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Northern Exposure

July 7, 1894


On the warm evening of July 7, 1894, the not-so-good ship Miranda set sail from New York Harbor on a “tourist cruise” to Greenland and the polar regions. The vessel carried an exploration party of sportsmen, adventurers, and academics assembled by Dr. Frederick Cook, a surgeon formerly attached to Lt. Robert Peary’s group, who had fallen out with Peary over rights to publish the resulting ethnological material.

Joining Cook aboard the Miranda was a collection of scientists, explorers, sportsmen and tourists. Among them was KU natural history professor Lewis Lindsay Dyche, who had paid the $500 fare to be the “Official Naturalist” of the expedition.

The Miranda had a history of bad luck that might have filled wary souls with a sense of foreboding about the fate of the Cook expedition. Wrecked numerous times, the ship had actually sunk on the rocks at Hell’s Gate in New York’s East River. She was raised, and began hauling freight between New York, Jamaica, and Central America, before Cook obtained the ship’s services for the Greenland voyage. On this trip, the Miranda would more than live up to her reputation.

In July, after a brief stop in Sidney, Nova Scotia, the passengers and crew began to grow uncomfortable about their vessel’s sea-worthiness. Crewmembers fueled this skepticism by telling passengers that iron ships were no good in icy waters because the seams leaked when the boat hit ice. The superstitious mates also pointed out that rats had abandoned the Miranda at the dock in New York. Dyche, an unabashed landlubber, wrote that he was content with the situation and refrained from speculation.

Like many wilderness excursions of the day (the Arctic was replacing the “West” as the land of adventure and exploration), the appearance of birds and mammals usually brought a hail of gunfire from the passing ship. Dyche did not approve of this behavior, noting that small arms fire did not severely wound whales, while crippling beyond recovery other animals and birds that were not killed outright. For his part, Professor Dyche held out for shooting only those birds and mammals he could collect.

On July 17, off the foggy north coast of Newfoundland, the Miranda struck an iceberg, stoving in three bowplates 15 feet above the waterline. After a meeting with the passengers, Cook decided to put in at the fishing village of Cape St. Charles for repairs. However, the needed work could not be accomplished in the small village, so the Miranda was forced to return to St. John’s, Newfoundland. On July 29, with a reduced complement of passengers, the Miranda once again set off.

On August 3, Dyche was the first to sight Greenland, then a colonial possession of Denmark, and on August 7, the Miranda put in at the village of Sukkertoppen. Dyche and ornithologist Edward McIlhenny (of the Louisiana Tabasco family) collected black-backed gulls on a nearby island. Two days later, soon after departing, the Miranda struck a reef and began leaking badly. After the initial pandemonium, the ship’s captain realized the pumps were keeping up and that the Miranda could sail back to Sukkertoppen with assistance. However upon close inspection, he changed his mind and determined the crippled vessel could sail no further. Dr. Cook, several volunteers, and a number of Inuit rowed 140 miles to Holsteinberg, where the American fishing schooner Rigel was secured to transport the passengers and crew back to the United States for the sum of $4,000.

The Rigel took the Miranda in tow, in the hopes of bringing the damaged ship to St. John’s. This was not to be. The Miranda’s luck, such as it was, finally ran out at 2:00 a.m. on August 23 when her ballast tank gave way. Little more than two hours later, after the ill-fated ship’s crew had been transferred to the Rigel, the towrope was cut. The Miranda was last seen at 61 degrees latitude between Greenland and Labrador. Dyche had collected 450 bird skins, 65 mammal skins, and a barrel of bones and skulls. All went down with the ship.

For Dyche, this unsuccessful expedition was only the beginning of his Arctic adventures. He would eventually meet up with Arctic explorer Robert Peary on the north coast of Greenland, and would go on to collect many of the Arctic ethnological and scientific specimens now maintained at KU’s Anthropology Museum and the Museum of Natural History.

Douglas Harvey
Department of History
University of Kansas

Source Notes

[Source Notes: see William Sharp and Peggy Sullivan, The Dashing Kansas: Lewis Linsday Dyche, the Amazing Adventures of a Nineteenth-Century Naturalist and Explorer, Kansas City, MO: Harrow Books, 1990, 79-90. For the Miranda expedition, see Henry Collins Walsh, The Last Cruise of the Miranda, New York: Transatlantic Publishing, 1896.]