JOHN KELLY’S WASHINGTON
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.
Send your questions about the Washington area to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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.