Author Interviews
7:34 am
Sat August 2, 2014

In 1879, Explorers Set Sail To Solve Arctic Mystery, Once And For All

Originally published on Mon August 25, 2014 10:25 am

It's hard for us to imagine now, but there was a time when people simply didn't know what was in the Arctic circle.

"Whether it was ice, whether it was sea, whether it was land, whether there was a civilization up there — there were a lot of weird theories about holes in the Earth," author Hampton Sides tells NPR's Scott Simon.

So in July 1879, more than 30 explorers set sail from San Francisco to find out. They were hoping to discover an unspoiled, verdant paradise at the top of the world which they could claim in the name of American exploration.

The expedition was commanded by George Washington DeLong — one of the time's dashing heroes — and funded by James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald — one of the age's great characters.

In The Kingdom Of Ice is Sides' new adventure story about that ill-fated venture, which he describes as a "grand and terrible polar voyage."


Interview Highlights

On one particularly intriguing theory about the Arctic

One big theory that drove this expedition ... was this notion that there was an open polar sea fed by warm water currents — and if you could just find those currents that would soften up the ice caps, you would find a gateway to this open, polar sea and sail. And of course, the Jeannette expedition found out very quickly just how wrong this idea was.

On George Washington DeLong and his personal motto — "Do it now!"

This was a guy who really wanted to do big things. Graduate of the Naval Academy, had just missed the Civil War by a matter of months and wanted to make up for lost time, and he decided that the way to do that was to become an Arctic explorer. And the U.S. Navy at that time was quite anemic, was quite in its infancy and so, in addition to working with the Navy, he had to find a sponsor who would pay for everything.

On the sponsor he found, James Gordon Bennett, publisher of the New York Herald

You can't invent a more outlandish character than James Gordon Bennett. This great, Gilded Age, half-mad, playboy, womanizer — a guy who was ostracized from New York society. He was into spectacle and had sent [H.M.] Stanley to find [David] Livingstone in Africa. Had enjoyed enormous success with that series of dispatches and he was looking for an encore. And that's how he became interested in bankrolling an Arctic expedition.

On the USS Jeannette's perilous voyage

The main problem was that the ship was constantly leaking, even though it had been massively reinforced for the ice. The pressures on the hull of the ship were enormous in that ice pack. Eventually, after nearly two years of drifting almost 1,000 miles through the ice cap, making their way incidentally, sort of in the direction of the North Pole — they were heading in the right direction anyway — finally, the hull was fatally breached and the ship sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean. Leaving these 30-odd guys and their dogs out on the ice cap to fend for themselves.

On what you do when you're stranded in the days before cell phones, satellite phones, airplanes, helicopters ...

You're SOL, you know. It's a really, really harrowing situation and really one of the great survival stories of all time. These guys had to drag three open [life]boats over 600 miles of shifting ice pack. One of the things that made it even more difficult is they would struggle for weeks, then they would take a reading only to find out that they actually retrogressed, you know, they'd gone backwards because the ice over which they were slogging was actually moving north faster than they were moving south. [But] they finally did make it to open water.

On George Melville, chief engineer, who takes over the book's narrative

When the expedition reached open water, the three [life]boats took off only to encounter a huge gale which separated the three boats. And the three boats have very different fates. One of the boats was commanded by Melville ... Melville was a distant relative of Herman Melville. He was a naval engineer, a brilliant guy and his group landed first and had a much easier time of it — although no one had an easy time of it. The story really becomes the story of the three separate fates of the three different boats. And how they finally are reunited on the mainland of Russia's Lena Delta.

On the fate of the men on the expedition

This is something that I decided to do in terms of telling the story is to not — in talking about it or in the book jacket itself — is to not really say what happened specifically to anyone because I found that the story is just obscure enough (although of course, you can Google it, you can find out what happened to these men). There's a certain compelling quality to the not knowing exactly what happened, where it happened, why it happens. So I don't talk much about it other than to say there were actually 33 men, 13 made it home.

On the survivors' homecoming

The survivors came home to great acclaim, they were welcomed as heroes. The Jeanette was the subject of bestselling books and paintings and poems and monuments. And yet now, you know, I think if you polled 100 people, maybe one has vaguely heard of this expedition. And so, I just felt like it was one of these great harrowing, classic adventure stories that just needed to be resurrected.

On what was learned from this expedition

One of the real hallmarks of this expedition is that DeLong — he obliterated all the leading theories of that time. There was no "thermometric gateway," there was no "open-polar sea." It was the last time anyone tried to do that — it was the last time anyone ever tried to sail to the North Pole. The irony, of course, is that the climate change experts tell us that there very much well might be an open polar sea in the not-too-distant future. So maybe he wasn't crazy or quixotic — maybe DeLong was just off by 140 years.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The journey of the USS Jeannette in 1879 came out of the dreams of a lot of wise men who might have known better. It set sail from San Francisco in July of that year with 32 men to find what they hoped would be a kind of unspoiled verdant paradise at the top of the world - the claimant of the name of American exploration. It was commanded by one of the time's heroes, George Washington DeLong, and funded by one of the age's great characters, James Gordon Bennett of the New York Herald. Hampton Sides, the author of previous bestsellers that include "Ghost Soldiers" and "Blood and Thunder" has written an adventure story about an ill-fated venture in the Kingdom of Ice, the grand and terrible polar voyage of the USS Jeannette. Hampton Sides joins us from NPR West. Hampton, thanks so much for being with us.

