New feature: From the Arctic archives


Newspaper headlines tend to recycle certain contemporary tropes about the Arctic. Climate change is accelerating, the race for resources is heating up, and “the Russians are coming!” are some of the most common threads. Given the consistency of themes in reporting on the Arctic, it can be hard to imagine how the region was discussed in previous decades before climate change began to rear its head and before offshore oil and gas became the north’s hottest commodity. Yet the media has discussed and portrayed the Arctic for hundreds of years in ways both surprisingly similar and starkly different from today.

With this new blog feature, Arctic News in Review, I’ll showcase old newspaper reports of Arctic happenings. From perusing through the Library of Congress’ digital archives of newspapers from 1789-1924, the printed pages of the late-19th century and early 20th-century reveal stories filled with characters like self-aggrandizing explorers, overzealous prospectors, and a handful of Native Americans who managed to make money out of the gold and fur rushes that at the same time were desecrating their lands. There are even a few comics about the adventures of strapping young men in the wild and untamed Arctic.


A comic strip, “Adrift in the Arctic,” from the New York newspaper, The Evening World, on April 22, 1915. 

The historic newspaper pages also show that the more things change, the more things stay the same. The first old newspaper clipping I’m including for this feature, shown above, is the front page of the now defunct Topeka State Journal on December 30, 1905. The front page’s two sole stories concern immigration and the Northwest Passage. These two topics have come up repeatedly in the past few weeks and months, the former most saliently with Trump’s temporary ban on citizens from seven Muslim-majority countries and the latter with Crystal Serenity’s pioneering cruise through the Northwest Passage last summer.

The topics are the same, only the characters have changed. In 1905, referring to a newly published report from the U.S. Bureau of Immigration, journalist Adelbert Strong writes, “No one who reads the report even superficially can fail to realize the magnitude and gravity of the problems suggested by the rapid increase of America’s alien population.” The differences is that a century ago, the immigrants Americans feared were coming from Europe rather than the Middle East. Italians, Russian Jews, and Polish people topped the list of largest immigrant groups. Italians were even still categorized according to whether they came from northern or southern Italy, for the country had not yet unified.

Strong also betrays a deep fear of “orientals,” specifically Chinese people. He cautions that although the number of Chinese immigrants is low (only 1,971 came in 1905) and largely concentrated in the western U.S., the “problem” could spread to the rest of the country at some point. He warns, “It is only when the total annual influx reaches formidable numbers that the uneasiness which is confined almost entirely to the Pacific coast becomes manifest.”

The irony of American society’s fear of the Chinese is that the story on the bottom half of the Topeka Journal’s front page, which covers the Northwest Passage, illuminates just how obsessed Western explorers were with finding a shortcut to Asia. On December 5, 1905 – a few weeks prior to the edition’s publication on December 30 publication (also showing how relatively slow news traveled in those days), Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen completed the first expedition from the Atlantic to the Pacific through Canada’s Northwest Passage. Reporter Elbert Woodson, contextualizing Amundsen’s historic journey in the context of previous expeditions, described, “For many generations the avowed purpose of these undertakings was to find a navigable short route from Europe to Asia.” Amundsen was nominally more interested in locating the magnetic north pole, but his journey is still embedded within a history of Arctic exploration that was hell bent on finding a route to Asia even as the Americans were trying to keep Asians out of their own territory.

One hundred years from now, a concerned citizen somewhere may look back and reflect on the hypocrisies of current events in January 2017. Sadly demonstrating how little we have progressed from the past, ours is a world where the U.S. bans citizens from the very countries that its state and corporations seek to exploit for their natural resources. Case in point: within the span of a few days this month, Trump on the one hand brazenly remarked to the CIA on the subject of Iraq, “We should have kept the oil, but, OK, maybe we’ll have another chance,” while on the other hand banned travel by Iraqi citizens and six other countries to the U.S.

Immigration and Arctic shipping routes may very well still be controversial issues in 2117. The subjects might be a little different: perhaps America will fear environmental refugees from, say, Southeast Asian countries ravaged by climate change and deforestation (one of the regions whose countries are most subject to long-term climate risk, according to a German report), while the developments in northern navigation may involve the first navigation of a trans-polar route across the North Pole, which could be ice-free in summer as soon as this year if this Cambridge ocean physicist is proven right.

But while the stories of 1905 have repeated themselves in 2017, we can’t always be guaranteed of having a second chance to repeat our mistakes.


One hundred years from now, will refugees from a region like Southeast Asia be placed on a U.S. travel ban list? Photo: Inle Lake, Burma, 2012. Mia Bennett.

