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The Cook-Peary files: October 15, 1909: The Parker-Browne testimony, part 2

January 7, 2018

This is the 8th in a series examining significant unpublished documents related to the Polar Controversy.

The lecture Parker refers to took place on December 7, 1906. Cook’s claimed success in Alaska led to his election as the second president of the Explorers Club later that year.  Parker makes much of Cook having a silk flag. This seems trivial, after all, his explanation isn’t implausible, or perhaps he took it along, “just in case.”

Explorers Club 4Explorers Club 5Explorers Club 6Explorers Club 7Explorers Club 8Explorers Club 9A

Things to note in this section:

  • Browne asserts that Cook “went over the Eastern Ridge.” This is actually what Cook believed the route he described did, but it was not the ridge that Parker and Browne attempted in 1912. Both Cook and Parker-Browne later referred to their routes as along “the Northeast Ridge,” now known as Karsten’s Ridge. That would not be accurate for Cook. It seems that Cook always confused the two separate ridges and believed they were one and the same. That is the only way to explain his various descriptions of his own fantasy route.

  • Notice that here, Parker, who has previously said it was “perfectly understood” that Cook would make no further attempts on the summit that season, now says he was “under the impression, however, that he did say so, but I cannot say definitely.” Browne, however, testified that Cook said he would “absolutely do no climbing whatsoever.” In fact, Parker seemed aware that Cook fully intended to make a reconnaissance of the mountain before heading for home, and testifies that Cook “announced” such a plan if his financial sponsor, Henry Disston didn’t come up.

  • Parker makes a case against Cook using both his “summit” photo and his lack of other photos of his approach to the summit or surrounding peaks as evidence that he never made the climb. These are all valid points, but at that time didn’t prove the climb wasn’t made. Every one of Cook’s photos, both published and unpublished, alleged to have been made during his climb, can now be identified today as having been made within the confines defined by Barrill’s affidavit. At the time of Parker’s testimony, however, none of them had been so identified.

  • Parker argues that Cook’s estimate of the summit’s elevation of 20,390 feet is worthless because it was his “impression” that Cook had no equipment that could measure such a height. However, Cook’s estimate was more accurate than that published by Parker-Browne after the 1912 expedition on which they are credited with coming within 464 feet of the summit before turning back. They estimated the height at 20,450 feet. The actual height of Denali is 20,310 feet, only recently corrected from 20,320 feet.

  • Although there was not a “sea level station for barometer reading,” John Dokkin was charged with keeping a record of the barometer readings at a known height, where he returned after parting with Cook and Barrill on Ruth Glacier. This would act as the check on the accuracy of any readings Cook took on the mountain that Anthony Fiala was referring to.

  • Notice that Parker again is uncertain when asked directly if Cook’s barometers were adequate. When asked: “Do you know, as a matter of fact, that he did not have one that read to 20,000 feet”? His answer was “No.”

  • The discussion concerning a “South Ridge” is confusing. Cook’s climbing directions don’t mention such a ridge in his published account, To the Top of the Continent, though they are vague, indeed, and have led many to conclude that they are impossible to reconcile with actual terrain, though others believe they are.

At the end of his testimony, Belmore Browne makes an opening statement. This will be the subject of the next post.


The Cook-Peary files: October 15, 1909: The Parker-Browne testimony, part 1

October 28, 2017

This is the seventh in a series examining significant unpublished documents related to the Polar Controversy.

Parker began his testimony by recounting his 1906 Alaskan experiences (not reproduced here); the panel then asked him some questions.

Explorers Club 2Explorers Club 3

It should be noted that when Cook sent a telegram announcing his success on McKinley on October 2, 1906, Parker had openly doubted it could be true. After Cook returned to New York in November, and met with Cook personally, however, he dropped his doubts, but still maintained that Cook’s triumph was nothing but an admirable physical feat, he having made no reliable measurements that would be of interest to science. Parker belief eventually went so far as to allow him to stand in for Dr. Cook at several lectures on the conquest in 1907. Browne, for his part, openly praised Cook before the Mazama Club upon their return to Seattle in early November, and in 1907 published an article along the same lines, expressing his admiration for Cook’s feat and saying he and Barrill had proved themselves to “be of the stuff men are made of.”

