Uncle Louie and the Northwest Passage

posted on November 13, 2016

Uncle Louie and the Northwest Passage

Our theme this month is “Story” and I think if we asked everyone here today to tell us just one story from their family we could be here for days. Every family has a story they tell. Sometimes those stories are funny and sometimes they are tragic. Sometimes they are stories of foolishness, and sometimes of bravery. Those family stories become part of our own character. We may admire or detest the characters in the stories. We may want to follow in their footsteps or hotfoot it away from them. But we all have some story – and maybe more than one story – that the whole family knows and tells over and over again.

One story in my family is about Uncle Louie and the Voyage of the Jeannette. I thought it would be good to tell in this weekend of stories of Life At Sea.

Uncle Louie was born in 1850 – one hundred sixty-six years ago – in Tiverton, Rhode Island. His sister Matilda was my great-great grandmother and he was my great-great uncle. He died at the age of 77 in 1927, when my dad – who knew him well – was 10 years old.

My dad and uncle told the story of Uncle Louie and the bridge over the Cape Cod Canal. Someone bet Louie a quarter that he wouldn’t dare jump off the bridge – which in those days was much lower than the current bridge, but still… Louie jumped, lived, and got his quarter.

But that was later in his life, when he was in his ‘60s. When he was a younger man, the risks he took were much greater. His story goes like this, in his own words:

“It was in ’67 [that would be 1867] I first felt the call of adventure at the age of 17. Another youth, Frank Wilcox by name, and I went to New Bedford and signed up for a whaling trip.

“We had barely got started, however, when we became sick of the adventure and longed to be ashore again. Six or seven months as a whaler sickened me… and when she put into port in Chile I took the opportunity to jump ship. Here I tried in vain to obtain passage back to the states and finally was forced to ship on the barque Martha Ridington of Nantucket. Eighteen months of this and I again left, this time in Honolulu. From there I went to New York where I obtained work on the Schoolship St. Mary, teaching youths the exacting art of seamanship.

“In the year 1879 I found myself in San Francisco and, yearning for adventure, signed up with the Jeannette crew bound for the Arctic Ocean and the North Pole. There were 34 in the party. We dropped a Chinese member of the crew in St. Michaels, where we stopped to outfit for the battle through the ice fields and with 33 men set sail for our objective, Herald Island. [Herald Island is a small, isolated Russian island in the Chukchi Sea, 70 km to the east of Wrangel Island. It rises in sheer cliffs, making it quite inaccessible, either by ship or by plane.]

“Before reaching the island, however, we were wedged in by a floating spur of ice, in which the vessel drifted [for nearly two years]  until it went down in one of the most ferocious storms we had as yet encountered.”

Mark Twain once remarked that “going to sea develops all man’s bad qualities and brings out new ones he didn’t suppose himself mean enough for.”

A writer named Hampton Sides, the author of the most recent book about the voyage of the Jeannette – called In the Kingdom of Ice – says, “Any time you put 33 men together in a fairly small vessel for an extended time, there are tensions and personality clashes. Put them together for two years, locked in the ice, in polar conditions, and you can only imagine.”

The Irish meteorologist on board, Jerome Collins, was a very interesting man and quite learned. But he had a propensity for delivering really bad puns and limericks. For a couple of days that can be wonderful. But for two years? Everyone on the ship wanted to kill this guy, including De Long!

Now the ship was a steam yacht of 420 tons burden, with an engine of 200 horsepower and a wide span of canvas. She was strongly constructed and has seen considerable service in the northern seas. In 1873 she conveyed her owner to the Arctic regions for the purpose of searching for records of an earlier expedition…She was especially outfitted, fortified and renamed for the DeLong expedition. But she was no match for the ice.

Uncle Louie’s tale continues:

“Sleds were packed with the cargo before the good ship went down, crushed like an eggshell in the ice – and we started to retreat.

