Today in Transportation History – 1900: An Italian Explorer Attempts to Reach the North Pole

Umberto Cagni, a captain in the Regia Marina (Italian Royal Navy), set a new transportation record when he and the small party he was leading reached the northernmost point achieved in polar exploration up to that time.

Cagni was a close associate of Prince Luigi Amedeo, an Italian duke. When he departed from Norway in June 1899 with the goal of being the first to reach the North Pole, Cagni was one of the men accompanying him on the expedition.

For the initial part of the trip, the group sailed to the northernmost island of the recently discovered Arctic archipelago Franz Josef Land. The plan was for the island to serve as the jumping-off point for continuing their journey to the North Pole.

During the winter of 1899-1900, however, the prince was badly injured by frostbite and pronounced unfit to continue leading or even participating in the push up north. He, therefore, deputized Cagni to take command of the remaining part of the expedition. On March 11, 1900, Cagni and three other men – an Italian sailor and two Alpine guides – left Franz Josef Land and forged northward on ice via sleds pulled by dogs.

After encountering considerable difficulties en route, and realizing that they now had only enough food for a return to the base camp, Cagni and his party faced reality and acknowledged that they would not make it to the North Pole. The four men instead stopped their trek at 86° 34′ N. While they fell short of their goal, the men still established a new record for the most northerly latitude reached by any explorer. Cagni and his party planted an Italian flag at the site and then headed back to Franz Josef Land. They returned to the base camp on June 23, a dozen days after their projected survival deadline. Cagni, who would eventually become an admiral, was hailed as a hero in his native Italy for his polar exploration accomplishment.

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