National Press Club

NPC in History: The race to the North Pole

April 17, 2019 | By Gil Klein |

Signatures from the Club's earliest guest book include Frederick A. Cook, Commander Robert E. Peary and Ernest H. Shackleton.

Signatures from the Club's earliest guest book include Frederick A. Cook, Commander Robert E. Peary and Ernest H. Shackleton.

The most valuable items in the National Press Club archives are the volumes of autograph books that include the signatures of the thousands of the greats, the near greats, the heroes and the rogues of the 20th and 21st centuries who have come through the Club’s doors.

The image here is of the first page of the first book. It starts with some of the celebrities who showed up for the Club’s housewarming party on May 18, 1908 in the first club house, which was located above a jewelry store at 1205 F St. NW. And yes, that is W.F. Cody of Cody, Wyoming, better known as "Buffalo Bill".

But of even greater historical interest are the two signatures farther down the page: Frederick A. Cook, who came to the Club on Oct. 3, 1909, and Robert Peary, who appeared on Nov. 23. Both men claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole, and they came to the Club to make their cases.

This marked the first time that the Club was used by news makers to influence journalists. It launched a tradition that continues to this day. It’s an amazing story that still has currency today.

In September, 1909, both Peary and Cook arrived back in the United States, each insisting he had reached the North Pole, the holy grail of early 20th century explorers. Cook claimed that he had reached the pole on April 28, 1908, but his grueling return trip took more than a year. Robert Peary claimed he reached the pole on April 6, 1909, and insisted Cook’s claim was bogus.

The New York Times championed Peary. Along with The Times, Peary was funded by the National Geographic Society. The New York Herald took up Cook’s cause. The public became intensely interested, with factions supporting each explorer and denigrating the other.

Journalist Lincoln Steffens wrote in 1909 that the battle was the story of the century (the century being only nine years old). “Whatever the truth is, the situation is as wonderful as the Pole. And whatever they found there, those explorers have left there a story as great as a continent.”

The Washington Post described the scene at the Club on Cook’s arrival this way:

“’I arrived at the Pole in April 1908.

“With this sentence Dr. Frederick A. Cook began his address to the assembled representatives of nearly every large newspaper in the United States and the press associations …

“’The Pole is American. It is yours. I thank you for your hearty welcome.”

The Washington Star described Peary’s reception in the Club’s cramped quarters:

“The sitting room of the National Press Club was uncomfortably filled yesterday when Commander Robert E. Peary entered to shake hands with the biggest crowd of newspapermen he had ever seen … The fire was glowing brightly, pipes, cigars and cigarettes were glowing and the crowd was thick. The explorer walked through a lane of writers and was introduced by President (William) Spurgeon.”

Cook’s claim was discredited early on, but many of his loyalists still hang on. Peary was considered to be the first to arrive, but in recent years, his claim has been questioned. One researcher in 1989 found significant discrepancies in Peary’s navigational records. Yet the same year, the National Geographic Society published its own analysis saying Peary’s claim is “unimpeachable.”

In 2005, an exploring party recreated Peary’s trip to the Pole and said it was possible. Yet in 2009, another researcher discredited it, saying there were just too many inconsistencies. That year, The New York Times published a story, “A Clash of Polar Frauds and Those who Believe.”

One problem is that the North Pole, the spot on the Earth where all compass directions are South, is on a constantly moving ice floe. No explorer could have placed a monument saying “I was here,” and expect someone could come back later and see it.

Just below Peary's signature in the first autograph book is Ernest H. Shackleton, the famed Antarctic explored. From 1907 to 1909, he and three companions established a new record for the farthest south latitude a human had traveled, just 95 miles from the South Pole. He spoke at the Club on March 27, 1911 before he lost the race to the Pole that December, when Roald Amundsen reached it. He then prepared to become the first to cross Antarctica from sea to sea, but his ship was lost after being crushed in an ice pack. He and the crew barely escaped, crossing 720 miles in open lifeboats in storm tossed seas.

In 2002, Shackleton’s story was made into a television documentary that won two Emmy awards. The legacy of these explorers, who made history at the Club, lives on and on.

This is another in a series provided by Club historian Gil Klein. Dig down anywhere in the Club’s 111-year history, and you will find some kind of significant event in the history of the world, the nation, Washington, society, journalism and the Club itself. Many of these events were caught in illustrations that tell the stories.