Thursday, October 16, 2014

Roald Amundsen cabin in Eagle - a link with bygone era of Polar exploration



 

The small frame house shown in the drawing, located in Eagle, Alaska, is where Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) spent several months during the winter of 1905-06. He had mushed to Eagle, 400 miles south of the Arctic Ocean where Amundsen’s iced-in boat lay anchored, to send a telegram announcing that he and his crew were the first explorers to successfully sail through the Northwest Passage, the fabled ocean route traversing the Canadian Archipelago.

In contrast to earlier unsuccessful expeditions that involved large ships, scores of men, and dependence on tons of supplies carried onboard, Amundsen sailed a small shallow-draft boat with an appropriately small crew, and as much as possible lived off the resources of the area. He and his hand-picked six-man crew set sail on June 16, 1903 from Christiana (Oslo), Norway aboard the 70’ sloop Gjoa.

Several months later he sailed into the Canadian Archipelago northwest of Hudson’s Bay, searching for a location to set up scientific instruments to study the North Magnetic Pole. Aided by a group of Netsilik Inuit who settled nearby, Amundsen spent two winters at a site he christened Gjoahavn, in a protected harbor on the southeastern coast of King William Island.

During that time his party conducted systematic magnetic and meteorological observations at Gjoahavn, and made numerous forays to map the local area and take observations closer to the magnetic pole. One of the important discoveries from the expedition was that the pole had shifted about 30 miles to the north since first being located in 1831.

After his second winter at Gjoahavn, Amundsen continued his quest to navigate the Northwest Passage. Guided part way by Inuit kayakers, the Gjoa inched through the shallow, island-dotted waters until finally reaching Herschel Island in the eastern Beaufort Sea.  Because of the all-too-short navigation season, Amundsen was forced to overwinter there, along with several whaling vessels which had been plying the Arctic Ocean near the Bering Straits.

A wrecked whaling schooner was beached at Point King, near where the Gjoa was anchored. According to the book, “Amundsen, the splendid Norseman,” the ship’s captain wanted to reach San Francisco to outfit another ship for the next whaling season and contracted with Inuit guides to take him by dog sled as far as Fort Yukon.

Amundsen agreed to accompany them on the trip. Being the good Norwegian he was, Amundsen skied much of the way, helping break trail for the sled dogs. Some accounts stress Amundsen’s desire to send word of his success back to Norway, but Elva Scott, in a 1996 Fairbanks Daily News-Miner article, wrote that he was also seeking medical assistance for an ill crew member.

Fort Yukon did not have the telegraph facility that Amundsen had hoped for, so he and the whaling captain decided to push on to Eagle while their Inuit guides waited for Amundsen’s return at Fort Yukon.

When Amundsen arrived in Eagle on December 5, 1905 the thermometer read -60 degrees F. Amundsen’s first stop was the Northern Commercial Company (NC Co.) store, where he was mistaken for just another bedraggled prospector until asking to send a telegram to Norway. Broke, he had to send the 3,000 word telegram collect.

While waiting for replies to his telegram and for funds to complete his voyage, Amundsen lived in Eagle as guest of the NC Company’s store manager, Frank Smith. The small gable-roofed cabin he stayed in, about 15’ square with a small shed-roofed rear extension, is located on what is now called Amundsen Street, behind the old NC. Co. store building.

Amundsen finally departed Eagle on February 3, 1906, skiing the 400 miles back to the Gjoa. Later that year he and his crew completed their historic voyage across the Arctic Ocean, arriving at Nome in the Bering Straits on September 1, 1906.


Sources:


  • “Amundsen cabin.” Sandra Faulkner. Historic American Buildings Survey , National Park Service. 1986
  • Amundsen, the splendid Norseman. Bellamy Partridge. Frederick A. Stokes Company. 1929
  • “Arctic explorer leaves imprint in Eagle.” Elva Scott. In Fairbanks Daily News-Miner. 10-6-1996
  • The North West Passage; the ‘Gjöa’ expedition, 1903-1907. Roald Amundsen. E.  Dutton. 1908

  • The Last Viking, the life of Roald Amundsen. Stephen R. Brown. Da Capo Press. 2012
 

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