Hell on Ice: The Saga of the “Jeannette“

p. viii-ix, Preface: Reading what I could get my hands on concerning it [the Jeannette expedition], I soon enough saw that De Long’s early failure was a more brilliant chapter in human struggle and achievement than the later successes of Peary and of Amundsen.

But in my early search, based mainly on De Long’s journals as published nearly sixty years ago, much of what had happened eluded me; first, because De Long himself, fighting for the lives of his men in the Arctic, never had opportunity to set down in his journal what was going on (the most vivid day of his life is covered by two brief lines); and second, because the published version of his journal was much expurgated by those who edited it to create the impression that the expedition was a happy family of scientists unitedly battling the ice, whereas the truth was considerably otherwise as I soon learned.

Fortunately there came into my hands the old record of the Naval Court of Inquiry into the disaster, before which court the survivors testified, from which it appeared that De Long’s struggles with his men tried his soul even as much as his struggles with the ice; and on top of that discovery, with the aid of Congressman Celler of New York, I got from the records of Congress the transcript of a Congressional Investigation lasting two solid months, a volume of nearly eleven hundred closely printed pages, from which the flesh to clothe the skeleton of De Long’s journal immediately appeared. For there, fiercely fought over by the inquisitors (Congressional investigations apparently being no different over half a century ago from what they are today) were the stories of every survivor, whether officer or man, dragged out of him by opposing counsel, insistent even that the exact suppressed reports relating to the expedition, the expurgated portions of De Long’s journal, and the unpublished journals of Ambler and of Collins.

From the records of these two inquiries, Naval and Congressional, backed up by what had been published— the journal of De Long appearing as “The Voyage of the Jeannette”; “In the Lena Delta,” by G. W. Melville, chief engineer of the expedition; and “The Narrative of the Jeannette” by J. W. Danenhower, navigator—stood forth an extraordinary human story. Over this material I worked three years.

[Ellsworth here goes on to outline his approach to telling the De Long/Jeannette story.]

p. 102-05: Over the side, through a hole chopped in the thick ice, we provided an opening for our dredge and our drift lead. Hourly we took observations (and carefully recorded them) of every type of phenomenon for which we were equipped to measure— magnetic variation and dip, wind velocity and direction, humidity, air pressure and temperature, gravity readings, temperature of the sea at top, bottom, and points in between, salinity of the sea water, speed and direction of drift— all this data laboriously read night and day in the Arctic chill went into our logs. And for the zoological and botanical side of our expedition, all hands were directed to bring in for Newcomb’s inspection specimens of anything found on the ice, under, or above it, which meant that what ever our guns could knock down in the form of birds or beasts, or our hooks could catch in the way of fish, passed under Newcomb’s scrutiny before (in most cases) they went to Ah Sam and were popped into the galley kettles.

And to top off all in completing our polar records, we brought along an extensive and expensive photograph outfit, intending to get a continuous record of our life in the Arctic and particularly some authentic views of Aurora Borealis.

So there being nothing else to compete with it for our time, science received a double dose of attention, too much in fact. Taking the multitude of readings every hour (there were sixteen thermometers alone to be read) kept the watch officer hopping, and as each of us, except Collins and Newcomb, had ship and personnel matters to look after, it became to a high degree a nuisance. Most of this scientific work naturally should have fallen to Collins and Newcomb, but unfortunately matters in their departments went none too smoothly. The captain received a severe jolt when he learned that the photographic outfit, entrusted to Collins’ care, was practically useless because our meteorologist had neglected when buying his photographic plates in San Francisco to get any developer for them and that not a picture he took could be developed till we got back to civilization. When on top of this, one of our barometers and some of our precious thermometers entrusted also to Collins were carelessly broken, the captain began to mistrust Collins as a scientist and loaded a considerable part of the observation work on Chipp, on Ambler, and on me— a development which did not help to make any more amicable the attitude of Collins towards his shipmates.

Speaking frankly, after two months’ close association in the cabin of the Jeannette, we were beginning to get tired of each other’s company. Life on shipboard is difficult at best with the same faces at every meal, the same idiosyncrasies constantly rubbing your nerves, the same shortcomings of your messmates to irritate you; but ordinarily there are compensations. Shore leave gets you away from your shipmates, while foreign ports, foreign customs, foreign scenes, and foreigners give flavor to a cruise that makes life not only livable but to my mind rich in variety, and to a person like myself, completely satisfying. But in the polar ice, we came quickly to the realization that life on the Jeannette was life on shipboard at its worst— a small cramped ship, a captain who socially had retired into himself, only a few officers, and not a solitary compensation. No possibility of shore leave, no foreign ports— nothing but the limitless ice pack holding us helpless and no hope of any change (except for the worse) till summer came and released us. And, impossible to conceal, a mental despondency, as ponderable and as easily sensed as the cold pervading the ship gripped our captain as we drifted impotently with the pack between Herald Island and Wrangel Land, a thousand miles from that Pole which in a blare of publicity from the Herald, he had set out in such confidence to conquer.

