A Legendary Polar Explorer Takes His Final Trip

September 7, 1970

Arctic explorer Donald Baxter MacMillan, a lifelong New Englander who made seminal contributions to transportation in the world’s northernmost regions, died at the age of 95 in Provincetown, Massachusetts.

In recounting MacMillan’s final years as a resident of that Cape Cod community, the New York Times highlighted his steadfast love for sailing and other maritime pursuits.  The newspaper reported, “His deck was the porch of a shipshape home facing the Atlantic.” The New York Times also noted, “Erect as a stanchion [a type of column] on a schooner’s fo’c’sle [part of a ship’s upper deck] even into his 90’s, and with a New England twang in his still strong voice, he liked to chat with visitors about the Arctic and his ‘boys’ – the men who had sailed with him on the frozen seas.”

MacMillan had been born in Provincetown in 1874. Both of his parents died by the time he was 13, and he ended up moving to Freeport, Maine, to live with an older sister. MacMillan attended Bowdoin College in the Pine Tree State and graduated in 1898 with a degree in geology. His work over the next several years included teaching at Worcester Academy, a college-preparatory school in Massachusetts.

MacMillan’s career as an Arctic explorer took shape as the result of his friendship with U.S. Navy commander and fellow Bowdoin graduate Robert E. Peary. The two men began corresponding with each other after Peary’s son attended a summer camp run by MacMillan in 1900. Peary invited MacMillan to take part in his famous (albeit controversial) 1908-09 expedition to the North Pole. MacMillan journeyed with Peary and other members of his party as far as the 85th Parallel. It was at that point that MacMillan had to stop traveling northward because of frozen heels. MacMillan hobbled back to set up supply caches for the party’s eventual return trip. Peary, for his part, continued pressing onward towards the North Pole and allegedly made it there about a month later.

While MacMillan’s inaugural Arctic expedition was cut short, it did stoke his enthusiasm for exploring that area of the planet. In 1913, he led an expedition to northern Greenland to investigate the possible existence of a large island known as Crocker Land. Crocker Land had supposedly been sighted by Peary in 1906, but MacMillan and the other members of his expedition could not find it; the island most likely was a figment of Peary’s imagination.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, MacMillan and his party became stranded in the region. While some of the men did manage to make their way back to civilization over the next few years, several others – including MacMillan – remained stuck in the area until 1917. After two relief vessels were unable to successfully navigate the ice-packed waters in the region, the ship Neptune did get through to rescue MacMillan and those still stranded with him.

One of the positive aspects of MacMillan’s time as an Arctic castaway is that it gave him plenty of time to mull over what was needed for truly reliable vessel in that region. World War I put his plans for building the vessel on hold, but he started pursuing those efforts not long after the war ended.

The result of MacMillan’s efforts was the schooner Bowdoin, which was completed in the Maine town of East Boothbay in 1921 and named after his alma mater. The Bowdoin is the only American schooner to be built specifically for Arctic exploration. The two-masted schooner – weighing 60 tons (54.4 metric tons) and measuring 88 feet (26.8 meters) long and 21 feet (6.4 meters) wide – is also the smallest vessel designed for navigating Arctic waters.

The Bowdoin, double-planked and double-framed with white oak, was constructed to withstand the ravages of Arctic ice. The schooner’s other key features include an larger-than-average rudder for turning rapidly and easily while traveling through narrow stretches of open water between ice packs; a propeller that is deeply embedded underwater to minimize possible damage; and a rounded hull that was designed to rise up out of the water to perform such functions as smashing through heavy ice.

During the summer of 1921, MacMillan piloted the Bowdoin for her maiden voyage above the Arctic Circle. Over the next several decades, he made numerous other trips to the Arctic region with this innovative vessel. These trips proved to be invaluable, allowing MacMillan and those who accompanied him to make major discoveries in Arctic geology, botany, zoology, and geography. MacMillan made his final voyage to the Arctic on board the Bowdoin in 1954, just a few days short of his 80th birthday.

MacMillan’s transportation-oriented achievements were not limited to the Bowdoin. A one-time ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve Flying Corps, he was among the first to pilot a plane in the skies above the Arctic regions. He also used the first snowmobile in that part of the world. The vehicle, which he first used in 1927, was specifically a Ford Model T truck equipped with a pair of ski-like front tracks and a set of tank-like rear treads wrapped around dual-mounted rear wheels.

It is safe to say that MacMillan’s interest in travel extended well beyond Earth. When astronaut Alan B. Shepard, Jr., lightheartedly asked MacMillan (94 at the time) if he was available to fly to the Moon, he did not hesitate to answer. He responded, “D— right!”

For more information on Donald Baxter MacMillan, please check out  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Donald_Baxter_MacMillan.

Additional information on the schooner Bowdoin is available at https://www.bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum/biographies/bowdoin.shtml.

Additional information on MacMillan’s pioneering snowmobile can be found in the 14 February 2015 Provincetown Banner article “Efforts underway to restore Donald MacMillan’s snowmobile” at http://provincetown.wickedlocal.com/article/20150214/NEWS/150218210.

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