Parker and Browne, however, as Parker admits here, had designs on another attempt to reach the summit, and Barrill’s affidavit reopened the door to their ambitions. If Cook could be disqualified, they might be able to claim the first conquest of the great mountain for themselves.

Things to note in this part of Parker’s testimony:

The prospector who accompanied Cook and Barrill part way up the Ruth Glacier was named John Dokkin, not “Duncan.” Also, throughout the transcript, Belmore Browne’s name is misspelled “Brown.”

  • Although he said he would not consider “for an instant the possibility of approaching the mountain from the South” on any future attempt, that is exactly what he and Belmore Browne did in 1910, on an expedition funded by General Thomas Hubbard. The main purpose of this expedition was not to climb Mt. McKinley, however, but to prove Cook hadn’t.

  • Although it was “perfectly understood” between himself and Cook that all further attempts “were abandoned for that season,” he was less certain of this later in his testimony.


The Cook-Peary files: October 15, 1909: The Explorers Club Investigates Cook’s Mt. McKinely climb

July 17, 2017

This is the sixth in a series examining significant unpublished documents associated with the Polar Controversy.

On October 14, 1909, an affidavit appeared in The New York Globe, sworn by Edward N. Barrill. Barrill had been Dr. Cook’s only witness and climbing partner on his last attempt to conquer Mt. McKinley, in which effort Cook claimed to have stood at “the top of the Continent” on September 16, 1906. Conflicting rumors about Barrill had appeared in the New York newspapers for days previous to the affidavit, some saying he would support Cook’s claim, others that he would deny it. Conflicting, too, were reports from witnesses that told of Barrill bragging of his share in the successful feat and those who had said, early-on, that he had told them it was a hoax. When it finally appeared, his affidavit emphatically labeled Cook’s climb a blatant fraud.

Barrill asserted Cook had been no nearer to the 20,000-foot summit of the mountain than 14 miles and no higher than 10,000 feet. After the affidavit appeared, although he had just been in New York City, where he met with two members of the Explorers Club, Barrill disappeared, his whereabouts unknown, but safely out of reach of the Press. The next day, the Explorers Club assembled a committee to investigate Cook’s claims in regard to Mt. McKinley. Cook had been its sitting president when he had departed in 1907 on what eventually resulted in his claim to have reached the North Pole in 1908. Robert E. Peary had been appointed to fill his place in his absence, and was now the sitting president of the Explorers Club. Although the newspapers reported that the club’s investigatory panel included “Cook’s friends,” in fact, though they expressed neutrality and impartiality in the raging dispute between the two explorers, they were largely Peary men.

The panel included Marshall Saville of the American Museum of Natural History, long an institutional ally and contributor it Peary’s expeditions, Charles H. Townsend, director of the New York Aquarium, who later spearheaded a dubious attempt to “prove” that Cook had tried to steal the life’s work of a aging South American missionary by publishing as his own a dictionary of the language of the Yaghan Indians of Patagonia, Walter C. Clark, who was the business partner in the Parker-Clark Electric Company with Hershel Parker, the chief witness against Cook, and Frederick S. Dellenbaugh, Secretary of American Geographical Society, who claimed to know where Barrill was but said he couldn’t disclose this information without “breaking a confidence.” Saville and Townsend were the two members who had interviewed Barrill before his “disappearance.” About the only members who could be remotely considered “Cook’s friends” would have been Caspar Whitney, editor of Outing Magazine, who had editorialized for fairness for Dr. Cook in its pages, Anthony Fiala, a fellow arctic explorer and long time associate of Cook’s, who ran a sporting goods store in New York, and Henry Walsh, who had been a co-founder with Cook of The Arctic Club of America.

That the mysterious disappearance of Barrill, the only eyewitness to Cook’s actual movements on his claimed climb, was blown off in so casual a way in the opening statement reproduced here, shows that, as a whole, the committee was clearly in Peary’s pocket. Basically, they said, Barrill’s published affidavit was to be accepted without any questioning of him by the panel. That was what General Thomas H. Hubbard, the president of the Peary Arctic Club wanted. He had paid for “expenses” connected with Barrill’s and others’ making affidavits against Cook, and the cost of bringing Barrill to New York and his accommodations while there. It was Hubbard who “spirited away” Barrill, ostensibly to visit relatives in Missouri instead of appearing before the committee to expand upon the eyewitness account of events he had sworn to in The Globe, a paper owned by General Hubbard.

