the natural elements and their own fragile human nature. In this powerful true story of death and survival, courage and intrigue aboard a doomed ship, Richard Parry chronicles one of the most astonishing, little known tragedies at sea in American history.
“ABSORBING . . . Suspense builds as Parry describes the events leading up to Hall’s ‘murder,’ then climaxes in horrifying detail.”
From the Trade Paperback edition.
–Rocky Mountain News
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Read an Excerpt
A Grand Beginning
Under a general appropriations act "for the year ending
the thirteenth of
June, eighteen hundred and seventy-one," we find the
authority for the outfit of the "United States North
Be it enacted, That the President of the United States be authorized to
organize and send out one or more expeditions toward the North Pole, and
to appoint such person or persons as he may deem most fitted to the
command thereof; to detail any officer of the public service to take part
in the same, and to use any public vessel that may be suitable for the
purpose; the scientific operations of the expeditions to be prescribed in
accordance with the advice of the National Academy of Sciences.
--Congress, July 9, 1870
Executive Mansion, Washington, D.C., July 20, 1870
Captain C. F. Hall:
Dear Sir: You are hereby appointed to command the expedition toward the
North Pole, to be organized and sent pursuant to an Act of Congress
approved July 12, 1870, and will report to the Secretary of the Navy and
the Secretary of the Interior for detailed instructions.
Sixteen months before, things were quite different.
By 1870 the United States was ready for something new. To be the first
reach the North Pole fit the bill. Doing so would meld national pride with
hard-nosed business. Such an expedition transcended politics and touched
Southern and Northern hearts alike. Here was something to raise the
spirits of everyone: an American expedition. With eyes fixed northward,
those on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line could forget the slaughter of
five years before, the carpetbaggers plundering their property, and the
legions of shattered bodies that had littered their hometowns. Grasping
the unknown land to their bosom once more gave Rebel and Yankee a noble
ideal, a worthy one that fit them both.
Here was an especially worthwhile endeavor, especially since the British
had failed so miserably at attaining the same goal. There was little love
for England in either Dixie or the North at this time. After all, John
Bull had failed to enter the war on the side of the South yet had managed
to extract an embarrassing apology from President Abraham Lincoln over
Trent affair. If the Americans were to succeed where England had failed,
it was only just.
Besides, there was money to be made. Whaling was a million-dollar
industry. Before the advent of petroleum mining, whale oil lit the lamps
of the world. Baleen supplied the stays for ladies' corsets, and precious
ambergris and spermaceti from the sperm whales made perfumes and
cosmetics. And north was where the whales were.
Driven by this lucrative trade, whaling ships from New Bedford already
braved the Davis Strait in the east and the Bering Sea in the west. A
Northwest Passage would eliminate the need to sail round Cape Horn and
months off the trip. Trade with the Far East would also benefit. Glory was
all well and good, but a profit was even better.
The United States was going north to plant the Stars and Stripes at the
North Pole. No matter that Danes, Britons, French, and Norwegians had
tried and failed; the United States of America, fresh from a divisive
civil war, was flexing its muscle. With Yankee ingenuity and American
resolve, the first American polar expedition would succeed. No question
America was ready.
And with typical Yankee stinginess, the Navy Department selected an
steam tug named the Periwinkle for the honors. Why spend extra money to
lay a fresh keel when this scow lay gathering barnacles? Weighing 387
tons, the screw-propeller Periwinkle had never been farther north than
Gloucester. But to her went the honors of being the one to carry the flag
farther north than anyone had previously gone. Planting the flag at the
top of the world was the ultimate goal. Nothing less would do.
But a complete refitting was needed. In her present condition, the
Periwinkle would not make Greenland, let alone the North Pole. Money being
tight, a bill, called the Arctic Resolution, introduced in the Senate
requested $100,000 to fund the expedition. Immediately the bloc of
southern senators protested. Spending money to find the North Pole that
could better go toward Reconstruction galled them.
Attached to a general appropriations bill, the resolution barely passed
the Senate. Only the vote of Vice President Schuyler Colfax broke the tie.
The bill was passed on to the House, where the Appropriations Committee,
with its own share of southerners, compromised and promptly whittled the
sum in half. Fifty thousand dollars might see the Periwinkle properly
refitted, but nothing would be left over for supplies, equipment, and
wages. The expedition appeared doomed.
Then behind-the-scenes jawboning by Sen. John Sherman from Ohio, the
powerful brother of Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, brought a reprieve.
Having a hero of the Civil War as your brother and commander in chief of
the army as well carried some weight. In the House Representative
Stevenson (also from Ohio) lobbied heavily for the extra money the
committee had cut. Each man had introduced the bill in his respective
chamber. And President Grant added his cigar smoke to the smoke-filled
rooms. Sullenly and discreetly the Committee on Appropriations
an additional fifty thousand dollars for refitting the ship alone.
It was no coincidence Sherman and Stevenson had pushed so hard for full
funding. To them and most other Americans, only one man had the
credentials to reach the North Pole, Charles Francis Hall, a fellow Ohioan.
