The Byrd Antarctic Expedition of 1928-1930

Aug 10, 2011

by Johnathan Thayer, Associate Archivist

The Arctic and Antarctic have held the collective imagination of the Western world since ancient times, luring nautical explorers to the icy poles in search of mysterious islands, unclaimed lands, and access to trade routes. By the time Henry Hudson set out for America in the Half-Moon, he had completed two voyages into the Arctic, spurred on by a theory of his time that temperatures got warmer the farther north one sailed. Hudson eventually ran into impenetrable ice on both journeys, emphatically disproving the warmer waters theory.

Another theory, known as the Hollow Earth hypothesis, proposed that the Earth was essentially hollow, containing a vast interior space that opened on the surface of both of the planet’s poles. While the theory was eventually dismissed, the idea of subterranean worlds that were accessible via exploration of the Earth’s Polar regions remained in vogue throughout the 19th century, informing Jules Verne’s A Journey to the Center of the Earth (1864) and Edgar Allan Poe’s only novel, The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket (1838).

Such theories and imaginative narratives inspired by the Antarctic are a testament to its essential wildness. For centuries, the Antarctic inhabited the extreme margins of human knowledge and imagination. Conquering the Antarctic meant gaining control over that wildness, thus the Richard E. Byrd expeditions attracted so much attention. Byrd and pilot Floyd Bennett had gained fame from their flight to the North Pole in 1926 and a trans-Atlantic attempt in 1927 that ended in a crash injuring both men. Just one year after the accident, Byrd gathered a crew together aboard flagship S.S. City of New York along with three planes and a second ship and headed for the extreme south.

SCI expressed its enthusiastic support for the voyage in an article published in the September 1928 issue of The Lookout. Several of Byrd’s crew had spent considerable time at SCI’s building at 25 South Street while in New York, and SCI was quick to claim them:

“We are especially concerned with their welfare, for several of them are sailormen of our own—men who for years have looked upon the Institute as their home in the Port of New York.

And away down there ninety-two hundred miles from New York, in the stillness of the Antarctic summer when all is darkness for weeks, we rather believe at least an occasional thought will be of 25 South Street.

For even if memory of the Institute fails them (and we doubt that it will), they will have as reminders the gay little cretonne ditty bags filled with sewing supplies, which it was our privilege to furnish to each member of the expedition.”

Sixty-year old John “Jake” Jacobson, who served as sail-maker on the expedition, had been a patron of SCI for years, even accepting temporary employment on SCI’s special police staff prior to the Byrd voyage. Capt. Frederick C. Melville, commander of the S.S. City of New York, was another long-time patron of 25 South Street’s dorm rooms. Melville, a second cousin of the famed author of Moby-Dick, had trained in the early years of his career with the director of SCI’s Merchant Marine School, Capt. Robert Huntington. Byrd crewmen Charles “Chips” Gould and George Tennant also frequented 25 South Street.

Among the materials in SCI’s archives related to the 1928-1930 voyage are letters and radiograms exchanged between the Institute and Byrd’s expedition both prior to and during their voyage, including a letter from Admiral Byrd himself addressed to then-Superintendent of SCI, the Rev. Archibald R. Mansfield, thanking him for arranging to send sewing kits for the crew and copies of SCI’s Manual on Ship Sanitation and First Aid, which Byrd reported he had turned over to the expedition’s Medical Director.

Take a look at the “Byrd’s First Antarctic Expedition 1928-1930” Facebook page (http://smschur.ch/ndtTAN) where you can access fascinating articles, photographs, and even video from the expedition. Byrd made four more expeditions to the Antarctic before his death in 1957.