Fram Museum Oslo


Ellsworth, Lincoln (1880-1951)

Ellsworth secured the financing for Roald Amundsen's N24/N25 expedition where he also served as navigator, as well as the subsequent Norge flight over the North Pole.

Lincoln Ellsworth (1880-1951)

Early life

Lincoln Ellsworth was born 12 May 1880 in Chicago, son of James Ellsworth, a wealthy coal-mine owner. He was christened Linn after his uncle William Linn, but changed it to Lincoln at an early age. His mother Eva died in 1888 and Lincoln and his sister lived a large part of their childhood with their grandmother in Hudson, Ohio. He was deeply interested in outdoor life and natural history, and greatly enjoyed hunting and trekking. One trek went through almost 400 km of Colombia’s wilderness. He took a university course in mineralogy and mining, and in 1903 he got the job of staking out a railway track in the Canadian wilderness. It was here he learned to paddle an Indian canoe. It was hard work pushing through scrub forest and over rivers, but Ellsworth wrote that “I liked it, the hard work, strains, little food and everything” and I “changed from a pale college youth to a tough and weather-beaten outdoor man”. In 1904 he continued this work on the prairies of Saskatchewan. After a winter as surveyor in his father’s coal mine, he got the job in 1905 as assistant to the chief engineer at a gold mine near Teller, Alaska, travelling there from Seattle via Nome with the steamer Victoria. Teller, Nome and Victoria were to come into his life again a few years later with Roald Amundsen. It took a month to trek the 180 km over the boggy arctic tundra from Nome to the mine. On later trips from the mine to Teller, he could look out over the sea and absorb the fact that this was the border to the unknown Arctic. The seed was sown!

After another stint in a “permanent position” as an engineer in his father’s mine, he again felt the need to get away and in spring 1906 he got the position of engineer for staking out a new railway in Alaska, this time over the Rocky Mountains. Again it involved carrying heavy loads on foot through strenuous and dangerous wilderness, and now he could claim to be an experienced expeditioner. In 1907 he became head of the work to establish the town of Prince Rupert on the British Columbia coast and he wrote about this “So proud I was ! In five years I went from a dissatisfied college youth who couldn’t manage exams in anything to become an engineer and have a responsible position with a large railway company”. As long as academic studies had a practical use, he could manage them, but not otherwise. In winter 1907-08 he studied railway engineering and practical astronomy at McGill University in Montreal. From now on it was scientific expeditions and navigation that took over from railway building.

In autumn 1909 Ellsworth trekked together with an old gold miner from Port Essington, just south of Prince Rupert, far into the inland and then in an Indian canoe to the source of the Peace River in Alberta, where they panned for gold and hunted. In 1911 he rode on a bison hunt in the mountains with a half-blooded Indian. He had by now discovered both Fridtjof Nansen’s book “Furthest North” and the Natural History Museum in New York, where his father now lived. It was the polar collections which caught his interest. In addition the news had come that Frederick Cook and Robert E. Peary both claimed to have been at the North Pole – i 1908 and 1909 –, Roald Amundsen arrived back from the South Pole in 1912 and Robert F. Scott’s diaries were published – all matters that fired Ellsworth’s polar interest. Peary meant that he had seen new land – “Crocker Land” – north of Ellesmere Island and an expedition to find this land was being organised by George Borup, supported by the Natural History Museum. Ellsworth was chosen as the third member of the expedition, with responsibility for navigation and mapping. Unfortunately George Borup drowned in a boating accident before the expedition started. Ellsworth and the remaining member of the expedition, Donald MacMillan, decided to continue, but not until the following year. Ellsworth used the delay to prepare himself further for work in the Arctic. He studied the use of sextant and theodolite and measured earth magnetism and compass variations. However, his doubt about the existence of Crocker Land grew, at the same time as his father still showed his resistance to arctic expeditions, so Ellsworth withdrew from the planned expedition.

Polar ambitions

Ellsworth’s aim was now to be a polar explorer. Without informing his father of the real motive, he took a course in geographical surveying winter 1912-13 at the Royal Geographical Society in London. With no available fortune of his own and with a father who would not accept arctic expeditions, he tried in vain to raise funds from other sources. He therefore continued the expedition training in December 1913 as assistant for the US Biological Survey. There were scientific trips to Death Valley, California and the Cassiar Mountains in north British Columbia. This involved more long treks through the wilderness and exciting hunting experiences in the mountains. In winter 1914-15 he was on an expedition in the Mexico desert.

