An Expedition to Crocker Land
Vice President of the Southern Pacific Railroad, the dynamic Col. Charles Frederick Crocker, “C.F.,” was also a Regent for the University of California, a 33rd degree Mason, an early member of the Bohemian Club and the President of the California Academy of Sciences. In 1889, he began financing scientific expeditions–from Cayenne, French Guiana to Akashi, Japan to Jeur, India–which observed and measured solar eclipses for the Astronomical Society of the Pacific and the Lick Observatory. Images captured with the Willard photographic lens and the Crocker telescope are considered benchmarks in the history of astrophotography.
Both William Henry and George, following the example of their older brother, would finance important expeditions, scientists and explorers including Nobel Prize winners Albert Einstein and Ernest Lawrence and the inventor of the television, boy genius Philo Taylor Farnsworth. C.F.’s son Charles Templeton Crocker headed up and funded scientific expeditions to Baja California, the Galapagos, Western Polynesian and the Melanesian Islands in his schooner “Zaca.” An expedition to the North Pole in 1906 financed by one of the Crocker brothers triggered a series of events that would become one of the the most dramatic and action packed stories in the family annals.
For centuries, cartographers, most notably Mercator, filled the otherwise empty tops of their maps with various places drawn from mythology and tales of sailors seeking the Northern Passages. The Polar Regions were the last blanks to be filled in, being the most inhospitable locations for human travel. Turn-of-the-century explorers, emboldened by scientific and technological advances, took up the search for lands hidden in the northern ice and raced to be the first to reach the poles, north and south. This competition reached a fever pitch turned melt down in the first decade of the 20th century. Who better to finance this ambitious journey than the ambitious family that built the Transcontinental Railroad?
George Crocker was a member of the Peary Arctic Club, a group that providing funds for Commander Robert Peary’s efforts to reach the farthest northern point on the Western Hemisphere and to continue his explorations of the Polar Regions. In 1905, George funded the biggest expedition to date to reach the North Pole. Commander Peary beat a farthest north record at latitude 87° 6’, but was forced to turn back before reaching his destination. Though he received honors from the National Geographic Society, it was a huge disappointment.
Peary did make an astonishing discovery en route to the top of the world. In his book about his 1906 expedition, Nearest the Pole, Peary reported that while camping at Cape Thomas Hubbard on Axel Heiberg Island, he spotted an uncharted landmass in the distance about 200 kilometers away. He eventually named his discovery “Crocker Land.” On Peary’s return he wrote to George with the suggestion that a further expedition could assure what was, as yet, only potential immortality: “I have endeavored, as far as lay in my power, to show my appreciation of your magnificent generosity by writing your name where it will last until the natural features of the earth shrivel up and disappear.” Peary’s claim sparked a lot of excitement.
George did not cough up any cash for the expedition in 1909 when Peary finally accomplished his long elusive dream of reaching the North Pole. George would die of cancer in December of that same year. Although their achievement was widely acclaimed, Dr. Frederick A. Cook challenged their distinction of being the first to reach the North Pole. A former associate of Peary, Cook claimed he had already reached the pole by dogsled the previous year. A major controversy followed. In 1911 the U.S. Congress formally recognized Peary’s accomplishment. In 1980 when navigational errors in his travel log surfaced, Peary’s claim would be disputed again. The quarrel remains, but Peary holds onto his title.
In 1913, Donald Baxter MacMillan, who first went to the north with Peary on the 1909 North Pole expedition, sought to confirm the existence of Crocker Land, then explore and map out the land as the leader of his own expedition. The team was also tasked with researching “geology, geography, glaciology, meterology, terrestrial, magnetism, electrical phenomena, seismology, zoology (both vertabrate and invertabrate), botany, oceanography, ethnology, and archaeology.” The sponsors—the American Museum of Natural History, the American Geographical Society, and the University of Illinois—had impeccable scientific credentials.
“Its boundaries and extent can only be guessed at, but I am certain that strange animals will be found there, and I hope to discover a new race of men,” said an optimistic MacMillan to reporters before leaving on his journey. The energetic team of American explorers and their Inughuit companions departed from the Brooklyn Navy Yard on the S.S. Diana on July 2, 1913.
After only a few days travel, several Inughuit fell ill with mumps and influenza. Two weeks later, on July 16th around midnight, the Diana, in trying to avoid a large iceberg, crashed on rocks along the Labrador coast. MacMillan blamed the disaster on the ship’s captain, who was drunk. The expedition’s members transferred to the Erik, and finally reached Etah in northwest Greenland in mid-August. The Crocker Land Expedition would become a continuous series of mishaps, misadventures, catastrophes and diabolical doings.
After a Canadian explorer named Vilhjalmur Stefansson had discovered “Blonde Eskimos” on Victoria Island, discussions of finding not only a lost continent but a lost band of Norsemen were surfacing in newspapers. It was speculated that in the center of the unknown area of the Polar Sea a vast continent heated by subterranean fires, still had living forms of life, both animal and vegetable, which had been wiped out for ages in all other parts of the earth. There were those that expected to find the hairy mammoth accompanied by the woolly rhinoceros, the saber-toothed tiger, the cave-lion, the cave-bear, the cave-hyena, the aurochs and many extinct monkeys in the Arctic Continent. A reporter from the Washington Post surmised that, “in some such hidden and protected valley the creature that bridged the gap between the ape-like forms and man, the ‘missing link’ itself, may still be alive.”
