HARPSWELL — Will Phillips and Rear Adm. Robert Peary have at least one thing in common: They have both explored places not seen by most people. Peary, a Bowdoin College graduate, is credited with being the first person to reach the North Pole, which he accomplished in 1909. Phillips was part of a 1967 expedition that reached the top of Alaska’s Mt. McKinley — the highest peak in North America. So when Phillips and two sailing companions arrived at Eagle Island in Casco Bay from Massachusetts in late July, Phillips felt a connection.
“It’s just great,” Phillips said. “What an accomplishment, and there’s so much information here.”

On Eagle Island sits Peary’s retirement home. The entire 17-acre island is a protected state historic site — it was donated to the state by the Peary family in 1967 — and was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1971; it was named a National Historic Landmark four years ago. A welcome center sits near the site of the original workshop built by Robert Peary Jr. as a teenager under the watchful guidance of his father. That’s the first place visitors to Eagle Island — accessible only by boat — see once they’ve disembarked.

Approaching from northern Casco Bay, visitors can see the large structure looming on the northern end of the island. The smell of sea air is strong, as is the sounds of the birds, including eagles, that call the island home. There is a large part of the island with significant tree cover, and walking on the marked trails can give visitors a sense of what life was like at Eagle Island.

The house resembles a ship, from the oval portholes in the basement to the way the compass porch — a patio-type room with a directional on the floor — appears to look like the pilot house on a sailing ship. The living room contains some of Peary’s taxidermy, which he learned to do while a teenager, and the views from windows throughout the house are unlike any other in Maine.

Accessibility is one of the challenges facing Eagle Island, with summer weather being one of the biggest factors that affects island attendance. But the availability of tour boats also has an impact.
“When I started at Eagle Island, there were three tour boats that made regular trips there daily,” said Wayne Miller, co-coordinator of the Friends of Peary’s Eagle Island Docent Program. “Today there really is only one major tour boat, with a couple of smaller boats that run on demand, but none have a regular daily schedule.”

Related: What to know if you go to Eagle Island

Miller said private boat traffic is also heavily influenced by the weather, and by the economy, and he said visitation numbers reflect the amount of discretionary income people choose to spend. In recent years, Miller said, the island has received about 4,000 guests per season.

Among those visitors recently were Phillips, along with Meryl Jacobsen and Chuck McWilliams. The trio spent several hours on the island, spending time in the house, walking the marked trails and observing the wildlife, including eagles. Jacobson had visited the island before, but she said there’s so much to see and so much information that she learned a lot during this visit, too.
“I’m still impressed,” she said. “I’m seeing things today that I didn’t see or notice the first time I visited the island.”

Two other recent guests were a couple in their mid-50s who’ve been coming to Maine for almost two decades. After years of putting it off or forgetting about it entirely, Mark and Joanne Kelvin finally brought their 28-foot boat to Eagle Island. Mark Kelvin just finished his 28th year as a high school American history teacher in a state south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and he did his master’s dissertation on northern exploration, so a trip to Peary ‘s home was right up his alley.

“Here’s a guy credited with doing a lot at the North Pole, and yet for some reason, he’s not as well-known as you’d expect,” Kelvin said.

So why isn’t Peary more famous?

Peary was treated like an American hero when he returned to the U.S. after reaching the North Pole in 1909, and the New York Times had exclusive rights to his story and ran front-page articles about many of the admiral’s journeys to the Arctic Circle.

Outside the compass porch of
Adm. Robert Peary’s house on
Eagle Island are an American
and Maine state flag looking
north into Casco Bay.  Jason Pafundi photo Jason Pafundi photo

However, Peary isn’t as well-known as explorers such as Christopher Columbus, Juan Ponce de Leon and Ferdinand Magellan. Common American history textbooks don’t devote many pages, if any at all, to Peary’s story, yet there are endless chapters about Henry Hudson, Hernando de Soto and Amerigo Vespucci. Mark Kelvin, who only recently began teaching about Peary to his 11th-graders, said Peary’s story might be too recent to grab the attention of a student, especially when compared to the story of the explorer who was the first person to sail around the world — Magellan — or discover Florida — de Leon.