HAMPTON SIDES: Great to be with you, Scott.

SIMON: How did people in these times - we're talking about fill in that great blank space that was the Arctic?

SIDES: I think it's really, you know, hard for us to understand now how obsessed people were with what was up there. You know, people just did not know whether it was ice, whether it was sea, whether it was land, whether there was civilization up there. And there were a lot of weird theories about holes in the earth and, of course, this one big theory that drove this expedition which was this notion that there was an open polar sea fed by warm water currents and that if you could just find those currents that would soften up the ice cap, you would find a gateway to this open polar sea and sail. And, of course, the Jeannette expedition found very quickly just how wrong this idea was.

SIMON: Let me ask you about some of the personalities that are the center of this story. Let's begin with George Washington DeLong. His personal motto sounds like something out of Star Trek - do it now.

SIDES: Do it now. Yeah, this was a guy who really wanted to do big things - graduate of the Naval Academy, had just missed the Civil War by a matter of months and wanted to make up for lost time. And he decided that the way to do that was to become an Arctic explorer. And the U.S. Navy at that time that was quite anemic - quite in its infancy - and so in addition to working with the Navy, he had to find a sponsor who would pay for everything.

SIMON: James Gordon Bennett publisher of the New York Herald.

SIDES: You can't invent a more outlandish character than James Gordon Bennett. This great Gilded Age half-mad Playboy, a womanizer, a guy who was ostracized from New York society - and he was into spectacle and had sent Stanley to find Livingstone in Africa - had enjoyed enormous success with that series of dispatches. And he was looking for an encore. And that's how he became interested in bankrolling an Arctic expedition.

SIMON: Not surprisingly, the Jeanette got trapped in pack ice. But help us understand how difficulties began to accumulate two years into the voyage.

SIDES: The main problem was that the ship was constantly leaking. Even though it had been massively reinforced for the Ice, the pressures on the whole of the ship were enormous in that ice pack. And eventually, after nearly two years of drifting almost 1,000 miles through the ice cap, making their way, incidentally, sort of in the direction of the North Pole - they were heading in the right direction anyway. Finally, the hole was fatally breached and the ship sank to the bottom of the Arctic Ocean, leaving these, you know, these 30 odd guys and their dogs out on the ice cap to fend for themselves.

SIMON: Yeah, which raised the question, so what you do when you're stranded on an ice cap a thousand miles north of Siberia in the days before radio cell phones, phones, text messages, airplanes, helicopters?

SIDES: You're SOL, you know? It's a really, really harrowing situation and really one of the great survival stories of all time. And these guys had to drag these three open boats over some 600 miles of shifting ice pack. That's one of the things that made it even more difficult as they would struggle for weeks. Then they would take a reading only to find out they'd actually retrogressed, you know? They'd gone backwards because the ice over which they were slogging was actually moving north faster than they were moving south. And they finally did make it to open water.

SIMON: In many ways, the narrative is then taken over by George Melville who was the chief engineer.

SIDES: Yes, when the expedition reached open water, the three boats took off only to encounter a huge gale with separated the three boats. And the three boats have very different fates. One of the boats was commanded by Melville, and Melville was a distant relative of Herman Melville. He was a Naval engineer - a brilliant guy. And his group landed first and had a much easier time of it, although no one had an easy time of it. And the story really becomes the story of the three separate fates of these three different boats and how they finally are reunited on the mainland of Russia's Lena Delta.

SIMON: I don't know if we give away anything with this question - do we know how for sure George DeLong met his fate?

SIDES: Well, this is something that I decided to do in terms of telling the story is to not in, you know, talking about it or in the book jacket itself, to not really say what happened specifically to anyone because I found that the story is just obscure enough that, although, of course, you can Google it - you can find out what happened to these men - there's a certain compelling qualities to the not knowing exactly what happens, where it happens, why it happens. So I don't talk much about it other than to say that there were actually 33 men. Thirteen made it home.

SIMON: We'll just note that there were a couple of Congressional Gold Medals that came out of it. That's how publicized this venture was.

SIDES: Yes, I mean, you know, the survivors came home to great acclaim. They were welcomed as heroes. The Jeannette was the subject of best-selling books and paintings and poems and monuments. And yet, now, you know, I think if you polled 100 people, maybe one has vaguely heard of this expedition. And so I just felt like it was one of these great harrowing classic adventure stories that needed to be resurrected. And one of the real hallmarks of this expedition is that DeLong - he obliterated all the leading theories of that time. There was no thermo-metric gateway. There was no open polar sea. And it was the last time anyone ever tried to do that. It was the last time that anyone ever tried to sail to the North Pole. The irony, of course, is that the climate change experts tell us that there very well might be an open polar sea in the not-too-distant future. So maybe he wasn't crazy or quixotic. Maybe, DeLong was just off by 140 years.

SIMON: Hampton Sides - his new book "In the Kingdom of Ice." Hampton, thanks for being with us.

SIDES: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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