History of the American Nation, Volume 5

Author: William James Jackman

Chapter 85:
Alleged Discovery of North Pole

Rival Claims Made by Dr. Cook and Commander Peary.—Both Assert That Pole Had Been Located.—Details of the Explorations Made by Each.—Their Journeyings From July 1st, 1907, to the Spring of 1909, Two Years Later.—Bitter Controversy as to Fact of Actual Discovery, and as so Priority.—Outcome of the Dispute.—Death of Edward H. Harriman.—His Enormous Operations in Railways.—The Methods That Won Success.

One of the most sensational incidents in the history of the United States occurred in 1909 when Dr. Frederick A. Cook, and Commander Robert E. Peary, rival explorers, both laid claim to having discovered the north pole; to having actually and beyond question located the geographical spot that adventurous men had been striving to reach for centuries. There was much crimination and recrimination, not only between Cook and Peary themselves but their numberless adherents, each explorer asserting that the other was mistaken (to put it mildly) in his announced belief that the pole had been located. Lengthy investigations were made by scientific societies, but nothing definite in support of the claim of either man was established, and the world today remains in doubt as to whether anything like the result claimed was attained.

Dr. Cook sailed from Gloucester, Mass., in the schooner yacht John R. Bradley, July 1, 1907, in company with the owner, John R. Bradley, of New York. Mr. Bradley, an ardent sportsman, had arranged to spend the summer and fall fishing and shooting in northern latitudes, and the schooner also carried a complete arctic equipment for the use of Dr. Cook should the latter decide to leave the vessel and push on to the north. This Dr. Cook did at Annatok, a few miles north of Etah, North Greenland, late in August, Rudolph Francke, cook on the Bradley, remaining with him. Leaving Cook and his supplies at Annatok Mr. Bradley resumed his pleasure trip, later returning to New York.

According to Dr. Cook’s records he started from Annatok February 19th, 1908, with a party consisting of ten natives, Francke being left at Annatok. With a sledge train drawn by 103 dogs the party proceeded westward over Smith sound and Ellesmere land to Nansen sound, where it turned northward, moving along the eastern shore of Axel Heiberg land until the polar sea was reached. On March 17th six of the natives (Eskimo) were sent home, and two days later two more followed them. This reduced the Cook party to three men, including the natives Etukishook and Ahwelah. With this force the march northward was resumed. March 30th new land was seen to the westward in latitude 84.17 and longitude 86.36, but it was not explored, Cook, as he says, being anxious to confine his efforts to reaching the pole.

He reports that the object of his journey was attained on April 21st, 1908, when observations carefully made convinced him that he was resting on the actual site of the pole. There was no latitude, no longitude, no land, no sign of life of any kind. Two days were passed in taking observations, and on April 23d the march homeward was begun. In order to avoid the easterly drift Dr. Cook and his companions moved southwesterly to Crown Prince Gustav sea, the Firth of Devon and Jones sound to Cape Sparbo, in North Devon, where they went into winter camp. Here life was sustained by the efforts of the Eskimos who killed musk oxen, bears and wolves with their bows and arrows.

February 18th, 1909, the party broke camp at Cape Sparbo, and moved on to Annatok by way of Smith sound, reaching there April 15th. Being anxious to acquaint the world with the news of his discovery, and to get back to civilization, Dr. Cook moved southward to the Danish settlements, arriving at Upernavik May 21st. Embarking on the Danish steamer Hans Egede, he sailed for Copenhagen, stopping at Lerwick, in the Shetland islands, (the nearest point of communication by wire) to send the message announcing that the pole had been found.

At Copenhagen, where Dr. Cook landed September 4th, he was received with great honors. The Danes, especially the members the geographical society, gave him full credit for the discovery. Coming on to New York (September 21st) he was likewise received, and went on a lecture tour which netted him many thousands of dollars.

In the meantime Commander Peary, who was returning from a similar expedition, had heard of Cook’s message claiming priority of discovery, and at once wired a statement of contradiction in which it was broadly intimated that Cook was untruthful and had never reached the pole, and was deliberately misleading the people. This started a bitter controversy, lasting for months. The records of both men were assailed, doubt was cast on both their stories, and in the end the public lost interest in their statements.