While the country had just fought a war to preserve the Union, states
rights and regionalism were by no means dead. Ohio would bask in the
reflected glory of one of her sons planting the Stars and Stripes at the
top of the world. Besides, both President Grant and the congressmen
relished the idea of a western man leading a scientific exploration. It
tweaked the noses of those in the East who thought all learned knowledge
stopped short of the Allegheny Mountains.
It made no difference that Hall had actually been born in New Hampshire in
1821. As a young man, he had the good sense to move west to Cincinnati.
That made him a western man to his supporters. Filled with the spirit of
adventure, the young Hall headed for what he thought was the frontier.
the frontier was rapidly moving west, far faster than Hall had imagined.
Working as a blacksmith before drifting into journalism, Hall craved more
adventure than the rapidly civilizing Cincinnati could provide. The mild
success of patenting "Hall's Improved Percussion Press" for making seals,
owning an engraving business, and opening a newspaper did little for him.
Soon he was languishing in the same dull existence he had sought to
escape. Marriage and children failed to provide him what he
craved--adventure. With little formal schooling, Hall still had a voracious
appetite for knowledge. Night after night he expanded his grasp of
mathematics, science, astronomy, and geography, devouring book after
on the subjects. In time he became expert in those areas. Yet he lacked
the scrap of paper that would certify his breadth of knowledge. That
missing diploma would haunt him.
Then on July 26, 1845, something happened that would direct Hall's focus
to the Arctic and change his life forever. The aging Sir John Franklin,
commanding an expedition to discover the fabled Northwest Passage
the frozen Arctic Sea to the Orient, vanished from the sight of civilized
man. One hundred and twenty-nine men aboard the Royal Navy ships Erebus
and Terror waved farewell to the Prince of Wales, a nearby whaling ship,
slipped their moorings from an iceberg in Baffin Bay, and simply
disappeared into the Arctic fog.
The world was shocked. The sixty-year-old Franklin, arguably too old for
Arctic exploration, still had considerable experience in the region. As a
young midshipman, Franklin had fought with Horatio Nelson at the Battle of
Trafalgar before going on to complete a distinguished career exploring the
far North. Many believed him the best qualified in the entire world to
lead such a quest. William Edward Parry, Franklin's peer among the British
Arctic explorers, endorsed him enthusiastically to the British Admiralty.
"He is a fitter man to go than anyone I know." Then, with typical
bonhomie, Parry added, "And if you don't let him go, the man will die of
disappointment." And Franklin's crew loved him. A common seaman wrote,
"Sir John is such a good old fellow--we all have perfect confidence in him!"
None of that mattered. The silent, waiting Arctic swallowed up the
best-prepared expedition that any nation had ever mounted. Two naval
vessels carrying 136,656 pounds of flour, 64,224 pounds of salted pork
beef, 7,088 pounds of tobacco, 3,600 pounds of soap, two musical organs,
and one hundred Bibles evaporated into the cold, thin Arctic air. The
North apparently cared little for cleanliness or godliness.
Like the ill-fated Scott expedition to the Antarctic in the next century,
Franklin's party carried fatal but hidden flaws that the region would
exploit. South or north, the extremes of the globe are extreme in all
things. There is never room for mistakes. The slightest error can be fatal.
British naval tradition required Sir John's men to wear woolen uniforms
and leather boots rather than adopt the sealskin parkas and mukluks the
Inuit had refined through centuries of trial and error. Arctic wind
penetrates canvas and wool, where it will not pass sealskin. Sealskin
boots, oiled with blubber and soled in the thick hide of oogrik, the
walrus, repel water and grip ice better than any leather or India rubber
Wet feet in the Arctic meant frozen feet, with frostbite and gangrene the
end result. Unlike the dog, whose legs will not develop frostbite unless a
tourniquet is tightened enough to cut off the blood supply, man's
extremities succumb to freezing fairly easily.
In an attempt to preserve the body's core temperature, blood is shunted
away from the fingers and toes whenever necessary. Only recently has
modern medicine discovered the exact mechanism of damage due to
The cause is both simple and devastat-
ing: ice crystals.
Over a certain span of temperature during the freezing process, ice
crystals form inside the body's cells as the water inside each one
freezes. The needle-sharp ice crystals cause all the damage. Like a
thousand tiny knives, these crystals puncture and spear the membranes
the important organelles inside the cell. If the solidly frozen part is
slowly rewarmed, the crystals will reform and do their worst while the
body's temperature rises through that critical period. Freezing, slowly
rewarming, and then refreezing and thawing are the worst of all possible
scenarios--almost guaranteeing gangrene and the resulting amputation of
A solidly frozen limb is best left frozen until proper treatment can be
initiated. Then rapid rewarming affords the best hope of saving the part.
Of course, the early explorers of the Arctic knew nothing of this.
A subtler but equally deadly factor played another part. At Beechey
Island, a windswept piece of hardscrabble rising from the water near the
junctions of Lancaster Sound, Barrow Strait, and Wellington Channel, lies
Franklin's first winter camp. Here rest the rectangular rock outlines and
piled embankments of workshops, a house, and three untended graves.
Preserved in the permafrost and perpetual cold are the bodies of three
from the Erebus and Terror who lie as mute signposts to the Franklin
disaster. Scattered about the campsite are empty meat tins.
