In 1899, when famous arctic explorer Robert Peary reached Ellesmere Island, in Canada, he found the ruins of a hut erected by a previous arctic expedition in the island’s northeastern shore. The hut was a three-room building built with long, wooden boards, and covered with tar paper, but such type of construction was notoriously difficult to keep warm during the freezing polar winters. Peary found the building utterly unfit for habitation, and so he had the building torn down and rebuilt several smaller quarters in its place. For the next thirty years, Peary’s huts—named Fort Conger—played an important role in several high arctic expeditions.
The original Fort Conger was built in 1881 by explorers of the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition led by Lt. Adolphus Greely of the Fifth United States Cavalry. The crew was dropped on the island by the ship Proteus on August 11, 1881, with ample food and fuel to survive and explore comfortably for a year or so.
The remaining buildings of Fort Conger. Photo credit: JeffAmantea/Flickr
The crew built a large house using pre-fabricated sections and named it after U.S. Senator Omar D. Conger who had supported the expedition. Over the next two years, twenty-five men, including officers and Inuit lived and conducted scientific research and observation at Fort Conger. The weather played favorably allowing two crew members to achieve a new “farthest north” record off the north coast of Greenland. But the extraordinarily warm summer that year belied the harshness of the arctic, causing the crew to miscalculate the difficulties which their relief expeditions would face in reaching the island in subsequent years. A ship with new supplies was scheduled for the next year, but the weather and the ice forced it to turn around. A second ship sent in 1883 also failed to reach them. By the time the third rescue ship reached Fort Conger in 1884, only seven of the original twenty five were alive. The rest had succumbed to either starvation or hypothermia or drowning, while one was shot for repeatedly stealing food rations.
When Robert Peary reached Fort Conger 15 years later, he found the hut in chaotic abandon. Initially, Peary’s party lived in the former Greely’s house for shelter for one and a half years, but when his supply vessel failed to reach Fort Conger, Peary implemented his emergency plan for sheltering the party in smaller huts built with the lumber of the Greely house and other scavenged pieces of wood. Peary, who was familiar with the Inuit’s building techniques, constructed three smaller huts, partially buried in the ground and connected with each other by tunnels. Unlike Greely’s house that was frozen cold in winter, Peary used six layers of protection consisting of tar paper, double wooden walls filled with silt and gravel, and various types of paper and asbestos found in Greely’s house. In addition, the party banked the structures with earth and turf, and then covered it with snow.
Peary returned to Fort Conger twice—once in 1905 and again in 1908. Other explorers too, including Edward Shackleton, used Fort Conger as a base from 1915 through 1935.
Fort Conger still stands today, although its longevity has been threatened by degradation to the wooden structures, bank erosion, and inorganic contamination. In recognition of the site’s enduring importance, Peary’s huts were declared Classified Federal Heritage Buildings.
The original Greely’s house.
Greely Relief Expedition at Fort Conger on August 1881. Photo credit: National Museum of the US Navy/Flickr
Fort Conger today. Photo credit: Cory Trepanier/Flickr
Aerial view of Fort Conger’s extant remains in 2003. At the center are the three Peary huts and berm outlining Peary’s winter tent with the foundation of the Greely house at bottom left. Photo credit: T. Christie