Flight to the Top of the World: The Adventures of Walter Wellman
By David L. Bristow, University of Nebraska Press, 392 pages, 2018. $29.95.
“Fun” is not a word often employed when describing Arctic exploration accounts. In a history replete with epic tragedies and harrowing tales of survival, there aren’t a lot of stories that evoke more smiles than shudders. The saga of Walter Wellman does, however.
Though now largely forgotten, a century ago Wellman was one of America’s first celebrities. A nationally syndicated journalist with political connections to presidents, he was a most unlikely Arctic pioneer. Yet in his day, this newsman and canny self-promoter was one of three men racing to the North Pole, aiming to be the first to reach the top of the globe. Unlike the other two, he didn’t get very close. And also unlike the other two, he didn’t lie and claim he had made it. But he had quite a time of it along the way.
“Flight to the Top of the World” by Nebraska State Historical Society associate director David Bristow takes readers back in time to that fabled final decade before World War I, when rapidly advancing technologies were converging, suddenly creating new ways of life in America and Europe. In that brief period it appeared nothing was impossible, including flying to the North Pole in a helium-filled dirigible, something Wellman spent years attempting to do.
Wellman was a perfect man for the era. Born in Ohio in 1858, he left school at a young age, and by 14 was already in the newspaper business. A staunch Republican, Wellman befriended a rising Ohio politician named William McKinley, a valuable connection once he landed the job of Washington correspondent for the Chicago Herald. There he developed a national reputation for his insider connections and his ability to tell stories with at least feigned objectivity.
Yet Wellman, who wandered the West for years before settling into Washington, was also a restless adventurer. And the newspaper business was his ticket to living his dreams.
By the 1890s, many newspapers were not simply reporting news, but also creating news by sponsoring expeditions to far-flung regions in exchange for exclusive rights to the stories. Grabbing this opening, Wellman leveraged his connections with wealthy publishers to set out and make a name for himself.
In 1891, Wellman convinced the Herald to send him to the Bahamas to locate the spot where Christopher Columbus first made landfall. He had barely returned to Washington before he was bitten by Arctic fever, and in 1894 headed for Spitsbergen to launch a dog sled run over the ice and to the Pole. The attempt failed, and Wellman sustained a permanent leg injury. But he wasn’t about to give up.
As the new century dawned and Theodore Roosevelt assumed the presidency, increasingly urbanized Americans longed for heroes who would push the limits of human endeavor. This was a time when zeppelins and other inflatable airships were being constructed, and places once beyond reach seemed attainable. Thus did Wellman’s dream of being the first man to the North Pole take flight.
Bristow weaves the two strands of Wellman’s life together. During the first decade of the 20th century, Wellman veered between the his crusading work for Progressive Republicans and his attempts at glory. A close friend of Roosevelt’s, he played middleman in helping resolve labor disputes, then lurched northward three separate times to try to get his airship off the ground in Spitsbergen and head for the pole.
Bristow explores both sides of Wellman’s experiences, but it’s the Arctic adventures that are the most entertaining. On his first trip, Wellman failed to lift off, while the second two journeys didn’t get far, and literally fell to ruin. But both times Wellman and his cohorts walked away, eager to try again.
That is, until word arrived that Frederick Cook and Robert Peary were making competing claims on who had reached the North Pole first. Wellman sided with Peary in the dispute and abandoned his own quest. (Cook’s fraudulence was soon uncovered; Peary wouldn’t be fully exposed until decades later, although signs of his falsifications were evident from the start.)
With the North Pole no longer in play, Wellman turned his attention toward making the first airborne Atlantic Ocean crossing, and the final third of this book intensively details the failed but still admirable stab at doing this.
It’s puzzling why Wellman has been so largely lost to time. Stories of Cook and Peary’s race to the Pole make little or no mention of him, yet he was as much in the running as they were. And his methods were radically different. While the other two sought to scramble over sea ice the old-fashioned way, Bristow explains, “Wellman stood out among pole seekers, being an ardent futurist who made a point of bringing the latest technology into the Arctic as if to show that no spot on earth was beyond the reach of the new scientific man.”
This is why this story is so enthralling. Partly because his profession was changing with new technologies, Wellman was fully abreast of the ways to become famous. The American media landscape was turning into a celebrity-making machine, and Wellman fit the bill. He also seized hold of advances like wireless communications to turn his adventures into immediate newspaper scoops. He understood what was happening, and he played it to his advantage.
With its plethora of flying machines, newfangled radios, grubby mechanics, media frenzies, its Arctic backdrop, and more, this would be a great steampunk novel were it not entirely factual.
The book does include a few tragedies (what life story doesn’t?), and Wellman wasn’t exactly flawless (along with his dual public life, he maintained a double private life as well). He faded into obscurity before he died, but not before he left his mark. If he failed spectacularly, it’s only because he tried spectacularly. And as he proclaimed to passengers aboard the ship that rescued him and his crewman from their Atlantic fiasco, “If that’s not living a bit, I should like to know what is.”