Barrill’s absence left the committee with only two witnesses, Parker, and Belmore Browne, both of whom had been on Cook’s 1906 expedition. In this series, their testimony before the Explorers Club is published for the first time. The meeting began with a preliminary statement concerning the absence of Edward Barrill, after which Parker was called. Parker, unlike eyewitness Barrill, had already left Alaska before Dr. Cook made his attempt with Barrill to reach the mountain’s summit.

Explorers Club 1

A transcript of the Parker-Browne testimony, which will be published in the next few posts is among the Robert E. Peary Family Papers at National Archives II in College Park, MD.


The Cook-Peary files: July 31, 1914: “Case 2140″

May 20, 2017

Burns bill

This is the fifth in a series examining significant unpublished documents associated with the Polar Controversy.

During most of 1914, Frederick Cook was followed by detectives from the Edward J. Burns detective agency and became “Case 2140” on their books. The intent was to learn who he saw and what his future plans were so they could be anticipated. Screeds were then sent in advance to places he intended to lecture in an effort to undercut his credibility and reduce his earnings by discouraging those who might wish to hear him speak. Cook took the role of an ordinary man who had accomplished an extraordinary deed, and out of jealousy had been targeted for ruin by a black-handed conspiracy led by the rich and powerful “Arctic Trust,” The Peary Arctic Club, that backed Robert Peary. Cook was right as far as the efforts to discredit him. The Burns Agency bills were paid out of the account of General Thomas A. Hubbard, The Peary Arctic Club’s president. Illustrated is a typical bill for the last half of July, 1914, totaling $290.52. Similar amounts were paid month after month, and it should be remembered that $290 in 1914 was worth about 19 times that today, so it was no insignificant amount—equivalent to more than $5,000. Ultimately, the program of trailing Cook ended upon the death of General Hubbard in 1915. This bill and many others like it are among the Robert E. Peary Family Collection preserved at the National Archives II in College Park, MD.


The Cook-Peary files: December 15, 1913: Dr. Cook’s terms.

January 31, 2017

This is the fourth in a series examining significant unpublished documents associated with the Polar Controversy.

After his return from “exile,” in December 1910, Frederick Cook organized The Polar Publishing Company, headquartered in Chicago, to publish his forthcoming book about his conquest of the North Pole.   Also in Chicago, he made his film The Truth About the North Pole, and set out with it to promote his campaign to reinstate himself as the true Discoverer of the North Pole.

At first he traveled the vaudeville circuit with his film, but by the middle of 1912 he more and more focused in on appearances on the Chautauqua circuit.  Using this vehicle, he traveled the length and breadth of the country telling how his rightful glory had been stripped from him by Peary’s “Arctic Trust,” but in terms acceptable to Chautauqua managers, leaving out some of the insinuations he had previously included about Peary’s moral character.

By 1913, a cheaper, “Press Edition” of My Attainment of the Pole had been brought out by Mitchell Kennerley, and Cook sold it at cost at his lectures to help bolster belief in his claims of polar conquest.  He even offered it to Chautauqua committeemen at less than cost, as a premium and added incentive for booking one of his lectures.

His manager, G. W. Baker,  set out his terms:

Baker letterBaker’s letter is among the Peary Family Collection at the National Archives II in College Park, Md.


The Lost Polar Notebook of Dr. Frederick A. Cook receives an academic review.

December 8, 2016

It is almost impossible for a self-published book to receive a professional review in the United States. That’s because many journals still believe that a book that is not subject to the normal publishing process is either a “vanity” book or somehow compromised by not being professionally edited. There is certainly merit in this point of view, because probably well over 90% of self-published works justify these doubts. However, there are works of an academic, though thoroughly legitimate, nature that would be a loss for any for-profit publisher to publish. There’s just no money in them, like most doctoral theses, for instance. The Lost Polar Notebook is such a work.
However, in the not-for-profit academic world, once published, each self-published book should be considered on its own merits, and apparently some in the UK take such a broad view. When I asked the International Journal of Maritime History to consider doing a review, they did.

