Friday, April 14, 2017

Sutton's Arctic Explorer

and so much more...

An expatriate, or expat is a person living in a country other than that of their citizenship. There may be a word for someone who has lived in a town, but has since left, but I don’t know that word. So, we’ve spoken several times of Sutton’s Expats. And that’s what we’ll call them.

Who was Sutton’s most famous, or most interesting expat?

Candidates would include Johnny Bender, Madeleine Leininger, Herbert Johnson and a few others. We’re going to make the case for Walter Wellman here, a fellow we’ve mentioned a few times and have told visitors about him often. But we recently found that much material has recently appeared online about Mr. Wellman which expands his story well beyond what we knew.
Walter Wellman (1858-1934), founder of Sutton's first newspaper, Arctic explorer
and renowned journalist. Our candidate for Sutton's most famous expat, and someone
you may never have heard of.
Walter Wellman was born in Mentor, Ohio on November 3, 1858 to Minerva Sibillia (Graves) Wellman, second wife of Alonzo Wellman. Alonzo Wellman was a Civil War Vet, initially with the 105th Ohio Infantry and later as ship’s carpenter with the Mississippi River Squadron.

The Wellman family lived briefly on a farm in Branch County, Michigan after the war before moving west to a claim in York County, Nebraska where they lived first in a dugout and later in a sod house. One of our new sources is a publication in the University of Iowa’s online library called, “Walter Wellman, Washington correspondent of The Chicago Record-Herald.” We’ve also tapped into contemporary newspaper articles and other websites.

This U of Iowa source adds to our understanding of Wellman’s time in Sutton. Early Sutton histories in the Andreas History of Nebraska and in the county history written for the 1876 Centennial told us only that he’d started Sutton’s first newspaper.

It seems Wellman was a clerk in a country store in York County at the age of 12 where he also ran the post office. At 13, he was apprenticed to a local printing office. And at 14, with a stake of $75, he published his first issue of The Sutton Times on Friday, June 20, 1873, Sutton’s first newspaper. Fearing his youth would jeopardize his credibility, Wellman claimed to be 18 years old.

Our early histories described the paper as a “five-column quarto” with nine columns of advertising and eleven of local reading matter. The advertising represented 23 different businesses and professions. It soon expanded to an eight-column folio with eight columns of advertising (44 advertisers). The publishers were listed over time, as Wellman, Wellman & Brakeman, Wellman & White, Wellman Bros. and Frank E. Wellman (Walter’s brother).

Our pitch to visitors to the Sutton Museum often includes the story that the Gray lumber yard was the second lumber yard in Sutton, because another fellow’s wagon of lumber arrived from Lincoln the day before the Gray wagon made it. We’d missed a similar story about the first newspapers. Walter Wellman’s initial issue edged out The Clay County Herald by Sechler & Cowan first published the next day on Saturday the 21st.

Wellman sold his paper and moved back to Ohio about 1878 working as a printer in Cleveland, editing the Canton (Ohio) Daily Repository and then with his brother founded “The Penny Paper” in Cincinnati.

The Wikipedia entry for the Cincinnati Post describes how Walter and Frank Wellman’s paper became the Cincinnati Post and later grew into the Scripps chain of papers, the first modern newspaper chain. The Wellmans sold out to the Scripps brothers after Walter’s early attempt at investigative journalism exposed policy racketeering and police issues. His subjects tried framing him for blackmail and he fled to Kentucky to evade extradition.

Walter Wellman then went to Chicago as a writer for the Chicago Herald. Somewhere in this period Frank and Walter started a daily paper in Akron and Walter married a Canton lass, Laura McCann in December, 1879. They can be found in the 1880 census in Canton, he, listed as “Editor of Newspaper.”

