FIFTY-FIVE YEARS FAST IN POLAR ICE
The English Corvette INVESTIGATOR Free at Last in Mercy Bay.
WAS PIONEER OF THE NORTHWEST PASSAGE.
The Ship May Return to Britain After a Record of Adventure Almost Past Belief.
Within a few months there will sail out of the Arctic, toward civilization, an old wooden English warship that sailed through Bering's Straits into the unknown seas and icy shadows more than 55 years ago.
Since Sept. 24, 1851, says the World, H. M. S. INVESTIGATOR has been frozen in the ice in Mercy Bay, Bering Island, in the interminable lacework of land and sea to the north of North America. It was as commander of this famous old ship that Sir Robert Le Mesurier McClure made his memorable voyage and discovered the Northwest Passage. For 400 years maritime Europe had beenn trying to find a passage across the north of the American Continent to China
and the Indies. Countless treasure and many lives had been lost in the search.
In 1849 England, having a time of peace, turned her navy loose to try once more for the trial through the frozen North that had been up to that time only a superstition bordering on certainty. The INVESTIGATOR was then an old wooden corvette, fitted with a steam engine and carrying a row of long guns behind her white-painted portholes.
"OLD AND INSANE."
The history of the Australian Survey in 801 told of her carrying the young and ambitious John Franklin in the search for the mysteries of the Southern seas.
"She then was so old and insane that her commander thought she should be condemned as a warship and, in fact, she was crazy-ribbed when she was bought," the narrator says.
Nevertheless in 849 she was picked out, probably having been renovated, to perform the hazardous task of battling with the ice floes and bergs of the unknown North and to form one of Capt. Belcher's squadron in search of the Northwest Passage. She was to carry the brave Capt.Robert McClure around South America, up the Pacific and through Bering Straits and from there north as far as he could go.
The last that the other ships of the squadron saw of the INVESTIGATOR was Aug. 6, 1850, when she was seen running under the stress of a great storm, flying before the gusts with studding sails, and her vigorous young commander pacing the deck.
Capt. McClure had parted with the HERALD, another wooden battleship pressed into the frigid service, at Cape Lisbone. All along the northern shore of North America the INVESTIGATOR weathered the stormy seas, putting in to land whenever he could to inquire of the Eskimos for some trace of the lost Sir John Franklin and his shipload of adventuresome spirits.
BURIED IN CAIRNS.
Now and then records were buried of the trip in cairns, or heaps of rocks, along the ragged, frozen shore. Miertsching, the Russian interpreter, bought meat of the natives and questioned them in regard to the previous presence of white men.
At one village the Eskimos crept up to the ship at night and tried to over-power tbe crew. At another a boat's company was sent ashore to explore and was dined on fish and putrid venison at the village of a native chief.
Capt. McClure presented a small English flag to the daughter of the chief, and she immediately made an apron of it. As the white men were leaving the girl caught hold of Capt. McClure and held him, telling the interpreter that the captain had followed a tribal custom in giving her an apron and that it was the same as promising to remain and became one of the tribe. She had got her father's consent to marry the whtte-faced stranger. But Capt. McClure declined the honor
and sailed away.
At a place they named Horton, they discovered Sept. 4 a group of hot springs with steam issuing from them, which from the sea looked like persons walking around dressed in white clothes. The ship made its way, buffeted by storms and crushed by ice northeasterly to what is now known as Wollaston Island and entered the narrow and snake-like strait between that and a large island that Capt. McClure named Banks Land or Baring Land.
In immediate danger of being crushed to death by the ice floes, the ship crept up the tortuous strait till nearly up to Melville Sound, when it was caught in the ice floes and driven back down through the strait which they named Prince of Wales Strait--to Capt. Bathurst. Thence it sailed north toward the Pole around the upper end of Baring Land and into a small bay, which they named Mercy Bay.
When the ship entered it was free from ice, and deer and other game flocked on the shore. The anchor was cast and the location taken, proving to be latitude 75 degrees 35 minutes north, longitude 115 degrees west. The next day the season changed and the ship began to freeze into the ice. Capt. McClure decided to winter there, expecting that he could get out the next summer.
