andrew burke





Ernest de Koven Leffingwell in the Arctic

Posted on: 2010-11-12

In late July, I travelled with my mother up to Flaxman Island, in the Beaufort Sea off the north coast of Alaska. Why did we do go all of this way to see a pretty but barren strip of land in the Arctic? Flaxman Island was the base of operations for my mother's mother's father, Ernest de Koven Leffingwell, during his Arctic explorations from 1906 to 1914. We had a unique opportunity this summer to go up there with some people who really know the area. I'll be writing about that trip soon, but first I wanted to write about Ernest de Koven Leffingwell.

"Leffingwell" is my middle name, but I didn't really know much about my great grandfather - he was always just "Grandpa Leffingwell" who died only a few months after I was born and who had left us various random books (one of log tables, others in Danish), items of scientific paraphernalia (a brass telescope that we never quite knew where to store), show dog trophies (for 'Champion Nuthill Dignity' from the Santa Barbara Kennel Club of 1930), and various bits of furniture, including a handmade walnut bed frame that I've slept in for much of my life.

Before going on this trip, I wanted to find out a bit more about him. Here's some of what I found out from some books, articles, and extracts from his own scrapbook of news clippings.

Ernest de Koven Leffingwell

Ernest de Koven Leffingwell was born in 1875 in Knoxville, Illinois, to a well-off family that ran a boarding school. After prep school in Racine, Wisconsin, he went to Trinity College in Hartford Connecticut, getting a B.A. in 1895 and an M.A. in 1898.

Random Side Fact #1: The prep school he went to was called "Dr. deKoven's School For Boys" (now the deKoven Centre), presumably the notable warden of the school was the source of Ernest's middle name. It's also supposedly loosely related to the name "Duchovny".

He was in the Naval Reserve, and served on the U.S.S. Oregon during the Spanish-American War, supposedly manning one of the forward guns at the Battle of Santiago.

Random Side Fact #2: The Wikipedia article describes the end of the Battle of Santiago:
Despite the immense range still separating Oregon and Cristobal Colon, Oregon's forward turret launched a pair of 13-inch (330 mm) shells which bracketed Cristobal Colon's wake just astern of the ship. Captain Emilio Diaz Moreu, humanely declining to see his crew killed to no purpose, abruptly turned the undamaged Cristobal Colon toward the mouth of the Tarquino River and ordered the scuttle valves opened and the colors struck as she grounded. His descending flag marked the end of Spain's naval power in the New World.
If, as a newspaper clipping he kept suggests, he was manning a forward gun, then it is possible that my great-grandfather was responsible for firing that epoch-ending shot. He rarely mentioned his past, but my mother noted that he did receive a naval pension.

After the war, Leffingwell started working on a PhD in Physics at the University of Chicago. In 1900 he attended a lecture on arctic exploration by Fridtjof Nansen. The dazzling and charismatic Nansen planted the exploring bug in Ernest Leffingwell's mind, who set about finding an expedition worth joining.

This was an era when the last few empty spaces on the map were being filled in, and expeditions to various far-off locations were constantly in the news. Explorers who made it back were the toast of the town, while those who didn't often became even more famous.

The world of funding and undertaking expeditions at the turn of the century reminds me a lot of the world of tech startups these days: the ventures would often be led by young idealists who would have to shop their plan around to various rich investors. Big egos, fad-following, name-dropping, grandstanding, and the constant struggle for cash while trying to push through into new and undiscovered territory - it could be an exotic expedition in 1900, or a tech startup in 2010.

Leffingwell joined the Baldwin-Ziegler Expedition, a high-profile trip to the European Arctic, as the chief Scientist. He had no trouble passing the physical exam, since he was a star track athlete and on the University of Chicago football team.

The Baldwin-Ziegler expedition wasn't much of a success - halfway to the pole, Ziegler (a baking powder magnate) deposed Baldwin, and after some confused wandering around Franz Joseph Land, everyone returned to warmer climes. "Baffled, not beaten" was the crew's motto. However, it wasn't entirely useless: during the trip Leffingwell became close friends with Ejner Mikkelsen, and the two of them decided to embark on an expedition of their own.

There had been rumours of previously-undiscovered islands in the ocean north of Alaska, but nothing certain - and certainly not as measured by a scientist who knew what he was doing. Leffingwell and Mikkelsen decided to go up there and find out for sure. The first step, though, was to raise money. Mikkelsen traveled the world and eventually managed to get Queen Alexandra of Denmark to be the patron of the expedition, and got money from John D. Rockefeller and the Duchess of Bedford. They finally reached their funding goal when Leffingwell's father matched the funds for the expedition by giving him an advance on his inheritance.

Random Side Fact #3: It's worth reading that Wikipedia article on the Duchess of Bedford. She was a remarkable person: suffragette, record-breaking aviator, bird enthusiast, and philanthropist. She died at the age of 71, when the DeHavilland Gypsy Moth biplane she was piloting crashed into the North Sea. If you're going to go, you should you go out swinging!