Wellman became a renowned journalist as depicted in the book from the U of Iowa library. Testimonials from dozens of newspapers tell of his scoops and important work. But that’s not why we’re here. Let’s go exploring.
Wellman was sure that the future of air travel was the hot air balloon. This craft was his second Arctic expedition airship at its hanger at Spitzbergen in the Svalbard archipelago in northern Norway. Has anyone else from Sutton been to Spitzbergen?
Walter Wellman’s first expedition came in 1892 when the Chicago Herald sent him to the West Indies to find the exact spot where Christopher Columbus first landed in America. His team located the spot and marked it with a monument. The Royal Geographical Society and others endorsed that spot as Columbus’ landing site. Yes, that trip came on the 400th anniversary of the first Columbus voyage.

Two years later, Wellman made his first assault on the Arctic which failed as his ship was crushed in the ice and sank near 81 degree latitude near Spitzbergen. The crew managed to explore uncharted areas and return safely.

The next Arctic expedition was far more ambitious. We only recently found numerous accounts of this adventure. The most thorough account appears at the Digital History Project where three of Wellman’s magazine articles are re-printed, articles that appeared in McClure’s magazine in February, March and April of 1900. You can find the first article at: and the subsequent two by following links in the right column of that blog.

The Wellman Polar Expedition of 1898-9 began in June, 1898 at Archangel, Russia where the members of the expedition, four Americans and five Norwegians embarked by ship into the Arctic.

The expedition was a huge logistic problem. A friend met them at Archangel after coming 2,000 miles over mountains, tundra, rivers and steppes to deliver 83 dogs for the expedition. A herd of reindeer was part of that story.

Their route took them to the island cluster called Franz Josef Lands and through the ice to the ice pack. It took two attempts to get far enough north to continue.
Wellman's expedition of 1898-9 had four
American members and five Norwegians
plus 83 dogs, two camps and a huge
logistics challenge.
They established a base camp where most of the men would spend the winter. They then headed further north where they built an advance camp where supplies and most of the dogs would winter waiting for the push north in the spring. Two of the Norwegians were selected to stay with the supplies and care for the sled dogs. The dog food supply came mostly from fifteen walruses that were killed, dressed and stored at the camp.

The other men returned to the base camp and hunkered down.

In the spring, well, early in mid-February Wellman and his crew headed back to the advance camp. The sun was still weeks away from rising from the long Arctic winter as they trudged along in the dark through ankle to knee deep snow using only a compass for directions. It is a challenge to use a magnetic compass at such high latitude as the magnetic north pole and the real pole are some ways apart. You do have to know what you’re doing there.

Wellman writes that he knew something was wrong as they approached the advance camp. One bedraggled fellow came out of the underground camp announced that his partner, Bernt Bentzen had died, two months earlier.

Norwegian Bernt Bentzen died at the advance
camp during the winter of 1898-9 and was buried
when the main party returned in the spring.
They found the body still in his sleeping bag in the shelter. As Bentzen was failing he asked that he not be buried where bears and foxes could dig him up. So, his partner spent two months with the body.

There was an alcove in the wall of the shelter where they burned walrus fat and driftwood to make coffee and cook food. The fire made no impact on the temperature in the shelter which stayed well below zero the whole time. Wellman wrote that he thought it was colder inside the shelter than outside. Bentzen’s body was frozen and well preserved.

The team found a suitable site and buried their companion under rocks, lots of rocks with some confidence that the grave was secure.

The plan had been for the two from the advance camp to return to the base camp while the others pressed north but under the circumstances all headed north.

The expedition had two objectives. They wanted to get to the North Pole, or at least closer than anyone before them. And they hoped to find evidence of the fate of a lost two-person expedition the year before.

They did not find the lost men but became confident that they would get close to the pole, until things fell apart.

First, Walter Wellman fell into a small crevice badly bruising his leg. He didn’t think it was serious and they continued.

A couple of nights later they were awakened by the sound of an ice-quake – the pack ice was shifting. A crack opened under their tents. They jumped out of their tents into the pitch-black night. More cracks opened and crushed back together with many of the dogs and much of their supplies lost.

