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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: Wellman sought to cross the Atlantic in a dirigible

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The voyage of the America

On October 18, 1910 – 112 years ago – Walter Wellman sought to pilot the first transatlantic flight in a dirigible. However, just under three days after “setting sail” Wellman was forced to end the trip about 450 miles east of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

The airship America had lifted off from Atlantic City, New Jersey, at 8:00 a.m. on October 15, 1910, heading for Europe.

The airship America, photographed from the SS Trent. (Photo: airships.net)
The airship America, photographed from the SS Trent. (Photo: airships.net)

“While the plan is to follow the steamer tracks the best we can [steamer tracks were the route most steamships followed on trans-Atlantic crossings],” Wellman told reporters, “we do not aim to make a landing at any particular place, nor even in any particular country. Any spot between Gibraltar and the North Cape will look good to us.”

The crew of the America. Walter Wellman is second from left. (Photo: airships.net)
The crew of the America. Walter Wellman is second from left. (Photo: airships.net)

However, the flight ended just over 71 hours after Wellman, his crew of five men and a cat named Kiddo departed. “Whether Walter Wellman and his party return to land, sink in the ocean, or perform a miracle and reach European shores, they are to be credited with supreme daring,” reported the Washington Post the day after the launch of the America.

Not long after taking to the skies though, the crew of America was faced by serious challenges ranging from harsh weather conditions (including a powerful gale) to the breakdown of one its two engines. Wellman realized that the America would not reach Europe or even the Azores. Instead, he focused on terminating the flight safely. 

The flight path of the America. (Image: airships.net)
The flight path of the America. (Image: airships.net)

The lack of the second engine and strong winds blew the America well south of its intended track. Wellman, his crew and Kiddo abandoned the drifting aircraft, lowering themselves in a lifeboat. They were rescued by the British steamship SS Trent, which was carrying mail from Great Britain and Europe. The Trent provided them passage to New York City.

Although the flight did not complete its journey, Wellman, his crew and the America established new records in aviation history, including the longest non-stop distance flown (1,008 miles) and the longest continuous time spent up in the air. 

The America's lifeboat (left) and the crew in the lifeboat before being rescued. (Photo: airships.net)
The America’s lifeboat (left) and the crew in the lifeboat before being rescued. (Photo: airships.net)

Wellman’s early life

Wellman was both a journalist and adventurer. He was born in Mentor, Ohio, in 1858, the sixth son of Alonzo Wellman and the fourth by his second wife. Alonzo served in the Civil War for three years, and when he returned from the war, he moved his family west to become pioneer settlers of York County, Nebraska.

When he was only 14 Walter established a weekly newspaper in Sutton, Nebraska. A few years later (at the age of 21) he returned to Ohio to establish the Cincinnati Evening Post and married Laura McCann on Christmas Eve 1879. They had five daughters. In 1884 he became the political and Washington, D.C. correspondent for the Chicago Herald and Record-Herald. However, his obsession was finding the North Pole. 

The airship 'America' in Spitzbergen, circa 1906. The dirigible was brought by ship to the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen in July 1906. Brief flights followed in 1907 and 1909, by which time others claimed to have reached the North Pole.  This photograph is from the Bain News Service, one of the USA's earliest news picture libraries. (Photo: Library of Congress/sciencephoto.com)
The airship ‘America’ in Spitzbergen, circa 1906. The dirigible was brought by ship to the Norwegian Arctic island of Spitsbergen in July 1906. Brief flights followed in 1907 and 1909, by which time others claimed to have reached the North Pole. This photograph is from the Bain News Service, one of the USA’s earliest news picture libraries. (Photo: Library of Congress/sciencephoto.com)

Expeditions 

For a news story to commemorate the 400th anniversary of the voyage of Columbus to the new world, Wellman was sent by the Chicago Herald to “visit and assess various candidates for the initial landing place of Christopher Columbus in the Americas.” As part of the story, Wellman marked the presumed location on San Salvador Island in the Bahamas with a monument. 

Wellman led his first polar expedition in 1894. He chartered a Norwegian ice steamer and put together a team of 14 who were primarily from the U.S. and Norway. Following an easy passage to a point north of Svalbard, the ship reached the ice pack at Waldenøya. 

Walter Wellman in Norway. (Photo: airships.net)
Walter Wellman in Norway. (Photo: airships.net)

Svalbard, also known as Spitsbergen, is a Norwegian archipelago in the Arctic Ocean. North of mainland Europe, it is about midway between the northern coast of Norway and the North Pole. 

Using sledges (a sledge is a platform that rests upon a surface of ice or snow, with or without runners) and aluminum boats, the expedition members made their way to Martensøya, from where they intended to continue to the pole. However, their mother ship was pierced by ice and sank. Wellman and the others ended their polar ambitions and instead explored the northeast of Svalbard. The explorers and the ship’s crew then moved south to Lågøya, where they were found by a Norwegian seal-hunting ship. Wellman gave the captain $800 to take them back immediately.

Wellman's expedition of 1898-99 had four
American members and five Norwegians
plus 83 dogs, two camps and a huge
logistics challenge. (Image: suttonhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com)
Wellman’s expedition of 1898-99 had four
American members and five Norwegians
plus 83 dogs, two camps and a huge
logistics challenge. (Image: suttonhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com)

Wellman made a second attempt to reach the North Pole in 1898. His second-in-command was Evelyn Briggs Baldwin, and there were two additional Americans and five Norwegians on the expedition.