Recent studies of these tinned cans used to preserve the party's food
reveal a startling finding. Since 1810 storing food in tinned cans had
enabled far-flung voyages. Lead-based solder was used to seal the cans.
But the toxicity of lead was not discovered until the 1880s. Unknown to
Franklin and his followers, the lead solder was turning their food
poisonous. A modern autopsy of two of the men who died early on in the
expedition revealed toxic levels of lead. Franklin and his men may have
fallen victim to lead poisoning.
But with two to three years of provisions, the Franklin expedition was
labeled "lost." No one could imagine them all dead, merely lost. Surely
the men were trapped somewhere in that vast white expanse, gamely
to be saved. Rescue hysteria engulfed Great Britain. The government,
prodded by the press,
offered twenty thousand pounds' reward to the first intrepid adventurer
find and relieve the "Lost Franklin Expedition."
Adding to this fervor was Lady Jane Franklin herself. Aided
by her considerable wealth and the help of clairvoyants and
astrologers, she funded ships and relief parties on her own. Not to be
outdone by a grieving wife, the government mounted three relief parties.
The first searched the Bering Sea in hopes Franklin had successfully
completed the passage from east to west and was waiting for them. They
found nothing. The second party, starting in the middle of northern
Canada, descended the Mackenzie River to its braided terminal of twisted
channels into the Beaufort Sea. Expert trackers and fur traders on loan
from the Hudson Bay Company could discover no clues of Franklin or his
men. A third search, led by Sir John Ross, breached the ice-choked
Lancaster Sound with two ships, the Enterprise and the Investigator, to
search the maze of frozen inlets and bays of Somerset Island. Overland
parties fanned out in all directions. Again not a trace of the missing men
Brokenhearted, Ross returned to Lady Franklin the worn let-
ter she had asked him to deliver to her missing husband. "May it
be the will of God if you are not restored to us earlier that you should
open this letter & that it may give you comfort in all your trials . . .
," it read.
Failure of the search parties only fanned the flames of speculation and
sold more papers. Books, lectures, and pamphlets extolled the mysteries
and dangers of the uncharted North. To a world choked in industrial smoke
and blinded by the drab monotony of factory towns, the pristine Arctic,
deadly yet enthralling, offered
Far away in Cincinnati, Charles Francis Hall read every word published
about the lost Franklin expedition. While running his newspaper, the Daily
Press, he filled its pages with facts about Franklin and the missing men.
Secretly he dreamed of finding them. Here was a cause that fired his
imagination. Finding them would fulfill all his dreams in a single stroke.
Wealth, fame, and recognition would be his. He set out to learn everything
he could about the Arctic. Nothing else mattered now. His family moved to
the background; his business withered. Finding Sir John Franklin and
exploring the Arctic became his raison d'etre.
By 1859 Hall's fascination with Franklin and the Arctic spilled over onto
his editorial page. Editorials headed does sir john franklin still live?
and lady franklin appeared in his paper. In an editorial he volunteered to
join an expedition led by Dr. Isaac Hayes that planned to reach the North
Hayes never responded. But at thirty-eight Hall cast his die, and the roll
changed his life. Two weeks after printing his article, he sold his
newspaper. He would form his own expedition and rescue the Franklin
survivors. Despite having a wife, a young daughter, and a son on the way,
Hall abandoned everything and directed all his energies toward reaching
Without money to outfit an expedition, Hall's dream languished while he
planned and stuffed his mind with facts about the far North. He wrote,
petitioned, and visited every influential per-
son he could in Ohio, impressing Gov. Salmon P. Chase and Sen. George
Pugh. While Hall was traveling to the East Coast, fortune linked him to
Henry Grinnell, founder and first president of the American Geographical
Society. A millionaire shipping and whaling magnate, Grinnell had retired
to pursue his humanitarian interests, of which polar exploration ranked
highest. Grinnell had privately funded a rescue expedition to find
Franklin in 1849 after the United States refused to spend the money. In
1852 Grinnell funded a second exploration under Dr. Elisha Kent Kane.
When Capt. Francis McClintock of HMS Fox returned with evidence that Sir
John Franklin had died and the Erebus and Terror had been lost, official
enthusiasm for a rescue attempt ended. But Hall was undeterred. Many
unanswered questions remained. Later he would write: "I felt convinced
that survivors might yet be found."
However, securing passage to the Arctic did not go smoothly for the
would-be explorer. While Hall negotiated with Capt. John Quayle for a
ride, his nemesis, Dr. Isaac Hayes, stole his captain. With funding to
expand on Dr. Kane's discoveries, Hayes no doubt hoped to find Franklin as
well. Hall fumed for days over Hayes's action. "I spurn his TRICKERY--his
DEVILTRY!!" he scratched venomously in his diary.
Finally, after fits and starts, opportunity struck. Hall wrangled a berth
on the George Henry, a whaling bark heading north from New London,
Connecticut. Using funds raised by his friends in Cincinnati, New York,
and New London, Hall paid his passage and outfitted a small sailboat to
explore the region in search of Franklin's lost men on a modest budget of
$980. Grinnell donated $343, but most of the others gave only a few
dollars. Pitifully, even Hall's wife donated $27 from her pinched
household budget. The "New Franklin Research Expedition," an exalted
for Hall's one-man show, was on its way to the Arctic.