None of the men were lost but the expedition was over. They headed back. Wellman’s leg worsened and he rode back in a sled. Their support boat met them returning the eight remaining men to civilization.
Walter Wellman looked like a man who had spent a year and a half living in
primitive shelters in subzero temperatures at the end of his 1898-9 expedition.
He had.
Two of the members of the expedition returned to the Franz Josef Lands and spent the balance of the summer discovering new islands and mountains, correcting existing maps and filling in blank spaces on the Arctic map adding to the scientific contributions of the expedition.

Wellman then gave up on conventional Arctic exploration, but not on the idea entirely.
This flash 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 1898-9 before striking out in very early spring 1899.

We’d learned about and wrote about his fascination with air travel. Wellman was convinced that the future of air travel lay in hot air balloons. He maintained that position well after the Wright brothers and others had pretty well established the viability of fixed-wing aircraft.

Wellman’s Chicago newspaper gave him $250,000 in 1906 to try to get to the North Pole in a hot air balloon. He made two balloons improving the design and two serious attempts to fly them north, both unsuccessful going 60 miles in the best effort.

By 1910 he’d given up on the North Pole but with another improved airship set out with a crew of five, and a cat, to prove his concept of trans-Atlantic passenger and mail service, again by hot air balloon.

Kiddo the Cat was the official mascot of the airship America in Wellman's
1910 attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean. Kiddo's numerous internet
appearances could well approach some kind of a feline record.
The side story which we’ve told again and again concerns that cat, Kiddo. Kiddo did not take to air travel at all raising a ruckus at takeoff. Wellman had a two-way radio onboard and a support boat following them off the New Jersey coast. The crew decided to do something about the cat and made the first ever air-to-ground radio contact with the command to their support crew, “Roy, come and get this goddam cat!” They were unable to transfer the cat and Kiddo continued with them.

This time they traveled for 38 hours setting a distance record but were unable to control the craft properly with engines failing off Cape Hatteras. The crew, and the cat were rescued by a British mail ship, the Trent, which became Kiddo’s new name.

Kiddo (Trent) was put on display at Gimbel's Department Store in New York City after being rescued by the Trent. He then lived out his life at the home of Wellman's daughter Edith.

You can find more details of the airship portion of Walter Wellman’s story on the Sutton Museum blog, searching for “Walter Wellman.” These articles will be the basis for a more complete accounting of the Story of Walter Wellman, Sutton’s Arctic Explorer later.

This booklet contains three magazine articles by
Walter Wellman describing his 1898-9 expedition.
Wellman was the political correspondent in Washington, D.C. for the Chicago newspaper for many years. He spent his last years in New York City dying of liver cancer in 1934.

The liberty ship Walter Wellman was launched on September 29, 1944 in Houston, Texas.

Walter Wellman was a remarkable fellow and a dominate candidate for Sutton’s most famous expat. He showed particular talent and vision in his early teens with large ideas. His ideas generally exceeded his, or anyone’s capability to carry out at the time. But these accounts of his exploits all point out the things he learned and the expanses of maps he filled in.

His career as a journalist is outlined in a couple of our new sources. It’s clear that he was a leader among those describing and analyzing the national political scene. We did not delve into that later aspect of his life. It’s possible that will be even more enlightening than his exploration phase. Watch this space.

A thorough story about Wellman and the airship America appears at this site. 

The story of Kiddo the Cat can be found at several locations on the internet. We present some here - you may find more.

America (Airship) reference in Wikipedia    YES, friends and neighbors, a cat with a Sutton connection made it to Wikipedia. How about that.

 and there are likely more...

The End

The end of the airship America as it was seen from the deck of the Trent during the rescue of the crew, and Kiddo. You can
see the life raft hanging below the airship as the America crew abandoned the balloon.

This article first appeared in the March 2017 issue of Sutton Live Magazine. For more information about that publication contact Jarod Griess at Sutton Life Magazine, P. O. Box 454, Sutton, NE 68979, or at or at 402-984-4203. Or contact Lisa Griess, or Katie Griess or Lavina Griess - that's the way we roll in Sutton, Nebraska. 

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