After making a number of preliminary trips to place supply caches along the route only MacMillan his crew and seven Inughuit set off on the 1,200-mile (1,900 km) journey to Crocker Land on March 11, 1914. The temperature was many degrees below zero and weather conditions were very poor. Eventually, the party reached the 4,700-foot-high (1,400 m) Beitstadt Glacier, which took them three days to climb. The temperature dropped dramatically and crew member W. Elmer Ekblaw suffered severe frostbite. He was evacuated back to Etah.
One by one, the other members of the party gave up and turned back. By the time the expedition reached the edge of the Arctic Ocean on April 11th, only MacMillan, geologist Fitzhugh Green and two Inughuit, Piugaattoq and Ittukusuk, remained. The four dog sleds set off across the treacherous sea ice, avoiding thin patches and expanses of open water, and eventually, on April 21st, the party saw what appeared to be a huge island on the north-western horizon. As MacMillan later said, “Hills, valleys, snow-capped peaks extending through at least one hundred and twenty degrees of the horizon.”
Piugaattoq, an Inughuit hunter with 20 years of experience of the area, explained that it was just an illusion. He called it poo-jok, which means ‘mist’. However, MacMillan insisted they press on, even though it was late in the season and the sea ice was breaking up. Finally, on April 27th, after they had covered some 125 miles (201 km) of dangerous ice, MacMillan was forced to admit that Piugaattoq was right. After searching for Neanderthals in their Polar Paradise for nearly two years, Crocker Land was determined to be a mirage–a magnification and distortion of distant ice-ridges by atmospheric refraction, known as a “Fata Morgana.” MacMillan concluded in his book Four Years in the White North, “We were convinced that we were in pursuit of a will-o’-the-wisp, ever receding, ever changing, ever beckoning. . . . My dreams of the last four years were merely dreams; my hopes had ended in bitter disappointment.”
Based on a contradictory diary entry, some believe Robert Peary’s sighting was a hoax designed to flatter George Crocker into funding Peary’s next expedition…
After returning to land, MacMillan sent Piugaattoq and Green to explore a route to the west. The weather turned against them and they were forced to take shelter in a snow cave. Piugaattoq expressed his worry at the lack of food and the exhaustion that plagued both them and their dogs. He was also worried about the risks MacMillan and Green were taking by crossing areas of thin ice. As they descended down the coast, the two men were abruptly caught in a blizzard. “For two days we half suffocated, making one igloo above the other as the drift buried us,” Green wrote. When the storm cleared, Piugaatooq seemed to have had enough and turned his sled toward Etah, taking with him the only cooking stove and oil they had. Green then took a rifle from the sled and shot Piugaattoq in the back, killing him instantly.
On May 4th, Green rejoined MacMillan and told him what had happened. Upon their return to Etah, MacMillan informed the other American members of the expedition, but asked them to keep quiet. He told the Inughuit that Piugaattoq had died in an avalanche. Ekblaw said later that this was “one of the darkest and most deplorable tragedies in the annals of Arctic exploration.”
Green was never prosecuted for the murder, although the Inughuit suspected there was more to the story than had been told. Green had had a relationship with Piugaattoq’s wife Aleqasina, a striking beauty. She had previously been Peary’s mistress, and had borne him two children.
Given their luck, it should be no surprise that what had been planned as a two-year trip extended into four when multiple rescue ships became stranded in polar ice, unable to reach the team. Slowly the Americans began to return, some traveling as much as 1,000 miles by dog sled to reach boats on open water. By the time all the Americans had returned in 1917, the world was embroiled in war.
The odyssey was not a complete disaster. The team did return with thousands of artifacts and photographs documenting the indigenous peoples and natural habitat of Etah, Greenland; and Ellsmere Island, Canada.
Frederick Cook, like Peary before him, claimed to have discovered uncharted territory during a 1909 expedition which he named Bradley Land after John R. Bradley, who had sponsored Cook’s expedition. Cook published two photographs of the land. It is now known there is no land at that location and Cook’s observations were based on either a misidentification of sea ice or an outright fabrication. Cook’s Inughuit companions reported that the photographs were actually taken near the coast of Axel Heiberg Island
George Crocker didn’t get to have a continent named after him. He left his mark though by transforming his reputation. In the 1890s George was, according to The New York Times, “one of the most reckless young men about town when reckless young men thereabouts were common.” He was given to overindulgence in intoxicants. After drying out on a ranch in Utah, he became a successful businessman who was involved in the operations and expansion of businesses his father had invested in including land, railroad, banks, coal, gas, iron, sugar, and chemical companies. He was a director of several banking houses including the Consolidated National Bank of New York, and he became the second vice president at the Southern Pacific Railroad, ranking just below brother C.F. The former ne’er do well was listed in Who’s Who in America. He went on to develop the spectacular 45,000 sq ft. 75-room Darlington estate in New Jersey, the 5oth largest private residence in the country (as of 2020). After marrying the socially ambitious Emma Rutherford and after purchasing two additional homes (a townhouse in Manhattan and a cottage in Newport), George found himself on “Mrs. Astor’s 400,” a list of aristocrats who ruled the social world in America. No longer a black sheep and family embarrassment, George Crocker became a shining star among the Northern Lights.
At his death, George left only $100 a piece to his three stepchildren, but bequeathed $25,000 to his Chinese servant, Lee Hung Yung. He donated 1.6 million dollars to Columbia University to study the cause, prevention and cure of cancer. Unlike many philanthropists who delight in architectural edifices bearing their own names, George specifically directed that the George Crocker Special Research Fund was for research only and could not be used to construct a building.