Books by willis j. Abbot

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We must pass hastily to the sequel of this seemingly irreparable disaster. The "Polaris" was beached, winter quarters established, and those who had clung to the ship spent the winter building boats, in which, the following spring, they made their way southward until picked up by a whaler. Those on the floe drifted at the mercy of the wind and tide 195 days, making over 1300 miles to the southward. As the more temperate latitudes were reached, and the warmer days of spring came on, the floe began going to pieces, and they were continually confronted with the probability of being forced to their boat for safety--one boat, built to hold eight, and now the sole reliance of nineteen people. It is hard to picture through the imagination the awful strain that day and night rested upon the minds of these hapless castaways. Never could they drop off to sleep except in dread that during the night the ice on which they slept, might split, even under their very pallets, and they be awakened by the deathly plunge into the icy water. Day and night they were startled and affrighted by the thunderous rumblings and cracking of the breaking floe--a sound that an experienced Arctic explorer says is the most terrifying ever heard by man, having in it something of the hoarse rumble of heavy artillery, the sharp and murderous crackle of machine guns, and a kind of titanic grinding, for which there is no counterpart in the world of tumult. Living thus in constant dread of death, the little company drifted on, seemingly miraculously preserved. Their floe was at last reduced from a great sheet of ice, perhaps a mile or more square, to a scant ten yards by seventy-five, and this rapidly breaking up. In two days four whalers passed near enough for them to see, yet failed to see them, but finally their frantic signals attracted attention, and they were picked up--not only the original nineteen who had begun the drift six months earlier, but one new and helpless passenger, for one of the Esquimau women had given birth to a child while on the ice.

The next notable Arctic expedition from the United States had its beginning in journalistic enterprise. Mr. James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, who had already manifested his interest in geographical work by sending Henry M. Stanley to find Livingston in the heart of the Dark Continent, fitted out the steam yacht "Pandora," which had already been used in Arctic service, and placed her at the disposal of Lieutenant DeLong, U.S.N., for an Arctic voyage. The name of the ship was changed to "Jeannette," and control of the expedition was vested in the United States Government, though Mr. Bennett's generosity defrayed all charges. The vessel was manned from the navy, and Engineer Melville, destined to bear a name great among Arctic men, together with two navy lieutenants, were assigned to her. The voyage planned was then unique among American Arctic expeditions, for instead of following the conventional route north through Baffin's Bay and Smith Sound, the "Jeannette" sailed from San Francisco and pushed northward through Bering Sea. In July, 1879, she weighed anchor. Two years after, no word having been heard of her meanwhile, the inevitable relief expedition was sent out--the steamer "Rodgers," which after making a gallant dash to a most northerly point, was caught in the ice-pack and there burned to the water's edge, her crew, with greatest difficulty, escaping, and reaching home without one ray of intelligence of DeLong's fate.

That fate was bitter indeed, a trial by cold, starvation, and death, fit to stand for awesomeness beside Greely's later sorrowful story. From the very outset evil fortune had attended the "Jeannette." Planning to winter on Wrangle Land--then thought to be a continent--DeLong caught in the ice-pack, was carried past its northern end, thus proving it to be an island, indeed, but making the discovery at heavy cost. Winter in the pack was attended with severe hardships and grave perils. Under the influence of the ocean currents and the tides, the ice was continually breaking up and shifting, and each time the ship was in imminent danger of being crushed. In his journal DeLong tries to describe the terrifying clamor of a shifting pack. "I know of no sound on shore that can be compared with it," he writes. "A rumble, a shriek, a groan, and the crash of a falling house all combined, might serve to convey an idea of the noise with which this motion of the ice-floe is accompanied. Great masses from fifteen to twenty-five feet in height, when up-ended, are sliding along at various angles of elevation and jam, and between and among them are large and confused masses of débris, like a marble yard adrift. Occasionally a stoppage occurs; some piece has caught against or under our floe; there follows a groaning and crackling, our floe bends and humps up in places like domes. Crash! The dome splits, another yard of floe edge breaks off, the pressure is relieved, and on goes again the flowing mass of rumbles, shrieks, groans, etc., for another spell."