Within a few days a land party made a trip of 75 miles overland and established the fact that the tortuous strait that had been discovered and named Prince Of Wales Strait, and which nearly had been sailed through, was the long sought Northwest Passage. The men, with their captain at their head, crossed the strait on the ice and went back to their ship to pass the winter.
The Arctic night settled down on the shipful of men, and to cheer their hearts Capt. McCLure started theatricals and hunting parties. The next summer, 1852, passed without the ice breaking up around the ship, and another winter settled down. Capt. McClure began to expect the fate of Franklin, with possible starvation and freezing.
In 1853 while the men were hunting ashore the party came very near losing the ship's surgeon. He had wandered away from the rest of the party and was hunting deer when he was attacked by two musk oxen. With his heavy rifle he killed one at them and had just time to load again when he found he had no bullets left. As the ferocious bull came at him with lowered head he rammed his loading rod into the gun and fired. The ramrod went through the ox's heart, killing it, but not so quickly but that the dying creature rolled over the doctor.
Several of the men died that summer, and as the winter settled down again hope was given up, and the record of the voyage was buried ashore in the hope that future generations might find it. One afternoon while the men were cutting a hole in the ice to fish through, a stranger staggered toward them. It was supposed that he was one the party that had wandered off and was returning and no attention was paid till he fell at the feet of Capt. McClure after saluting in the English naval fashion.
Then Capt. McClure saw he was a stranger and was so amazed that he thought at first that it was a hallucination. But the newcomer, exhausted by days and nights of wandering over the ice, cried out:
"Lieut. Pim of H. M. S. HERALD, from Capt. Killetts."
Capt. Killetts was one of the commanders of Capt. Belcher, a squadron that had made its way around the north of Banks Land and was wintering at Melville Island. It had found one of the cairns with McClure's message. Capt. Killetts had sent a party to rescue him and establish communication, and only Lieut. Pim had reached him. He was nearly starved and delirious.
The excitement aboard the prisoned INVESTIGATOR soon brought him to his senses, and the next day Capt. McClure and a party went across the ice to Melville Island and visited Capt. Killetts. Capt. Lilletts, in describing the meeting in his dispatches to the Admiralty in England, said that both he and Capt. McClure were overcome with emotion. Reports of the voyage and the discovery of the Northwest Passage were hastily made out and dispatched overland to the Hudson Bay Company, where they made a sensation.
REFUSED TO ABANDON.
Capt McClure was advised to abandon the INVESTIGATOR, but refused to do so, as 20 of his hardy British seamen, now sick and miserable with disease, volunteered to remain on the ship another winter. The other ships gave up the further search, hailing the old INVESllGATOR as the discoverer of the passage, and the next summer sailed home.
The summer of 1854 found the old ship still stuck fast in the ice, and reluctantly Capt McClure went home in a sister ship. The INVESllGATOR was left frozen and deserted, with its flag flying to the icy winds from the masthead and all her instruments and fittings aboard. For 50 years she was forgotten, seen only at times by American whalers passing the mouth of the frozen bay and visited only by the wolves, foxes and now and then a superstitious Esquimau who dared not climb aboard.
In 1904 an Indian party which had been driven to the island on floating ice found the old ship, which 100 years before had been declared too crazy and rotten for good work in the Australia survey, still sitting among the ice floes and with her decks covered with ice two feet thick.
The savages had come into contact with the Jesuit Missionaries of Alaska and had a smattering of religion and Biblical history. They knew the story of the Ark, and on coming back to the Continent reported they had found Noah's Ark frozen into the ice not many miles from the North Pole.
FREED AT LAST.
Last summer was a mild one in the Arctic. The ice in Mercy Bay melted for the first time. Last week advices received at Victoria, B. C., from Dawson, brought there from Fort McPherson by Audrey Forrest, a snowshoe courier, were to the effect that the mildness of last summer and this winter have liberated the famous old ship and that whalers from America have visited it and are living by it in Mercy Bay with the hope of towing the old craft clear of the island and bringing her back to Alaska and so to British Columbia and to England. Capt McClure died in 1873.
Buffalo Evening News
Saturday, April 11, 1908