Genevieve LeMoine, the curator at Bowdoin’s Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, said Peary isn’t as celebrated today because of the controversy surrounding his visit to the North Pole. He couldn’t leave a marker at the pole because it would have moved with the constantly shifting arctic sea ice.

“So there’s still a bit of controversy because Peary could have no proof,” LeMoine said. “It was really impossible without some outside person saying he was there.”

She said Peary’s expedition and reaching the North Pole made waves at the time, and she joked that the New York Times devoted more ink to that story than the moon landing in 1969, but because it was embroiled in so much controversy, Peary isn’t widely celebrated.

“The press fanned the flames of the controversy, and there were Congressional hearings, and there’s still some debate back and forth because you still can’t definitively say he was there,” LeMoine said.

In addition, LeMoine said, Peary reaching the North Pole didn’t have any real-world ramifications. He didn’t discover new land and there were no economic resources that could be exploited.
“It was a brief waving of the flag saying we did it,” she said.

Kelvin said that while someone eventually would’ve reached the North Pole — it was scientifically known to exist — Peary’s accomplishment should be something Americans should know all about. “So many of the famous explorers came from places like Italy and Spain, but here was an American from Maine who did this great thing,” he said.

Peary was born in Cresson, Pennsylvania, about 80 miles east of Pittsburgh, and he moved to Portland following the death of his father when he was just 3 years old. He attended Bowdoin College in Brunswick and graduated with a degree in civil engineering. He moved to Washington, D.C., and worked as a draftsman before joining the Navy as a commissioned officer.

In a diary entry in 1885 while in the Navy, Peary said he wanted to be the first man to reach the North Pole. He had a passion for exploration, but he also wanted to be famous. Peary made his first visit to the Arctic in 1886 when he made the second-farthest penetration into Greenland’s ice sheet at the time.

After several other attempts to reach the North Pole, Peary and his trusted associate Matthew Henson set off from Oyster Bay, Long Island, aboard the S.S. Roosevelt on July 6, 1908. Peary, Hanson and four Inuit ultimately established Camp Jesup — within 5 miles of the pole — on April 6, 1909.

When he returned, Peary learned that Frederick Cook, a surgeon who had been on one of his earlier expeditions, claimed he had reached the North Pole in 1908. LeMoine said it’s generally considered that Cook made up his account.

Miller said the state of Maine does very little promotion about the “17-acre gem in Casco Bay,” but he said they finally updated the Eagle Island website, which was rife with wrong information. The friends group, Miller said, has become more focused recently on letting people know about Eagle Island, and last year, the group produced a new brochure to hopefully attract more vacationers.

The new website has more information and has seen an increase in traffic in recent months, and the Portland Radio Group — which helped revise the narration on the island’s audio tour — has run public service announcements on all of its stations. Many of the island’s visitors are active or retired military, Miller said, and there is a connection with Peary because of that. But on a wider scale, Peary’s dedication and perseverance to pursue the singular goal of reaching the North Pole fascinates people. Peary made his first trip to the region in 1886, and over a 23-year period, he made six additional excursions.

His work was “all privately funded, and he was not officially representing the U.S. on his excursions, but his efforts did generate a great deal of national pride in America,” Miller said.
The all-volunteer group known as the Friends of Peary’s Eagle Island has been consistently active in assisting the state in the maintenance and preservation of this important landmark, including supporting a docent program. The docents are a group of volunteers that logged more than 1,500 hours of volunteer work on the island last year. By the dictionary definition, a docent is a guide, Miller said, but at Eagle Island, their goal is to go way beyond simply showing people around.

“Our docents are ambassadors of the island and strive to make every visitor’s experience as enjoyable and informative as possible,” Miller said. “Unfortunately, each year some of our volunteers are forced to resign for one reason or another, so we are constantly recruiting for replacements to maintain our numbers so that we may continue the extraordinary level of service so appreciated by our visitors.”

The island is only accessible by boat. Moorings in the vicinity of the pier are on a first come, first serve basis. If the moorings are full, a park ranger can direct boats to a location to anchor.
For more information, visit pearyeagleisland.org or email [email protected].

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