While little prospect existed that the Franklin party remained intact,
persistent rumors still fanned hopes that survivors were living among the
Eskimos. A fierce gale on the twenty-seventh of September 1860 changed
Hall's plans. Whipping through the region, it sank and scattered the fleet
with which Hall traveled. His own small craft wrecked, Hall was now on his
own. Undaunted he commandeered a dogsled and headed inland.
Two and one half years later, he reappeared. Now a seasoned Arctic
traveler, he had proved himself capable of surviving in the far North. His
bundle of sketches, charts, and detailed notes also confirmed him as a
capable explorer. The self-taught cartographer and explorer showed he had
learned his skills well. Exploiting leads gleaned from the Inuit, he
returned with solid evidence that he had found Sir Martin Frobisher's lost
colony on Kodlunarn Island in Countess of Warwick Sound. Mining activity
there proved to be the site of Frobisher's gold scraped from the frozen
earth some 285 years before. Maps that Hall made during his travels
highly accurate--so exact, in fact, that the world would have to wait until
aerial photography to improve upon them.
Most important, Hall had made valuable contacts among the Inuit. Living
among them, he adopted their methods with notable success, something
white men had failed to do. In turn, he had gained the trust and respect
of several Inuit. Two gems in the rough returned with him, Ebierbing and
Tookoolito. Called Joe and Hannah by white men, whose tongues stumbled
over their Inuit names, the husband-and-wife team had already proved
invaluable. Both spoke English, the result of a voyage to England in 1853.
Tookoolito spoke fluently and could read some, making her useful as an
interpreter. Ebierbing was a skilled pilot, well versed in the treacherous
ways of the Arctic pack ice. Additionally both had "acquired many of the
habits of civilization," Hall acknowledged. In fact, the two were
celebrities in their own right. Both husband and wife had taken tea with
Queen Victoria, and Tookoolito often wore European-style dresses.
Now incurably infected with the Arctic bug, Hall raised more money and
lectured throughout the winter. Now that he was a proven success, funds
and support flowed to him wherever he went. Come spring he raced back to
the Arctic to take up where he had left off. While the country plunged
into its bloody civil war, Hall fought his own battles with the cold, the
darkness, and the isolation of the Arctic. In the following years both the
United States and Hall emerged changed, hardened and focused by their
trials yet resolved to move on.
On his second trip Hall found artifacts from the lost expedition. With the
help of his Inuit friends, he gathered cups, spoons, and boxes abandoned
by the doomed men. The engraved arrow of the Royal Navy on the items
no doubt about their ownership. On King William Island, he stumbled upon a
hidden in the blowing snow. One of the teeth remaining in the bleached
skull contained a curious metal plug. After some hand-wringing, Hall
gathered up the bones and brought them back with him. Study of that
work in England identified the remains as belonging to Lt. H. T. D. Le
Vesconte of the Erebus.
That convinced Hall that all the men of the Franklin expedi-
tion were dead. He could no longer help them. But now a fresh pas-
sion drove him. Wandering among the desolate peaks, he saw his new
destiny. He would be first to plant the American flag at the North Pole.
He now called himself an explorer.
Craftily Hall wrote the Senate of a gigantic whale struck in the Arctic
Ocean by Captain Winslow of the whaling bark Tamerlane that yielded 310
barrels of oil. The profit from that whale alone reached twenty thousand
dollars. Seven such whales would more than pay for the five years of
exploration. Knowledge gained from an expedition led by him, he implied,
could only improve America's whaling profits.
Lobbying, lecturing, pressing the flesh, Charles Francis Hall moved about
the country preaching his quest for the Arctic grail. Wealth, fame,
adventure, scientific exploration--he offered it all to anyone who would
listen. He prowled the halls of Congress to advance his cause. Hall sought
the ear of anyone with influence. Many listened carefully.
His burning desire and single-mindedness of purpose poured forth in all
his speeches, moving his listeners. Hall was on a mission, and his passion
to claim the North Pole for the United States rang with the same zeal as
that of the long-dead abolitionist John Brown. In everything he did,
Charles Francis Hall left no doubt in the minds of his listeners that
reaching the North Pole meant more to him than his life.
Though not everyone was willing to pay such a price, the shimmering,
shifting cap of ice covering the very top of the world has captured
explorers' attentions from the first moment they realized the world was
round. Between 1496 and 1857 no less than 134 voyages and expeditions
probed the Arctic. During that time 257 volumes were published dealing
with Arctic research. But that implacable white expanse would swallow
lives and fortunes before relinquishing its secrets.
After the philosophers' stone of the Middle Ages failed to materialize,
the quest for the fabled Northwest Passage began. If it
wasn't possible to transmute lead into gold, a shorter path to the
precious metal was the next best option. Finding the quickest trade route
from Europe to China and India promised untold riches to the lucky
explorer who unlocked that door. For this reason incursions north, probing
along the coast of North America, found ready backers. Merchants were
always willing to risk their money rather than their lives for greater
profit. Since Spain and Portugal regulated the southern routes to the
East, occupying strategic stopping places and discouraging ships of other
nations with a vengeance, many thought to venture north, presumably
unfettered. If the Orient could be reached going south, surely a way
through northern waters also existed.