The expedition finally started in Victoria B.C., where they bought a refitted 66-ton schooner. In honour of their benefactor, they changed its name from "Beatrice" to "The Duchess of Bedford". They didn't have enough money for a motor, so they did most of the trip under sail power, occasionally getting towed by friendly whalers and Coast Guard vessels.

The Duchess of Bedford SchoonerRandom Side Fact #4: The "Beatrice" was a ship with a colourful history: it had originally been made (from tropical hardwood) for the Japanese navy, but later ended up being used for smuggling opium around the Pacific, and then for poaching, until it got caught and impounded by the Canadian authorities - and then bought for cheap and refitted.

Eventually, in September of 1906, they made it to Flaxman Island. They had originally planned to get further east to Banks Island, north of the Yukon, but the ice was already beginning to hamper travel - and they realized that Flaxman Island was in an ideal location, with good ocean access, at the mouth of a large river, and with unexplored mountains visible in the distance (now known as the Brooks Range).

Shoreline of Flaxman Island

They spent the winter travelling by dogsled across the winter ice that covered the Arctic Ocean. The cold was incredible, the ice was treacherous, and most of their dogs got rabies. They didn't find any new land, but they did manage to sound and properly map the edge of the continental shelf for the first time ever. It turns out that there isn't any land in that part of the Beaufort Sea, but there are giant 300-square-mile icebergs that seem like islands.

When they got back to Flaxman Island in May of 1907, they discovered that the ice had damaged their ship beyond repair. So they took it apart and used the wood to build a comfortable base station. The final structure had several rooms, a full pantry, a library of books in multiple languages, and even a roll-top desk.

The Duchess of Bedford in Ice The Leffingwell Cabin ca. 1910

In October, Mikkelsen decided to head back south, leaving Leffingwell to continue his explorations by himself.

Random Side Fact #5: Mikkelsen had quite a time getting back: he considered walking to Fairbanks (which we did by plane in about 4 hours) but decided he didn't have enough food for the trip. Instead he got a ride with a whaling ship to Barrow where he resupplied and, after a colourful 300-mile long journey through the wilderness and Gold Rush country mostly on foot, he made it to Valdez Alaska in April 1908. Mikkelsen wrote a book on his travels, and later in life became an expert on Greenland, eventually becoming Inspector of Greenland between 1933 and 1950.

But back to my great-grandfather. He decided to stay up north and used his Flaxman Island station as a base for a thorough survey of this section of the Alaskan coast. He spent 78 months travelling or working up north, 30 of these months in the field (making camp 380 times). He travelled 4500 miles, and properly surveyed 4900 square miles of what is now the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. When, several decades later, they re-mapped the coast with airplanes and satellites, his maps needed very little adjusting - his longitude (very tricky to calculate without a radio for time synch) was accurate to within 250 feet.

Leffingwell standing on ice

Leffingwell is mostly known for being the first real scientist to make the case for oil in the North Slope area - and boy was he right.

He did all of his surveying by himself - needing to put tape over his metal instruments to keep his skin from freezing to them - but that doesn't mean that he was completely alone while up there. Flaxman Island is in a bit of a crossroads for that part of the arctic, and he was visited fairly frequently by local Inuit families, coast guard ships, whalers, and other explorers. Famous explorer Stefansson met him several times - the first time calling his luxurious cabin and his affection for fruit jams "effete", but he was impressed several years later with Leffingwell's new appreciation for oatmeal 'mush'.

In 1908 Leffingwell went back south to get more supplies, and, in trying to get back to Flaxman Island in 1909, had what he considered his most dangerous adventure, and the only time he felt like giving up and going back to Illinois: to get back north, he had engaged a shipwright in Seattle to build him a 50-foot yawl which, unlike the Duchess of Bedford, would have a 12-horsepower engine. Unfortunately, halfway through the project the price of wood had skyrocketed, and Leffingwell ended up not only with a not-entirely-completed ship, but also with a lot less money than he had expected.

The Argo

His meagre remaining funds couldn't attract decent sailors, so he ended up with a crew of drunken louts. He certainly couldn't afford a real navigator, so he decided to brave the North Pacific using only his surveying skills. They had barely left Seattle on the "Argo" when they discovered that the shipwright had saved money by not putting in a proper heat shield behind the stove - which meant that running the stove would light the hull of the ship on fire. He couldn't trust his crew, especially since the only skill they seemed to have was drinking whisky - so he would stay awake, cold and damp, and steer the ship for days on end. Finally, he couldn't take it any more and decided that he would rather risk burning up than suffer any more - and they discovered that by constantly pouring water over the back-panel, they would be able to run the stove properly. After that, the trip went more smoothly - except for having to occasionally wrestle and tie his DT-suffering crew members to their bunks to keep them from throwing the navigation equipment overboard.

He eventually made it back to Flaxman Island (after leaving his drunken crew members at a small isolated out-port) and continued his survey work.

