INTRODUCTION TO ADMIRAL PEARY'S EAGLE ISLAND

By Robert E. Peary, Jr. (1903-1994)

 

Eagle Island in Casco Bay, Maine, was the well loved home of my father, Admiral Robert Edwin Peary the first and only man to lead a party of fellow men to the North Pole without the use of mechanical or electrical devices.

EARLY DAYS. Robert Peary was born in Cresson , Pennsylvania on May 6, 1856 . He came from an old family of Maine lumbermen and was of French and English heritage. After his father died, Robert and his mother returned to Maine . While in high school in Portland in the early 1870's, he discovered Eagle Island on one of his many camping trips and fell in love with it. The love lasted and after he graduated from Bowdoin College in 1877, he bought the island from the Curtis Boys of Harpswell, with his own earnings.

For many years the press of important work prevented him from enjoying his treasure.  It was not until the summer of 1904 that he brought his wife, ten year old daughter, and eight-month-old son (me) to the island.  

In Peary's eyes the rocky bluff was the prow of a great ship heading northeasterly, and he placedhis house as the pilot house of a ship would have been located. The original house rested directly on the bare ledge and comprised the front part of the present building with the big front porch and the two small back porches not enclosed. The house also contained only two rooms downstairs separated by a small, commonplace brick fireplace and one finished room upstairs with a single dormer. There was no kitchen. For the first year or two, the family members had their meals at the "other cottage" as the caretaker's house was called.

My mother Josephine, my sister Marie, (who was called the "Snow Baby" by the press) and I spent every summer on Eagle Island from 1904 on. My father, then a Commander in the US Navy, was with us on the island except when he was in the Arctic . Until 1911 the physical aspect of the islandand life on it had changed very little. During the winter the caretaker gathered and cut wood from the driftwood and the fallen trees to supply the fireplace, cook stoves, and air tights (heating stoves) used in the early spring and late fall. We came as early as we could and stayed, sometimes, into late October.

BIG NEWS COMES TO THE ISLAND. So many things happened while The Commander was in the North that I can't tell them all here. But the most momentous event occurred on the sixth of September, 1909 . On a lovely autumn day, nothing out of the ordinary until the afternoon, two boats were seen coming from South Harpswell toward the island. The first one tied up to the mooring and a man tumbled into a skiff, came ashore, and rushed up to the house waving atelegram. It was the Associated Press saying that Peary had reached the North Pole. Mother was not too excited because she had had too many false alarms before. By this time the second boat had dropped anchor, and the short stout figure of Mr. Palmer, the storekeeper and postmaster of South Harpswell , came puffing up the lawn. This time he brought a telegram from Peary himself to his wife saying, "Have made it at last.....". Soon, other representatives of the press arrived and were clustered around. One said "What do you have to say now, Mrs. Peary?"  She said,  "I say come on boys, let's have a drink".

  After his triumph on April 6, 1909 , it took Peary until 1911 to show the world by incontrovertible proofs that his was the first and only party to reach the North Pole. Over the years since then, as detractors have attempted to cast doubt on Peary's accomplishment, more and more such proofs have come to light. Since 1911, there have been seven comprehensive investigations into the discovery of the Pole conducted by, among others, a subcommittee of the Naval Affairs Committee of the House of Representatives, The National Geographical Society, The Royal Geographic Society of London, the Coast and Geodetic Survey, and, most recently, the Foundation for the Promotion of the Art of Navigation. All have come to the same conclusion: that the North Pole of the earth was first reached by mankind exactly as Robert E. Peary reported on his return from the arctic in autumn of 1909. A supplement to the last mentioned report, applying a new technology known as photogrammetric rectification to a series of photographs Peary took on 6 April 1909 , proves mathematically that those pictures were taken within three miles of the Pole. For a detailed account of Peary's navigational techniques, see ROBERT PEARY AND MATTHEW HENSON AT THE NORTH POLE, by Lieutenant Colonel William E. Molett, U.S. Air Force (Retired), Elkhorn Press, Frankfort, Kentucky, 1996.)

HAPPY YEARS ON THE ISLAND. Congress, to express the thanks of the nation, authorized on March 11, 1911 that Civil Engineer Robert E. Peary U.S.N. be placed on the retired list of the Navy with the rank of Rear Admiral. Now my father could relax and enjoy himself by fixing up Eagle Island as he had dreamed about for so many years. He brought a crew of men including masons, carpenters, plumbers and others who cut the driftwood dining room and kitchen from the house and moved it back into the woods as a guest house; raised the house about four feet onto ncrete piers; built a new ell for a larger dining room, kitchen, maid's room and bathroom (even as it is today); and raised the roof with dormer windows to make five bedrooms upstairs. He designed and had built by master masons the three-sided fireplace, each side a different kind of stone, all found right on the island. The crew glassed in the porches, built a 40,000 gallon cistern under the house, rocked up the present library and its mate, the East Bastion (now a picturesque ruin) and all the connecting walls to enhance the illusion of the prow of a great ship.

       

 

 

 

 

 

EAGLE ISLAND BECOMES A STATE PARK. My father died, at the age of 64,   in Washington , D.C. on the 20th of January 1920 , of pernicious anemia,   incurable at the time. We, the family, (my mother, sister and now several grandchildren) have carried on the Eagle Island tradition and after my mother's death in 1955, we decided unanimously to give the family treasure to the people of Maine and the nation, so that all could enjoy its rich heritage.

The State of Maine has done many things to preserve and enhance the Island , but State funds and staff are limited, and in 1992, the Friends of Eagle Island was organized to assist. The family is very grateful to this organization and urges anyone interested to become a member and participate in their ongoing programs.  

 

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