They sailed from Tromsø, Norway, in a chartered ice steamer. Arriving at Cape Flora, they gathered supplies left by an earlier expedition before sailing east in an attempt to find a navigable path northward. However, due to the extent of the ice, Wellman’s expedition was forced to erect a base camp (known as Harmsworth House) at Cape Tegetthoff on Hall Island. 

On August 5, 1898, he sent Baldwin and three Norwegians to establish an advance camp further north. With inadequate equipment and untrained dogs, the men made very slow progress. They eventually reached Cape Heller on Wilczek Land where they built a hut that Baldwin named Fort McKinley (after the current U.S. President, William McKinley). In late October Baldwin left two men to guard their northern outpost with minimal supplies. 

One of the men died on January 2, 1899. The other expedition members had camped for the winter in relative comfort at Harmsworth House. Wellman made his way to Fort McKinley in February 1899 with the remaining three Norwegians. They buried the dead Norwegian before continuing north with their sledges. 

However, the effort ended when Wellman broke his leg on March 21. The next day, a storm broke up the piece of ice they were camping on. The expedition lost 14 dogs and nearly all of their provisions and equipment. The Norwegians were able to drag Wellman back to Harmsworth House on a sledge.

This photo of Walter Wellman was taken on Christmas Day in a hut at Franz Josef Land while most of the expedition members were spending the winter of 1898-99 before striking out in very early spring 1899. (Photo: suttonhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com)
This photo of Walter Wellman was taken on Christmas Day in a hut at Franz Josef Land while most of the expedition members were spending the winter of 1898-99 before striking out in very early spring 1899.
(Photo: suttonhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com)

With Wellman incapacitated, he sent Baldwin and the four Norwegians to the fairly unexplored Wilczek Land, hoping to find some new geographical features. The discovery of an island was the expedition’s major success. Wellman named the island after Alexander Graham Bell, the inventor of the telephone and president of the National Geographical Society (which sponsored the expedition). He also named numerous bays, islets and other geographical features after prominent American figures.

Wellman had made three polar expeditions by land (in 1894, 1898 and 1899), failing to reach his goal. These experiences led Wellman to consider some method of aerial exploration in the Arctic. “…[P]ushing and pulling the heavy sledges and boats over the rough ice on this expedition,” Wellman later wrote, “the idea first came to me of using an aerial craft in Arctic exploration. Often I looked up into the air and wished we had some means of traveling that royal road where there were no ice hummocks, no leads of open water, no obstacles to rapid progress.”

Airships

Determined to reach the North Pole, on December 31, 1905 Wellman announced he would make another attempt, but this time in an airship. The Chicago Record-Herald provided a $75,000 investment and Wellman had the public support of President Theodore Roosevelt.  Wellman raised additional funds and then commissioned a non-rigid airship that he named America from the Godard family of France (who were famous for their balloons). The Wellman Chicago Record-Herald Polar Expedition began in the summer of 1906; Wellman established the expedition’s headquarters on Dane’s Island, Svalbard. However, the airship’s engines failed when they were tested in the arctic conditions. The airship was rebuilt in Paris that winter and Wellman attempted another aerial voyage to the North Pole in September 1907. He made another attempt without financial assistance in 1909, but mechanical failures forced his expedition to turn back 60 miles north of Svalbard. However, the flight of the polar airship America on September 2, 1907, was the first powered airship flight in the Arctic.

The wicker basket nacelle from the aborted 1906 flight. The man in the basket is unidentified. (Photo: Norsk Polarinstitutt)
The wicker basket nacelle from the aborted 1906 flight. The man in the basket is unidentified.
(Photo: Norsk Polarinstitutt)

Wellman learned of Robert Peary’s claim to have reached the North Pole in 1909. That ended his North Pole dreams, but he did not abandon his airship. He shipped the America to the United States and then organized his attempt to cross the Atlantic by air for the first time in history (recounted above).

After losing the America, another airship – the Akron – was built in 1911. The Akron exploded during its first flight, killing the crew of five (including its captain, who was a survivor of the America). 

For the cat lovers in the audience, Kiddo was also rescued from the America, and put on display at Gimbels department store in New York. Afterward, he lived the rest of his life quietly with Wellman’s daughter Edith.

Walter Wellman featured on the cover of Harper's Weekly. (Image: airships.net)
Walter Wellman featured on the cover of Harper’s Weekly. (Image: airships.net)

Legacy

Despite his failures at reaching the North Pole and crossing the Atlantic Ocean, Wellman was highly regarded, because the era was one filled with those who sought to break barriers of all kinds.

In 1902, Wellman wrote “A Tragedy of the Far North,” which was published in The White World. Wellman then published a book “The Aerial Age: A Thousand Miles by Airship over the Atlantic Ocean,” which recounted the last voyage of the America. He then wrote two more books – “The German Republic” (published in 1916) and “The Force Supreme” (published in 1918).

Wellman spent his final years in New York City; he died there due to liver cancer in 1934. 

Walter Wellman standing on the deck of the airship. (Photo: Public Domain)
Walter Wellman standing on the deck of the airship. (Photo: Public Domain)

One of the Liberty ships built to carry supplies and war materiel during World War II was named  for Walter Wellman. It was launched on September 29, 1944 at the Todd Houston Shipbuilding Corporation in Houston, Texas.

FreightWaves Classics thanks airship.net, fortconger.org, mysticseaport.org, polarflight-online.tripod.com, sciencephoto.com, suttonhistoricalsociety.blogspot.com, and wikipedia.org for information and photographs that contributed to this article. 

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