Shannon Island and Bass Rock

Chart of Evelyn Briggs Baldwin's proposed expedition to the pole and back (from Baldwin 1901). It shows the location on Shannon Island where a cache of supplies and a separate hydrogen generating apparatus were left in 1902 to support Baldwin as he retreated from the pole. A second cache is thought to have been located on nearby Bass Rock.

The archaeology of the 1901-1902 Baldwin-Ziegler polar expedition is a complex of balloons, buoys, depots, and base camps strewn between Franz Josef Land and Greenland.  Pieces of it have been discovered at various times over the past century.

With Nansen having demonstrated the westward drift of polar ice, the American Evelyn Briggs Baldwin planned to take advantage of this drift by starting his attempt on the pole from Rudolf Island, then retreating south from the pole in a southwestward direction, thereby taking advantage of the ice drift to end his expedition somewhere on the eastern coast of Greenland.  This is essentially the same route that would later be used by the Soviet Union NP-1 drift station expedition from the pole to Greenland in 1937.

To this end, Baldwin chartered a Norwegian vessel, Belgica, which had just returned from the 1898-1899 Antarctic expedition of Adrien de Gerlache.  As Baldwin and his main group on board two vessels—a converted Scottish whaling steamer renamed America and a Norwegian sailing vessel called Frithjof—established his main base camp on Alger Island in Franz Josef Land, Norwegian skipper Johan Bryde on Belgica would sail for the northeast coast of Greenland to establish relief depot stations on Shannon Island and on Bass Rock (Baldwin 1901a).  Baldwin ordered that the stations in both Franz Josef Land and in Greenland be supplied not just with food and shelter, but also dozens of balloons, message-carrying buoys to be attached to these balloons, and hydrogen generators (Baldwin 1901: 67-68).

Interestingly, the huts on Bass Rock and Shannon Island in northeast Greenland did eventually provide relief for a member of Baldwin-Ziegler, but not for a decade after the expedition!  Ejnar Mikkelsen, who had been a young 21-year-old Danish volunteer on Alger Island in 1901, was by 1909 a seasoned Arctic explorer, having co-led an expedition to the north coast of Alaska with fellow Baldwin-Ziegler veteran Ernest Leffingwell.

In 1909, Mikkelsen organized an expedition to northeast Greenland to search for the bodies and journals of the 1906-08 Danmark expedition under Ludvig Mylius-Erichsen.   Mikkelsen found Mylius-Erichsen’s journals, but was himself trapped with a companion in northeast Greenland for three winters.  Taking refuge finally at the Baldwin hut on the southeastern point of Shannon Island in the winter of 1911-12, Mikkelsen and a companion were rescued by the Norwegian sealer Sjøblomsten on 19 July (Mikkelsen 1922: 136-139; Schledermann 1991: 352-354).

Baldwin himself wrote about the use of these huts for the relief of expeditions after the initial news arrived about the Danmark tragedy.  “It is interesting to note that at the Baldwin-Ziegler station are ten of the balloons manufactured by Captain Thomas Sackett Baldwin and his brother Samuel Yates Baldwin for the transmission of messages concerning the progress or welfare of an expedition,” (Baldwin 1908).  It is not certain which station—Shannon Island or Bass Rock—holds the remains of the balloon buoy system.  But Mikkelsen found the Shannon Island depot “in comparatively good order” when he first looked in on it the fall of 1909 (Mikkelsen 1922: 13), and the contents helped save the lives of himself and his companion for the next three summers.  A window pane had been broken and snow had blown in, making it a winter den for foxes.  On Bass Rock he found “ample provisions and coal in the two houses” when he reached them in November of 1911 (Mikkelsen 1922: 136).  During his last visit to the Shannon Island site in April, 1912, Mikkelsen found that animals had broken in “and foxes had dragged books out through the window and left them scattered all over the snow” (Mikkelsen 1922: 139).

Given Mikkelsen’s descriptions of the two sites, the Shannon Island depot at Cape Philip Broke would seem to be the likeliest spot for Johan Bryde to have placed the balloons, buoy, acid and metals in the summer of 1902.  There is both flat ground and high basalt cliffs to the north that could have served as wind breaks for any launch operation.  It would be interesting to note as well, across their long winters of isolation, if either Mikkelsen or his companion ever sought out the cases containing the acid and metal and balloons and considered using them for their own rescue.  Even if the balloon infrastructure survived until his expedition, perhaps his personal experience at seeing how ineffective the system was on Alger Island in 1902 would have been enough to put him off the notion.

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