In autumn 1916 it was looking as though USA would enter the war in Europe and Ellsworth, now 37 years old, wanted to participate as a pilot. He travelled to France and enlisted voluntarily in the ranks of a French-American division where he learned to fly. He was sent to the headquarters in Paris, but to his disappointment he was put into an office until 1918, rather than in active flying. This had, however, an interesting consequence as Roald Amundsen was in Paris in 1917 as a guest of the government during his preparations for the expedition over the Arctic Ocean with the Maud. He was staying at the Hotel Meurice, where Ellsworth asked to meet him and explained how his great wish was to join Amundsen on the expedition across the Arctic Ocean. This time, however, there was no place for him.

For several years now Ellsworth was too ill from pneumonia and pleurisy to travel in the wilderness or in polar areas. He did manage annual trips to a canyon in Colorado where he could study the geological layers, before he again tried to join an arctic expedition, this time with the Icelandic-American explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson. However, his father still refused to give any support. Ellsworth explained his burning wish to achieve something in the polar areas thus: “As a child I was physically weak, nervous and anaemic. At the age of 40 I was on top both physically and in my work, and I had achieved it all myself. It was a pleasure for me to use my energy on hardships that make men with less strength collapse. My nature was such that I needed these convincing tests. What drew me to the Arctic and Antarctic was, I suppose, that it was there that the utmost effort was required”.

To the Arctic with Amundsen 1925-26

In 1924 he led a geological expedition from the Johns Hopkins University to the Andes Mountains, but he did not like that type of nature. It was bare and depressing and without anything to hunt. In October he was, however, to return for a new period when he saw in the newspaper in New York that Amundsen had arrived in the city to hold lectures. Ellsworth telephoned him at the Waldorf-Astoria and asked for a meeting. Amundsen’s motive for the lecturing was to earn money to pay debts and for a new airborne expedition northwards, but he stated himself that he had become quite depressed and resigned. Ellsworth explained his own background and training for polar expeditions and his strong wish to achieve one. He would like to join Amundsen’s planned flight from Spitsbergen to the North Pole and would try to convince his father to give the necessary economic support. Lincoln himself still had no access to any large fund. After a conversation face to face with Amundsen, James Ellsworth finally agreed to contribute $85 000. The condition was that his son would stop smoking. However, Lincoln reasoned later that he was forced to such a promise and was therefore not obliged to hold it. The expedition cost before start c. $130 000, of which father and son Ellsworth contributed a total of $95 000.

On the flying boat N24 Ellsworth was the navigator, after some extra instruction in aerial navigation from Leif Dietrichson who was the pilot. Oskar Omdal was the mechanic on board. N24 and N25 took off at 17:10 from Ny-Ålesund on 21 May 1925. After 8½ hours in the air they landed on the drift ice at 87°43' N. It took 3½ weeks of hard work to make a starting strip on the ice before they managed to fly back to Svalbard in the one plane on 15 June. The only sad part was the news that James Ellsworth had died of an illness on 2 June without being able to experience that his son returned from the expedition that he had been so against.

Ellsworth now controlled his own fortune and he gave $100 000 for the next expedition he and Amundsen were planning – with the airship Norge over the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. He stated that the expedition in the end came to half a million dollars, but that some of this was recouped through sale of newspaper rights, books and lectures. This time Ellsworth was the expedition navigator, which caused Leif Dietrichson to resign from the expedition as he felt he had been demoted. The Norge left Ny-Ålesund at 09:55 on 11 May and was over the North Pole at 01:25 on the 12th, which was Ellsworth’s birthday. They landed 72 hours after start at Teller, Alaska. In 1927 the Boy Scouts of America made Ellsworth an Honorary Scout, a new distinction that was to be given to "American citizens whose achievements in outdoor activity, exploration and worthwhile adventure are of such an exceptional character as to capture the imagination of boys...". In January 1931 he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal by US President Herbert Hoover for the two arctic expeditions with Roald Amundsen.

Ellsworth now felt that he was finished with the Arctic and he had not yet begun to think of the Antarctic. For some years he took trips to the Grand Canyon, Labrador and Death Valley, California to search for fossil algae. He was nonetheless established as an arctic expert and in 1931 he helped his friend Sir Hubert Wilkins as scientific advisor for Wilkins’ planned expedition over the North Atlantic and up to the North Pole with the submarine Nautilus. He also sponsored the expedition with $70 000 plus a loan of $20 000. The expedition failed as the Nautilus was old and unreliable and there was possibly also some sabotage from the crew involved. Wilkins joined Ellsworth on his antarctic expeditions in 1933-39. Later in 1931 Ellsworth was invited as arctic expert on the German Graf Zeppelin airship expedition to Taymyr, Novaya Zemlya and Franz Josef Land. During a stop at Franz Josef Land he met Umberto Nobile, whom he had not seen since the Norge expedition.

