Polar Exploration: Washington and its Golden Age

  • By Bob Mayer
  • Posted 12/02/2019
  • HistoryLink.org Essay 20918

The decades of the 1920s and 1930s were the Golden Age of polar exploration by air. During that time, airplanes became robust enough to endure long flights in hostile environments, but by the end of the period, world attention turned to looming war. Many Arctic expeditions either began or ended in Alaska with the explorers and their equipment travelling through Seattle and its downtown piers. Norwegian Roald Amundsen (1872-1928) and Australian Sir George Hubert Wilkins (1888-1958) led these expeditions and along with American millionaire Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951) made headlines in newspapers all around the world. They were famous heroes of their times. In 1938 Sir Hubert Wilkins traveled west to hire a young Everett physician, Dr. Harmon T. Rhoads Jr. (1911-2001), to serve as medical officer on the fourth Ellsworth Antarctic Expedition. Its purpose was to claim territory for the United States.

Amundsen Inspires a Young Henry Jackson

Roald Amundsen led the first overland expedition in Antarctica to reach the South Pole in 1911. He was well known and popular with the Norwegian communities in Everett and Ballard. To raise money for his expeditions, Amundsen, like other explorers of his time, conducted cross-country lecture tours. His visits were celebrated and his lectures were well attended.

Amundsen was in Seattle on February 13, 1926, at the same time that Wilkins was leaving Seattle for Alaska to resume his airplane flights over the Arctic. In newspaper interviews and lectures, Amundsen predicted that Wilkins would fail. He regarded exploration of the Arctic by airplane as too dangerous based on his own failure in May 1925.

Amundsen lectured to an audience of 3,000 at Seattle's Eagles Auditorium on February 21 and then in Everett on Tuesday, February 23. A crowd of 100 or more was on hand to greet him at the Great Northern Depot. The Lions Club and the Sons of Norway sponsored his visit and their representatives accompanied the explorer to the Monte Cristo Hotel. The lecture was held at the Armory and attended by a capacity audience of 1,500. In his presentation, Amundsen described in words and photos his attempted flight from Spitsbergen, Norway, to the North Pole the previous year.

Lincoln Ellsworth had funded and participated in the flight. They had two Dornier Flying Boat airplanes, the N24 and N25, with three people in each. Both airplanes crash-landed 130 miles short of the North Pole. All six people survived, but one airplane was damaged and the other was stuck firmly in the ice. Amundsen credited Ellsworth with heroism for saving two crew members from drowning when they fell through the ice. This kept all six men available to work for three weeks digging free their remaining flyable airplane and then to get the whole team back to safety.

Sen. Henry "Scoop" Jackson (1912-1983) was an influential supporter of polar exploration who may have traced his interest to one of Amundsen's visits. For the 100th anniversary of Jackson's birth, his son Peter (b. 1966) wrote a special Everett Daily Herald editorial about Jackson's life. He recalled that seeing Roald Amundsen in person in Everett (probably when Henry was 13) was one of the senator's favorite memories. As a senator, Jackson visited the Arctic with the U.S. Air Force in 1955 and spent a week in Antarctica in October 1959 as part of Operation Deep Freeze 60. In the 1950s and 1960s he was a key supporter of U.S. Navy exploration of the arctic by atomic submarines. A request by Jackson to the Chief of Naval Operations was a catalyst for the first atomic submarine trips under arctic ice to the North Pole. The USS Nautilus was the first to reach the North Pole on August 3, 1958, after visiting Everett and Seattle. The USS Skate reached the North Pole on August 12, 1958.

Originally scheduled to continue through March 17, Amundsen's 1926 lecture tour ended in Everett on February 23. Amundsen had received word that the dirigible Norge would soon be ready in Spitsbergen for their planned flight over the North Pole. On February 25, Amundsen traveled to Vancouver, B.C., and from there returned to New York and then on to Spitsbergen. There he joined Lincoln Ellsworth and Italian airship designer and builder Umberto Nobile (1885-1978) to prepare for the airship's flight.