Journal cover

The full review is published in the journal’s May 2016 issue, which is available from Sage Publications online. Here is a few of the things the reviewer said about it.

It can certainly be stated that making it available for historical research on the exploration of the Polar Regions is an important achievement in itself. The meticulous transcription of Cook’s often virtually unreadable handwriting, and the careful analysis of the order of the various layers of text included in the notebook . . . serve to make this invaluable source readily available to the researcher for the first time. . . . Bryce provides comments on nearly all paragraphs of the notebook.

Altogether, the Lost Polar Notebook can be understood either as an addendum to Bryce’s earlier book or as an edition of an important primary source. Both takes are valid and welcome, but both takes render the book primarily relevant for the comparable small group of specialized historians dealing with the Polar Regions and or the history of science in around 1900.

Certainly, the book was designed for that purpose exactly, though the reviewer did not recognize the important new ground broken within its pages. For the first time, researchers have the evidence that gives a credible, evidence-based timeline for Frederick Cook’s movements between the time he left his winter quarters at Annoatok up to the time he claimed to have been at the North Pole, and by doing so, it establishes the fact that he could not have reached the Pole during the spring of 1908, but instead fabricated an account of such a feat to deceive the world into believing he had. Anyone who reads both Cook & Peary, the Polar Controversy, resolved and The Lost Polar Notebook of Dr. Frederick A. Cook will be convinced of this fact, resolving this controversy convincingly, after more than 100 years of dispute, for all time.

The entire review can be viewed at: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/full/10.1177/0843871416630274g


The Cook & Peary files: December 11, 1914: A letter from Etah.

July 25, 2016

This is the third in a series examining significant unpublished documents associated with the Polar Controversy. Crocker Land Expedition letterheadWhen the Crocker Land Expedition arrived in Greenland, the ship’s captain was unwilling to risk the crossing of Smith Sound to land the expedition near Bache Peninsula on Ellesmere Island, the preferred site of its winter headquarters. So Donald MacMillan was compelled to winter at Etah, site of a permanent Inuit settlement about 30 miles to the east in Greenland. After he proved that Peary’s Crocker Land didn’t exist in the spring of 1914, MacMillan settled in for his second winter there. He had not forgotten the other purposes he had outlined to Herbert Bridgman in 1909 (see previous post).Crocker Land letter

Etah, North Greenland, December 11th, 1914.

My dear General Hubbard:
We learn through clippings and letters that the
controversy is still strong in the states. To us who know the facts and
who know Ee-took-ah-soo and Ah-pellah* so well it seems almost incredible
that thee are still people who believe in Cook. Ee-took-ah-soo was
with me on the long trip last year when we followed in Cook’s footsteps
all the way up through Eureka Sound to Cape Thomas Hubbard. He pointed
out where they camped, what they did, and where they stopped on the Polar
Sea which I judged to be about fifteen miles from land.
My next trip will complete the circle which he
made as I hope to come home by way of Jones Sound. I have Dr. Cook’s
book** with me and many a laugh these two boys have had over ti as we have
read certain parts of it to them. If it will do any good to bring
Ee-took-ah-shoo back with me to the states I could easily do it as a
ship comes up here now every year from Copenhagen. The wives of these
two boys could be supported at the mission station at very little expense
while they are gone. I shall probably take an Eskimo home with me
anyway and if I do not come back I will go to Denmark with him to see
that he gets stared (sic) back to Greenland.
If you have any suggestions to make will you
please write me by the ship which comes up next year.

Sincerely yours,

(signed) MacMillan

*The two Inuit who accompanied Cook on his try for the North Pole in 1908.

**My Attainment of the Pole

When Hubbard checked Peary’s feelings on the matter, he emphatically vetoed the idea of bringing Cook’s Inuit companions. Peary felt he had the situation under control and wanted nothing to do with any such unpredictable things like that Etukishuk might say. Peary was trailing Cook’s every move with the help of the Burns Detective agency, financed by General Hubbard, and placing anti-Cook propaganda in the hands of the Press and prominent citizens in every place he attempted to tell his story of being shorn of his rightful glory by the machinations of the Peary Arctic Club.

The original of this letter is among the Peary Family Collection at the National Archives II in College Park, Md.


The Cook-Peary files: November 25, 1909: An expedition is born.

