Arctic Explorers in Alaska

When the expeditions of Frederick Cook in 1908 and Robert Peary in 1909 reached the North Pole, it might have seemed like the era of expedition to the top of the world was at an end, but in fact it was only beginning. While the world was engrossed by Charles Lindbergh’s flight across the Atlantic in 1927, a series of daring flights had been taking place over the North Pole – first by Richard E. Byrd in 1926 and then later by Roald Amundsen in the Italian dirigible Norge. These efforts would culminate in the flight of Hubert Wilkins over the North Pole in 1928.

Many of these early expeditions to the North Pole faced scrutiny in their claims. GPS did not exist and and it was up to the navigational data explorers collected to verify and prove their claims. Doubts still remain about Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole, while Cook’s has been widely discredited.

Richard E. Byrd’s claim, while initially accepted by some, had its share of doubters too, in part due to the much faster than anticipated flight time; it received a more severe hit in 1996 when it emerged that Byrd’s journal contained his estimations of the plane’s ground speed but no written calculations to show how Byrd reached those numbers. The limitations of the navigational technology Byrd was using, and the possibility that he was doing speed calculations in his head for over 15 hours that required him to make very precise readings, have convinced many that Byrd likely did not reach the North Pole.

A picture of Richard Byrd from the Alaska Daily Empire, 1926-05-10
Alaska Daily Empire 1926-05-10

The first widely accepted claim to reach the North Pole was made by the Norge, which departed from Spitsbergen, Norway and landed at Teller, Alaska – its original destination was Nome, but bad weather forced it to land early. Once it had landed in Alaska, the Norge was disassembled and ultimately transported back to Europe. The Italian, Norwegian, and American flags were dropped from the Norge as it flew over the North Pole.

A headline from the Alaska Daily Empire, 1926-05-15, about the Norge reaching Alaska
Headline of the Alaska Daily Empire, 1926-05-15
An image from the Alaska Daily Empire, 1926-05-25, showing the route the Norge took in getting to Teller, Alaska
Alaska Daily Empire, 1926-05-25

From 1926-1928 a series of expeditions were carried out by Hubert Wilkins, an Australian, who was intrigued by the possibility of undiscovered lands near the North Pole. Wilkins and his team made several trips through Juneau by ship, and then travelled from Seward to Fairbanks and ultimately to Point Barrow in the far north. Point Barrow was used by Wilkins and his pilot, Carl Ben Eielson, as the take off point for their expeditions over the North Pole. Wilkin’s endeavors didn’t immediately bear fruit, and just over a month after passing through Juneau his plane crashed in the snow while trying to take off from Fairbanks.

An image from the Daily Alaska Empire, 1928-02-14, showing a picture of Hubert Wilkins, his plane, and the route of previous flights across the North Pole
Daily Alaska Empire 1928-02-14

Through 1926 and 1927 Wilkins undertook a number of different flights, with his efforts and progress constantly reported by the press in Juneau. It was in April of 1928 that he made a complete flight over the North Pole, starting in Port Barrow, Alaska and ending in Spitsbergen, Norway just over 20 hours later. The news of his successful arrival was delayed by several days due to a lack of wireless radio access at Spitsbergen, but when word of his achievement reached the outside world it was trumpeted in the headlines. The first of several awards for Wilkins came just several days later from the National Geographic Society and the accolades culminated in a knighthood for him.  

A headline from the Daily Alaska Empire, 1928-04-21, saying that Wilkins and his pilot, Ben Eielson had completed their flight to Spitzbergen
Daily Alaska Empire 1928-04-21
An image from the Daily Alaska Empire, 1928-04-21, showing the routes of the various flights over the North Pole.
Daily Alaska Empire 1928-04-21

Not content to rest on their achievements, Byrd and Wilkins both began to make plans for aerial flights over the South Pole and Antarctic region, as their focus shifted away from the North Pole. For a brief period of time, however, Alaska was the hub of many an explorer, all seeking to make their mark on history.

By Christopher Russell

Sources Used:

Issues of the Alaska Daily Empire and Daily Alaska Empire Newspapers

Captain George Hubert Wilkins. Australian War Memorial. https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/P10676761

Sir George Hubert Wilkins. Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/biography/George-Hubert-Wilkins

Tierney, John. Who Was First at the North Pole? New York Times, September 7th, 2009. https://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/09/07/who-was-first-at-the-north-pole/

Ohio State University. “Byrd came oh-so-close, but probably didn’t reach North Pole.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 8 April 2013. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/04/130408142642.htm

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