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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.
|Corrected Muster Roll of the Polaris Expedition||xiii|
|1.||A Grand Beginning||6|
|2.||A Hearty Crew||28|
|3.||Flags and Fanfare||44|
|10.||A Dreadful Night||186|
|13.||On the Beach||230|
Posted November 16, 2001
This is a book only Richard Parry could write. The reader comes away with a crystal clear understanding of not only what happened on board ship (you feel like you are there with them) but also he describes in perfect medical detail exactly what the explorers medical conditions are and why it is happening to them.
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Posted May 18, 2001
Posted July 13, 2012
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