Historical Perspective: The Ziegler-Fiala Expedition to the Pole

Members of the Ziegler-Fiala expedition team aboard the America, 1903. Anthony Fiala, the expedition leader, is at far right. Edwin Coffin of Edgartown, Captain of the America, is pictured at center, next to Fiala. — Photo courtesy of Martha's Vineyard Museum

Martha’s Vineyard’s history is a rich narrative of people and events. In a regular series, The Times has invited the Martha’s Vineyard Museum to draw on its unique cache of contemporary photos and first-person accounts to describe interesting but often unfamiliar moments in Island history called to mind sometimes, but not always, by present dates.

“There is hunger here, every day, yes, every hour… there is cold and sickness, for how can the body withstand such low temperatures on such insufficient nourishment? There is uncleanliness, for there is no soap; and there are fights and agreements to disagree, and through all, that disquieting and depressing thought of failure, of good intentions gone wrong.”

Russell Porter, First Assistant Scientist on the ill-fated Ziegler-Fiala expedition to the North Pole, wrote these melancholy words in his journal in January of 1905. After nearly two years in the Arctic, he, along with Vineyarder Edwin Coffin and the rest of the crew, found themselves far from their destination, even farther from home, and stranded; their ship crushed in the ice.

Arctic fever

This story begins in 1903. The country was caught up in the race to the North Pole, fascinated by this remote frozen place and its appeal to adventurous explorers. Millionaire baking powder magnate William Ziegler, undeterred by the failure of an earlier expedition that he had funded, backed another team of explorers and scientists led by 31-year-old Anthony Fiala. Ziegler selected an experienced whaling captain from Edgartown, Edwin Coffin, to serve as captain of the expedition’s ship. Coffin spent many seasons whaling in the Arctic, and was familiar with navigating the treacherous waters of the far north.

The plan was simple and ambitious: a team of 39 hardy men would travel from Norway to Rudolph Island, the northernmost island of the Franz Joseph Archipelago. Here, their ship would spend the winter while the crew set off on sleds to cover the remaining 500 or so miles of shifting ice fields to the North Pole. Fiala, who had experienced the previous expedition’s breakdown and failure, knew the hardships that faced the team, and wrote in his journal, “I realized that the fate of the undertaking depended chiefly upon the moral fibre of the men.”

The journey begins

After months of preparation, the crew, 30 ponies, and more than 200 dogs set off for Rudolph Island from Trondheim, Norway, on June 26, 1903, their spirits high. Captain Coffin wrote in his journal, “The sight of the ice today was a welcome one to all the expedition folks, showing them that the real commencement of their pole seeking had arrived.” This excitement came to an abrupt end, however, for almost immediately the America struck hard pack ice. It was an ominous sign. Fiala described the slow progress, “Time and time again we were obliged to steam in great circles, miles out of our course, to work around the vast white mass.” Finally, weeks behind schedule, the America reached the safe harbor of Teplitz Bay, Rudolph Island.

The ship is lost

Making use of a camp built during the first Ziegler expedition, the team worked quickly to unload the ship and begin preparations for the trek to the pole the following spring. As winter approached, the temperature dropped and ice grew thick around the ship, slowly crushing it. For months the men could only watch, helplessly, as the ice claimed it.

The loss greatly affected the morale of the crew, perhaps Coffin most of all, but they carried on. In March of 1904, Fiala and his team set off for the pole. Weather and harsh conditions quickly forced them to return. A second attempt had the same results. A relief ship, the Terra Nova was due to meet them at Cape Flora, 165 miles to the south, that summer. If they waited too long, they would miss it. Abandoning the trek, Fiala, Coffin, and 25 other team members headed south to Cape Flora.

Waiting for rescue

As summer turned to fall, it became clear to the team at Cape Flora that the rescue ship would not be coming for them. Once again, heavy pack ice prevented the Terra Nova, from reaching the island. It would be another year of waiting.

Tensions ran high among the frustrated men, as illustrated in the journals of both Russell Porter and Captain Coffin. Porter said of Coffin, “I take this man to be the most amusing man under observation at these quarters — a weather worn whaler from Edgartown who knows all about oil, greese [sic], blubber, bone and a modicum of lore about the sea and ships. But his unbounded conceit and self esteem is at many times too laughable to bear.”

Meanwhile, Coffin complained about the lack of regard Porter and the other men had for housekeeping. “The outside door is not taken care of in the least…some using the door just ajar for an urinary…In order to have a tight doorway, I took my hatchet and chopped off the frozen urine… I have talked until I am tired, but not one man seems to have any ambition…with 14 men doing positively nothing.”

With spirits and supplies dwindling, most of the cold, hungry men abandoned the thought of trying to reach the pole. Fiala, however, made one last attempt in the spring of 1905. Once again, the harsh weather forced him back for the third and final time. It would not matter to Ziegler. He was dead, unaware that the expedition he funded would never make it to the North Pole. It would be another four years until American explorer Robert Peary claimed that victory.

The rescue ship Terra Nova did arrive the following summer. Despite the conditions, only one of the crew had died during their ordeal. Captain Coffin returned to Edgartown, his days of sailing Arctic waters over, exhausted and relieved.

Photographs, objects, and archives relating to Edwin Coffin and the Ziegler-Fiala expedition are part of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum’s extensive collection. One object, a beautifully embroidered bag that Coffin picked up in Norway as he embarked on the expedition, can be seen in our newest exhibit, “A Taste for the Exotic: Mementos From Around the Globe.”

Anna Carringer is the Assistant Curator of the Martha’s Vineyard Museum, on School Street in Edgartown. The Museum is open Monday through Saturday. Go to mvmuseum.org or call 508-627-4441 for more information on tours and exhibits.