By Season Osborne
A long grey timber lies across the snow-covered beach, pointing at Erebus Bay. It is a ship’s mast. The mast and a few boards are all that’s left of the 12-ton yacht Mary, left at Beechey Island in 1853 for use by expeditions searching for Sir John Franklin and his men. But her keel never felt the sea again.
“This was not a pleasure ‘yacht’ as we think of the term today, but a small, swift sailing boat used by navy ships,” says Capt. Patrick Toomey, retired Canadian Coastguard captain and ice master aboard Arctic and Antarctic cruise ships. “Yachts were used for communicating with other distant vessels comprising a fleet, for hydro graphic surveys in unknown waters, and as a dispatch-vessel for landing mail ashore when ships were not coming into port. The yacht would be carried on board the ship, or towed astern.”
The Mary was towed astern.
The mahogany boat was owned by19th century British naval officer and Arctic explorer Sir John Ross. Ross was determined to lead a search expedition for his friend John Franklin who, in 1845, sailed into the Arctic with two ships and 129 men to find the Northwest Passage. Their countrymen never saw them again. Hearing nothing of the expedition by 1848, the British Admiralty sent search parties, which returned in 1849 with no news of the missing expedition.
In a January 14, 1850 letter to the Admiralty, Ross offered his services. He would take his own yacht, the Mary, and proceed as far west as Bank’s and Melville islands. He wrote, “The retreat vessel Mary should be hauled up at Winter Harbour, and left with nine months’ provision, fuel and ammunition, which would secure the ultimate safety, both of our crew and any that may be found alive of the missing expedition.”
The Admiralty had its own plans that did not include Ross. However, the Hudson’s Bay Company financed his expedition, and he left Scotland on May 23, aboard the 90-ton Felix, with the unmanned Mary in tow. He arrived at Beechey Island in the central Arctic Archipelago on August 27, shortly after Franklin’s 1845-46 over wintering spot was discovered there by British search expeditions. Ice blocked any westward progress, so Ross wintered at Beechey. He left the Mary hauled up on the beach at Cape Spencer in Union Bay, on the other side of Beechey, and returned to England in October 1851. He informed the Admiralty that the Mary had been supplied with provisions and fuel for use by any future expedition parties needing them. He asked the Lordships to compensate him £190 sterling for the loss of his vessel. The Admiralty agreed and Ross was reimbursed in full.
In 1852, the Admiralty sent a search squadron of five ships under the command of Sir Edward Belcher. They set up a base camp at Beechey Island. Four ships, Resolute, Intrepid, Pioneer and Assistance, commenced search operations, leaving the depot ship North Star stationed in Erebus Bay. The North Star’s Commander W.J.S. Pullen had a storehouse (Northumberland House), a forge and a carpenter’s workshop built on the southeast side of the island. Pullen planned to visit Port Leopold on Somerset Island to the south, and figuring the little yacht “would be well adapted for the service” rowed the three miles over to Cape Spencer with three men to fetch the Mary.
Moving the vessel proved a difficult task, as she was frozen solid to the icy beach. After strenuous hours of hacking away ice and using a luff tackle, they succeeded in finally floating the Mary and towed her back to Erebus Bay, an ordeal that took 24 hours. The boat was fitted out and kept in readiness, but remained at anchor.
The following summer of 1854, Belcher ordered the ships abandoned. Before returning to England, the men hauled the Mary onto the beach near Northumberland House. There she remained for the next 160 years.
In 1858, Francis Leopold McClintock arrived in Erebus Bay aboard the Fox. He deposited the large marble slab from Lady Franklin, inscribed as a tribute to Franklin and his men, at Belcher’s wooden monument on the terrace above Northumberland House. McClintock then headed south to King William Island where he found evidence of the fate of the Franklin expedition.
Allen Young, the sailing master on McClintock’s expedition, decided to search for Franklin’s missing written records, and returned to Beechey Island in August 1875 aboard the Pandora. He noted the place hadn’t been visited by humans since the Fox’s visit 17 years earlier. Polar bears had smashed open the barrels of provisions in Northumberland House, but the Mary was still in good shape sitting upright on the beach. Young wrote in Cruise of the Pandora, “I should consider that the Mary might be made available for a retreating party in about four or five days with the resources of Northumberland House.”
In 1902, when Norwegian Otto Sverdrup was about to face his fourth winter on Ellesmere Island, three of his men went to Beechey by dogsled to adjust their chronometers, required to accurately determine latitude and longitude. Beechey’s geographic coordinates had been accurately determined by Franklin search expeditions. Sverdrup also wondered about the state of the Mary. He contemplated sailing to Greenland to send word home that all was well. However, his men found the mast and decking had been sawn off and the zinc sheathing damaged, possibly by whalers. Mary was not fit for long voyages, and she stayed on the beach.