Wilkins and Amundsen would meet one more time at Amundsen's home in Oslo in June 1928 after Wilkins's successful flight across the Arctic Ocean from Barrow, Alaska, to Spitsbergen. Wilkins and his pilot, Lt. Carl Ben Eielson (1897-1929), were invited there to celebrate their successful flight. When they met, Amundsen's first words to Wilkins were an apology for his prediction two years earlier that Wilkins would fail. Amundsen now described the flight as "the greatest feat of all aviation." News reels of their meeting were the last to show Amundsen alive.

The next day Amundsen left on a flight to find and rescue Nobile and the crew of the dirigible Italia. Nobile had wanted to prove that he could reach the North Pole in the name of his home country without the assistance of Amundsen and Ellsworth. The expedition did reach the North Pole but crashed on the return trip with the loss of some crew members. Amundsen set out to rescue the survivors, but his plane crashed and he was never found. Nobile and the other five surviving crew member were eventually rescued by others.

Explorer Wilkins, Frequent Visitor to Seattle

George Hubert Wilkins was born on October 31, 1888, in Mt Bryan East, South Australia, about 100 miles north of Adelaide. He was the youngest of 13 children and grew up on a sheep ranch. Life was difficult in years when the area was afflicted with severe droughts. From his early years, he was convinced that if the weather in the polar regions could be monitored, then future droughts might be predicted and preparations could be made to lessen their impact. It became his lifelong goal to set up weather-monitoring stations in those regions.

Wilkins's life was adventurous and varied. He studied electrical engineering, took flying lessons, and became an expert photographer and cinematographer. From 1913 to 1916 he was photographer on the Canadian Arctic Expedition with Vilhjalmur Stefansson (1879-1962). He joined the Australian Forces during World War I and served as a war photographer. During this service he was awarded the Military Cross and Bar for performing heroic lifesaving deeds that were not part of an unarmed photographer's normal duty. From 1921 to 1922 he was an ornithologist on the Shackleton-Rowett Expedition in the Southern (Antarctic) Ocean. From 1923 to 1925, he explored the eastern and northern areas of Australia studying bird life for the British Museum.

From 1926 to 1928, Wilkins and Eielson made exploratory airplane flights over the Arctic north of Barrow. They frequently landed on the sea ice and took soundings to determine the ocean depth at those locations. They were the first to prove that there was no land, only ocean covered by sea ice, in the area between Alaska and the North Pole. On one flight on March 31, 1927, their Stinson Detroit News 1 biplane ran out of fuel and became stranded on the ice floe. To survive they had to walk for more than two weeks over 100 miles of rugged moving sea ice to land at Beechey Point on the Beaufort Sea.

The most dramatic and important flight by Wilkins and Eielson was the 2,200-mile first airplane flight across the Arctic Ocean from Barrow to Spitsbergen in April 1928. This was considered at least as significant as Lindbergh's flight across the Atlantic one year earlier. Lindbergh's heroic solo flight crossed well-traveled land and sea. Wilkins and Eielson flew across unknown and unexplored adverse territories. In addition to many other honors from countries and organizations around the world, Wilkins was knighted by King George V of England and Eielson was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross and the Harmon Trophy for aviation. Later, in December 1928, Wilkins and Eielson made the first airplane flight over the continent of Antarctica.

In August 1929 Wilkins was one of 20 passengers on Graf Zeppelin for the first around-the-world flight from Lakehurst, New Jersey, to Friedrichshafen, Germany, to Tokyo, to Los Angeles, and back to Lakehurst.

Sir Hubert believed that a submarine would be a great way to explore the Arctic regions by cruising under ice and surfacing at openings to make scientific observations. In 1931 he conducted the Wilkins-Ellsworth Trans-Arctic Submarine Expedition with the financial support of Lincoln Ellsworth. The goal was to sail from Spitsbergen to the North Pole and take observations along the way. Due to mechanical failures of the old surplus submarine, they did not reach the North Pole but did prove the concept of a submarine operating under ice and gathered important scientific data.

