Among the hundreds of small rocky islands that rise out of Maine’s Casco Bay is Eagle Island. As you sail toward it, a solitary house amid the fir trees seems to breast the waves like a ship. Closer to land, you make out the U.S. flag flying from a 50-foot mast in front of a wide front porch that looks like a pilothouse. Having dropped anchor and made your way ashore and up to the home that was once that of Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary, be sure to stop and admire the compass rose painted on the porch deck; it orients you in terms of your present position. If you stand facing the water straight ahead, your heading will be close to the one Peary followed on his final dash to the North Pole in 1909.
The admiral himself designed the house, which has become a museum. Amid its reminders of the Peary family’s life are mementos from his Arctic expeditions. The largest of these is the specially built player piano, whose foot pedals a docent pumps as you tour the house. The piano roll turns, producing the same tinkling music that Peary heard. The instrument was carried on board the Roosevelt, a wooden-hulled, steam-powered polar ship that Peary also designed.
Surrounded by crushing ice, the Roosevelt endured what Peary called “the black and melancholy months-long arctic night” near northern Greenland at Cape Sheridan, Ellesmere Island, Canada. Then, on 22 February 1909, Peary set off for the Pole. With a team of five men, on 6 April he reached what he calculated to be 90 degrees North latitude. Peary’s wife, Josephine, was at the house on 6 September when a boat landed and delivered his triumphant message: “Have made good at last. I have the pole. Am well. Love, Bert.” (His claim was challenged in vain by Frederick Albert Cook, who failed to produce credible evidence.)
Peary had first explored Eagle Island while in high school, and had vowed to live here someday. After graduating in 1877 from Bowdoin College in nearby Brunswick, Maine, he spent his first earnings to buy the island for $500. But when he joined the U.S. Navy Civil Engineers Corps in 1881, Eagle became what he called his “Promised Land.” Soon Peary was off on an expedition to Nicaragua to survey a route for a possible alternative to the Panama Canal. Later came the Arctic expeditions that culminated in the journey to the Pole.
As his career came to an end in 1911, Congress placed Peary on the retired list at the rank of rear admiral. Now he had a new goal: expanding Eagle’s summer cottage into a house that looked like the prow of a mighty ship, and he succeeded. Walking along the porches that encircle the first floor is like strolling a deck in a steady sea. The house’s foundation is built into the rocky island itself, a seamless bond between nature and builders. Inside, the dwelling evolved into a big summer home, and today into a museum whose artifacts combine the polar with the homey. Outside, nature trails, some laid out by Peary, lace the island’s 17 acres. The Peary family handed it all over to the state in 1967, and today the Maine Bureau of Parks and Lands maintains it.
Back at Bowdoin College, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum offers another view of the explorer. Other than objects from Peary’s epic journey, the collection includes hundreds of artifacts gathered by Donald B. MacMillan, another Bowdoin graduate who was on Peary’s 1908–9 expedition and made 25 other trips to the Arctic. The highlight is a superb array of art reflecting Inuit myths and lifestyles. Some figures emerge from rock showing hideous faces, carved by shamans to frighten and disable foes.
Among the other notable items of interest on display at Bowdoin are one of Peary’s five dog-hauled sledges, the page from his journal on which he wrote “The Pole at last!!,” the collect telegram he sent to the Associated Press proclaiming “Stars and Stripes nailed to North Pole,” and that flag itself.
Visitors arriving at Eagle Island in their own boats can land passengers at the floating pier and moor nearby, under the direction of a park ranger. Tour boats sail from nearby Bailey Island. For the latest schedule, check www.pearyeagleisland.org/visitpeary.htm. Tour boats cruise through Casco Bay out of Portland and Freeport. The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum on the Bowdoin campus is open to the public throughout the year. For opening hours, see http://academic.bowdoin.edu/arcticmuseum.
Peary’s Eagle Island
East Penobscot Bay, Maine
Open 15 June through Labor Day, 1000–1700
Children under 5: free
Ages 5–11: $1
12–64: Maine residents $3; non-residents $4.50
65-plus: Maine resident free; non-residents $1.50