Sunday, July 19, 2009

Railway Engines at the Bottom of the Sea

Following up on an earlier post, since the area chosen for this year's summer search is where the first, crushed ship of Franklin's may lie, the question of how to locate and identify a submerged railway engine takes on new significance. As noted in my earlier post, railway expert Dr. Michael Bailey took the lead in the historical work for this expedition; I've since located a few resources on the 'net that add something to his account. I wish that the National Railway Museum would put something more detailed online! Nevertheless, their exhibition page, along with this article from the BBC News, give some sense of the immense logistical challenges. Happily, the channel where Franklin's vessel may be found is free from the very high currents that made this project so difficult.

The vessel, the "Thomas," a 700-ton barque, had sailed in 1857, just a dozen years after Franklin, headed for Nova Scotia. She didn't make it far, foundering in the Hebrides and taking her cargo of railway engines to the bottom of the channel. But what type of engines were they? Initial research seemed to indicate that they were small service engines. Yet the engines found were not the engines expected, which gave a lesson in the ability of above-ground archaelogical work solving an underwater mystery. As Bailey recalled,

"Initial research indicated that the Thomas had been carrying two small saddle tank engines packed in kit form by the manufacturers, Neilson & Co of Glasgow. But when the divers found a 5 ft driving wheel, we knew that couldn't be right."

Eventually the engines were identified as 4-4-0 broad gauge tenders, specially built for a Canadian railroad. Since the engines had just left the factory, historians were able to discover much about their original manufacture, as (unlike similar engines remaining in use) they were not modified in any way. In the case of Franklin's engines, the differences in their configuration and type, according to Dr. Bailey, are significant enough that if one is found, and its working parts are at all visible to the remote cameras, it should be possible to say which engine -- and thus which ship -- met its fate at that place.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Where to search for Franklin's ships?

With the news that the private search for Franklin's ships will be the only one this summer, the practical question of where to look for Franklin's ships is re-opened. Robert Grenier had planned to search in the vicinity of the Royal Geographical Society Islands, but apparently Rob Rondeau and his team plan to look much further north, in the vicinity of Larsen sound, scanning an area south of where the ships were reported abandoned in the "Victory Point" record of 1848. But what are the odds that something will be found there? The map above, which I obtained some years ago from Ice Services Canada, shows the mean surface water currents throughout the Canadian Arctic. If you look at the area in question, you'll see two currents -- one hugging the shores of King William Island and tending to the north and northeast, and another, heading south and southwest along the coast of Victoria Island. The ice, of course, is subject to other forces than current, and generally flows south/southwest through the channel, though younger ice along the coast of KWI can often follow the contrary current northward.

If we assume that one of Franklin's ships was crushed not far from the original abandonment, the debris from this wreck could then go in either direction. Material embedded in the ice would have tended south, while material caught in the current way well have scattered to the north. Only a heavy object -- such as the ship's modified railway engine -- would be likely to plummet to the bottom at the site of the sinking. Yet whether one ship was crushed at this point is debatable; there are clear accounts by Inuit eyewitnesses to the sinking of one ship, and as David Woodman points out, this must have happened later, and further south than the abandonment, as the Inuit almost never visited the northwest quadrant of King William Island -- a fact corroborated by the clear evidence that the large cache of materials near Victory Point was not disturbed by Inuit until after they heard about them it white men. The crushing of one ship, then, may well have occurred much further south, and indeed the RGS Islands are a likely site, as the ice floes here, compressed by the narrowing channels, are turned into a jumbled, upended mouthful of teeth that could easily masticate any matter sent through them.

We do, as it happens, have some material evidence of where debris might end up -- when Dr. John Rae was on Victoria Island, he discovered several large pieces of wood, parts of which were painted a distinctive yellow color used by the Royal Navy, which he only belatedly realized must have come from the "Erebus" or "Terror." Such a find, if it came from a crushed ship, strongly suggests that the vessel was nearer the Victoria than the King William shore, as otherwise the surface ice would not have brought it within Rae's sight.

One last tale -- and a more terrifying one it is than any of the ship's slow crushing -- is that one or both of Franklin's ships was trapped in an iceberg and carried out to sea. This idea, long championed by my good friend Joe O'Farrell, is based on accounts by passengers on ships far to the east, who saw, or seemed to see, an iceberg pass by in which were embedded two stranded ships. Such a tale might be easily dismissed, were it not for cases such as that of HMS "Resolute," which drifted, unpiloted, along the same general route as this iceberg would have had to take, ending up in the Davis Straits. If indeed this story holds any (frozen) water, then Franklin's ships would be far off in the North Atlantic somewhere -- perhaps even near where the Titanic kept its much later date with an iceberg.