April 12, 2016

Mac letter Nov 25 1909

This is the second in a series examining significant unpublished documents associated with the Polar Controversy.

We are now about halfway through the centennial of the Crocker Land Expedition, 1913-17. This expedition left Brooklyn in July 1913 with the intention of exploring “Crocker Land,” which Peary claimed to have seen in 1906 from the heights of Cape Thomas Hubbard on Axel Heiberg island after his failed attempt to reach the North Pole that year. It was originally organized by Donald MacMillan and George Borup, two of Peary’s assistants on his last attempt to reach the Pole in the spring of 1909. However, Borup died in a boating accident on Long Island Sound in 1912 and the expedition was delayed a year. Few realize, however, that the idea for this expedition goes back to shortly after Peary’s last expedition’s returned in September of 1909.

Here’s the letter that MacMillan wrote to Herbert L. Bridgman, Secretary of the Peary Arctic Club, on November 25, proposing it and stating its aims:

Freeport, Maine, Nov.25, 1909.

My dear Mr. Bridgman:

When I mentioned Crocker Land to you a few days ago I hardly
expected you to show any interest. I speak of you in my lectures as a
friend of all Arctic explorers; you even go further than that in catching
up the casual remark of an amateur.

When I think of Crocker Land and that unexplored section
of the Polar Sea, and realize that in all probability here will be the
last great land discovery of the world I can hardly sit still. I thought
seriously of requesting Commander Peary for permission to remain at Etah
last August, and wish now that I had in spite of the fact that I had three
bullet holes through me.* There were plenty of dogs and plenty of food
and believe that I might have done the work.

The primary object of the expedition would be the confirmation
of the discovery and exploration of Crocker Land. Other objectives: line of
soundings from Cape Thomas Hubbard to Crocker Land. The possible discovery
of new lands to the west. An examination of the ice due north of Cape
Thomas Hubbard. A disproof of the existence of Bradley Land.** An examination
of Commanders cairn at Thomas Hubbard and Dr. Cook’s cache at the same to
disprove statements of Cr. Cook. An examination of box at Etah, if still
there.*** The bringing back of the sledge of Dr. Cook and the two boys if

I believe this important work could be done at a very reasonable
cost; you and Commander Peary would know to the cent. There is so much
interest manifested in the north now that I think a ship could be easily
filled with scientists and wealthy men for a summer trip. A large number
have already spoken to me about it; many of the University Club of New
York have shown a great interest in such a plan. U.S. Fish Commissioner
Kendall***** has seen me and written me a number of times. He knows of others
who would like to go. Ask Commander what he thinks of such a trip.

(Sd) Sincerely yours,

Peary, it turned out, didn’t think much of the idea. Although he didn’t object outright, he reneged on the contribution of $500 he pledged towards the expedition and discouraged its sponsor, the American Museum of Natural History, from going forward with it at all after Borup’s death. Perhaps this was because Peary knew “Crocker Land” didn’t exist. All evidence indicates Peary invented Crocker Land solely to coax more money from the rich banker he named it for.

*The result of a gun accident aboard the Roosevelt in the spring of 1909.
**Like Crocker Land, a mythical land Dr. Cook claimed to have seen on his journey toward the Pole in 1908.
***This is the box of Cook’s effects given to Harry Whitney by Cook and ordered off the Roosevelt by Peary when Whitney attempted to bring it aboard. It was buried on the shore under rocks by Captain Robert Bartlett.
**** “The boys,” meaning Etukishuk and Ahwelah, the two Inuit who accompanied Cook on his attempt to reach the North Pole in 1908.
*****William Converse Kendall (1861-1939)

A typed copy of this letter is in the Peary Family Collection at National Archives II in College Park, Md.


The Cook & Peary files: January 8, 1912: Dr. Goodsell rebukes Dr. Cook’s account.

January 24, 2016

Over the 40 years your editor has researched the Polar Controversy, he has accumulated thousands of pages of documentation from the many archives, institutions and private individuals that hold significant material dealing with Cook and Peary. This is the first in an ongoing series featuring some of those documents.

