Arctic Voyage of the Polar Bear - New Bedford Whaling Museum

The Arctic Voyage of the Polar Bear

The New Bedford Whaling Museum's photographic archives contain four collections from the Polar Bear's voyage of 1913-1914: the Eben Draper collection, which is the largest, the John Heard, Jr. collection, the Bernhard Kilian collection, and the Dunbar Lockwood collection.

Arctic Voyage of the Polar Bear

Herman Melville Room

Opened: March 1, 2021

From April 1913 through September 1914 the schooner Polar Bear, captained by Louis Lane, took nineteen men from Seattle up through the Aleutian Islands, around Alaska, and to parts of Siberia. The initial objective of this voyage was to collect natural history specimens, but later also became a whaling cruise because of the high demand for baleen at the time..

The Polar Bear's crew consisted of seamen, engineers, two Alaskan natives, and also five young sport hunters from Harvard and their two taxidermist-assistants.

Throughout the voyage, the crew killed and recovered countless numbers of arctic birds, walruses, mountain sheep, and whales. All but the whales were then skinned and preserved.

Although the original plan was for these men to return back to Seattle at the end of September in 1913, that summer had been exceedingly icy in the Arctic and the Polar Bear was caught and frozen in the ice for eight months.

After the winter housing was constructed, four of the men, Captain Louis Lane, Eben Draper, Dunbar Lockwood, and camera man Will Hudson, decided to make a journey across the land to Cordova where they would be able to catch a ship back to Seattle. It was a grueling trip and most of the men endured some form of frostbite while en route. They traveled many hours daily stopping only for rest, to set up camp, or to visit with natives who often let the four men stay with them. Photographs included in this exhibit document this journey across land as well as the winter for the men who stayed behind at camp.

In July of 1914 the Polar Bear became free from the ice and Louis Lane returned from his overland journey. He captained the Polar Bear on a whaling cruise back to Nome, Alaska. The Polar Bear took approximately ten whales, a few walruses, and seven polar bears before landing back at Nome on September 23, 1914 when the men dispersed from the schooner.

The schooner Polar Bear's ten-thousand-mile voyage in the North Pacific and Western Arctic stands out amid the colorful history of American whaling. Not only was the Polar Bear caught by arctic pack ice and forced to overwinter on the exposed coast of northern Alaska, but four of the crew then hiked out from the ship with dog-teams on a punishing overland trek, traveling south across the uncharted Brooks Range and reaching home safely just before Christmas 1913.

The Polar Bear's voyage, during which at least five of the Polar Bear's passengers documented the cruise with their cameras was the most thoroughly photographed American whaling expedition. These prints and negatives consist of approximately six hundred images. They include views of coastal and interior Alaska, the Aleutians, Kamchatka, the Chukchi Peninsula, and Western Arctic Canada, as well as highly evocative scenes of whale hunting and fur trading with the natives of Siberia and Alaska. This remarkable group of images is further enhanced by the diaries of four of the crew who recorded both the hum-drum events of the voyage and the exciting and sometimes terrifying moments of danger, high adventure, backbreaking labor, and skillful seamanship.

The voyage is also significant because it occurred on the cusp of the transition from whaling to fur trading as the primary economic activity in the Arctic. The Polar Bear's expedition was one of the last American arctic whaling voyages. It took place at a time when the bowhead whale population of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas had been severely reduced by more than a half-century's commercial hunting, and by then only a small market for whale products remained; simultaneously, however, the value of furs, especially arctic fox furs, was on the rise, and these images also document the rise of the maritime fur trade in the Western Arctic.

Thanks To:

The New Bedford Whaling Museum Departments of Photography and Digital Initiatives thanks John Bockstoce, Ph.D. for his guidance and the exhibit introduction; The Ladera Foundation and Education through Cultural and Historical Organizations (ECHO), whose financial backing made this exhibit possible; interns Justine Spillane, Melanie Correia, and Photo Archivist Kate Mello for their research, dedication, and hard work; and finally SmallFish-Design for turning our ideas from concept into reality.