Henry VIII gave letters of patent ordering John and Sebastian Cabot "to
discover and conquer unknown lands" on their way sailing north to Cathay.
Sir Hugh Willoughby, under the papers of the Muscovy Company of London,
closely followed. While mistaking Newfoundland for the mainland of China,
John Cabot sailed as far north as the Arctic Circle. The treacherous ice
pack, however, seized Sir Hugh's ship and carried it southwest with the
ocean's current. Eventually the vessel, its entire ship's company frozen
to death, fetched up off the coast of Lapland.
From 1576 to 1578 Martin Frobisher explored for Henry's daughter,
Elizabeth. He returned to England with piles of black ore, termed
"witches' gold," that he found while exploring along the coast.
Speculation that the material would yield gold ran rampant in the court,
and Elizabeth herself funded Frobisher's other trips.
In 1610 Henry Hudson sailed into the expanse of water that now bears his
name. Tricked by the sheer size of Hudson Bay, he believed it to be the
Pacific Ocean and sailed south in search of China. The rapid onset of
winter forced the expedition to lie near Southampton Island until spring.
Nearly starving, his men mutinied. Henry Hudson, his son, one loyal ship's
carpenter named John King, and a handful of scurvy-struck seamen were
in an open boat. Perhaps the greatest navigator of his time then vanished
forever in the gray waters. Those of his mutinous crew whom the Indians
did not kill returned home. To save their necks from the hangman's rope,
they diverted attention to their discovery of the "true route" to the
A flurry of activity followed. William Baffin sailed north in 1616 through
the ice of Davis Strait to discover Baffin Bay. Turn-
ing west along the bay, he encountered Lancaster Sound. Rising
in the distance, the mass of Somerset Island convinced him that
the sound was merely another of the endless bays that befuddled him.
Sailing away, Baffin never realized he had found the true opening to the
Beaufort Sea and the Arctic Ocean. Two hundred years later, Sir James
would make the same mistake. Enthusiasm for a Northwest Passage to
waned as each explorer returned empty-handed.
But a new treasure emerged--one unrelated to the Far East. Furs--the
gold of lynx, seal, and sea otter hides--commanded lofty prices as
changed. In fact, at that time the Asians started buying. Yet only the
bitterest winters cultivated the finest furs. That meant going north. In
Alaska the Russian Trading Company decimated the sea otter population,
along with the Aleut nation, in its ruthless quest for the animals
buttery skins. In the Northwest the Hudson Bay Trading Company chose
more humane method of trade to amass its piles of furs. Wool blankets,
metal knives, and cooking pots exchanged well for furs, and the natives
remained friendly. British trading methods proved far more cost-effective
than Russian subjugation. With peaceful commerce, much less money had
be spent on forts and soldiers, thus ensuring greater profit.
What took the most prodigious bite out of the profits was the arduous
voyage around the tip of South America. Notorious for its stormy passage,
the Horn claimed countless ships and thousands of tons of cargo. Sailing
around Cape Horn was possible only during certain times of the year. A
winter voyage was suicidal.
Once again pressure rose for a shorter route to bring the goods to
A passage across the top of Canada would be ideal. In 1743 Parliament
offered twenty thousand pounds as an incentive. The race resumed. But
Captain George Vancouver's meticulous surveying along the northwest
proved conclusively that no major waterway led from the Pacific side of
the continent. If any way could be found to traverse the top of Canada to
approach the West Coast, the Atlantic side held the key. Even if a ship
could sail close enough to the Pacific to link with overland or river
routes, it would be a great improvement. Thousands of sea miles would be
Despite the cost of fighting the rebellious American colonies, the British
Admiralty still could find money in its purse to offer prizes for Arctic
exploration. Besides the reward for discovery of the passage, an
additional twenty thousand pounds would go to the first to reach the North
Pole and five thousand pounds to anyone who came within one degree of
magnetic pole. What once was a matter of commercial interest now
into one of national pride, involving the honor of the Royal Navy.
Enter one William Scoresby. While an enterprising and imaginative sailor,
Scoresby did not have the privilege of naval rank. He made his living
hunting whales. In the summer of 1806, he found himself facing a strange
occurrence. The preceding winter had been unusually dry and warm. So had
the spring. As a result the Greenland ice pack, which stands like a silent
guardian, impeding all northern progress and preventing passage up both
sides of Greenland, receded north instead of advancing across the open
waters as it usually did.
Suddenly Scoresby found himself facing open water. Instead of lying to to
await the southern migration of their quarry like the others in the
whaling fleet, Scoresby loosed his canvas and sailed north. Soon he
encountered the deadly ice, but due to the warm weather and light snow,
areas of the pack ice proved thin enough to navigate. With consummate
skill, Scoresby threaded his fragile ship through the icy eye of the
needle. Using only the power of wind, battling currents reaching three
knots, and fighting his doubts, the whaler slipped between icebergs that
could easily have crushed his vessel. To his amazement and his crew's
relief, Scoresby broke past the barrier and emerged into "a great
or sea of water." On he sailed, making careful notes, measuring the
seawater's temperature, and filling in the blank portions of his charts.