Wilkins spent much of January 1932 in and around Seattle where he had an apartment at the Spring Apartment-Hotel. He arrived on January 8 with plans to meet with Boeing President P. G. Johnson (1894-1944) and chief engineer C. N. Montieth (1892-1940) to discuss a new airplane for polar exploration or maybe a special submarine for another North Pole attempt. On January 12 he was guest of honor at a dinner given by the National Aeronautical Association at the Washington Athletic Club. On January 26, he held an afternoon book signing at Frederick & Nelson department store and gave an evening lecture at Plymouth Church. He lectured at the Aero Club of Portland, Oregon, on January 16 and the Kinsman Club of Vancouver, B.C., on January 28. On Friday January 29, Sir Hubert was the guest of honor at the University of Washington Naval Reserve Officer Training Corps formal dance at the Washington Athletic Club in Seattle. Decorations had an undersea motif in his honor. Attendees included Governor and Mrs. Roland Hartley of Everett.

From 1933 through 1939, Wilkins conducted four Ellsworth Antarctic Expeditions and was responsible for organizing and acquiring the ship, equipment, crew, and all supplies. Wilkins also prepared all press releases and issued them in the name of Ellsworth. Wilkins agreed to do this because he felt indebted to Ellsworth for his financial support of the 1931 submarine expedition.

Wilkins spent time in Seattle and Vancouver again in March 1940 to study plans for a special submarine for another attempt to reach the North Pole. In mid-April of 1940 he passed through Spokane and spent about four days visiting the mining areas of Elk River and Grangeville, Idaho, before travelling to Seattle. He was accompanied by Roy Edwards, an executive of Union Iron Works.

On a Seattle visit in November 1947 he was guest of honor at an Armistice Day dinner at the Washington Athletic Club where he presented his program "Over and Under the Polar Regions by Air and Sea." On this trip, Time Magazine reported with a bit of humor that the explorer was stuck in a stalled Seattle elevator for about 10 minutes before escaping through the emergency exit.

From 1942, for the remainder of his life, Sir Hubert was a special consultant to the U. S. Army on arctic and desert military operations for the Army Quartermasters Corps Research and Development Division in Natick, Massachusetts.

Sir Hubert died from a heart attack at the age of 70 in his room at the Park Central Hotel (now named Old Colony Hotel) in Framingham, Massachusetts, on November 30, 1958. Following his death, an editorial memorializing him was published in the December 3 edition of The Seattle Times which read in part: "Seattle lost an old friend and former frequent visitor in the death of Sir Hubert Wilkins, Australian-born explorer whose expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic Oceans made history a few decades ago. ... Seattle can take a measure of pride in having some part in the career of this intrepid explorer who has gone on the last Great Adventure" ("Last Adventure," p. 8).

In recognition for his service, the crew of the U. S. Navy nuclear submarine USS Skate carried the ashes of Sir Hubert to the North Pole. The submarine was the first in history to surface at the North Pole on March 17, 1959. In a brief burial ceremony that day, Commander James Calvert (1920-2009) released the ashes to the winds at the pole.

Ellsworth: Adventurer and Millionaire

Lincoln Ellsworth was a wealthy American who used his fortune to organize and earn places in polar expeditions. In 1925, Ellsworth funded and participated in the exploration of the Arctic by airplane, leaving from Spitsbergen with Roald Amundsen on their Dornier Flying Boat airplane flights of N24 and N25.

In 1926, Ellsworth funded and joined the Amundsen-Ellsworth-Nobile Expedition with Amundsen and Italian Umberto Nobile in the dirigible Norge to make the first airship flight over the North Pole from Spitsbergen to Teller, Alaska. Returning from the historic flight, the members of the expedition traveled from Alaska to Seattle where on June 27, 1926, they were greeted by a crowd of 5,000 people. At the time they believed that they were the second successful flight over the North Pole because Richard Byrd (1888-1957) had completed his flight to the North Pole from Spitsbergen only three days before them. Years later, analysis of Byrd's flight time, airplane maximum speed, fuel capacity, and fuel usage recorded in diaries at the time showed that Byrd could not have actually reached the North Pole, making the Norge flight the first in history to pass over the North Pole.