Time and again this nerve-racking experience was encountered. More than once serious leaks were started in the ship, which had to be met by working the pumps and building false bulwarks in the hold; but by the exercise of every art known to sailors, she was kept afloat and tenable until June 11, 1881, when a fierce and unexpected nip broke her fairly in two, and she speedily sunk. There followed weeks and months of incessant and desperate struggling with sledge and boat against the forces of polar nature. The ship had sunk about 150 miles from what are known as the New Siberian Islands, for which DeLong then laid his course. The ice was rugged, covered with soft snow, which masked treacherous pitfalls, and full of chasms which had to be bridged. Five sleds and three boats were dragged by almost superhuman exertions, the sick feebly aiding the sturdy in the work. Imagine the disappointment, and despair of the leader, when, after a full week of this cruel labor, with provisions ever growing more scanty, an observation showed him they were actually twenty-eight miles further away from their destination than when they started! While they were toiling south, the ice-floe over which they were plodding was drifting more rapidly north. Nil desperandum must ever be the watchword of Arctic expeditions, and DeLong, saying nothing to the others of his discovery, changed slightly the course of his march and labored on. July 19 they reached an island hitherto unknown, which was thereupon named Bennett Island. A curious feature of the toilsome march across the ice, was that, though the temperature seldom rose to the freezing point, the men complained bitterly of the heat and suffered severely from sun-burn.


At Bennett Island they took to the boats, for now open water was everywhere visible. DeLong was making for the Lena River in Siberia, where there were known to be several settlements, but few of his party were destined to reach it. In a furious storm, on the 12th of September, the three boats were separated. One, commanded by Lieutenant Chipp, with eight men, must have foundered, for it was never again heard of. A second, commanded by George W. Melville, afterward chief engineer of the United States Navy, found one of the mouths of the Lena River, and ascending it reached a small Siberian village. Happy would it have been had DeLong and his men discovered the same pathway to safety, but the Lena is like our own Mississippi, a river with a broad delta and a multiplicity of mouths. Into an estuary, the banks of which were untrodden by man, and which itself was too shallow for navigation for any great distance, remorseless fate led DeLong. Forced soon to take to their sleds again, his companions toiled painfully along the river bank, with no known destination, but bearing ever to the south--the only way in which hope could possibly lie. Deserted huts and other signs of former human habitation were plenty, but nothing living crossed their path. At last, the food being at the point of exhaustion, and the men too weary and weak for rapid travel, DeLong chose two of the sturdiest, Nindemann and Noros, and sent them ahead in the hope that they might find and return with succor. The rest stumbled on behind, well pleased if they could advance three miles daily. Food gave out, then strength. Resignation took the place of determination. DeLong's journal for the last week of life is inexpressibly pitiful:

"Sunday, October 23--133d Day: Everybody pretty weak. Slept or rested all day, and then managed to get in enough wood before dark. Read part of divine service. Suffering in our feet. No foot-gear.

"Monday, October 24--134th Day: A hard night.

"Tuesday, October 25--135th Day.

"Wednesday, October 26--136th day.

"Thursday, October 27--137th Day: Iverson broken down.

"Friday, October 28--138th Day: Iverson died during early morning.

"Saturday, October 29th--139th Day: Dressier died during the night.

"Sunday, October 30--140th Day: Boyd and Cortz died during the night. Mr. Collins dying."