Miraculously the whaler pressed onward to the latitude of 81*30' N,
farther north than anyone save Henry Hudson had ever sailed. As the
of the earth, the North Pole is at 90* N;
consequently Scoresby rested less than six hundred nautical miles from
top of the world.
Undaunted by the physical and fiscal dangers of the enterprise, Scoresby
indulged his scientific bent as he sailed, mapping the coast of Greenland,
studying the effects on his compass as the magnetic core of the earth
pulled the instrument's needle farther and farther to the west the farther
he traveled north, and documenting the varied animals he encountered. One
lowly whaler performed the work of an entire scientific expedition.
Ten years later similar changes in the ice pack recurred. Scoresby, now a
veteran of fifteen voyages to that cold region and author of numerous
papers on his findings, called this favorable event to the attention of
the Admiralty. Now was the time to mount an attack on the North Pole, he
urged. He offered his services, and if a few whales were struck along the
way, he added, it might help to defray his expenses.
The navy was outraged. To the lords of the Admiralty, Scoresby's prodding
only rubbed salt in their wounds. Here this commercial sailor had achieved
success where the Royal Navy had not. The greatest sea power in the
fresh from defeating the combined Spanish and French fleets, rankled at
its failure. Now this whaler presumed to tell the navy its business--and
suggest pulling a profit as well. Scoresby's scientific achievements also
alienated the Royal Society, whose chair-bound members resented his
careful work. Without letters behind his name, the whaler's work simply
could not be taken seriously, they protested.
This division between academics and lay scientists laid the foundation for
trouble for every future expedition into the Arctic. The rugged demands of
Arctic travel required a robust, hardy, and adventurous nature--one not
usually found in the scholarly men who frequented universities. An
ever-widening gulf would develop between those with formal education and
those with knowledge gained from enthusiastic, on-site experience. On the
one hand, you had the academics with impeccable credentials who were ill
suited for the rigors and stress of Arctic travel. On the other hand, you
had the explorers, able to withstand the extremes of cold, hunger, and
darkness the North held, men whose findings were not accepted in the
centers of learning because they lacked formal education. The gap was
never resolved in the nineteenth century.
This same chasm would plague Charles Francis Hall to his
The Admiralty did mount an expedition, but it was to be wholly a naval
operation, commanded, crewed, and run like a military operation. Scoresby
was snubbed. Even though he was best qualified to lead, Scoresby was
refused command of the expedition; however, their lords did offer him a
minor position. Of course, the proud cap tain refused. Academe went along
to complete his humiliation, refusing to acknowledge him by name,
referring to Captain Scoresby only as "this whaler" or one of the
The Admiralty foray, led by Capt. James Ross, fell afoul of the same
optical illusions that had baffled Baffin as he explored Lancaster Sound.
The shimmering peaks of Somerset Island merged with the haze from the
frigid waters to convince him that the sound was a bay. Turning back, he
missed his golden opportunity to discover the passage into the Arctic
Ocean. Once again the Arctic had conspired to mask its inner secrets. Men
had not yet paid a high enough price for that knowledge. More lives and
tears in tribute would be needed. And more would come.
Standing on the deck beside Captain Ross was William Edward Parry, a
lieutenant. Unlike Ross, Parry believed that Lancaster Sound was indeed a
sound and not a bay. Being a sound meant that the body of water was open
on more than one side and not just a vast, blind-ended indentation in the
gray land. That promised exciting possibilities.
Returning in 1819 with two ships, the Hecla and the Griper, Parry breached
Lancaster Sound and sailed northwest into Barrow Strait. The route to the
Arctic Ocean lay open. His ship Hecla sailed within the vaunted one degree
of the magnetic pole on September 4, and Parry claimed the five thousand
Forced to winter over near Melville Island when the ice trapped his ships,
Parry added another facet to Arctic exploration. Put-
ting the delay to good use, he mounted overland forays using sleds.
Returning a second time, Parry continued his combined sea-land operations
with increased success. From then on exploration into the Arctic would
consist of driving as far north as possible by sea before the ice seized
the ship and then using the trapped vessel as a springboard for mounting
sled trips into the unexplored territory. The tools to pick the lock of
Arctic secrets lay at hand.
Anxious to unlock the door, Parry returned in 1824 with Hecla and Fury.
The wreck of Fury halted that trip.
The year 1827 found Parry mounting an amphibious assault of sorts on
Pole. Departing from Spitzbergen with two covered boats that could be
fitted with sled runners, his party sailed away, expecting to slide their
boats over solid ice and sail whenever they could. This well-planned
expedition soon became a living hell.
Snow blindness forced the men to travel at night. But in the summer, even
the nights are not dark. Old wounds opened and scars separated as scurvy
struck the sailors. Parry and his men learned through painful experience
why the Eskimo language has more than fifty words to describe ice. Not all
Arctic ice is the same. Some forms are helpful, whereas others are deadly.