A year later, Roald Amundsen stopped at Beechey Island on his Northwest Passage voyage to pick up provisions left for him by a Scottish whaler. He attached a tin with a record that the Gjoa was proceeding down Peel Sound to Belcher’s wooden monument.
On August 15, 1904, Albert Peter Low, commander of the first Canadian expedition to the High Arctic aboard the Neptune, landed at Beechey and found Amundsen’s record. Low brought it back to Ottawa, and it was eventually forwarded to the Norwegian government. The crewmembers explored the site and picked up little souvenirs. Dr. Lorris
Borden, the ship’s surgeon, took photos and a piece of the Mary. Borden wrote in his journal, “The portion I got for a curio was from the cabin of the sloop of Sir John Franklin. It was mahogany and was made into a picture frame for one of the photographs by the carpenter, Mr. Ryan, of the Neptune.”
On the second Canadian expedition to the Arctic in 1906, Capt. Joseph-Elzéar Bernier also landed on the island. His men cemented the marble slab left by McClintock to the base of the monument. They also moved the Mary to higher ground closer to the base of the cliff, so she would not be “destroyed by the sea” and still be of service in the event of a shipwreck in the area. Bernier assessed the boat as being in useable condition.
However, when the RCMP Eastern Arctic Patrol ship, Arctic, landed at Beechey in the summer of 1923, the Mary was not in as good shape. The Arctic was resupplying RCMP posts set up in the Eastern Arctic, and also carried a judicial party for a murder trial in Pond Inlet. The Arctic made a detour to the historic Beechey Island. They found the Mary lying on her side in the gravel. RCMP Inspector C.E. Wilcox and Mrs. Craig, wife of the expedition commander, had their picture taken standing in the hull of the Mary.
Beechey Island became an annual stop on the annual Eastern Arctic Patrols. Sometimes the patrols carried more than just RCMP officers. In 1927, artist A.Y. Jackson, founding member of the Group of Seven, travelled to the Arctic with the Eastern Arctic Patrol.
“She was more or less a hulk, with her deck and a good deal of her timbers broken or washed away, as far back as the late 1920s, when she was sketched by A.Y. Jackson,” says Dr. Russell Potter, Professor at Rhode Island College, and a Franklin expedition expert. “That’s now nearly ninety years ago, so I expect that natural forces must have done the rest, though it’s possible that souvenir-hunters or scavengers accelerated the process.”
Potter is likely correct in this assumption. Dr. Borden’s mahogany picture frame is one example of this. It was a habit of early Canadian expeditions to bring back relics of past expeditions for the Victoria Memorial Museum in Ottawa.
In August 1944, the RCMP vessel St. Roch called in at Beechey on her epic voyage west through the Northwest Passage. Ship’s captain, Sgt. Henry Larsen, found the Mary’s mast standing, planted in the beach. Her keel, stern and pieces of planking were all that was left lying on the beach.
In his 1944 expedition report, he wrote, “It seems strange that it should have been destroyed and the wreckage scattered along the beach, with the mast still standing.”
Larsen brought part of the keel and other pieces onboard. They are now in the Vancouver Maritime Museum collection.
“There was not much then after nearly a century,” says James P. Delgado, former director of the Vancouver Maritime Museum, which houses the St. Roch. “Larsen’s souvenirs in the museum’s collection speaks to what happened…. slowly picked apart and taken away, or deteriorated and gone, thanks to bears, weather, and fascinated visitors.”
Except that when Larsen found the Mary, she had already been dismantled and the mast stuck in the beach. This destruction happened between 1928, when she was visited by the Eastern Arctic Patrol and still relatively intact, and 1944. Larsen himself was surprised to find the Mary’s much deteriorated condition. Surprisingly, 70 years later not much has changed, except that the mast has fallen and is lying on the beach amongst bits of planking.
In 1993, Beechey Island was designated one of Canada’s National Historic sites by Parks Canada, though the Nunavut government is responsible for it. Removing artefacts from historic sites is prohibited. However, Beechey Island is an extremely remote site, so difficult to regularly patrol. Since 1984, passenger cruises through Canada’s Arctic have become possible. Beechey Island is always a tour highlight.
“I would guess that there are about 1,000 visitors to Beechey Island in any given year,” says Capt. Toomey, calculating that cruise ships typically have 100 to 300 passengers, and smaller numbers of tourists arrive by private vessels and small aircraft that can land on the beach.
The Association of Arctic Expedition Cruise Operators enforces strict rules for landing at cultural and historic places like Beechey. Nothing can be picked up or rearranged. There are no fences around the historic site, and only good conscience keeps visitors from removing articles of interest.
One is inclined to say that weather, time, and souvenir seekers are slowly vanquishing this historic site. But with regards to the yacht Mary, the damage was done to her long before cruise ship passengers landed on Beechey’s shore.