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Rear-Admiral Robert E. Peary and his quest for the North Pole

Fryeburg's link to the Arctic - Part 1 of a 2-part chronicle

During his Arctic Expeditions, Peary (above) was one of the first explorers to use sledges hauled by dogs rather than men. He sought out the most experienced Eskimo drivers and available dogs. (click for larger version)
March 04, 2010
A one-time local resident, Peary lived in Fryeburg with his widowed mother for two years after his 1877 graduation from Bowdoin College, in a house (currently the Admiral Peary House Bed & Breakfast) at 27 Elm Street. It was from that house that he emerged in 1879 to take his first step in the road that would lead him farther north than anyone had ever been before and, beyond that, to a fame which would find him being feted by kings and luminaries around the world.

Although his residency in Fryeburg was of relatively sort duration, it proved pivotal in Peary's career. His family and friends recognized this when, in 1930 and again in 1938, they returned to Fryeburg to honor that connection by inaugurating monuments to his memory in two successive ceremonies.

Exploration had been in Peary's blood from boyhood. As a lad growing up in several different Maine towns, he made a habit of striking out whenever he could for local woods and mountains where, on innumerable hikes and rugged camping trips, he pitted himself against the elements, collected natural history specimens and honed his outdoor skills — laying a foundation for his later exploits in the Arctic.

For Peary, the outdoors was always an arena in which he thrived. Yet it is strange to realize that when he was very young, his clinging, domineering mother, who was herself frail of health, cosseted her only child. The boy, who in adulthood would undergo unimaginable hardships and privations in his pursuit of the Pole, was kept indoors as much as possible and made to wear a sunbonnet when he went out lest his fair complexion should suffer from sunburn. His mother also taught him to sew and do patchwork and cross-stitch as though he were a girl.

In a biography of her father, Peary's daughter tells us that at this stage he got into many fights with his schoolmates to prove he was not a sissy. If proof were required, that was amply provided in later years. But it is interesting to speculate how much that early teasing by his peers may have engendered in Peary the need to prove himself.

As early as he could, the young Peary began exploring the outdoors in his spare time. He experimented with taxidermy, learned to mount birds and became so knowledgeable about certain fields of natural history that he was invited to address the Portland Natural History Society in his senior year of high school in Portland. He also labeled and arranged some of the society's exhibits.

At Bowdoin, he studied civil engineering and ran a taxidermy business on the side. In 1875, while still at college, he was appointed one of the official taxidermists for the state of Maine.

It was only in June 1877, after graduating from Bowdoin second in his class, first in civil engineering and a Phi Beta Kappa, that Peary moved to Fryeburg with his mother.

Civil engineering jobs were lacking in Fryeburg. To earn money, Peary set himself up as town surveyor, mounted and exhibited bird specimens, broke horses, and became a Justice of the Peace. He was fascinated by the mountains of New Hampshire, explored the outdoors on foot and horseback, and made many sketches of what he saw.

To keep his hand in as a civil engineer, he challenged himself to draw up a plan of the town of Fryeburg. To do it right, he noted in his diary, would take a year or more.

He began his self-appointed task by establishing the true North-South meridian, which he worked out from careful observation of the stars and marked with stones in a vacant lot off Main Street.

Thereafter, the plan consumed many long hours of his time, involving much daytime walking as he paced out the distances in the village, and considerable work at night when he did the figuring his surveys required and began the actual drawing.

On the day his plan was finished, Peary spotted a notice in the Fryeburg Post Office inviting draftsmen to apply for a position in the Coast and Geodetic Survey office in Washington, D.C. Out of the entire nation, only six draftsmen would be hired, four of whom would be permanently retained following a six-month probationary period. Applicants were invited to submit samples of their work.

As Peary wrote in his diary, his plan of Fryeburg was "the very best piece of work I have ever done," so that was the sample he submitted. The plan won him the job.

Six months later, as one of the four trainees kept on as permanent staff, Peary's career was launched. In due course, finding the work dull, he took a grueling examination, which he passed with high marks to become a U.S. Navy civil engineer with the rank of Lieutenant.

Officially notified of his Navy appointment in October 1881, Peary's first assignment came in 1882; building an iron pier in Key West, Fla., which he completed at a total cost of $6,000 (thousands of dollars below the original estimate).

From December 1884 until April 1885, he was in Nicaragua, surveying the course for an inter-oceanic canal later abandoned in favor of the canal through Panama. In contrast to the arctic cold he would later experience, here Peary endured intensive heat and humidity as he battled his way through jungles and swamps, amazing his companions by his indifference to discomfort.

But ambition burned in him. He wanted to do more. Already his thoughts were turning toward arctic exploration.

About this time he wrote his mother that the fame of Columbus, "can be equaled only by him who shall one day stand with all 360 degrees of longitude beneath his feet...the discoverer of the North Pole." s

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on Peary, which will be continued in next week's issue of The Mountain Ear.

Martin Lord Osman
Littleton Chmber
Varney Smith
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