I triangulated about 150 miles of the coast and mapped the details upon a scale of 1/125,000, and entered the positions of about 1,500 soundings. I made a sketch map of the entire coastline between Point Barrow and the Canadian boundary, ... mapped the main geographic features of an area of about 50 by 80 miles of the mainland, ... drew the known and probable distribution of 15 geological deposits‚ ... Ground ice I discussed at length and elaborated the Wedge Theory, ... My report of petroleum seepages near Point Barrow attracted more attention than all the rest of my work. It started a small oil rush.

He returned south in 1914, and spent several years in Washington D.C., writing up a detailed report for the U.S. Geological Survey.

After my report was published, the Royal Geographical Society of London was the first to see merit in my work, and I am very grateful for their Patron's Medal. Then came the Daly Medal of the American Geographical Society of New York; then an honorary degree of Sc.D. from my Alma Mater. Stefansson lifted my morale by Leffingwell Crags on one of his new islands north of Canada, and Mikkelsen enlarged my ego with Leffingwell Nunatak, sticking like a sore thumb out of the ice of Northeastern Greenland. Also there were a few of my fossils named after me.

Wearing my great-grandfather's cloak at Oberlin graduation 1994Random Side Fact #6: When I graduated from Oberlin College in 1994, there was no official dress code. Some people wore suits, others wore sweats, one painted himself blue like a Pict - I wore the black cloak that my great-grandfather wore for his honorary degree from Trinity College, Connecticut.

He married around this time, and eventually settled on his father's Walnut and Lime ranch in Whittier, California.

Random Side Fact #7: Whittier is now a part of eastern Los Angeles - there is still a Leffingwell Road in Whittier, a long boulevard lined with strip malls.

Leffingwell never went back to the Arctic. It's hard to say why he didn't go back. My mother says he didn't talk much about his time in the Arctic, preferring to think of the future more than the past, so it's hard to know the reasons. Perhaps he was upset that people who had done less but had self-promoted more were becoming famous. Perhaps investment had dried up, and his father had tired of funding his trips (being up there was fairly cheap, since he mostly lived off the land, but getting there and back was a different story). Perhaps he just decided that this was a chapter of his life that was now finished. Perhaps his wife insisted he stay closer to home. Perhaps he simply preferred the warm sunny climate in Los Angeles.

Our family memory is a bit vague on how he spent his life between returning from the Arctic and when my mother was born in the 1940s. I gather that he spent his time managing the walnut and lime groves and raising Springer-Spaniels. My late grandmother (his daughter) recalled that the family was fairly well-off when she was growing up, but that they were hit hard in the crash of 1929 - she told stories of being embarrassed to go to still-rich friends' birthday parties wearing an old dress and only bringing wild-flowers. However the family seemed to be doing well enough to send her to Montreal for French lessons in the early 1930s.

Random Side Fact #8: While she was in Montreal, my grandmother visited one of her father's explorer colleagues in Ottawa, and ended up accompanying his daughter to a debutante ball at Rideau Hall, where she was photographed by then-just-a-society-photographer Yousuf Karsh.Ann Leffingwell, taken by Karsh

In the 1940s, Leffingwell moved to Carmel, California, and also built a salmon-fishing cottage along the Klamath river further north. In Carmel, Leffingwell he kept himself active: I discovered a news clipping from the 1960s describing how he built a hot rod car - inspired by how much he enjoyed building his own shallow-draft boat several years earlier.

Newspaper Headline about Hot Rod Enthusiast at 83

In an upcoming set of posts, I'll describe one of the most extraordinary days in my entire life: July 21st 2010, when my mother and I flew up to Flaxman Island to see my great-grandfather's camp. For now, though, I'm going to give Leffingwell the last words. This is from his 1961 article in "Explorers Journal":

It is necessary for both my physical and for my psychic health, that I have plenty of exercise. I endeavor to become so tired every day, that I enjoy resting at night. Until ten years ago I spent much time hunting, fishing and camping; but I ended that kind of life with a moose hunt in Canada, where I kept my end up in spite of my 76 years. Since then I have devoted myself to gardening, and find that I can get all of the exercise I need, and at the same time enjoy the beauty of the lovely flowers that are adapted to our coastal climate.

I still have an unfulfilled ambition to explore the undiscovered land beyond the River Styx. There are conflicting reports about what is to be found there, and I intend to go there personally and settle the matter.


Sweet, John M. Discovery at Prudhoe Bay OIL, Blaine, Washington: Hancock House 2008.

Leffingwell, Ernest de Koven "My Polar Expeditions, 1901-1914", Explorers Journal 1961 2-14

Clark, Neil M. "Ships North to Alaskan Coast" Montana the Magazine of Western History, Fall 1973

"Expedition To North Pole: Chicago Athlete To Go With Baldwin-Ziegler Party" Los Angeles Express, 3 May 1901.

Mikkelsen, Ejnar Conquering the Arctic Ice, London: William Heinemann 1909.

(Some of the sources were newspaper clippings that didn't include titles or dates).

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