1860, the Nautilus departs
On June 28, 1949, President Kenneth C. M. Sills wrote to Judge William Malone, "Bowdoin College is delighted to have the sextant which you found on the Grand or Hamilton River in Labrador in 1923 that belonged to the Cary and Cole expedition." The story of this expedition, he said, is "almost a Bowdoin epic." Almost. Not many people know of it today. Somehow, as the years passed, this great wilderness adventure slipped through the cracks, along with the rest of Bowdoin's arctic heritage. To most current students, Bowdoin's arctic connection consists only of a small museum called Peary-MacMillan, tucked away in Hubbard Hall. But just beneath the surface lies a rich tradition of Arctic studies that was jump started by an 1891 expedition to the northern waters by a group of hardy and courageous Bowdoin men.
This series will focus on that 1891 expedition, which was led by Professor Leslie A. Lee along the coast of Labrador and up the Grand River. It was an expedition that brought recognition to the College and adventure to eighteen of its sons. However, the trip was preceded by a lesser-known excursion, led by the Bowdoin and Williams chemistry Professor Paul A. Chadbourne in 1860 to Greenland by way of Labrador. This trip mainly consisted of Williams College students, but the Professor envisioned grand plans for the excursion and opened it up to students from other colleges.
For a vessel, Chadbourne contacted an acquaintance in Thomaston, a ship captain named Charles E. Ranlett. Ranlett was hesitant to offer himself and one of his ships for this expedition. College students? Chadbourne must be crazy. And how many? One college boy might be alright, but if gathered together-seventeen from Williams, three from Bowdoin, two from Harvard, and one from Columbia-the boys would no doubt be rowdy and unreliable. Providing a boat and finances for this undertaking would be risky. However, since these were science students with research in mind, the captain eventually assented. A 1964 article in the Portland Press Herald joked that since the expedition already included a Harvard man, it was good that no Yale student would be aboard, because no ship would be big enough for the both of them.
The number of students intended for the trip grew so much that Ranlett's brand new schooner Nautilus had to be specially outfitted for twenty-three students, a captain, and a professor planning an expedition that would reach above the Arctic Circle. Finally, in the early morning of June 27, 1860, the Nautilus set sail from Thomaston out to the cool calm open ocean. Though the sun had not yet risen, the people of Thomaston came out with flowers, music, and good wishes for the boys on the schooner.
Once the boys were well away from the land, the mood of the cool calm
sea shifted. A student writing for the Williams Quarterly bemoaned the
awful sea-sickness that left him feeling "as though the stomach were
a very Jonah and every power of the system were taxed to rid the body
of this dangerous member." After they got their sea legs, the students
began to take in the ocean's full splendor. What a feeling-to be out of
sight of all land, surrounded by a blue ocean that appeared just as vast
as the great blue sky. On a lone, tiny vessel amid the churning waters
of the Atlantic, a man can't help but compare his weak humanity to the
awesome power of nature. His first experience as a vulnerable speck in
a stormy sea brings home the hard lesson that both man and boat are at
the complete mercy of the elements-they are able to move only if the wind
and the current allow, and should they fall into displeasure with the
sea, a sudden squall could easily cut their voyage short, plunging them
into the raging depths. Soon, however, both the seasickness and the fear
of the open ocean were subdued, giving way to the reality of the task
at hand-the academic work of the expedition will be both exciting and
exhausting, but that will have to wait. Until they reached their destination,
the boys could do nothing but be relaxed by the steady rhythm of the waves.