Eimskip in Maine: a saga for the 21st-century Arctic


Last week, I wrote about my visit to the state of Maine, an up-and-coming actor in Arctic affairs. One of the primary drivers of Maine’s recent northern forays is Eimskip, Iceland’s oldest shipping company. In 2013, it moved its North American operations from Norfolk, Virginia to Portland, Maine’s biggest city. Larus Isfeld, Managing Director of Eimskip USA, observed to me over the phone, “Eimskip triggered Maine’s interest in the Arctic.”

While Eimskip is relatively new to Maine, the company has been operating in North America for over 100 years, first in New York and most recently in Norfolk, Virginia. Norfolk served as Eimskip’s North American port of call because the company had a contract moving cargo from the enormous naval station there to the U.S. naval air station in Keflavik, Iceland.

Once the Americans pulled out of Iceland in 2006, Eimskip revisited its business plan. The shipping line decided to move to Maine for a number of reasons. Shorter transit times and the large market for North Atlantic seafood in New England meant that Portland made more sense than Norfolk. In other words, U.S. military shifts, geography, and seafood lovers conspired to bring Eimskip to Maine.

Thanks in large part to Eimskip’s operations, Maine is now looking northeast to a market in Europe that it hadn’t really noticed before. Officials in Maine have also realized the cultural similarities between their state and Scandinavia, all of which have longstanding ties to the North Atlantic’s stormy waters. Maine is also now trying to expand upon business opportunities in the Nordic countries, such as with the Maine International Trade Center’s upcoming Scandinavian Trade Mission to Norway and Sweden. 

Portland-based photographer Justin Levesque captured the emerging cultural and economic linkages between Iceland and Maine during his artist’s residency aboard one of Eimskip’s vessels trawling the Green Line between Reykjavik and Portland. His resulting Icelandx207 project will be displayed at the Arctic Council’s Senior Arctic Officials’ meeting in Portland later this fall. 


Photos from Justin Levesque’s Icelandx207 project, featured with permission by the artist. Explore his work at

All abuzz in Portland

I had the chance to visit Eimskip’s port facilities just outside the center of town. To get there, I walked down Commercial Street. Until just a couple of decades ago, this stretch was fairly run-down; now, it boasts a gluten-free bakery, spice shop, and a store selling the latest in hip denim. South of this drag, the bottom end of Commercial Street retains more of a taste of classic Portland: shops selling freshly caught seafood and lobster and Becky’s, a white clapboard diner dishing out lobster rolls, corned beef hash, and blueberry pancakes.

After ten minutes of walking backwards in time along the waterfront, I arrived at the International Marine Terminal, the hub of Maine’s transport connection to the Arctic. An employee buzzed me inside the terminal’s small building within the Port of Portland, which moves the largest amount of tonnage in all of New England.

Here, Eimskip has a small office with four employees; three additional people work in their warehouse. The timing for my tour of the facilities was fortuitous: just a couple of hours earlier, one of Eimskip’s ships, Bruarfoss, had just sailed in from Halifax, Nova Scotia. Three of Eimskip’s vessels visit Maine every five weeks, and it takes five to six days to make the journey from Iceland.

A U.S. customs agent checked the boat and the Icelandic crew. The chef was the first to disembark; I learned that he sometimes cooks meals by request for Eimskip’s Portland-based employees during their overnight stay – dishes like lamb meatballs, for instance. Once the ship got the all-clear, containers started to be unloaded.

While I’m not sure of the specific contents of these containers, in general to New England, Eimskip imports bottled water (Iceland produces a whole lot of this, as I’ve written before), fish, chocolate, lamb meat, salt, ferrosilicon, and chitin (a biological product found in the exoskeletons of crustaceans that has medical and industrial purposes). In exchange, Maine exports out a whole laundry list of items: lobster, scallops, fruit concentrates, blueberries, French fries, other produce and food products, automobiles, motorcycles, cardboard, steel, paper, and scrap metal. A lot of this cargo is called “reefer cargo,” or refrigerated cargo. It’s moved in white containers with an engine in them to keep things cool.

Long story short: Maine trades lobsters and motorcycles for Iceland’s snow groomers and lamb.

I watched a transport vehicle move and stack the containers around the port. Entering and exiting the gateway, trucks carried containers emblazoned with Eimskip’s bold blue logo. One Icelander I spoke to said, “When you see containers on the rail or on the road, you feel pride.” It’s a little bit of the Arctic stretching down as far as New York or New Jersey – the farthest distance Eimskip containers will go on the back of trucks leaving Portland.

A longer history of Norse sailings in the North Atlantic

Bruarfoss’s voyage from Iceland to Nova Scotia to Maine carries on the long history of trans-Atlantic sailings. Over a thousand years ago, Norse-Icelandic merchant Bjarni Hejolfson set off from Norway to visit his parents in Iceland. Upon arriving, he found out that they had gone to Greenland, so he and his crew changed direction for the world’s largest island. In a twist of fortune, his ship was blown off course as far as present-day Canada. In 986, he thus became the first known European to spot the Americas – supposedly Newfoundland, Labrador, and Baffin Island.

