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A Vist to the Spot Where Andree Began His Famous Voyage.


Conducting Interesting Experiments at Spitsbergen (sic).


Written for The Evening Star.
Just about three hundred years ago Spitzbergen was discovered, and because of the number of seal, walrus and whales found there it became a profitable hunting ground. In fact, there was a time when large fleets of whalers visited its shores, and in order to minimize the dreariness of this region the skippers took their families along and established on land as comfortable camps as possible, with the factory for extracting oil as the central feature of the temporary home. To some of these camps names of far-away southern cities were given, and now we find quiet bays and jutting headlands without a vestige of evidence of previous occupation perpetuating on the maps the fact that years ago there were life and activity here.

The summer outing was accompanied by so few discomforts compared with those that attended the long voyage hither and thither that more than once adventurous spirits tempted the elements by deciding to winter near their hunting grounds. But the envious Ice King laid his hand upon them and the coasts have been sown with graves.

The explorer has gone hand in hand with the hunter. But he has described in detail those features which the latter only mentioned in passing, and, not being tempted by fear of competitors following in his wake, he has given with fullness the routes to be followed and the dangers to be avoided. The "catch" was prosecuted with such vigor that the game was soon reduced until it was below paying proportions, and now Spitzbergen is no longer a hunting ground for whale and walrus, but a Mecca for tourists and the haunt of the sportsmen in search of larger game.

The North Cape and the midnight sun do not satisfy the increasing appetite for new thinge (sic). Even the approach to the saddening sunset must be avoided and a latitude reached where even at midnight the "orb of day" rides high in the heavens.

An Arctic Supply Station.

Thus it is that a tourist's hut has been erected at Advent bay, in latitude 78° and 20', and a steamer makes a weekly trip for a month and a half from Hammerfest, Europe's most northerly town. This arctic supply station is a great blessing to such expeditions as wish to push further northward or make closer examinations of the regions round about.

When Sabine made his famous pendulum observations here, his base was Norway. Nordenskjold could not steam into Advent bay for coal, as did Nathorst during the past summer. Sir Martin Conway, in collecting his valuable material for his work on Spitzbergen, came here several times for food and fuel, and if it had not been for the presence there of an available steamer I could not have carried a pendulum to the eightieth parallel to obtain results that would let the extreme north have a voice in deciding the shape of the earth.

As early in July as I thought it safe we dropped out of Advent bay to round the southern point of Ice Fjord, and thence push upward along the western coast. The sharp "shark's-tooth" mountains were covered with snow, except on the exposed surfaces, where the wind had not permitted it to lie, and every valley was a glacier bed. There the glacial rivers came down to the water's edge, and the indigo-like pieces of ice were broken off by the ocean swell and joined in the great aimless procession drifting southward.

On the Edge of the Ice.

The second day out we came to the edge of the pack ice--that great mocking full-stop to arctic progress--and while beating about in search of an opening a snow storm became an ally of the enemy seeking to blind the cautious pilot. We pushed up close to the great grinding, crushing masses of ice, and listened in awe to the unceasing thumping and grating, as one piece, not knowing which way it wanted to go, found its course blocked by another equally ignorant. Never did I hear such sounds--not loud, but sullen, remorseless, like the reiterated chorus of a chant to man's weakness--nature's prowess. After a while we seemed to be in the center of a crescent-shaped bay, with the two arms swinging around as if to take us into a chilling embrace. Huge blocks of ice appeared to come up as if from the deep. It was fascinating to watch the encircling arms, to see them grow in length and beckon one another to close in, but to the experienced captain delay might mean death, so, with the minor chords of this chant lingering in our ears, we stood out into the open water to the south.

The course was laid to the southwest and then to the northwest, and for a while all went well, but the ice movement was greater than had been anticipated, and a second time we found the rocking, rasping enemy before us. A wider detour was then made, and fortunately clear water was found. Through this we plowed our way, and on the next day swung into Virgo bay and dropped anchor just in front of Andree's house. In a little while a boat was lowered, my instruments and supplies put aboard, and, thanks to the little landing stage that Andree had built, everything was gotten ashore in good shape. By accident rather than intention it was just one year from the time he had bid his friends good-bye and sailed northward.

Studying a Pendulum's Movements.

Owing to the uncertainty as to how long our favorable weather might last no time was spent in striving to animate the place with the spirits of those who had so silently departed, but haste was made to build a little house to protect the instruments and to serve as an observing room. Fortunately the best of material was available in the timber that Andree had left, and by noon on the following day the pendulum was mounted, and at each swing appealed to Nature to reveal the secret of the earth's shape.

We know that gravity, the mysterious force that draws a body toward the center of the earth, depends upon the distance from that center. It is also true that the force which impels a pendulum to swing is this same gravity, and as the time of the oscillation depends upon gravity the swing of a pendulum can be used to determine its distance from the center of the earth. If the earth were a sphere the time required for any pendulum to make an oscillation under identical conditions would be the same at all points on the earth's surface; but not being a sphere it is important to determine its sphericity, or the relative distances of various points from the center of the earth.

This determination can best be made by a pendulum. Mathematical physics has told us what the pendulum should show at various latitudes, and theory has been confirmed in the temperate zones, but the apparatus is so heavy and so delicate that few are willing to take it into the Arctic circle and make the tests in that region, where the confirmation is most desired. It is not an easy matter to take one's self into the Arctics (sic), and when in the impedimenta there are boxes weighing as much as 200 pounds the task assumes serious proportions. But Andree's going before made it easier for me to follow, and hereafter with Dane's Island will be associated my success and his failure. If failures can ever be enviable, that of Andree's is pre-eminently so.

