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The Ill-Fated Jeannette

Commodore Melville Retells the Story of the Expedition.

A Highly Interesting Session of the Commercial Club.

The Details of the Sinking of the Steamer and That Awful Journey Over Ice and Water to the Siberian Coast Graphically Described

The regular meeting of the Commercial Club at the Narragansett Hotel last evening was well attended, and proved a highly enjoyable and successful occasion. At the head table, with President Field were seated as guests of the evening, Commodore George W. Melville, Engineer-in-Chief U.S.N., a Commander in the Jeannette Arctic expedition; Prof. H. C. Bumpus, Brown University; Mr. R.A. Robertson, Mr. J. E. Wilson, Mr. Gardiner C. Sims, Mr. George L. Shepley, Mr. G.H. Robinson, Mr. Charles Briggs and Mr. H.F. Lippitt.

At the conclusion of the banquet President Field called the assembly to order, and itnroduced Commodore Melville as speaker of the evening. The subject for the evening was "Arctic Talk," and upon this interesting topic Commodore Melville addressed the members of the club, in substance as follows:

"I have one favor to ask of you, gentlemen -- when you leave this banquet hall don't say that George Melville delivered a lecture. I will not, and never have, attempted to raise money by discussing the bones of my dead comrades. I am only an employe (sic) of the National Government, and am, accordingly, not rich, but will talk until we both are wearied of the subject.

"The Jeannette was at first a gunboat in the English service and was sold to Allen Young, an English yachtsman, and came through the hands of James Gordon Bennett, to the expedition party. The ship was fitted out at San Francisco, and when all were aboard there were about 33 men, all told. Most of the officers were from the regular naval service. Among the others were Jerome Collins, of the New York Herald, and Capt. William Dunbar, well known in Massachusetts. The expedition was clearly and purely a Polar expedition. Its object was to get as near as possible to the North Pole. The idea of going through the Behring strait was the plan of Lieut. DeLong, the commander, and this was the first polar expedition by that route.

"Our business was to get north as soon as possible. After leaving the east cape of Siberia we passed to westward and pushed the ship toward the Northern ocean. The ship was driven into the ice of the Northern Sea, and for 13 months we drifted on, on, on, toward the northwest. It looked as though the game was up. DeLong has frequently been condemned for not seeking a winter harbor instead of forcing into the ice, but time and provisions were to be considered. During the first winter the ship drifted 500 miles to the northwest, and in the spring the counter currents drove her back until she was just north of Wrangle Land.

"People are accustomed to talk of skating or sledding toward the Pole. The frozen sea is like a city of tall and short buildings without streets. From the highest pinnacle of floe to the lowest is just such a distance as between your highest and lowest buildings and the whole frozen sea is like this. That may give you an idea of the situation in the Arctic Ocean. It is always in motion and never at rest. If the ice were smooth, there would be no difficulty in setting directly for the North Pole. In quiet weather the ice will remain smooth, but in a gale the ice begins to heave and throw, and thus forms floebergs, in distinction from icebergs, which are formed upon land.

Early in her captivity the Jeannette had her forefoot carried away by the driving ice. For 22 months, night and day, the ship drifted without a stop. We were never comfortable, the grub was off color and the men became more disagreeable."

Commodore Melville dwelt, in retrospect, upon the voyage of Sir John Franklin and the long Arctic marches on record and the many fatalities occurring on those forced marches.

"During the first winter of the Jennette in the ice we passed 500 miles of the coast of Siberia. It has been argued that Capt. De Long should have left the ship at the point farthest north, but it has been shown that a ship is carried by the currents in a northwesterly direction, and he clung to that theory. The average thickness of the ice was 40 feet, it being formed on top and underneath by the motion of the water. The life was tedious enough, and it was a welcome event to have a slight diversion on Saturday nights. The carpers have said that if there had not been so much liquor used more might have been accomplished, but two ounces of liquor per man once a week certainly did no harm, and it made the men more cheerful. As a sample of our Arctic hunting I killed a polar bear which weighed 2100 pounds without his blood. It was with difficulty that his skin was gotten inside a hogshead.

"In the fall of 1881 the question arose as to whether or not to abandon the ship. Capt. De Long said no, decidely. His opinion prevailed and so we passed the second winter in the ice. When spring was coming on we were nearly due north of the Siberian Islands, and it was proposed to "eat out the ship." That meant to eat up the bulk of provisions left and being thus built up, make a dash for the nearest habitable land to the south. Capt. De Long argued for a stay until fall or winter. Up to that time there had been but one case of scurvy in the whole crew whereas in the English expeditions it became epidemic after such an exposure. The reason of that is that our American crews were made up of men who had had house training and living before shipping, and in the English expeditions men were chosen who had recently seen rough living and exposure. Another thing was that our men drank distilled water every day. We used 4 gallons a day, and it was no easy task to obtain this, because the snow, high and low, was mixed with storm-driven sand.

"I have frequently been asked what material would resist the crushing action of the ice, but to my mind it would be impossible to build a ship which would be able to withstand the siege of ice. Any boat would collapse sooner or later. The towering floes simply tumble in and crush the ship. The ice came in so that the oakum spewed up out of the deck and the deck itself was bowed up by the pressure below.