Ellsworth also helped finance the 1931 Wilkins-Ellsworth Transpolar Submarine Expedition but rather than join the submarine trip, he chose to participate in a more comfortable Graf Zeppelin Arctic flight.

In the 1930s Ellsworth had set his sights on achieving the last remaining polar "first," a flight across the continent of Antarctica. Wilkins, feeling indebted to Ellsworth for his past financial support, agreed to organize and conduct the expeditions in Ellsworth's name. There were four Ellsworth Antarctic Expeditions conducted between 1933 and 1939. The first expedition in 1933-1934 ended prematurely after their airplane was damaged when the ice it was setting on gave way, dropping the fuselage into a crevasse, damaging the skis and one wing. The second expedition in 1934-1935 ended when engine repairs delayed the flight until weather conditions made the snow fields too thin to support a safe takeoff. Finally on the third expedition in 1935-1936, Ellsworth's flight across the continent was successful. At this point Ellsworth decided that he wanted to go back a fourth time in order to claim 80,000 more square miles of territory for the United States. Dr. Harmon Rhoads of Everett would be the medical officer on this fourth expedition.

Off to Antarctica

Harmon Talley Rhoads Jr. was born in Hazen, Arkansas on November 10, 1911. His family moved first to Montana and then, in 1924, to Everett. Rhoads graduated from Everett High School in 1929, and then from the University of Washington and the University of Oregon Medical School. In July 1938, he completed his residency at New York's Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital (now known as the Terence Cardinal Cooke Health Care Center) and went home to Everett, where his father also practiced medicine, for a vacation of hunting and fishing.

When Sir Hubert Wilkins was seeking a medical officer for the fourth Ellsworth expedition, he sought advice from doctors at Flower Fifth Avenue Hospital. They recommended Rhoads, so Wilkins flew to the West Coast to interview him. After missing the first appointment due to a fishing trip, Rhoads met with Wilkins on July 29, 1938, and accepted the position.

On August 7, Rhoads flew to New York to join the expedition. There were a total of 19 members including Wilkins, Ellsworth, Chief Pilot J.H. Lymburner (1904-1990), Reserve Pilot Burton J. Trerice (1913-1987), Radio Operator Frederick Seid (1906-?), and the Norwegian operating crew of the 135-foot expedition ship Wyatt Earp.

The expedition's two airplanes were loaded on the Wyatt Earp at Floyd Bennett Field in New York. They sailed from New York on August 16, loaded supplies in Pernambuco, Brazil, and then sailed to Cape Town, South Africa. On October 29 they left Cape Town headed for Antarctica. Bad weather and unanticipated amounts of sea ice slowed their progress. For 13 days they were stuck in the ice unable to move. They arrived at the Indian Ocean coast of the Antarctic continent on January 1, 1939, and then spent another 10 days finding a location for a runway. On January 11, 1939, they made an exploratory flight of 210 miles into the continent. During the flight, Ellsworth dropped a brass canister containing a note claiming 80,000 square miles of territory for the United States.

Continuing storms prevented more flights, and a mishap that swept four crew members into the ice-cluttered ocean ended the expedition. All were rescued, but chief officer Lauritz Liavaag's leg was broken and crushed and required more treatment than Rhoads could provide on board. On February 4, 1939, they reached Hobart, Tasmania, where Rhoads assisted with the surgery. Liavaag's leg was saved, but he lost use of it and could no longer go to sea.

Rhoads practiced medicine with his father at the Medical Dental Building in Everett for about two months before returning to New York City. He served in World War II as a plastic surgeon in the U. S. Army Air Force specializing in treating burns and injuries from explosions. After the war, Rhoads practiced in New York City until his retirement. He then moved to St Petersburg, Florida, where he died on May 7, 2001.


