• When The Polar Prince Came to Carnegie Hall

    On this date—December 17—in 1897, Norwegian Arctic explorer Fridtjof Nansen thrilled Carnegie Hall audiences with tales of his “Voyage to the North Pole,” complete with dozens of stereopticon slides, which detailed his legendary Fram expedition of 1893–1896—an epic journey that has gone down in history as one of the most thrilling stories of adventure, discovery, and survival ever.

    Nansen was already a university-trained zoologist and experienced explorer (his crossing of Greenland’s icecap on skis in 1888–1889 is an incredible story in itself) by the time he conceived the idea of a North Pole expedition in 1890. He had read about artifacts from the Jeannette, an American Arctic exploration ship lost in 1881 off the coast of Siberia, which had later turned up near Greenland. The theory was that strong ocean currents had carried the items westward across the top of the earth; Nansen surmised that a ship frozen into the sea ice could do the same, possibly drifting over the North Pole itself. He commissioned Norwegian naval architect Colin Archer to design a ship strong enough to withstand the tremendous pressures of the shifting Arctic ice pack. Archer created the Fram (“Forward”), an extremely strong, reinforced wood-hulled ship with rounded sides that would allow it to ride above the encroaching sea ice, rather than be crushed by it. In the end, Fram stood the test beautifully, serving as the ice-bound home for its crew of 13 explorers and scientists—and nearly three dozen sled dogs—for close to three years.


    Fridtjof Nansen aboard the Fram, February 15, 1895. | Nansen at Cape Flora, Franz Joseph Land, near the end of his epic journey, June 1896. Courtesy of the National Library of Norway 

    Fram never made it to the North Pole. She began her northward journey after being frozen into the ice off the coast of Siberia in September 1893. By November 1894, it became clear that the ship’s northward drift was too slow, and Nansen decided his only shot at reaching the Pole would be with skis and dog sleds. Knowing that speed and agility would be the keys to survival in the hazardous polar conditions, he settled on a two-man team: himself and Hjalmar Johansen, the most experienced dogsled driver among the crew. They set out from the Fram on March 14, 1895, and by April 7 had reached 86º 13.6’N—farther north than any human beings had ever traveled—but Nansen realized that the ice was now drifting south, meaning he could never reach the Pole and still have enough provisions to return to safety. Nansen and Johansen’s retreat, and the winter they spent in a crude handmade hut in Franz Josef Land—a barren, remote archipelago more than 800 miles north of Norway—remains one of the most remarkable tales of self-sufficiency and survival ever told. They reunited triumphantly with their Fram crewmates in Tromsø, Norway, on August 21, 1896. Contrary to the typical tales of 19th-century polar exploration, not a single member of their expedition perished. Yet Nansen and his crew were not merely lucky. Where earlier (and some later) polar explorers blundered and attempted to impose their own ideas of survival on the planet’s frozen outer limits, Nansen prepared meticulously and learned techniques of adaptation and survival from Greenland Inuit natives. That he was also a champion skier and ice skater didn’t hurt either.


    Fram and some of her canine crew icebound in the Arctic Ocean, September 1894. Courtesy of the National Library of Norway 

    In these days of GPS and tourist cruises to the South Pole, it’s hard to imagine the intense fascination polar exploration held for the general public at the turn of the 20th century. The Earth’s poles—together with a few of the highest mountain peaks—were the final frontiers and still seemed impossibly remote and treacherous to most people. The arrival in any city of a great explorer, with his tales of adventure and box of lantern slides to illustrate them, created great excitement; lecturers like Nansen could count on big turnouts and rapt audiences.


    Advertisement in The New York Sun for Nansen’s lectures at Carnegie Hall on December 17 and 18, 1897. Courtesy of the Library of Congress’s Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers (http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/) 

    Nansen was feted by several New York scientific organizations and lectured at the Brooklyn Academy of Music and the Metropolitan Opera House before taking the stage at Carnegie Hall on December 17, 18, and 23, 1897, for which advertisements billed him as “The Polar Prince” and “The Greatest Explorer.” Before leaving America, he returned to Carnegie Hall for a fourth and final lecture on January 28, 1898. His published account of the Fram expedition, Farthest North, remains a classic of exploration literature. The Norwegian Government designated 2011 the “Nansen–Amundsen Year,” in commemoration of the 150th anniversary of Nansen’s birth (October 10, 1861) and the centennial of Roald Amundsen’s arrival at the South Pole (December 14, 1911). The two men and their achievements are linked by more than a coincidence of date: the ship that carried Amundsen and his crew to Antarctica for their South Pole expedition was none other than Nansen’s Fram. Check back for a future post about Amundsen’s 1913 visit to Carnegie Hall, when he lectured on “The Discovery of the South Pole.”

    Suggested Reading: 

    Nansen, Fridtjof. Farthest North. Edited by Roland Huntford. New York: Modern Library, 1999.

    Tags: history
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