Sikurluk is the Inuit name for a rotting ice floe, one that will give way
and plunge the unwary into freezing water, just as aakkarniq is the same
rotten ice forming into melting streams. Maniillat is the saw-toothed
pressure ridge forced into the pack ice by wave action. Imarnirsaq is the
opening in sea ice, but only quppaq is the lead in the pack ice that is
suitable to navigate. Each subtle differentiation came of necessity,
learned through bitter experience by the Inuit. All Arctic ice is far from
smooth and slick as the British presupposed.
Rough ice blocks, sharp as razors and tough as flint, shattered and split
Parry's wooden sled runners. With little wind, ice crystals form in the
frigid Arctic air to settle out as fine diamond dust. Snowfall combines
with this hoarfrost and rime to layer the pack ice and exposed ground with
a powdery cover. But strong winds can shape the snow into dunes and pack
the loose crystals into rock-hard mounds. Erosion of these hillocks
produces rugged, sharp-faced sastrugi. These steep, sharp rows, often
three to six feet high, cut into the sled runners like teeth on a saw.
Pancake ice, floating in the seawater, trapped his boats and impeded their
progress. To the Natives, being caught in their kayaks by the floating
disks meant certain death. Too thin to stand upon, pancake ice will
surround a boat and hold it immobile. Paddling is futile, for the round
disks spin off each other like the smoothed sides of grains of quicksand.
With the ice whirling about without moving aside, no passage for the boat
can be forged. The unwary seal hunter entrapped in pancake ice could only
prepare himself for an agonizing death by starvation and freezing.
Then something unexpected happened. No matter how far they traveled
on the ice floe, each day their noon sextant shots placed them farther
south. To their dismay, Parry and his men discovered that the endless
field of ice over which they struggled was moving south. The ice floe was
drifting relentlessly south with the ocean's currents. Like the White
Queen in Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, they had to run as fast as
they could to stay in one place. Battling north almost 300 miles, they now
found themselves less than 175 miles from their starting point, the Hecla.
Brokenhearted, the expedition packed it in.
By 1829 steam entered the equation. Now a ship could forge onward during
windless days. HMS Victory, a side-paddle steamer, sailed and steamed its
way to "Parry's farthest" latitude. A cross between a sailing vessel and a
Mississippi paddle wheeler, the Victory pressed valiantly northward--only
to be trapped in the ice just as all the others had been.
Discouraged by the lack of progress, the British Admiralty withdrew its
support and set about licking its sea wounds. Attention turned to land
routes, backed by the Hudson Bay Company. Following the Mackenzie,
Coppermine, and Great Fish rivers, which flowed north into the sea, men
crept north with one foot on the land for security.
Then came 1845 and Sir John Franklin. Suddenly the Arctic once more
the headlines. The name of Charles Francis Hall would become similarly
well known when the American expedition was launched a little more than
twenty-five years later.
It was no coincidence that in 1870 Vice President Colfax cast his vote to
break the tie in the Senate and pass the Arctic Resolution. The day before
the bill was introduced, Colfax had sat in the front row of the Lincoln
Hall in Washington beside President Grant while Hall preached his gospel.
Hall pointed to the president and shouted that for $100,000 he could
outfit an expedition to explore the Arctic. In an impassioned address, he
called upon Congress to place the monies directly into President Grant's
hands for disbursement. The house came to its feet amid cheers. Basking
the glory, Grant and Colfax smiled and nodded their heads repeatedly.
After that outburst and show of enthusiasm from the crowd, there was no
doubt about the funding. There was also no doubt about the expedition's
leader. Charles Francis Hall's dream was becoming reality. At last he
could head a full-fledged expedition to explore the top of the world.
Work began in earnest on the Periwinkle once the additional money arrived.
As winter winds stripped the last colored leaves from the maples,
rang throughout the Washington Navy Yard. Mixing with the rasp of saws,
the flat thud of caulking hammers reverberated in the cool light, driving
oakum into any seam that might leak. Red-hot rivets glowed atop coal-fed
fires, waiting their turn to be pounded into iron plate. The tang of hot
pitch and burning charcoal filled the air. All around a small ship in the
dry dock, an army of workers swarmed like ants infesting a honey bun.
The hull was stripped down to the keel, and then the ship's bare ribs were
planked with six-inch solid oak. New caulk filled the seams before the oak
beneath the waterline vanished under fresh copper sheathing. To batter
through ice, the bows were layered with more oak until almost solid, then
iron plate secured to a sharp prow. As an added precaution, a watertight
compartment was built behind the bows for those who had doubts that
sea ice might not respect modern engineering.
Hall moved about the Navy Yard with growing enthusiasm, making
suggestions, approving modifications, and adding his knowledge to the
refitting. His years spent on the ice gave him a good grasp of what it
could do. Rocked, tossed, and driven by capricious winds as well as the
currents, the nature of the pack ice could change without warning. In
minutes a stolid ice field, placidly encasing the ship and the sea around
it, could turn into an attacking wall of frozen water. Offshore winds
could drive slabs of ice the size of buildings onto each other like
scattered dominoes. Grinding and slithering tons of advancing ice would
crush anything in their path. Scores of flattened campsites littering the
shoreline attested to the dwellings of unwary Inuit demolished by sudden
attacks of shore ice. Camping beneath the shelter of bluffs provided
protection from the biting wind but always carried a risk. It was the
action of the ice along with the wind that had hollowed out those dunes.
