The Last, Lonely Voyage of the USS Jeannette

Source: Abandoning the Jeannette by James Gale Tyler, 1883, Public Domain

Remembering the bravery of the crew of a 19th Century Navy gunboat, lost in the Arctic over 130 years ago.

In 1861, the Royal Navy gunboat HMS Pandora entered active service, patrolling the seas around North Africa and the Mediterranean. Just two decades later, she went to her final resting place beneath the ice floes of the Arctic in one of the lesser known tragedies of the golden age of polar exploration.

Built in Pembroke, Wales, the Pandora was a sturdy example of late 19th Century design. 142 feet in length, with a 25 foot beam, she used a combination of steam engine and sails during active service for the Royal Navy. She came close to crossing the Atlantic early in her career, during the American Civil War, but it wasn't until 1875 after being decommissioned that she was sold to the English yachtsman Allen Young, who was still investigating the disappearance of the Franklin expedition in the Canadian Arctic some three decades earlier.

Despite several attempts Young was unsuccessful in locating any trace of the lost explorers, but his endeavours caught the eye of one of his investors, James Gordon Bennett Jr, owner of the New York Herald and a wealthy man keen to put his name to more Arctic expeditions. Bennett renamed the ship to the USS Jeannette, after his sister and on July 8th 1879, with former naval commander George W. De Long as captain, she set sail from San Francisco on a journey which aimed to prove that there was an open sea route to the North Pole created by the warm Kuro Siwo current in the Pacific.

The USS Jeannette in 1878, Public Domain
The USS Jeannette in 1878, Public Domain

On August 27th, Washington received communication for the Jeannette, reporting it's location as St. Lawrence Bay, Siberia. It would be the ship's final contact with civilization. On September 7th she became caught in the ice, west of Wrangel Island. For an astonising 21 months, the USS Jeannette continued to stubbornly plow on through the frozen sea but its course was chaotic. Although they maintained a general north-westerly heading, the weather conditions meant that weeks were often spent heading back on themselves. On June 12th 1881, the hull of the Jeannette finally succumbed to the crushing pressure of the surrounding ice. De Long abandoned ship, loading lifeboats and supplies onto ice sleds as the ship took on icy water, and the Jeannette finally vanished beneath the frozen surface the following day, June 13th 1881.

For a further three months, De Long and his crew trekked across the Siberian ice, hoping to reach the Lena Delta in the far North East of Russian territory. It was while making the final sea crossing to this landfall target in their three tiny boats that a storm hit, sinking one immediately and killing Lieutenant Charles W. Chipp and seven other crewmen. De Long, in another boat with 14 survivors, and chief engineer George W. Melville in the last boat with 11 men, both made it to land but had been separated by the storm. De Long's party, severely weakened by hunger and cold, sent two men ahead to look for native villages. These men did indeed find shelter and human settlements, but De Long and the others perished on the tundra. Across the delta, Melville and his party had also found a local village. Melville set out with local guides to find De Long, but while they successfully located his landing site and retrieved logbooks and other records, they found no sign of the men. Refusing to give up, Melville returned the following spring and on March 23rd 1882 managed to find the frozen bodies of his captain and crewmates.

George W. De Long in 1879, Public Domain
George W. De Long in 1879, Public Domain

Despite the tragedy, the loss of the USS Jeannette was not entirely in vain. Wreckage from the ship was found on an ice floe in 1884, in southern Greenland, suggesting that there was a current flowing east to west across the polar sea. This in turn provided the basis for subsequent Arctic explorers, in particular Fridtjof Nansen of Norway, who mounted his own expedition in 1893. And even today, the Jeannette's final, fateful voyage continues to resonate. The detailed logs kept by De Long and his crew have proved vital in building a historical model of polar temperatures and conditions, which in turn have allowed scientists to track the impact of climate change. She may not have found the Open Polar Sea that her owner dreamed of, but she made her mark on the world all the same.

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Contributing Editor

A hardened survivor of the games press, Jeremy Parish has written, edited, and podcasted for AllGamers, Retronauts, USgamer, IGN, 1UP, Electronic Gaming Monthly, GameDaily.biz, and more.