Peary sailed from Sydney, Nova Scotia, July 17th, 1908, on the steamer Roosevelt, specially fitted for an arctic voyage. This, it will be noted, was over a year after Cook had left Gloucester. Peary was accompanied by a number of scientists, including Prof. Ross G. Marvin, of Cornell university; George Borup, of Yale, and D. D. McMillan, of Worcester, Mass. They reached Cape York, Greenland, August 1st, and went into winter quarters at Cape Sheridan, Grant land, September 1st. In February, 1909, the party pushed on to Cape Columbia, from which place, on March 1st, the dash for the pole was begun. The advance squad, at first, was led by Captain Bartlett commander of the Roosevelt. The entire party was transported in nineteen sledges drawn by 133 dogs.

Gradually Various members of the party were sent back to the main station until on reaching latitude 87.48 only Peary, Matthew Hensen (his personal attendant) and four Eskimos remained. These six men went on, passing the 88th parallel of latitude April 2d, and the 89th two days later. According to Peary’s statement the pole itself was reached April 6th, 1909, a little over one year after the date claimed by Cook. Peary and his companions passed some thirty hours at the supposed site of the pole taking observations, and exploring the surrounding expanse of ice. They report that no land was seen.

In returning the Peary party left the pole April 7th, traveling southeasterly to Cape Columbia on the northern shore of Grant land, which was reached April 23d. Four days later they were at Cape Sheridan, near the entrance to Robeson channel, where the steamer Roosevelt was in waiting to take them home. At Cape Sheridan it was learned that Prof. Marvin had been drowned April 10th while returning to Cape Columbia with the detachment which had been sent back from latitude 86.39, to which point he had broken the trail.

Leaving Cape Sheridan July 18th, the Roosevelt steamed homeward, touching at Indian Harbor September 5th, from which place Peary startled the world with the news of his claim to having discovered the pole. Coming so soon after word of the same kind had been received from Cook—only four days had elapsed—the announcement caused a double sensation, and the entire world was soon ablaze with excitement. While giving credit for what he claimed to have done, there was much hostile criticism of his severe reflections on the integrity of Cook, his rival, and the time the Peary party landed in the United States, September 23d two well-divided camps had been formed. Like Cook, Commander Peary was enthusiastically received.

Demand was finally made that both explorers should submit their data and records of observations to competent authorities for investigation. Dr. Cook sent what data he had to the University of Copenhagen which late in December gave the following verdict:

"The documents handed the university for examination do not contain observations and information which can be regarded as proof that Dr. Cook reached the north pole on his recent expedition."

The National Geographic Society, to which the Peary data was submitted, endorsed Peary’s claim in strong language, to wit. "Commander Robert E. Peary has reached the north pole, the goal sought for centuries." It pronounced it the greatest geographical achievement the society could have opportunity to honor, and voted Peary a gold medal.

Despite this the controversy would not down, and adherents of the rival explorers continued a bitter warfare of words until Dr. Cook mysteriously dropped out of sight. This served to still the claims of his followers, and was taken as a virtual admission of guilt in attempting to foist upon the world a bogus claim to having discovered the pole. This was later strengthened by apparently well-sustained assertions that Cook had prevaricated in like manner in reporting that he had ascended to the summit of Mount McKinley in 1906. At first Dr. Cook’s claim to having scaled Mount McKinley was seemingly well authenticated, at least one man who was with him being reported as testifying to it. After the controversy with Peary began, however, an affidavit was secured from this man in which he swore that he did not accompany Cook to the summit, and always had doubt as to whether it was reached.

There are many peculiar things in connection with the affairs which seem to both contradict and support the stories told by each of the explorers. Neither one of them had any competent witness with him when he claims to have reached the pole and established the fact by taking astronomical observations. Cook was accompanied only by two uncivilized Eskimos, entirely ignorant of scientific data, and unable to tell when they had reached a given point except by landmark. Peary was in the same dilemma. His companions were also ignorant Eskimos, and a negro (Matthew Hanson) who had no scientific knowledge, and to whom an observation was unintelligible, so far as accurate transcription by himself is concerned. Neither man had anybody with him who could verify his assertions as to the accuracy of the observations regarding the exact latitude and longitude.

Peary asserted, right from the start of the controversy, that Cook had never reached the pole, giving as his main reason for making this charge the fact that it would be impossible to travel fifteen miles a day in the polar region as Cook must have done to reach the pole in the time stated. Allowing this to be so, what can be said of Peary’s self-kept record which shows an average of twenty-six miles a day for five days—the last of his final dash for the pole? This discrepancy in speed of travel has never been explained, and the impartial critic must be forced to the belief that Peary and his party were possessed of unusual physical endowments. He refuses to give Cook credit for being able to make a speed of fifteen miles a day, and yet lays claim to making twenty-six miles a day himself. Verily the Peary equipage must have been gifted with a remarkable physical prowess.