This is the last entry. The hand that penned it, as the manuscript shows, was as firm and steady as though the writer were sitting in his library at home. Words are spelled out in full, punctuation carefully observed. How long after these words were set down DeLong too died, none may ever know; but when Melville, whom Nindemann and Noros had found after sore privations, reached the spot of the death camp, he came upon a sorrowful scene. "I came upon the bodies of three men partly buried in the snow," he writes, "one hand reaching out, with the left arm of the man reaching way above the surface of the snow--his whole left arm. I immediately recognized them as Captain DeLong, Dr. Ambler, and Ah Sam, the cook.... I found the journal about three or four feet in the rear of DeLong--that is, it looked as though he had been lying down, and with his left hand tossed the book over his shoulder to the rear, or to the eastward of him."

How these few words bring the whole scene up before us! Last, perhaps, of all to die, lying by the smoldering fire, the ashes of which were in the middle of the group of bodies when found, DeLong puts down the final words which tell of the obliteration of his party, tosses the book wearily over his shoulder, and turns on his side to die. And then the snow, falling gently, pitifully covers the rigid forms and holds them in its pure embrace until loyal friends seek them out, and tell to the world that again brave lives have been sacrificed to the ogre of the Arctic.

While DeLong and his gallant comrades of the United States Navy were dying slowly in the bleak desert of the Lena delta, another party of brave Americans were pushing their way into the Arctic circle on the Atlantic side of the North American continent. The story of that starvation camp in desolate Siberia was to be swiftly repeated on the shores of Smith Sound, and told this time with more pathetic detail, for of Greely's expedition, numbering twenty-five, seven were rescued after three years of Arctic suffering and starving, helpless, and within one day of death. They had seen their comrades die, destroyed by starvation and cold, and passing away in delirium, babbling of green fields and plenteous tables. From the doorway of the almost collapsed tent, in which the seven survivors were found, they could see the row of shallow graves in which their less fortunate comrades lay interred--all save two, whom they had been too weak to bury. No story of the Arctic which has come to us from the lips of survivors, has half the pathos, or a tithe of the pitiful interest, possessed by this story of Greely.

Studying to-day the history of the Greely expedition, it seems almost as if a malign fate had determined to bring disaster upon him. His task was not so arduous as a determined search for the Pole, or the Northwest Passage. He was ordered by the United States Government to establish an observation station on Lady Franklin Bay, and remain there two years, conducting, meanwhile, scientific observations, and pressing exploratory work with all possible zeal. The enterprise was part of a great international plan, by which each of the great nations was to establish and maintain such an observation station within the Arctic circle, while observations were to be carried on in all at once. The United States agreed to maintain two such stations, and the one at Point Barrow, north of Alaska, was established, maintained, and its tenants brought home at the end of the allotted time without disaster.

Greely was a lieutenant in the United States Army, and his expedition was under the immediate direction of the Secretary of War--at that time Robert Lincoln, son of the great war President. Some criticism was expressed at the time and, indeed, still lingers in the books of writers on the subject, concerning the fitness of an army officer to direct an Arctic voyage. But the purpose of the expedition was largely to collect scientific facts bear-on weather, currents of air and sea, the duration and extent of magnetic and electrical disturbances--in brief, data quite parallel to those which the United States signal service collects at home. So the Greely expedition was made an adjunct to the signal service, which in its turn is one of the bureaus of the War Department. Two army lieutenants, Lockwood and Klingsbury, and twenty men from the rank and file of the army and signal corps, were selected to form the party. An astronomer was needed, and Edward Israel, a young graduate of the University of Michigan, volunteered. George W. Rice volunteered as photographer. Both were enlisted in the army and given the rank of sergeant.

It is doubtful if any polar expedition was ever more circumstantially planned--none has resulted more disastrously, save Sir John Franklin's last voyage. The instructions of the War Department were as explicit as human foresight and a genius for detail could make them. Greely was to proceed to some point on Lady Franklin Bay, which enters the mainland of North America at about 81° 44' north latitude, build his station, and prepare for a two-years' stay. Provisions for three years were supplied him. At the end of one year it was promised, a relief ship should be sent him, which failing for any cause to reach the station, would cache supplies and dispatches at specified points. A year later a second relief ship would be sent to bring the party home, and if for any reason this ship should fail to make the station, then Greely was to break camp and sledge to the southward, following the east coast of the mainland, until he met the vessel, or reached the point at which fresh supplies were to be cached. No plan could have been better devised--none ever failed more utterly.