Antarctic expeditions 1933-39

The Zeppelin expedition to the Arctic reawakened Ellsworth’s wish to explore the polar areas, and this time it was to be the Antarctic. The scientific goal was to investigate from the air whether Amundsen’s “Queen Maud Mountain Range” could be an extension of the mountains on the Antarctic Peninsula. He would do this by flying from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. In 1928-29 Richard Byrd had established his base Little America by the Bay of Whales, and this would be Ellsworth’s end point. Bernt Balchen agreed to join the expedition, as did Wilkins. Amongst the preparations Ellsworth made was instruction from Walter Mittelholzer in Zürich in the aerial photography of mountains. At Mittelholzer’s airfield he met a young American woman whom Mittelholzer had taught to fly. Fourteen days later they were engaged.

Lincoln Ellsworth married Mary Louise Ulmer in New York 23 May 1933. She was the daughter of Jacob Ulmer, a wealthy bankman and industrialist from Philadelphia and Pottsville, Pennsylvania. She would experience that her husband was absent for long periods during their first married years.

Ellsworth bought the Norwegian ship Fanefjord and renamed it after his childhood hero Wyatt Earp. On 10 December 1933 the expedition left from Dunedin, New Zealand. The ice conditions were difficult, but Balchen and Ellsworth managed a successful test flight before the aircraft, Polar Star, which was parked on the sea ice, was badly damaged when wave movement caused the ice to grind together. The expedition had to retreat north again for repairs. In September 1934 they were back with a new plan: to fly from Deception Island to Little America. Again they were unsuccessful owing to a technical fault and bad weather conditions. Bernt Balchen now had to return to other tasks in Norway, so Ellsworth hired Englishman Herbert Hollick-Kenyon and Canadian J. H. Lymburner, both of whom flew for Canadian Airways.

On 22 November 1935 Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon started on the last attempt to fly over the Antarctic continent from Dundee Island off the north point of the Antarctic Peninsula to Byrd’s abandoned Little America base by the Bay of Whales. After 14 hours in the air they landed to make an observation and Ellsworth planted the American flag in the snow and called the area James W. Ellsworth Land (today it is just called Ellsworth Land). They stayed here for 19 hours and took sextant observations every third hour. On 24 November they flew on, but after only half an hour the weather forced them to land again. They had to camp here for three days before they managed a new flight of 50 minutes. Now they had to camp for a week owing to snow storms and strong winds. On 4 December they could fly again. They landed for a short while after nearly four hours in order to check their position and the fuel supply, before flying on on the 5th for the last leg. After a total of 20 hours and 15 minutes in the air they ran out of fuel, just as they saw the open Ross Sea and realized that they had reached their goal. From 22 November to 5 December they had flown 3700 km, from the Weddell Sea to the Ross Sea. Until 1956 this was the longest transantarctic flight ever. No other expeditions than Richard E. Byrd’s and Bernt Balchen’s flight from the Bay of Whales to the South Pole and back in 1929, as well as Amundsen’s and Scott’s land-based expeditions, had penetrated further into Antarctica than Ellsworth’s transantarctic flight with the Polar Star.

Ellsworth and Hollick-Kenyon reckoned that they landed about 7 km from Little America, but the base had been buried in ice and snow since Byrd’s expedition and it was not easy to spot any parts that they hoped still stuck up over the ice. It turned out later that they were actually 26 km from Little America, and with snowshoes and heavy sledges they trudged around day after day without knowing exactly where they were in relation to the Barrier edge and Little America. It was not before 15 December, after a wearing trek of more than 160 km, that they found the base. They dug down to a skylight, broke the glass and crawled into what turned out to be the radio shack. Unfortunately there was no radio equipment there, but the plan had always been to wait at the base until the ice conditions were such that Wyatt Earp could sail in to fetch them. On 15 January the British research vessel Discovery II arrived in the Bay of Whales, sent out from Australia as one of several rescue operations that had been started when radio contact with the Polar Star was lost already on the first flight day. Wyatt Earp arrived on the 19th. Ellsworth was awarded the National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal by President Roosevelt in April 1936 for distinction within exploration, discovery and research. Also in 1936 he was declared honorary member of the Norwegian Geographical Society.

Ellsworth returned to Antarctica with Wyatt Earp and two planes in 1938-39 on his last expedition to the continent. Sir Hubert Wilkins participated again as technical advisor, and the ship’s crew were Norwegian. The expedition went to what is now Australian territory and Ellsworth dropped an American flag on to the ice during a flight over the land and declared that the area was now American territory. Australia did not agree with this and USA did not pursue the annexation.

Ellsworth planned further antarctic expeditions, but these were stopped by the war 1939-45. On a trek in Mexico in 1943 he fell badly and this caused health problems. He died in New York on 26 May 1951.


Lincoln Ellsworth: Beyond Horizons. The Book League of America, 1938.