“The going was terrible, loose snow on the surface and yawning cracks in the ice made traveling arduous in the extremes. To add to our troubles we soon learned that the ice pack had drifted and we were farther away from our haven of safety than we had at first imagined. On reaching Bennet Island, at which place we had planned to make camp, we were forced to keep going as there was no food obtainable. On reaching the Lena River, Nindemann and I, who were in better condition than the rest, were sent ahead to bring relief to the weakened survivors. We were told if we found game to come back but if not to continue on to Kumak Surka, a point fifty miles south of where we were later picked up.”

The two men shook hands with the party, and Noros claims that they felt their situation was hopeless. There were tears in the eyes of the stranded party and the two men, who held their deliverance in the hollow of their hands, set out to obtain assistance. Collins, one of the members of the part, said to Noros as he was about to start, “Noros, when you get to New York, remember me.” With three rousing cheers ringing in their ears, the two started on their long trek through the wastes.

They travelled slowly, sighted deer once but they could not get near them. They shot a grouse and caught an eel but subsisted mostly on portions of their skin breeches and the soles of their moccasins, which they chewed as they trudged along.

After two days of traveling they crossed the Lena Rover, thinking they had more chance of getting game in the mountains. They met with little success and finally reached Kumak Surka, where they found several huts with blue-moldy fish. This was reached after five days of heart-breaking trials, two days of which they were without food. They were too weak to go further, and took shelter in one of the huts. Here they were found by a native who took them to a camp where there were six others. None could be made to understand however that a large party of other men were dying many miles away. Noros and Nindemann set out again and they came to a native village. Here they again pleaded that aid be sent to the party slowly dying on the shores of the Lena River. This time, the natives understood – but it was too late. The men of Commander DeLong’s boat were not found until many months later. All had died from cold and starvation.

But Noros – Uncle Louie – and Nindemann survived. And Uncle Louis came back to the United States and he sailed with Donald MacMillan on his Arctic expeditions – and then he became a letter-carrier in Fall River.

On April 4, 1927, the Fall River Herald ran the following article on the front page:



Former Fall River Letter Carrier, Holder of Congressional Medal, Hero of Thrilling Venture into Frozen North

“Louis P. Noros, 77, of 907 Rock Street, ex-letter carrier, last survivor of the Jeannette expedition to the Arctic Ocean and holder of the Congressional medal, died yesterday afternoon…

“Few living today [in 1927] remember the Jeannette Expedition into the barren Arctic wastes, of which Noros and William F.C. Nindemann of New York were the only survivors. The two, after untold hardships and misery managed to win through, the remainder of that intrepid crew perishing in the far north country.

“The Jeannette sailed from San Francisco on a voyage of discovery in the year 1879, to the far Northern seas, planning a dash to the top of the world. The good ship had not penetrated far into the Arctic regions when it came to grief…forcing the party to take to small boats at the mercy of the raging seas. The frail [crafts] [were] separated in a violent storm off the coast of Siberia. The craft commanded by Lieutenant George W. DeLong of the U.S. Navy, in charge of the expedition of which Noros was a member, was cast upon the bleak shores of the Lena Delta in Siberia.

 “The party made a stubborn heroic effort to reach the mainland, but worn down by hardship, hunger and heart-breaking exertion the little party came to the end of their endurance long before the end of their goal was in sight. Then it was that Noros and Nindemann were detailed by Commander DeLong to make a forced march across the barren wastes in a last hope of obtaining relief for the storm-tossed survivors of the expedition.

“Provisions were so low that the two members of the relief party carried but two ounces of alcohol as a food supply with which to battle their way across the barren wastes to the mainland. They had no compass, their only guide was a small diagram of the Lena River drawn in pencil from DeLong’s map.

“The journey of these two hardy survivors of the once imposing crew of explorers was a long nightmare of horrors, hunger, cold and heartbreaking trekking through the frozen snow. After a hundred-mile journey the two men more dead than alive fell in with natives who carried them to a settlement.”

Well, that’s the long tale of the Voyage of the Jeannette and my pretty gosh-darned heroic Uncle Louie. You can imagine how we all wanted to grow up to be just as brave and strong as he was.

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