Without warning the ice could return and claim more lives.
Wisely, masts were fitted to the vessel, adding the rigging of a
fore-topsail schooner to the steamer. Why waste coal in the boilers?
Whenever the wind could be used to power the vessel, that was the
preferred method of locomotion, Hall argued. Bitter experience learned
from whaling ships that ventured into those frozen lands showed that what
coal a vessel needed for its engines must be carried along. More than one
whaler had limped home by burning its own timbers in its boilers,
cannibalizing the ship to its waterline.
In the high Arctic, ice, water, and rock prevailed. Firewood and coal were
nonexistent, and little else could be burned for warmth or fuel.
To guard against heavy ice's snapping the propeller blades, a slot was cut
in the stern so that the drive shaft to the screw could be unfastened and
the propeller raised out of harm's way. A powerful, compact engine, made
especially in Philadelphia by Neafles & Levy, drove the propeller. The
engine was a masterpiece, incorporating the latest advances in steam
engine design. Being small meant that more space could be allocated to
carrying precious coal. For all its advanced design, the engine packed
less horsepower than that found in a modern family car. Under the best
conditions, it could drive the ship along at a top speed of less than ten
The ship's boilers carried out dual responsibilities. Besides driving the
engine, the boilers heated the crew's quarters through a
series of steam pipes. Sir John Franklin's vessels also had steam
radiators fitted to their ships. What good it did them will never be
known. At Hall's suggestion, engineers even modified one of the boilers so
it could burn whale or seal oil. With limited space, coal for fuel
competed with foodstuffs and scientific gear. In the event of a shortage,
blubber could provide lifesaving fuel.
Other innovations abounded. From the stern hung a life buoy sporting an
electric lamp with wires reaching the ship's electric generator. A
spring-loaded device allowed the life preserver to be released from the
pilothouse. If a man fell overboard or became stranded on the ice, the
light and cable attached to the buoy would aid his rescue. In the
perpetual winter night and swirling snow, men separated by mere yards
vanished from sight. In a storm the howling wind swallowed all sound. Only
such a lighted beacon would help.
For exploration the ship carried four whaleboats and a flat-
bottomed scow that could be dragged over the ice from one open lee to
another. Roughly twenty feet long with a width of four feet, whaleboats
carried oars and a collapsible mast and sail and normally held six to
eight men. Designed for speed and durability, they were slim, sharply
keeled, and built of heavy wood. A standard but inefficient practice was
to use the whaleboats as makeshift sleds for exploring the ice pack. At
Hall's urging a special collapsible boat patented by a man named Heggleman
was added. Constructed of folding frames of hickory and ash, the
twenty-foot-long boat could be packed aboard a sled for easy
transportation. Once the frame was assembled, a waterproof canvas
fitted over it. Theoretically, the folding boat could carry twenty men.
While in the Arctic, Hall had greatly admired the oomiak used by the Inuit
to hunt whales and walrus. Similarly designed of a wooden frame, the
oomiak was covered with walrus skin. Had Hall inquired, he might have
discovered that the Inuit took special pains to cover their boat in the
lighter-weight hides of the female walrus instead of the thick skin of the
male. Weight was an inherent problem in a boat that size and shape,
especially one intended for hauling on and off ice floes. At 250 pounds,
the Americans' folding boat would prove next to useless.
Extra spare parts that could not be fabricated crammed into whatever
food and coal did not occupy. Spars, line, kegs of nails, a spare rudder
were stowed away. At the navy's insistence, the hold held a small mountain
howitzer with sufficient powder and shot to intimidate any unfriendly
Natives they might encounter. After all, this was a naval expedition.
Anyone giving it much thought would have realized that the cannon was a
useless and heavy item. If the howitzer were fired on the slick ice, the
first shot would either upend it or send it speeding across the ice into
the closest patch of open water.
In the captain's cabin, Hall packed books on Arctic exploration, including
a copy of Luke Fox's Arctic Voyage of 1635. In one corner the workers
loaded a cabinet organ donated by the Smith Organ Company. No one drew
parallel that Sir John's ill-fated party had carried two organs.
One thing seriously flawed the newly refitted Periwinkle. The ribs and
keel of the old Periwinkle were kept and used for the ship's back. To do
otherwise would have been too costly. But the Periwinkle's keel was not
designed to deal with ice. It was too narrow and too sharp-bowed. With a
wide, thick-waisted beam, a ship "nipped" in the ice would lie level. As
pressure from the floe increased, the wide keel would not allow the hull
to be easily gripped by the ice. Instead, the broad hull would be squeezed
literally out of the ice like a seed from a grape to lie comfortably atop
the frozen water. The Periwinkle's narrower design doomed it to be seized
by the ice. The ice's grip would tilt the ship precariously, while
mounting pressure would spring the planking, opening the seams to
seawater. The ship's slender hull would plague the expedition and
eventually lead to the vessel's death.
Hall, the landlubber, transformed from an intrepid explorer into an
explorer and a sea captain, now unknowingly did something that no sailor
would ever do. He renamed his vessel, a sure sign of bad luck to come.
Inspired by the lofty aim of the expedition, he changed the name of the
Periwinkle to Polaris.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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