"We were then 500 miles in a bee line from the nearest point of succor in Siberia.

"I was one morning developing photographs when the cry arose: 'All hands abandon ship.' Then we hastily put the sledges, provisions, etc., and the boats overboard. The decks of the Jeannette had been bowed up until they burst and the ice was running fiercely below. The main arms were touching the ice. Finally a crash came, the ice took away the entire keel, and the ship began to fill quickly.

"We camped that night about 200 yards from the ship. The men were throwing away knives and all extras to reduce their weight. That night we were called out to see the last of the Jeannette. It was an affecting sight to see the ship go down as though her hands were thrown up over her head and she sank out of sight in 30 fathoms of water. On the 12th day of June we started the retreat of 500 miles with 33 men. De Long and Chip had charge of the cutters and I of the whale boat. Each boat's crew was supposed to haul the load of boats and provisions. Dogs did not amount to much Each man had 290 pounds of extra weight to carry, and it required 13 trips to make one mile to the good.

The details of the march were graphically described, the tramps ankle deep in water and the crossing of breaches. Many times the men were almost entirely submerged, and, after crossing, would stand stark naked on the ice to wring out their woolen garments. One hundred and ten days were consumed in the retreat.

At night, the men slept in sleeping bags made of deerskin and buckskin, with the fur inside. Ordinary tan (sic) leather shoes could not be used, and the native moccasins, which were all right in extreme cold, soon wore out in the long marches in slush and snow. Various expedients were resorted to in order to help out these shoes -- patches of leather for the balls and heels of the feet -- but frequently the men would come into camp at night absolutely barefooted. The larger boat weighed 2300 pounds, the knapsacks and other baggage being placed inside. Hardships were many. Noses and thumbs would frequently be nipped, and often a man would be obliged to drop in the soft snow to escape the fury of a driving gale.

When the sun gave an opportunity De Long made observations which, at first, showed that we were losing 24 miles a day by the drifting ice. This fact was concealed from the men for 10 days, but it may be imagined how disheartening it was to realize this daily loss. At the end of 10 days it was observed that we had reached the currents bearing to the southeast and hope was restored. After 26 days boats were launched for the first time, and a landing was made on what is known as Bennett's Island. This was about the first of August. The red and green lichens formed a beautiful sight for the eyes of the wearied sailors. A short stay was made and the start was again made over the floe.

"On the 25th of August a violent snow storm was encountered and the voyage along the shores of the floe was made with men in the forward part of the boats, breaking the forming ice to make progress.

Commodore Melville then described the pemmican and other provisions, and the hardships undergone by the crews of the boats.

"It was at first expected that Siberia would be reached on the trip in clear water Lieut. Chip had charge of the short jolly boat, which acted badly in a seaway, and was bow down with the heavy sled. A living gale set in, and we were obliged to put into the floe on Chip's account. On the 10th day the provisions were about run out, and the situation was desperate. We drifted through the islands and made landings on the southern side of New Siberia. We then had about 100 miles to the southward to make. We were suffering from intense cold and severe hardships. When the boats put off orders were given to keep as closely together as possible, and each boat to care for itself, land at the nearest point, make for the most southern port and return in relief for the rest of the crews. The gale was blowing fresh, and one night the boats were sent scudding before a northeast gale."

Commodore Melville here gave a graphic description of this tempestuous run and the loss of Lieut. Chip and his crew. The jolly boat made bad weather in the white water and was swamped by the seas.

The last seen of Lieut. Chip was 90 miles northwest of Siberia. There were, all told, eight men in his boat. It may perhaps look inhumane, but it was impossible to take more men into boats already overloaded, and every boat was for itself."

The remainder of Commodore Melville's lengthy address dwelt in detail with the incidents after the loss of Lieut. Chip, the landing of the whaleboat on the banks of the Lena delta and the first experience of the crew with the Siberian natives. Thence to larger villages, through further hardships, whence communication was established with St. Petersburg; the meeting with the De Long party and the final safe arrival of the rescuing party. His descriptions of life among Siberian natives were intensely interesting, and in all details held his auditors closely until the end. The Commodore dwelt lightly upon his own sufferings, but gave ample testimony of having been through experiences which seldom fall to the lot of even persistent explorers.

Commodore Melville's address lasted for nearly four hours, but the elapsed time was hardly noticed on account of the interest in his thrilling narrative and his forceful descriptive powers.

Commodore Melville is a robust, rugged appearing man, his iron gray hair and beard only showing the advance of age. He has a rare power of holding the interest of his audience by a simple force of diction, enlivened at times by a refreshing frankness, which, added to the thrilling character of his own personal experience, made his address a notable one in the history of the Commercial Club.

Reproduced with permission: L.L. Dyche, Explorations (Newspaper Clippings Related to Polar Exploration), Vol. 1 & 2. University Archives, Spencer Research Library, University of Kansas Libraries, Lawrence, KS.


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Original Source:
  Providence Journal, Providence, RI, Feb. 2, 1896.  
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  Jennifer F. Holvoet, Ph.D.  
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