Arctic travel is an enigma, and it is an enigma never to be solved twice in the same way. Whalers, with the experience of a lifetime in the frozen waters, agree that the lessons of one voyage seldom prove infallible guides for the conduct of the next. Lieutenant Schwatka, a veteran Arctic explorer, said in an official document that the teachings of experience were often worse than useless in polar work. And so, though the Washington authorities planned for the safety of Greely according to the best guidance that the past could give them, their plans failed completely. The first relief ship did, indeed, land some stores--never, as the issue showed, to be reached by Greely--but the second expedition, composed of two ships, the "Proteus" and the "Yantic," accomplished nothing. The station was not reached, practically no supplies were landed, the "Proteus" was nipped by the ice and sunk, and the remnant of the expedition came supinely home, reporting utter failure. It is impossible to acquit the commanders of the two ships engaged in this abortive relief expedition of a lack of determination, a paucity of courage, complete incompetence. They simply left Greely to his fate while time still remained for his rescue, or at least for the convenient deposit of the vast store of provisions they brought home, leaving the abandoned explorers to starve.

The history of the Greely expedition and its achievements may well be sketched hastily, before the story of the catastrophe which overwhelmed it is told. As it was the most tragic of expeditions save one, Sir John Franklin's, so, too, it was the most fruitful in results, of any American expedition to the time of the writing of this book. Proceeding by the whaler "Proteus" in August, 1881, to the waters of the Arctic zone, Greely reached his destination with but little trouble, and built a commodious and comfortable station on the shores of Discovery Bay, which he called Fort Conger after a United States Senator from Michigan. A month remained before the Arctic night would set in, but the labor of building the house left little time for explorations, which were deferred until the following summer. Life at the station was not disagreeable. The house, stoutly built, withstood the bitter cold. Within there were books and games, and through the long winter night the officers beguiled the time with lectures and reading. Music was there, too, in impressive quantity, if not quality. "An organette with about fifty yards of music," writes Lieutenant Greely, "afforded much amusement, being particularly fascinating to our Esquimau, who never wearied grinding out one tune after another." The rigid routine of Arctic winter life was followed day by day, and the returning sun, after five months' absence, found the party in perfect health and buoyant spirits. The work of exploration on all sides began, the explorers being somewhat handicapped by the death of many of the sledge dogs from disease. Lieutenant Greely, Dr. Pavy, and Lieutenant Lockwood each led a party, but to the last named belong the honors, for he, with Sergeant Brainard and an Esquimau, made his way northward over ice that looked like a choppy sea suddenly frozen into the rigidity of granite, until he reached latitude 83° 24' north--the most northerly point then attained by any man--and still the record marking Arctic journey for an American explorer.