There remain many Inuit tales of a ship, apparently deliberately anchored in relatively shallow water, with a boarding plank lowered and some sweepings or debris from the deck on the ice nearby. These stories are detailed and vivid, and were repeated with nearly all the same details to Schwatka in the 1870's and Rasmussen in the 1920's. It is this ship -- the "Ootjoolik" wreck -- which David Woodman has searched for so patiently, as it is far more likely to be at least partially intact. Outside of the channels of the scouring ice, it may well be in a state of preservation approaching that of the "Breadalbane" near Beechey Island, which vessel was found with its sails still hanging from upright masts.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Franklin Search Called off for 2009

According to the CBC, this summer's search for Sir John Franklin's ships has been officially called off. Apparently, despite the much-vaunted announcement of Harper's government last year that a three-year mission had been authorized, neither the Canadian Navy nor its Coast Guard could be persuaded to give priority to this project. To my mind, it's a sad and regrettable occasion when a government proves unable to command either its Navy or Coast Guard to effect its own stated plans and policies, and especially so here -- the news makes it sound as though the officers in charge of these agencies have the ability to override the Premier - and this at least seems to show me that affairs in Ottawa are "disjoint and out of frame" as one King of Denmark once said.

On the other hand, as Jonathan Karpoff has argued, there is something to be said that, treated overall, Government-funded expeditions have fared poorly compared with private ones. So many limbs of the octopus must be marshaled together for a Government expedition, and there is such complication in its internecine conflicts, that it acts too slowly, and corrects too late, much as the helmsman of the Titanic seeking to avert an Iceberg. Whereas, the story goes, private expeditions can respond with alacrity to changed circumstances, and go where the going is good rather than being tethered to some three (or five) year plan.

According to Rob Rondeau, a marine archeologist with Alberta-based ProCom Diving Services, which has its own mini-icebreaker at its disposal, they are quite confident that they can find one of the ships this summer. Such claims have been made before, but it's clear that a small, private party has a chance of success, being willing to risk something when a Government will not, and for my part I wish them Godspeed. It was, after all, a private mission by Sir Francis Leopold McClintock that solved the greater part of the Franklin mystery before, to the shame (though Sir Francis would not say this) of a Government which had declared Franklin and his men dead, and not worth finding.

Friday, July 3, 2009

Sacred from Every Eye But Mine: Sir John Franklin's Lost Journal

The talk about the ship's log of HMS Erebus, teasingly seen in the hands of Lietenant Le Venconte in the daguerreotype made in 1845, brings to mind the persistent hope of Franklin searchers that some written documents may yet be found. It may seem today a very far-fetched hope -- and yet, as David C. Woodman has noted, a "pefectly legible note" left on Cornwallis Island by Commander Phillips in 1851 was recovered in 1973. More recently, in 1989, Stephen J. Trafton found a pencilled note left on King William Island by Lieutenant Schwatka in 1879. No doubt the survival of an entire letter, parcel of letters, or bound book is a bit of a long shot, but assuming that it has been placed in some sort of protective covering or location, there's no reason to suppose that a record of this kind would be utterly destroyed. The ships' log-books would certainly be of enormous value, and might well have been cached on land; more valuable still would be one of the officer's journals. Most fabulous of all, of course, would be Sir John Franklin's own personal journal, in which we might find some lasting records of his own reflections up to the time of his death in 1847. And, as it happens, we have a very good description of what this journal would look like.

Writing on December 15, 1854 to James Anderson, who had been selected to lead a Hudson's Bay party down the Fish River to search the area where it seemed Dr. Rae's evidence pointed, Lady Jane Franklin made two quite singular requests. The first, touchingly, was for a lock of her husband's hair, should his body be found:

I do not expect my dear husband to be amongst the survivors -- if you should meet with his corpse which I think will be found wherever the ships are found, I beg you to bring me his locks of hair ...

Yet there was also another sort of lock, one which Lady Jane implored Andserson not to open:

I also entreat you to bring me sealed up and directed to myself all the letters you can find addressed to him or me which may be supposed to have been in his possession. I feel that my dear husband's private letters and papers ought to be sacred from every eye but mine must not attribute to me a want of confidence in your honor as a gentleman, a man of conscience and feeling. In your hands these cherished relics will be safe,but I wish you to give strict injunctions to all under you to observe the same precautions ... I shall give £700 reward to whoever brings or forwards this packet ... My husband took with him a bound quarto memorandum book in which he was to write his private journal -- it had brass at the corners and a lock and key -- this also I desire to possess and it will meet with the reward.
The detailed description of this book is striking -- as is Lady Jane's request to Anderson that he return but not read this "private" journal. For understandable as her request was, it was also -- strictly speaking -- a violation of Royal Navy protocol. In Franklin's orders, in paragraph 22, he was given the customary command:

On your arrival in England you are immediately to repair to this office, in order to lay before us a full account of your proceedings ... taking care to demand from the officers, petty officers, and all other persons on board, the logs and journals they may have kept, which are to be sealed up, and you will issue similar directions to Captain Crozier and his officers. The said logs, journals, or other documents to be thereafter disposed of as we may think proper to determine.

Today, of course, these orders are long lapsed, and the British government has given permission for Canada to take possession of any artifacts found in the current search for the lost ships. If left on board one of the vessels, such written materials may yet have a further lease on life; at the low temperatures and low oxygen content of Arctic waters, they are even less susceptible to decay and damage than if they had been left on land. Articles of similar fragility -- playing cards from RMS Titanic, along with a remarkably-preserved bowler hat -- have been retrieved elsewhere. Whatever is found, I shall myself be on the lookout for a bound quarto volume, its corners tipped in brass, locked away with a lock whose service, once so dear to Lady Franklin's hopes, is now no longer needed.