Goodsell letter

Dr. John W. Goodsell was surgeon to the Peary Arctic Club’s North Pole Expedition of 1908, the one on which Robert Peary claimed to have reached his goal of a lifetime. In the dispute that followed, Dr. Goodsell mostly stayed silent. But when Dr. Cook came to his home town of New Kensington, PA to give a lecture on January 5, 1912, Goodsell felt he had to refute Cook’s account of how his companion, Rudolph Franke had been treated when Peary’s ship arrived at Etah in July 1908.

Cook claimed that Franke had been turned away without food and his entreaties to be taken to the United States aboard Peary’s relief ship, Erik, were denied until Peary extorted from him all of the valuable Arctic fox skins and Narwhal ivory gathered by Franke and Cook over the previous winter. When he appeared in New Kensington, Cook was in the midst of a tour promoting his recently published book, My Attainment of the Pole. Accompanying his talk he showed a motion picture entitled The Truth about the North Pole, in which Peary’s allegedly brutal treatment of Franke was dramatized (see the Artifacts section of this website). The link there is now dead, but this film can now be seen in its entirety at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=q0ePNlvEJNA

On January 8th, Dr. Goodsell wrote to General Thomas H. Hubbard, President of the Peary Arctic Club:

J.W. Goodsell, M.D.
New Kensington, Pa. January 8th, 1912
General Thos.H. Hubbard.

Dear General Hubbard:

The following is a copy of the letter which I am giving to the Press ex-
planatory of the enclosed clippings: -Dr. Cook lectured at New Kensington, Pa.
on January 3, 1912, advertising previously in one of the local papers that
“Dr. Cook himself will answer the claims of Peary and the members of the
Peary Party.”
It is with the greatest reluctance that I am compelled to answer and per-
haps question the veracity of an explorer who is a member of my profession.
Dr. Cook leaves me no choice in the matter, since he lectured in the Columbus
Theatre, across the street from my office, and gives a distorted version in
the enclosed clipping, of Rudolph Franke’s reception on the “Roosevelt” at
Etah to the Press. The matter is extremely distasteful, but in justice to
Admiral Peary, myself and the officers of the “Roosevelt” I am compelled to
refute Dr. Cook’s insinuations that his Companion, Rudolph Franke, afflicted
with scurvy and applying on the “Roosevelt” at Etah, for medical attention
and food, was refused, until Commander Peary had extorted terms derogatory
to all concerned.
I have always regarded Dr. Cook with the kindliest feeling and for the honor
of my profession had hoped that Dr. Cook might have vindicated his veracity and
trust that he will correct the version of Franke’s reception on the “Roosevelt”
written in his book, spoken from the platform and exhibited thro-out the
country by moving pictures.

(signed) John W. Goodsell
Surgeon Peary Arctic Expedition 1908-09.

The truth of the matter is that Franke was at first turned away from Peary’s ship, but when Captain Robert A. Bartlett heard of it, he had him brought back and he was given food. Goodsell then did a medical examination of Franke and found him unfit to spend another winter in the Arctic. As a result, Franke petitioned Peary to be taken home aboard his support ship, Erik. Although Peary denied it, Franke said Peary granted passage on the condition that Franke sign over all of Cook’s goods both at Etah and Annoatok, his winter headquarters, to him. When Franke returned he filed suit against Peary so stating. This suit dragged through the German Courts until at least 1915 before it was dismissed after Peary gave a disposition denying Franke’s claims of extortion.

Later, Goodsell had a bitter falling out with Peary over his refusal to allow him to publish his personal diaries. Peary held Goodsell’s diaries for years and used significant portions of it to fill out his own book, The North Pole. By the time he returned it to Goodsell, interest had waned, and it was too late for him to find a publisher. Goodsell’s diaries were only published in full, in facsimile, in 2009, by the Mercer County Historical Society under the title There and Back Again.

Goodsell later asked Dr. Cook’s aid in getting a position on some future Arctic expedition, but neither man ever went to the Arctic again.

This item is part of the Peary Family Collection housed at the National Archives II in College Park, Md.


An Excursion to Ealge Island

November 23, 2015

Eagle Island

A few years back we were in Portland, ME, after climbing Mt. Kathadin in Baxter State Park, so we took an excursion to Eagle Island, summer home of Admiral Peary. Peary was captivated by the island on one of his trips to Casco Bay while a student at nearby Bowdoin College in Brunswick. When he got his first regular job as a draftsman with the Coast and Geodetic Survey in Washington, DC, he bought the island in 1881 .