Andree's Plan.

Science in all its history records few names to which is attached so much of sympathetic interest as surrounds that of Andree. Believing that in the upper air there is from the north of Spitzbergen a prevailing wind from the south, he conceived the idea of making the attempt to reach the pole by means of a balloon. He had been told that he could not bring to a convenient starting point the material needed. And although the conditions were far from favorable, he managed to get through the ice in the early summer of 1896 and began the preparations for his perilous flight. The summer passed without a favorable wind, and the party returned to Stockholm to make the attempt the next year. The balloon was again inflated, and despite the warning voices to which he had been obliged to listen during the intervening winter, he, with two companions, on July 11 stepped into the car, already equipped with their stores and instruments, and bidding the men to cast off the ropes that held them down, the great monster, as if made impatient with its prolonged restraint, darted upward.

The trailing ropes with which he had hoped to steer his untried chariot were apparently too heavy, for when they reached the water they dragged the balloon down until it touched the surface. Andree and his men rapidly threw overboard a large amount of ballast, and the balloon, feeling a lighter load, arose gently and swept majestically across the strait and over the low neck of Amsterdam Island. What is beyond? The north and the great secret that is locked up in its bosom.

Andree's Starting Point

It was no slight privilege to be playing a part on a stage where such a momentous act had been performed, and it was with feelings of reverential awe that I looked around. There was the massive gas generator, the elaborate apparatus for purifying the hydrogen, the tons of material in case repeated inflations should be necessary, and a long trough which carried the hose to the balloon. And then the balloon house. The great hexagonal structure, sixty feet on a side, framed and braced as if for a century, with walls nearly seventy feet high, the floor carpeted with heavy felt and every exposed piece of timber wrapped so as to mimimize (sic) the danger of tearing the thin material of which the balloon was made. In the center of the floor was a well; in this the basket had rested and from its edge the three heroes stepped into their aerial car. Scores of cleats were fastened to the uprights, and to these the chafing monster had been tethered; a stairway led up to each of the seven stories or galleries that extended nearly all the way around the interior of the house, and above all was a flag pole--from this had floated the beautiful flag of Sweden. This was the house that Andree built--the great structure that guarded the balloon which he intrusted (sic) to the wind's embrace. What the wind did with the plaything committed to its foundling we may never know, but I saw before me evidence of the way in which it treated the cradle in which the child of Andree's fancy had rocked. Here was a tangled, torn and twisted mass of beams and boards, ladders and platforms, bolts and rods--the saddest wreck I have every seen, saddest because it called to mind blasted hopes and forfeited lives. The wind did this. It gathered its forces from the north, the east, the west, and when no eye could witness, no ear could hear it dashed to the earth the building that man in his temerity had erected. Only one monument remained, this I used as a meridian mark, it was the weather vane, but it was to the south--not to the north.

Sublime Foolhardiness.

Many have said that Andree was foolish and some have called him a fool. I may have echoed one or both of these characterizations, but now, after having lived in the atmosphere in which he worked and seen the determined way in which he went about to demonstrate a cherished conviction, even to the extent of staking his life upon the verity of his hypotheses, I repent the hastily expressed opinion and ask forgiveness for a thoughtless judgment. If you insist that it was "foolhardiness," pray qualify it by the word "sublime."

Suppose he should succeed, what good would be accomplished? is asked. If the world's progress should cease with his decade no benefit could arise. If heroic examples should no longer inspire men to great and noble deeds it would be just as well if Andree had never lived. But even the success which he has achieved, the conquering of the oft-paraded obstacles, will prompt others to profit by his experience and eventually his unattained will not be found among the unsolved problems. Expeditions whose aim is to find the pole--the highest north--are in themselves useless. But as pathfinders they are invaluable, and the unblazed path through the air is as likely to benefit the world as the trackless route of the Fram or the wearisome march of Wellman and his intrepid followers.

On the wall of the room he occupied at Dane's Island he wrote:

In Memoriam.

Alfred Noble, deceased, 1895.
Andrew Dickson, deceased, 1896.

These were the men who gave Andree the means for putting his plans to the test, but died before their fruitfulness was revealed. Was it by chance or a premonition that caused him to leave space for another name and the sequence year 1897?

A Noble Watchword

Many times after the day's work was done while sitting amidst the wrecked timbers I have looked northward and in fancy saw the balloon passing over Amsterdam Island. It seemed to be bearing away friends to whom I wished to call a "God's speed," for in that frail car were men whose watchword was "it can be done, it shall be done"--words that entwine the world's pole star of progress. While looking and pondering over the fate of one whom I had learned to revere, the fog rolling in from the west would hang over this island like a veil and all beyond was with the unknown.

"When shall we hear from your?" he was asked. "In two months--or never." was the answer. Twelve times two months have passed, so it may be never and we are forced to believe that the Arctic snows were is winding sheet and the winds sang his funeral dirge, but if the snow is conscious of the energy and courage that once animated that body it will hold him gently and guard him jealously and the wind will forget its minor chords because it sings of a hero.


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:
  Washington D.C. Star, Washington, D.C. July 22, 1899  
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  Patrick Harper
University of Kansas
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