If any snow falls in Washington, DC, locals scramble for their milk and toilet paper, turn up the heat, and hide under their blankets. Imagine celebrating the Christmas holiday inside a hut 600 miles south of the North Pole!
In 1898, Walter Wellman led an attempt to reach the North Pole using ship and sledge via Franz Josef Land, a group of uninhabited Russian islands in the Arctic Ocean. A journalist who had already made an unsuccessful polar attempt in 1894, Wellman also hoped to discover what had become of Swedish explorer Salomon A. Andrée, who had attempted to reach the Pole via balloon in 1897. Many notable names provided funding for the expedition, including President William McKinley, Vice President Garret Hobart, J.P. Morgan, and William K. Vanderbilt. The expedition arrived at Franz Josef Land in July 1898 and built their headquarters, “Harmsworth House.” Wellman sent Evelyn B. Baldwin, a meteorologist with the United States Weather Bureau and a veteran of one of Robert Peary’s Greenland expeditions, ahead north to establish an outpost to be used in the spring for their push to the Pole. Leaving two of their Norwegian colleagues to winter in the outpost, Baldwin returned to Harmsworth House. In two photographs from the National Air and Space Museum’s Walter and Arthur Wellman Collection (Acc. No. 2004-0007), Wellman and Baldwin celebrate Christmas 1898 at Harmsworth House. Wellman writes in his journal and Baldwin is cutting part of his Christmas “feast.”
In a New Year’s Eve letter to his brother Arthur, Wellman outlined his plans for the spring trip to the Pole, noting “But if we are not heard from in 1899 do not despair.” Listing all of the possibilities for their silence, he adds, “…if fate orders it otherwise I shall still have faith in our ability to take care of ourselves and get back safe, somehow, from some quarter. And I want you, [Arthur], to have the same faith that I have.” Reflecting on his travels, Wellman writes, “I feel that I have been ‘born again’ up here. It was just what I needed – it was worth coming for, that alone – and now, do my best here and my duty when I return are my watch-words.” Sadly, when Wellman’s expedition finally made it to the northern outpost in February 1899, they found that only one of the men left behind had survived. The expedition continued north, but on 22 March an “ice-quake” cut off their progress and they returned to Harmsworth House. Wellman broke his leg on the way. Having failed to reach the North Pole by land, Wellman decided to try the aerial route. His 1907 attempt in the airship America only covered twenty miles and the second attempt in 1909 went only a little farther at forty. With two other expeditions having claimed to reach the Pole, Wellman set his sights on another milestone. In 1910, he unsuccessfully tried to cross the Atlantic Ocean in the America, Wellman’s last attempt at aerial exploration.