Steamship Jeannette Lost On Top Of The World
By James Donahue
It was promoted in 1879 as an incredible voyage to the North Pole. Crowds stood cheering along the
San Francisco Bay as the USS Jeannette, a former British gunboat and three-mast steamship set sail with a crew of adventurers,
bound for the Bering Strait and an attempt to be the first ship to ever reach the top of the world.
In its day, the event might have been somewhat comparable to the day America launched its first team
of astronauts on a trip to the moon. It was an almost impossible task that had never been accomplished before.
While we know today that the North Pole can be reached by nuclear submarine, the massive field of
solid ice afloat in the region would still not allow a modern ice breaker to reach that part of the world, but back in 1879,
there were people who believed it possible to reach the North Pole by ship.
Also the territory of Alaska had just been purchased from Russia and the public was keenly interested
not only in this new territory, but what might be found in the waters to the north.
Thus it was that James Gordon Bennett Jr., owner of the New York Herald, an eccentric tycoon who bankrolled
the expedition, and George Washington De Long, a well-known Navy man of his day who agreed to command the voyage, became the
drivers behind the voyage of the USS Jeannette that ended in disaster.
De Long spent five years planning the trip. The Jeannette, a 570-foot bark-rigged steamship, was chosen
for the task. The ship was launched 20 years earlier in Wales as the HMS Pandora, a gunship for the Royal Navy. It had been
purchased in 1875 by Sir Allen Young and used for arctic voyages in 1875 and 1876.
At the Mare Island Naval Shipyard, the Jeannette was fitted with new boilers. The hull as massively
reinforced to allow it to smash its way through the Arctic icepack.
While it was privately owned, the Jeannette was sailing on this trip under orders of the U.S. Navy.
De Long picked a crew of 32 men with a variety of special talents. They included two Inuit dog drivers, a naturalist linked
to the Smithsonian Institute, a meteorologist, an engineer who could literally manufacture things out of junk, and a team
of naval officers.
When the Jeannette steamed out of San Francisco Bay on July 8, the crew on its decks had no idea what
horrors awaited them. The vessel steamed north to Alaska’s Norton Sound and sent a last communications to Washington
before starting north from St. Lawrence Bay, Siberia, on August 27.
The Jeannette sailed over the Chukchi Sea and sighted Herald Island on September 4. Then it became
caught fast in an ice pack off Wrangel Island. The ship remained trapped in the ice for the next 21 months, but strangely,
the ice was drifting north toward the North Pole. Thus the crew rode out the strange ice-driven journey, keeping meteorological
records and astronomical observations, believing they were eventually going to reach the North Pole.
Three islands were discovered during this time. Jeannette, Henrietta and Bennett Islands were all
"discovered" and claimed for the United States. Then on the night of June 12, the pressure of the ice began to crush the ship’s
hull. The crew unloaded provisions to the ice pack and watched the Jeannette sink before their eyes the next morning.
Thus began a slow and deadly hike of nearly a thousand miles to the coast of Siberia. On the way they
were forced to drag three small lifeboats to help them cross areas of wet sludge and water. The men "struggled in harness,
like mules, for 91 days" one account said.
Some of them made it. De Long and 19 other members of that crew perished in the long hike.