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Wilkins Leaves for Detroit," Ibid., July 12, 1926, p. 5; "Amundsen Guest Here Today Ellsworth Nobile with Him," Ibid., June 27 1928, p. 1; "Explorer Wilkins to Seek New Polar Plane Here," Ibid., January 7, 1932, p 1; "Wilkins Here for Advice on New Exploring Plans" Ibid., January 9, 1932, p. 9; "Sir Hubert to Explore Realms of Mystic Music," Ibid., January 10, 1932, p. 2; "Wilkins to Talk at Plymouth Church," Ibid., January 25, 1932, p. 5; "Naval Reserve Dance is Friday," Ibid., January 27, 1932, p. 10; "Everett Medic Decides to go to Antarctic," Seattle Daily Times, July 28, 1938, p. 2;  "Antarctic Doctor to Resume Studies," Ibid., May 13, 1939, p.4; "Wilkins to Seek Sub Sled Here," Ibid., March 13, 1940, p. 7; Earl P Hanson, "I Was Wrong," Ibid., December 15, 1940, p. 50; "Sir Hubert Wilkins Due," Ibid., November 9, 1947, p. 54; "Last Adventure," Ibid., December 3, 1958, p. 8; "Heroes of Antarctic Odyssey Claim Ice for Uncle Sam," Seattle Sunday Times, March 12, 1939, p 8; "Captain Amundsen to Conclude Series of Lectures in Everett," The Everett Daily Herald, February 23, 1926, p. 7; "Explorer Amundsen Gives Details of Dash to Pole," Ibid., February 24, 1926, p. 1; "Amundsen Leaves for New York; to Sail for Norway," Ibid., February 25, 1926, p. 4; "Dr. Here Sought by Wilkins for Polar Trip,"Ibid., July 29, 1938, p. 9; "Dr. H. 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Anderson, The Ice Diaries (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2008), 65; Roald Amundsen and Lincoln Ellsworth, First Crossing of the Polar Sea (New York: Doubleday, Doran & Company, Inc, 1928); Jeff Maynard, Wings of Ice (Sydney: Random House Australia, 2010); Jeff Maynard, Antarctica's Lost Aviator (New York: Pegasus Books Ltd., 2019); Simon Nasht, The Last Explorer (New York: Arcade Publishing, 2006); Captain George Wilkins, Flying the Arctic (New York: George Putnam and Sons, 1928); "Famous British Explorer Visits in Spokane," Spokane Daily Chronicle, April 16, 1940, p. 6; "Stressful Life," Time Magazine November 24, 1947, Time website accessed October 18, 2019 (http://content.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,887763,00.html); Lincoln Ellsworth, "My Flight Across Antarctica," National Geographic Magazine, July, 1936, pp. 1-35; Commander James F. Calvert, "Up Through the Ice at the North Pole," National Geographic Magazine, July, 1959, p. 15; "Lincoln Ellsworth," South-Pole.com website accessed October 18, 2019 (http://www.south-pole.com/main.html); "Dr. Harmon Talley Rhoads, Sr." Find A Grave website accessed October 18, 2019 (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/107872486/harmon-talley-rhoads); "Dr. Harmon Talley Rhoads, Jr" Find A Grave website accessed October 18, 2019 (https://www.findagrave.com/memorial/107943027/harmon-talley-rhoads); Polk's Everett and Snohomish County Directory 1925 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., Inc. 1925) 341; Polk's Everett and Snohomish County Directory 1930-1931 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., Inc. 1930) 359; Polk's Everett and Snohomish County Directory 1939 (Seattle: R. L. Polk & Co., Inc. 1939) 361; "Men on Board M/S Wyatt Earp," Typed Crew List, July 1938, Copy from Jeff Maynard; Lincoln Ellsworth, "My Four Antarctic Expeditions," National Geographic Magazine, July, 1939, pp. 129-138.

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