Looked at from whatever angle you choose the whole affair is unfortunate. It creates in the minds of the public strong doubts as to the bona fides of both of the explorers. Despite the glowing endorsement of the National Geographic Society there is really no sound basis for establishing the claim that either Cook or Peary found the north pole. Neither of them produced anything like proof. Both made flamboyant claims, Peary’s, if anything, being a little more absurd than Cook’s. He wired (by wireless) from Indian Harbor, Labrador, on his return voyage, "Stars and Stripes nailed to pole." Could anything be more ridiculous? What could he nail it to? Nor was Cook the less open to charges of wild exaggeration. He claimed to have deposited certain documents, corroborative of the discovery, in a brass tube at the spot where the pole was supposed to be. For what purpose? Both Peary and Cook, as old, experienced arctic explorers, must have known that there is a constant movement of the ice in that region, and that anything left in a given spot would, in a few months time, be drifted many miles away. The whole affair is too preposterous for credence by ordinary mortals.

In recording actual history, in making a record of actual events, rather than manufacturing them, it will not be amiss to say that, despite the endorsement by scientists, there is much room for reasonable doubt as to whether either man really reached the spot where the pole is supposed to be located. The north pole (as well as the south pole,) is merely a geographical supposition. It has no actual existence, no tangible appearance. That there must be a place where the top of the globe is reached and from going north the explorer begins to descend southward is accepted by all who believe in the theory of the earth’s rotundity, but no living man has as yet been able to present indisputable proof that this place has been seen by mortal eyes.

About a year later Dr. Cook was heard from in the form of a magazine article in which he admitted that there might be reasonable doubt as to whether he had reached the pole. In this article he described the conditions in the arctic circle as tending to produce temporary aberration, and frankly said that he himself was in doubt at times as to actually reaching the desired goal. In defense of his first claim he maintained that, if a mistake had been made, it was an honest one, due solely to mental excitement and disturbance, and without intention or purport of misleading the public.

Another year later, again writing in a magazine, he reiterated his claim to polar discovery, and insisted that he would, in reasonable time, prove his assertion in a manner that would admit of no question.

Edward Henry Harriman, one of the most widely known and successful of railway operators, died at his home, Tuxedo Park, N. Y., September 9th, from acute stomach trouble. Mr. Harriman, who was born at Hampstead, N. Y., February 25th, 1848, received only a common school education. He began his business career as a clerk in the office of a Wall street broker, and at 18 bought a seat on the New York exchange. His policy was to acquire railway stocks, and seldom dispose of them unless at a marked advance, when he would buy more heavily on the next material decline. At the time of his death he was reported to be worth $100,000,000 and controlled companies operating 72,795 miles of road.

Contrary to the policies of many railway operators Mr. Harriman was a constructionist, rather than a mere speculator. He seldom, if ever, acquired control of a railway property that he did not at once set to work to rehabilitate and improve it, and in this he almost invariably succeeded. He first became widely known in the railway world by getting control of the Illinois Central line and ousting Stuyvesant Fish from the presidency. He had been operating in railways long before this, and had come to be looked upon as a power in this particular field, but it was not until he acquired control of the Illinois Central and executed the coup that dethroned the strong Fish dynasty that he attracted worldwide attention.

In 1893 the Union Pacific, badly handicapped by the extravagances and mismanagement of its previous administrations, got into serious financial trouble and its stock became a football on the market. Mr. Harriman quietly acquired control, reorganized the company, and placed it on a paying basis. The stock immediately became valuable and advanced in price until it sold as high as 20434. This made of Mr. Harriman a king among railway financiers. On the death of Mr. C. P. Huntington, virtual owner of the Southern Pacific system, Mr. Harriman secured control of the Southern Pacific, Central Pacific, and allied lines, and proceeded to incorporate them into one harmonious whole with the Union Pacific. Previous to this there had been friction, especially between the Central and Union Pacific. Up to about 1882 the latter was completely at the mercy of the former in reaching the coast, the Union Pacific road ending at Promontory Point, Utah. In order to ensure an equal division of traffic the Northwestern, Rock Island, and Union Pacific polled their issues and formed what was known as the Tripartite Alliance, the first actual railway pool organized in the world. It was an offensive and defensive alliance against the Central Pacific, which at that time was under a management hostile to the Union Pacific.