Bjarni didn’t get off the ship, as he was in a rush to get back on track in time to visit his parents in Greenland. Ever the family man, he left the Americas to be discovered by other Norsemen who would follow in his tracks like Leif Erikson and now, the Icelandic crew manning Bruarfoss. 

A greater North Atlantic future

While Alaska reels from the economic downturn associated with the collapse in oil prices, Maine’s transport-oriented northern economy looks bright. Eimskip has two open positions to accommodate growth and plans to move its headquarters to Portland from Virginia next year. The shipping line is also working with Americold, one of the world’s largest cold storage companies, to build cold and dry storage facilities in its terminal. Eimskip’s new 10,000 square-foot headquarters will also reside in the new building once complete.

And although I was lucky to be in Maine on one of the three arrival dates that occur every five weeks, in the future, the arrival of Icelandic ships in Portland will likely be a more regular occurrence. 

Isfeld remarked, “I would say that Eimskip’s plans for the future are weekly vessel calls by the year 2020. Right now it’s 31 vessels a year.” Eimskip will also begin direct port-to-rail operations at some point in the future using the new infrastructure built by the Maine Department of Transportation, demonstrating the mutual support between state and foreign business in Maine. Portland’s story also draws similarities not only with past Viking voyages, but also with the strategies of emerging Arctic players like Singapore today. As the commercial Arctic becomes a more open-water, transit-oriented space, connections to the region more so than territorial presence will matter more and more.


San Francisco: The 20th-century golden gateway to the Arctic


San Francisco: The 20th-century golden gateway to the Arctic. Photo: Mia Bennett, 2015.

In 1936, the newly built Arctic schooner North Star of Herschel Island was loaded from a dock in San Francisco onto a larger trading ship, Patterson, for its inaugural voyage north. For $23,000, two Inuit two fox hunters, Jim Wolkie and Fred Carpenter, had ordered North Star to be built at the G.W. Kneass shipyard in the Mission Bay district of San Francisco, a city that now seems unlikely for Arctic activities of any sort. Together, North Star and Patterson sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge – just three years old at the time – for the Canadian Arctic. 


North Star of Herschel Island: A schooner built in San Francisco for use in the fur trade in the Canadian Arctic. Photo from Nauticapedia.

The vessels sailed 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Herschel Island, an outcropping in the Beaufort Sea five miles north of the coast of the Yukon. While North Star was going to support the fur industry, earlier in the century, an enormous whaling industry had been based at Herschel Island, with its southern hub located in San Francisco. Although global whale stocks had been decimated towards the end of the 19th century, the discovery of bowhead whales in surprising numbers around the island drove the opening of a commercial industry there in 1889. Whaling in the Western Arctic directly benefited San Francisco. The first arrival of whale products from Herschel Island to the city sparked a global rush for whales in the Canadian Arctic. R. Bruce MacDonald writes in his book, North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship:


A woman’s corset, stiffened by baleen. Photo: LACMA/Wikimedia Commons

The general belief was that there were no whales in the western Arctic but in 1889 the whaling ship Grampus took a gamble and headed up and around Point Barrow. Here there were thousands of whales, enough to fill thousands and thousands of barrels of oil and to supply the seemingly endless need for baleen that was used primarily for making women’s corsets as well as umbrellas and buggy whips. Grampus spent the season filling her holds and returned to San Francisco having taken twenty-two Bowheads. One large Bowhead whale of one hundred tons might produce a ton of baleen which sold for about five dollars a pound or about ten thousand dollars. Her arrival back in the United States set off a gold rush and whaling ships from around the world set off to fill their holds from the western Canadian Arctic. 

Almost overnight, Herschel Island became the largest settlement in the Yukon with 1,500 residents. As the whale population in the Atlantic had become severely overhunted, San Francisco quickly replaced New Bedford, Massachusetts as one of the world’s most important whaling cities. Dozens of whaling voyages set out annually from San Francisco to the Western Arctic. Most of the sailing ships (called schooners) used in the region were built in San Francisco or Vancouver, too. There were constant shipping runs between San Francisco and the Beaufort Sea, with ships going north with supplies for both the Inuit and non-Native peoples and ships coming south with oil, blubber, and furs.


Excelsior-1897 sets sail for the Klondike from San Francisco. Photo by Sam C. Partridge. Library of the University of Washington via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The boom on Herschel Island was of enough relevance to San Francisco that the city’s newspaper, The San Francisco Call, reported on its current events, not all of which were glorious. In 1895, The San Francisco Call described a “disastrous” year of “scurvy, desertions, deaths from consumption, one stabbing affray and the birth of the first purely Anglo-Saxon girl in the Arctic.” (It is also interesting to note in the clipping below that American shipyards at the time were getting excited about building ships for Japan – quite the opposite situation from today, where Japan is building ships for the Arctic!).