Although he visited it and camped out on it in the interim, it wasn’t until 1904 that he built a modest four-square Cape Cod house on the bare northern promontory. In 1906 he enlarged the house with a one story wing off the back. It was there, in September 1909, that his wife Josephine received word that her husband had reached the North Pole in April of that year, and when he returned, he retired to the island during the heat of the Polar Controversy with Dr. Frederick A. Cook.

By the time he was credited with being the discoverer of the North Pole in 1910, Peary had pocketed the equivalent of millions of today’s dollars in book royalties and speaking fees. He had plenty of money to make some of the improvements he had long envisioned. He had grandiose plans. Some of his sketches for replacing the house looked like a castle with turrets blending into the rocky promontory. He even made elaborate sketches of a grand mausoleum in which he would be buried there.

House from airBut little of this was realized. Instead the house was raised onto a rock foundation to make it more stable on the wind-blown point, and two turret-like rock bays, which Peary referred to as his “bombproofs,” were set into the sea cliff. The west bay served as Peary’s private office and library, the east held all of his personal papers—253 cubic feet of them—and personal mementos including those of seven expeditions to the Arctic. Peary called it his “Cave of Memories.”

IslanderTo reach Eagle Island we boarded the Islander, one of the excursion boats run by Portland Discovery Land and Sea Tours.

Portalnd HarborAs often on the coast of Maine, it was a foggy morning, but Portland Harbor was busy as ever. That’s the Portland Customs House with the cupola in the background.

It’s about an hour and a quarter trip to the dock at Eagle Island, since 2005, a Maine State Park. The fog didn’t allow much to see on the way, just an occasional fishing boat that emerged from the soup.

Out of the fog

The tour allows you about an hour and a half on the island. Unfortunately, that isn’t really enough time to tour the house and see much of the 17-acre island too. The house is still quite spartan. Though the Peary family used it for more than 50 years, not much has changed since the Admiral lived there. Here’s the west elevation. Notice the porthole-like windows set into the rock foundation built in 1906.

West Elevation

The main room is dominated by a three sided fireplace in which three distinct kinds of rocks from the island’s shores are set. Peary was an expert taxidermist and many of his bird specimens still sit on its mantle pieces.


The lower floor is mostly a great room that served as living room and dining area. The entire house is paneled, with wooden ceilings and floors.


Scattered through the house in no particular order are a number of interesting Peary artifacts, including this sheepskin coat taken by Peary on his very first trip to Greenland in 1886.

Greenland coat

A narrow staircase leads upstairs to three spartan bedrooms.


The children’s room has a display of toys spanning the three generations of Pearys who lived here.

Child's room

Out the window, the shell of Peary’s Cave of Memories can be seen. Many of his papers were damaged from storage in this space that took a beating in numerous storms before they were donated to the National Archives in the early 1960s.

Cave of Memories

The front porch has a commanding view of the sea on a sunny day. Peary used this megaphone to quiet the Inuit dogs he brought back from Greenland and quartered on a nearby islet by shouting curse words at them in Inuktitut.


The kitchen was once detached to safeguard it against fires, but now is attached to the main house by the low extending wing built on the back of it.


The island itself has a series of hiking trails that take you through its landscape of wind blasted Moosewood maples and spruce, with vistas of the sea from every shore. Unfortunately, neither the weather or the time constraints of the tour allowed for more than a short walk into the woods.

Trail (1)

Peary’s other “bombproof” that housed his office suffered a collapse of its roof. It was restored from photographs to the way it appeared in Peary’s time in 1992.  It wasn’t open; this is a view through the window.  Peary is shown working at his desk in this same room.

Peary's studyPeary in his study

Atop the house’s roof is a weathervane cut in the shape of the S.S. Roosevelt, the special ice ship Peary had built in 1905, which he used on his last two attempts to reach the North Pole.


Soon it was time to return to the mainland and we bid goodbye to Peary’s island.


On the return, the fog held fast, but we were able to get a glimpse of Fort Gorges, built on Hog Island Ledge between 1858-1864.

Fort Gorges

Since our excursion a small museum was opened in 2012, and the site was designated a National Historic Site in 2014.