JOHN KELLY’S WASH­ING­TON

The Washington Post Sunday - - METRO - John Kelly's Wash­ing­ton john.kelly@wash­post.com Twit­ter: @johnkelly

In 1931, a ship that had once taken ex­plor­ers to Antarc­tica pulled into port in Wash­ing­ton.

I came across some old pho­tos that be­longed to my fa­ther, dated 1931. It ap­pears that Ad­mi­ral Byrd’s City of New York, which sailed to Antarc­tica, was docked at the Sev­enth Street SW wharf. Did the old wooden ship travel to other ports? I know that my fa­ther knew some­one who had trav­eled with Byrd to the South Pole. Please tell me more about this.

— Carolyn Jack­son, Gaithers­burg, Md.

In April, 1931, a stout ship that had en­dured howl­ing gales, tow­er­ing waves and the press of po­lar ice tied up at a Po­tomac River dock along­side the boats that took sight­seers to Mount Ver­non and the Mar­shall Hall amuse­ment park.

But, in a way, the 147-foot City of New York wasn’t so dif­fer­ent from those tourist at­trac­tions. Ad­mis­sion to the famed ves­sel was 50 cents, 25 cents for chil­dren un­der 10. As the Evening Star wrote, the ship was on a “tour of the sea­port cities to raise suf­fi­cient funds to make good the deficit in­curred by the costly ex­plo­ration of the South Pole re­gions.”

Then, as now, ex­plo­ration was not cheap.

Richard Eve­lyn Byrd was kind of a lo­cal. The ex­plorer was born in Winch­ester, Va., and grad­u­ated from the U.S. Naval Acad­emy in An­napo­lis.

By 1931, Byrd was a bona fide Amer­i­can hero, the first per­son (it was be­lieved) to fly over both the North and the South poles. (There is some doubt whether he and pi­lot Floyd Ben­nett ac­tu­ally reached the North Pole.)

For his 1928 ex­pe­di­tion to the Antarc­tic, Byrd pur­chased a for­mer Nor­we­gian seal­ing ship called the Sam­son, cho­sen be­cause its wooden hull was three feet thick in places. (The Sam­son has its own strange foot­note in his­tory. Some think it was the mys­tery ship that was near the sink­ing Ti­tanic but sailed away be­cause it was seal­ing in a re­stricted area.)

Re­named the City of New York, the three-masted bar­que car­ried Byrd’s 84-man crew. They set up a base on the Ross Ice Shelf dubbed “Lit­tle Amer­ica.”

Three Wash­ing­to­ni­ans ac­com­pa­nied Byrd on his south­ern voy­age: Pete De­mas, an air­plane me­chanic; Charles L. Kessler, a Marine; and Mal­colm P. Han­son, a ra­dio en­gi­neer who was to per­ish in a plane crash in Alaska in 1942.

What did vis­i­tors who trun­dled to D.C.’s wharf get for their 50 cents? An ad in The Post promised ac­tual mem­bers of the Byrd ex­pe­di­tion who would “tell you their own per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ences in the Antarc­tic, thrilling tales that will make the two years of strug­gle and achieve­ment loom in your mind as a liv­ing, graphic pic­ture.”

Ken­nels along the dock held a half-dozen sled dogs who, the Star re­ported, “gazed in­dif­fer­ently upon the sight­seers.” De­scend­ing into the ship, vis­i­tors passed sleds, tools, pho­to­graphs and stuffed seals. There was food, too, in­clud­ing a hunk of un­ap­pe­tiz­ing pem­mi­can.

“One of the most in­ter­est­ing col­lec­tions is one that might be called the bootery,” wrote a Star re­porter. “Here, ev­ery type of foot and leg cover­ing used to pre­vent freez­ing while work­ing up the con­struc­tion of Lit­tle Amer­ica, as well as on Antarc­tic hikes, is to be seen. Fleece-lined shoes, cari­bou boots, queer, un­gainly boot lin­ings of ev­ery sort imag­in­able, were used to keep the pedal ex­trem­i­ties of the ex­plor­ers from freez­ing in a cli­mate where it was un­safe for one per­son to jour­ney along be­yond the camp fire­sides.”

The most in­ter­est­ing ex­hibit, the Star re­ported, was a de­tailed scale model of Lit­tle Amer­ica, which vividly por­trayed “ev­ery wire­less an­ten­nae, ev­ery sub­ter­ranean en­trance, and ev­ery small build­ing con­structed for the year’s res­i­dence . . . at the South Pole.”

It must have been like tour­ing the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion.

Thou­sands of Wash­ing­to­ni­ans vis­ited the City of New York dur­ing its month-long stay on the wa­ter­front (home now to the glit­ter­ing Wharf de­vel­op­ment). It must have been a pop­u­lar at­trac­tion. It was open daily from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. The ship made stops else­where on the East Coast, then trav­eled in 1933 to the World’s Fair in Chicago.

In 1952, the City of New York — re­jigged as a coal barge — caught fire in Nova Sco­tia and sank, an ig­no­min­ious end to a fa­mous ship.

Stone marks the spot

Last week in this space, An­swer Man wrote about the hand­some mark­ers that the Gar­den Club of Amer­ica erected in 1932 at sev­eral en­trances to Wash­ing­ton. He wrote that the stones flank­ing two bridges in Vir­ginia were no longer there. But, in fact, one re­mains, though not in its orig­i­nal po­si­tion.

It’s in Ross­lyn, on a tri­an­gle of grass just be­fore the Key Bridge.

Ques­tions, please

Send your ques­tions about the Wash­ing­ton area to an­swer­man@wash­post.com.

CHARLES M. WES­NER JR.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

TOP: Pho­tos show Adm. Byrd’s City of New York docked at the District’s Sev­enth Street SW wharf in 1931. For 50 cents, tourists could see stuffed seals and ex­pe­di­tion gear on board. ABOVE: Byrd in 1925 in his Arc­tic garb, hold­ing his com­pass.

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