In order to make sure of an outlet to the Pacific coast should relations with the Central at any time become strained to the breaking point, the Union Pacific constructed from Granger, Wyoming, to Umatilla, Oregon, a branch known as the Oregon Short Line. This formed a connection between the main line of the Union Pacific at Granger, with the Oregon Railway and Navigation Company’s line at Umatilla, enabling the Union Pacific and its allied roads to reach the coast by way of Portland. The Tripartite Alliance then served notice on the Central Pacific that, unless the Union Pacific was treated fairly in the matter of east-bound freights, all westbound freights originating on, or passing over the three roads in the alliance would be diverted to the coast via Portland. It brought the managers of the Central to their senses, but the friction continued for years, and even after the Central had been absorbed into the Southern Pacific system.

This was the condition which faced Mr. Harriman when he secured control of the Southern Pacific. He at once bent all his energies to building up the various systems into one compact organization with a common purpose. While each system was allowed to retain its individuality and to compete for business, there was one supreme head over all, and that head was Edward Henry Harriman. He set himself a herculean task, but he performed it in a manner that commanded the respect and admiration of every fair-minded man. His first move was to abolish friction and to insist upon harmony of action. He then improved the physical properties so that, while the rates might be lowered to meet public demand, the earnings would be increased. And, above all, he instituted and encouraged in every possible way the building up of business enterprises and farming communities along the lines in the system.

At the time of his death (he was then 61 years of age) Mr. Harriman was estimated to be worth $100,000,000, all legitimately made in railway operation since he was 18 years old. In 1909 he controlled the following lines:

Southern Pacific system 9,592 miles
Union Pacific system 5,989 miles
Southern Pacific of Mexico 791 miles
San Pedro, Los Angeles & Salt Lake 512 miles
St. Joseph & Grand Island 319 miles
Illinois Central 4,593 miles
Central of Georgia 1,913 miles
Baltimore & Ohio 4,523 miles
Cincinnati, Hamilton & Dayton 1,037 miles
Delaware & Hudson 845 miles
Erie 3,335 miles
New York Central Lines 12,527 miles
Wheeling & Lake Erie 498 miles
Wabash-Pittsburgh Terminal 67 miles
Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe 10,608 miles
Chicago & Northwestern 7,632 miles
Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul 9,005 miles
Grand total 72,795 miles

In comparing Mr. Harriman with other railway men who have made huge fortunes it should be remembered that he was essentially an operator. He never speculated in the ordinary sense; that is, he was not a gambler. He did not buy railways for the purpose of using them as shuttlecocks in the stock market. He was an investment speculator. He acquired control of railway properties by buying the stock and other securities when the price was low, and then set himself to work to improve the earning power of the properties. In doing this he largely enhanced the value of his own holdings, and in this way became an enormously rich man, while at the same time aiding others who also held stock in his enterprises to profit by his operations.

From September 25th to October 9th New York celebrated the discovery of the Hudson river by Hendrick Hudson in 1609, and Robert Fulton’s successful navigation of the same stream with the steamer Clermont in 1807. Novel features of the celebration were exact reproductions of the Clermont and Hudson’s Half Moon. In the naval parade was the steamer Roosevelt in which Commander Peary had just returned from a successful polar trip, Peary himself being on the bridge of the craft as it passed up the river.


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Chicago: William James Jackman, "Chapter 85: 1909 Alleged Discovery of North Pole," History of the American Nation, Volume 5 in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.1572-1591 Original Sources, accessed May 29, 2024, http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=USBSF4AMUXSFJRQ.

MLA: Jackman, William James. "Chapter 85: 1909 Alleged Discovery of North Pole." History of the American Nation, Volume 5, in William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.1572-1591, Original Sources. 29 May. 2024. http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=USBSF4AMUXSFJRQ.

Harvard: Jackman, WJ, 'Chapter 85: 1909 Alleged Discovery of North Pole' in History of the American Nation, Volume 5. cited in , William J. Jackman, Jacob H. Patton, and Rossiter Johnson. History of the American Nation, 9 Vols. (Chicago: K. Gaynor, 1911), Pp.1572-1591. Original Sources, retrieved 29 May 2024, from http://www.originalsources.com/Document.aspx?DocID=USBSF4AMUXSFJRQ.