Gone now were all the fine theories about the Kuro-Si-Wo Current and the open path to the northward through the Arctic Ocean that its warm waters would provide. We had only to look over the side at the ice floes fifteen feet thick gripping our hull to know that the “black tide” of Japan had no more contact with these frozen seas than had the green waters of the Nile. And just as thoroughly exploded was that other delusion on which we had based our choice of route— the Herr Doktor Petermann’s thesis that Wrangel Land was a continent stretching northward toward the Pole along the coasts of which with our dog teams we could sledge our way over firm ground to the Pole. Every glimpse we got of it as we drifted northwest with the pack for our first eight weeks showed conclusively enough that Wrangel Land was nothing more than a mountainous island to the southward and not a very large island at that. As for Dr. Petermann and his idea that Greenland stretched upward across the Pole to reappear on the Siberian side as Wrangel Land, if that ponderous German scientist who so dominated current European opinion on polar matters could have been forced to spend a week in our crow’s-nest observing how insignificant a speck his much publicized Wrangel Land formed of the Arctic scene, I am sure the result would have been such a deflation of his ego and his reputation as might be of great benefit at least to future explorers even if too late to be of service to us in the Jeannette, already led astray by the good doctor’s teachings.

How much the general knowledge amongst our officers that every theory on which the expedition had been based was false had to do with the lack of sociability and of harmony among us, and how much of it may have been owing simply to our physical imprisonment in the ice, I will not venture to say. But in my mind, the belief of all that as a polar exploring expedition we were already a failure, doomed never to get anywhere near the Pole, had a decided, if an unconscious, bearing on the reactions of all of us, and most of all on the captain and on Collins, both of whom had brought along massive blank journals whose pages they had confidently expected to fill with the records of their discoveries.

p. 212, August 1880: We came to the middle of the month, with the only change in our condition an increase in our heel to 7 1/2°, a change indeed in something, but not an improvement. We began to get morose— summer was fast fading, we were not released, and our hopes of doing anything in 1880 or in any succeeding year were vanishing into space. I tried to cheer the mess up by singing (if I say it myself, for an engineer I have a very good voice), Irish songs and ditties having been my specialty since early in my Civil War days on blockade. Whether I cheered up anyone except myself with the sound of my voice, I do not know, but I did get some sullen looks for my efforts from Collins, who being Irish himself may have thought I failed to do justice to the songs of his native land. Collins (who also imagined he could sing) reciprocated by regaling us with melodies from Pinafore, then only two years old, but I thought he did the English far more violence than I did the Irish. In this conclusion, I have as in dependent evidence the reactions of Newcomb, who, whenever I sang in the cabin, continued reading wholly oblivious of me, but whenever Collins opened up on Pinafore, immediately closed his book and remembered that he had a gull or a seal that required stuffing.

p. 249, from Engineer Melville’s Narrative: With a few precious drops (and precious few) of medicinal whiskey, I christened the spot HENRIETTA ISLAND, after which we six sick seamen drank the remainder of the medicine in honor of the event, and then revelling in a brief tramp over real earth for the first time in over twenty-one of the longest months men have ever spent, we hauled our sleeping bags about our weary bones and lay down, at last to rest again on terra firma.

At ten a.m. we woke, startled to have slept so long, for we were not to stay on the island longer than twenty-four hours. On a bold headland nearby, we built our cairn, burying in it two cases, one zinc and one copper, containing the records with which Captain De Long had provided us. This promontory, Mr. Dunbar named “Melville Head” in my honor, but after considering its bareness of vegetation, I decided “Bald Head” was more appropriate and so entered it on the chart which I now proceeded to make.

p. 327-28: Sunday, as on every Sunday without exception which we had passed whether on the pack or in the boats since the Jeannette went down, after mustering the crew and reading them the Articles of War, De Long held Divine Service in his tent, attended as usual only by Chipp, Ambler, Dunbar, Danenhower, and myself. Solemnly we listened, seamen about to embark in frail shells for a long and dangerous voyage across the open Arctic Sea, as De Long reverently read the service, and never were we more sincere in our lives than when at the end our rough voices, mingling with the freezing gale howling outside, rose in the final fervent plea, “Oh, hear us when we cry to Thee For those in peril on the sea!”