Monday, August 24, 2015

The Tale of a Table leg ...

One of the more remarkable finds of the earlier dives upon HMS "Erebus" was a wooden element, found near the stern (where the "great cabin" was located), much resembling the leg and part of the side of a table shown in an early woodcut of Sir John Franklin's cabin, as published in the Illustrated London News shortly before his departure for the Arctic. The resemblance seems much more than superficial; though the table looks slightlymore squat in the woodcut the way the leg -- likely machine-made upon a lathe, given the date -- is turned, with two long segments separated by a rounded, shorter one.
This seems a good visual match for the leg seen in the underwater photograph from last year's dive.

Some commenters have observed that, had the damage to the stern of the "Erebus" taken place prior to or at the moment of its sinking, smaller bits of wood such as the table-leg would have had enough bouyancy that they might well have floated to the surface; that they did not suggests that the damage occurred long after the sinking, perhaps when the ship's superstructure was scoured by a passing iceberg. The Inuit certainly recalled that, after the sinking of the ship at Utjulik, they were able to recover casks, boards, and other pieces of metal and wood; these may well have been from material that had been stowed on the deck, while items below deck, such as the table, remained there and became more thoroughly waterlogged.

But we actually do have another leg to stand on: in 1949, Henry Larsen -- who had himself navigated the Northwest Passage twice as the captain of the RCMP vessel St Roch -- came to King William Island and searched its western coasts. There, among other objects, such as iron knees that doubtless came from a ship's boat, there was a turned wooden piece that appears very much like the leg of a similar, low table, about two feet four inches in length. It was apparently recovered from some point on the coast between Victory Point and Cape Felix; if indeed it came from a similar table abord HMS "Terror," then that vessel must have suffered a fairly catastrophic fate -- it would have to have been crushed in the ice severely enough that furniture from the great cabin would have broken free of the wreck and drifted to shore. And so, while I hold out some hope that the site of Terror's sinking may be found, this sort of evidence tends to give credence to fears that the wreck may be fragmentary -- what parts of it could be recovered, the Inuit surely took and make use of, leaving perhaps only a partial hull, or even just a field of débris.

[Image of table leg courtesy of Doreen Larsen Riedel; with thanks to Ship Modeler for his thoughts on this artifact.]

Friday, August 14, 2015

Where should the searchers search?

With the approach of the 2015 dive season, it won't be long before Ryan Harris, Marc-André Bernier, and the rest of the Parks Canada team return to HMS "Erebus" to renew their search for artifacts. This fabled vessel, certainly, has a wealth of secrets to tell -- but where to begin? Even with ideal conditions, the window for open-water dives is a limited one, and time will always be of the essence.

My personal expectation is that they will start with the stern of the ship. In the debris near there, we've already seen what looks like a table leg from a table shown in Sir John Franklin's cabin. Given the damage to this area, other items -- maps, log-books, and personal effects -- that were stored in Franklin's cabin are most likely to be found here. And, though the damage is regrettable, it's much easier to dive safely when one doesn't have to worry about enclosed spaces and diver safety. Small items that might otherwise escape notice -- message cylinders, eyeglasses, or (should they have been made and left behind) Daguerreotype plates, would all be much more readily found if one can sift freely through the silt, which itself forms an excellent preservative.

Secondly, it looks to me as though it may be quite possible that the ship's modified railway engine may be in this vicinity, or at least visible from there. Given its weight, and that fact that it was primarily secured in place by bulk alone, I'd think that there's a fair chance that it has settled to the aft of its original, installed location. It may be too delicately situated to move, but detailed imagery could help confirm the type of engine used, and settle many decades of research and speculation.

If time allows, it would be ideal to also search the officers' cabins, particularly Fitzjames's -- and they would be next in proximity if the search moves in a forward direction. It may be difficult for divers to enter the main area below decks, but if they can direct an ROV into that area, some imagery of the Fraser stove, which we've been told is still in situ, would be wonderful.

Lastly, it would be invaluable to account for as many of the ship's anchors as possible. To know whether any shows signs of deliberate deployment may well be -- until some detailed journal or log is retrieved -- the best evidence as to whether "Erebus" was piloted, or drifted to its present location (as would be the status of the removable rudder, as a commenter below pointed out!).

Some search for the "Terror" will doubtless go on this season as well -- but I would urge all possible efforts be directed at the bird -- that is the ship -- in the hand.

Sunday, August 2, 2015

Franklin searcher of the Month: Richard Finnie

Richard Finnie -- shown here on a search, in company of L.T. Burwash, of the northwestern coasts of King William Island in 1930 -- was not only an avid investigator of the Franklin mystery, but also a pioneering filmmaker; while his Among the Igloo Dwellers (1931) never attained the status of Nanook of the North, it remains a significant early depiction of Inuit life in the pre-settlement period. Finnie eventually gained steady employment working for Canadian Bechtel on a series of more than 60 films promoting its petroleum projects -- one of which, 1967's "Fabulous Oil Sands," would doubtless raise hackles among environmentalists today (the curious can see the entire film here).

Finnie was born to the North in Dawson City in Canada's Yukon Territory in 1906; his maternal grandfather had founded the Dawson City News there in 1899. His father, Oswald Sterling Finnie, was from 1921 to 1931 the "Director" of the Northwest Territories and Yukon Branch. The younger Finnie shared his father's passion for the region, and started out at the age of eighteen as a radio operator aboard the C.G.S. Arctic. Late in the summer of 1930, he accompanied L.T. Burwash on the latter's search of King William Island; on September 6th they located what they believed to be a significant Franklin "camp" between Lady Jane Franklin and Victory Points; the results of their study were published in the very first issue of Canadian Geographic. In the 1930's he spent several years in Yellowknife, of which he left some very vivid descriptions.

Finnie later took an avid interest in music, and while on locations around the world for Bechtel, made a large number of field recordings of traditional music from Korea, Libya, Tunisia, Sumatra, South Africa, Lebanon, Cambodia, and Venezuela; these recordings are preserved in the Finnie collection at Stanford University. The collection also includes a number of significant live recordings of jazz performances and jam sessions, including some of Mugsy Spanier and Earl Hines.

Finnie is warmly remembered by those who knew him, my friend John Bockstoce among them. He eventually retired to California, but kept up an interest in northern doings for the rest of his life; he died in 1987. If anyone out there knows where a print of Among the Igloo Dwellers may be had, I'd certainly like to hear from them! It's a very hard film to find; the only copy I know of is a 16mm print at Library and Archives Canada.