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Ice and air: Roald Amundsen’s Minot visits

By DAN RUDY

Staff Writer

drudy@minotdailynews.com

Best known for his ventures into the unknown, likely less remembered were Captain Roald Amundsen’s jaunts to Minot at various points in the early 20th century. The Norwegian explorer initially won fame as the first to navigate the long-sought Northwest Passage, which centuries’ worth of great and at times ill-fated captains before him had braved stormy seas, Arctic ice floes and frightful conditions to discover. Setting sail from Oslo in 1903, it would be three and a half years before he and his six-man crew would reach Nome, Alaska.

Amundsen came to Minot just over a year later on December 5, 1907, after a lecture had been arranged for him to deliver at Jacobson Opera House downtown by members of the local Sons of Norway. The Minot Daily Optic newspaper recorded his visit with great excitement, describing the captain as unpretentious in presentation as he regaled a packed house with tales of frigid tribulations, shipboard fires, friendly Eskimos, and the expedition’s search for the magnetic North Pole.

“The captain’s narration of the discovery of the Magnetic Pole was most interesting,” the paper reported. “Several excursions were made on sleds drawn by seven or eight dogs, and the first proved unsuccessful because of the intense cold. Three or four miles a day was the best the party could do, but finally the pole was reached, and the observation tent was erected over it.”

According to Royal Museums Greenwich this was not entirely the case, a misunderstanding perhaps on the part of the reporter. Amundsen himself had never reached the magnetic pole, but located where the pole was supposed to have been as observed by the Ross expedition some 70 years earlier. What the Norwegians had instead discovered was that the magnetic pole had moved 30 miles in that time, a discovery of immense scientific importance because it confirmed that the Earth’s magnetic field was not a static phenomenon.

Whatever the achievement, Amundsen was treated to a hero’s banquet at Minot’s Lexington Hotel (later the Grand Hotel, which burned in 1960) afterward, and was said to have “expressed himself as much pleased with the entertainment he had received, and that Minot should always hold a warm place in his heart.” Whether the town’s memory kept the explorer warm when he bested Robert Scott’s expedition to the South Pole in 1911 is left to conjecture.

But when Amundsen next visited Minot, in 1926, the world had changed vastly. The little sailboat “Gjoa” that had begrudgingly taken his expedition through the Northwest Passage and the dogsleds and skis that had carried them across Antarctica had been replaced with more modern means of exploration. It was aboard the dirigible “Norge” that Amundsen quite possibly became the first person to reach the North Pole, albeit by flying over it.

The 1909 on-foot trek to the pole by American Rear Admiral Robert Peary and the 1926 flight by also-American Rear Admiral Richard Byrd mere days before the Norge passed it over on May 15 have both been subject to criticism in subsequent years, for their lack of validity and various discrepencies in recordkeeping. But Amundsen was under the impression he had been bested when he and his party stepped onto the Minot train platform that June 30.

Great Northern Railway allowed the Norwegian to make a special half-hour stop in the town for its Northwest State Fair, one of only a handful of stops on his return journey. Amundsen and his party were on their way to New York City, from where they would sail back to Europe. The group was met by a reception committee that included city commission president (mayor) Aksel Bratsberg, and former North Dakota governor Ragnvald Nestos, with the Norwegian and American flags side-by-side outside the station. Two decades earlier, Bratsberg had been on the Sons of Norway committee that had first invited the explorer to speak.

A procession of uncovered automobiles through town led Amundsen’s group to the fairground, where he was “cheered by thousands” according to The Minot Daily News. Elsewhere in the same issue was a photo of Byrd, celebrating his triumphal return to the East Coast.

Amundsen was less exuberant. “I feel as if I’ve done enough,” he told the crowd. “I’m going back to Norway to retire in seclusion, spend some time completing details of observations we took and take life easy… What more could I ask? It would be foolish for me to continue. I’ve reached the peak. If I were to go on it would be to do lesser things.”

But the explorer recognized that this was not the end of an era for exploration, but just its start. “This is only the beginning. There is much more to be done,” Amundsen said. “Let the younger generation do it. They will find much more honor awaiting the successful ones.” Strapped for time, the tales of his flight would have to wait for his final visit to Minot the next year, on March 25, 1927.

Speaking before an overflowing auditorium at the Minot State Teachers College, the captain’s visit was as his first. “His step is still sprightly and the stories which he told in Minot were related with the enthusiasm of a youth,” the paper reported.

In his thick Norwegian accent, he gave the riveting backstory to his Arctic flight, with an attempt to fly over the North Pole by airplane in 1925 nearly ending in disaster as they were grounded and trapped on the ice for more than a month. Because of this setback Amundsen swore off the airplane as unsuitable for the Arctic air, leading to his decision to use an airship the next year instead. After the lecture, Bratsberg threw a private dinner party for the adventurer, who was said to admit that his reception at the previous year’s State Fair “holds a very dear place in his heart.”

Amundsen made the front page of The Minot Daily News again the next year, as reports were received that a seaplane with him and five others aboard had gone missing in the north Arctic while searching for survivors of the airship “Italia,” which had gone aground after a mechanical failure on May 25, 1928. The gondola of the airship was dashed against the ice and burst open, spilling nine survivors and one fatality onto the ice before drifting off with six others. The dirigible and men aboard were both never seen again.

Among the Italia’s crew were two men that had been aboard the Norge with Amundsen in 1926, Italian General Umberto Nobile and Swedish meteorologist Finn Malmgren. The five-nation rescue operation was hampered by foul weather, but eight survivors were rescued. However, Malmgren was reported left for dead by the Italians and there were rumors of cannibalism, espionage and incompetence that peppered the entire debacle.

There were no signs of Amundsen’s craft, only speculation that the craft had been forced down by a storm. By July the newspaper somberly noted that “Amundsen’s friends remarked that such a finish would have been in accord with the veteran explorer’s own wishes.” It was fitting enough a finish for a man it had only two years earlier celebrated as from “the stock of which the vikings came sturdy, virile, nerveless, and with a natural inborn craving for adventure and the wilderness.”

Speaking before Minoters assembled at the 1926 fair, Amundsen’s vision of the future for aerial exploration proved sadly fateful if not a little bit bitterly ironic:

“Exploration by airship of the Far North has just begun. The Amundsen-Ellsworth polar expedition merely demonstrated what could be done in the way of Arctic flights further generations will complete the work; the North Pole soon will witness a long line of commercial airship flying from Europe to America, and on to Asia by the ‘short route’ opened up by the Amundsen expedition.”

As the press was all but giving up on the explorer’s survival, on July 23 The Minot Daily News was celebrating the airplane rather than the dirigible. The barnstorming foibles of dozens of aircraft with the National Air Tour entertained some 10,000 spectators as the “Port of Minot,” forerunner to the city’s current airport, was dedicated at the event.

The same Mayor Bratsberg who met Amundsen at the train station and shared a car to the fair only two years before delivered the airport’s dedication speech, and International Airways Ltd. was started up that same month by a group of area investors with the intention of bringing commercial air travel to the city. The future of flight had indeed risen above the days of sail, hoof, and dogsled, but it would continue on wings rather than Amundsen’s trusty airships.