Winter came again under depressing circumstances. The first relief ship promised had not arrived, and the disappointment of the men deepened into apprehension lest the second, also, should fail them. Yet they went through the second winter in good health and unshaken morale, though one can not read such portions of Greely's diary as he has published, without seeing that the irritability and jealousy that seem to be the inevitable accompaniments of long imprisonment in an Arctic station, began to make their appearance. With the advent of spring the commander began to make his preparations for a retreat to the southward. If he had not then felt entire confidence in the promise of the War Department to relieve him without fail that summer, he would have begun his retreat early, and beyond doubt have brought all his men to safety before another winter set in or his provisions fell low. But as it was, he put off the start to the last moment, keeping up meanwhile the scientific work of the expedition, and sending out one party to cache supplies along the route of retreat. August 9, 1883, the march began--just two years after they had entered the frozen deep--Greely hoping to meet the relief ship oh the way. He did not know that three weeks before she had been nipped in the ice-pack, and sunk, and that her consort, the "Yantic," had gone impotently home, without even leaving food for the abandoned explorers. Over ice-fields and across icy and turbulent water, the party made its way for five hundred miles--four hundred miles of boating and one hundred of sledging--fifty-one days of heroic exertion that might well take the courage out of the stoutest heart. Sledging in the Arctic over "hummock" ice is, perhaps, the most wearing form of toil known to man, and with such heavy loads as Greely carried, every mile had to be gone over twice, and sometimes three times, as the men would be compelled to leave part of the load behind and go back after it. Yet the party was cheerful, singing and joking at their work, as one of the sergeants records. Finally they reached the vicinity of Cape Sabine, all in good health, with instruments and records saved, and with arms and ammunition enough to procure ample food in a land well stocked with game. But they did not worry very much about food, though their supply was by this time growing low. Was not Cape Sabine the spot at which the relief expeditions were to cache food, and could it be possible that the great United States Government would fail twice in an enterprise which any Yankee whaler would gladly take a contract to fulfill? And so the men looked upon the wilderness, and noted the coming on of the Arctic night again without fear, if with some disappointment. Less than forty days' rations remained. Eight months must elapse before any relief expedition could reach their camp, and far away in the United States the people were crying out in hot indignation that the authorities were basely leaving Greely and his devoted companions to their fate.

Pluckily the men set about preparing for the long winter. Three huts of stone and snow were planned, and while they were building, the hunters of the party scoured the neighboring ice-floes and pools for game--foxes, ptarmigan, and seals. There were no mistaken ideas concerning their deadly peril. Every man knew that if game failed, or if the provisions they hoped had been cached by the relief expeditions somewhere in the vicinity, could not be found, they might never leave that spot alive. Day by day the size of the rations was reduced. October 2 enough for thirty-five days remained, and at the request of the men, Greely so changed the ration as to provide for forty-five days. October 5 Lieutenant Lockwood noted in his diary:

"We have now three chances for our lives: First, finding American cache sufficient at Sabine or at Isabella; second, of crossing the straits when our present ration is gone; third, of shooting sufficient seal and walrus near by here to last during the winter."

How delusive the first chance proved we shall see later. The second was impractical, for the current carried the ice through the strait so fast, that any party trying to cross the floe, would have been carried south to where the strait widened out into Baffin's Bay before they could possibly pass the twenty-five miles which separated Cape Sabine from Littleton Island. Moreover, there was no considerable cache at the latter point, as Greely thought. As for the hunting, it proved a desperate chance, though it did save the lives of such of the party as were rescued. All feathered game took flight for the milder regions of the south when the night set in. The walrus which the hunters shot--two, Greely said, would have supplied food for all winter--and the seal sunk in almost every instance before the game could be secured.

The first, and most hopeful chance, was the discovery of cached provisions at Cape Sabine. To put this to the test, Rice, the photographer, who, though a civilian, proved to be one of the most determined and efficient men in the party, had already started for Sabine with Jens, the Esquimau. October 9 they returned, bringing the record of the sinking of the "Proteus," and the intelligence that there were about 1300 rations at, or near Cape Sabine. The record left at Cape Sabine by Garlington, the commander of the "Proteus" expedition, and which Rice brought back to the camp, read in part: "Depot landed ... 500 rations of bread, tea, and a lot of canned goods. Cache of 250 rations left by the English expedition of 1882 visited by me and found in good condition. Cache on Littleton Island. Boat at Isabella. U.S.S. 'Yantic' on way to Littleton Island with orders not to enter the ice. I will endeavor to communicate with these vessels at once.... Everything in the power of man will be done to rescue the (Greely's) brave men."

This discovery changed Greely's plans again. It was hopeless to attempt hauling the ten or twelve thousand pounds of material believed to be at Cape Sabine, to the site of the winter camp, now almost done, so Greely determined to desert that station and make for Cape Sabine, taking with him all the provisions and material he could drag. In a few days his party was again on the march across the frozen sea.

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