News about Herschel Island in The San Francisco Call, September 21, 1895. From the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

In 1907, the global adoption of petroleum led demand for whale oil to plummet. The energy transition led to Herschel Island’s abandonment. By then, Arctic bowhead whale stocks had also been decimated to levels from which they still have not recovered. Today, nobody lives on Herschel Island, although the indigenous Inuvialuit come from the mainland sometimes to hunt, fish, and camp.

San Francisco’s commercial ties to the Arctic would still continue for a good many years partly thanks to its shipbuilding and construction industries and the continuation of the fur trade in the Canadian North, which outlasted whaling. Beginning in 1936, every year in early August, North Star would sail from Aklavik, on the Canadian mainland, with all the furs that had been trapped in the previous winter to Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In late August, the ship would sail with supplies from Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean coastline, to Sachs Harbour.

Weakening linkages between the West Coast and the Arctic

North Star’s resupply journeys continued until the early 1960s, at which point cargo flights came to replace sailing – and streamlined steel replaced salty wooden masts as the main mode of transport in the Canadian Arctic. The storied schooner sat washed up on a beach until 1968, when she was sold, re-outfitted, and given a new lease on life as a ship to guard the entrance to the Northwest Passage from potential Russian incursions during the Cold War. Later, she worked as an oil surveying ship in the Beaufort Sea, as her official website explains. (It seems that this ship is a maritime microcosm for all of the major events in the Arctic over the past two centuries!) With all its icy romance, North Star, which now is docked in Victoria, British Columbia and can still be chartered, was the “last of the sailing Arctic cargo ships.”


North Star of Herschel Island‘s typical sailing route.

As the age of aviation ushered in a new era of northern transportation, in 1970, the shipyard in San Francisco that built North Star and several other ships for use in the Arctic also shut down. If you’re curious, the rusty remains of the G.W. Kneass shipyard look like this from outer space.

Southern legacies of the Western Arctic

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were arguably more linkages between the Western Arctic and the Western Pacific than there are today. Indeed as late as 1842, the southernmost extent of the Russian empire extended from Alaska down to to Fort Ross, just 85 miles north of San Francisco. Russian traders came down from Alaska to California, going all the way to Mexico, in search of fur seals and otters as the animals were overhunted up north. Thus, until deep into the twentieth century, San Francisco was closely connected to the Canadian Arctic through the shipbuilding, whaling, and mining industries, and almost at one point through the transcontinental expanse of the Russian Empire.

After Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, San Francisco and its neighbor to the north, Seattle, benefited from the booms that followed in subsequent years in their northern backyard, from the Herschel Island whaling boom to the Klondike Gold Rush from 1896-1899. Tens of thousands of people headed north from San Francisco and Seattle to try to strike it rich in the Yukon. When the whaling and mining frenzies came to an end, the Arctic-related fortunes of San Francisco did, too, but they left legacies behind in the way of populations made permanently larger by miners who settled down and new industries like shipyards.

Seattle, more so than its Californian cousin, managed to retain more of a stake in Arctic industries. The city still forms an important gateway to the American Arctic, with a major Alaska Airlines hub and numerous service and logistics firms for operations in Alaska. Shell based its drill ships for the Alaskan Arctic here in the summers before they headed north, provoking the ire of more liberal-minded Seattlers.

SF’s Bechtel Corporation: An unlikely developer of the Arctic

Despite the city’s disengagement from the Arctic, one key San Francisco company has continued to profit from operations in the Arctic since the mid-1900s: Bechtel Corporation, located in the South of Market district. Bechtel, which got its start in the 1900s, is the biggest construction and civil engineering company in the U.S. and the country’s fourth-largest privately owned firm as well. During World War II, contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense, it built the 1,400-mile Canol pipeline between the oil fields of Normal Wells, in Canada’s Northwest Territories and U.S. military sites in Alaska in just two years due to urgent worries about a Japanese invasion of the Last Frontier. Bechtel proclaims on its website: “From that moment on, Bechtel has been a key player in the development of Canada.”

It is admittedly incredible to think that this private firm based in San Francisco has played such a key role in building up the infrastructure of the Canadian North, along with other places in the Arctic. (It’s worth noting, however, that the Canol pipeline was eventually removed, meaning that not all of its projects have resulted in long-term benefits for Arctic development.) In Iceland, Bechtel recently built the Fjarðaál Aluminum Smelter – “the largest private investment in Iceland’s history” – for the controversial Karahnjukar Hydropower Plant.

Shape-shifting Arctic economic networks

Bechtel’s Arctic activities aside, if San Francisco had advanced or even maintained its position as a port and shipyard serving Arctic destinations, one could imagine a senator from California calling him or herself the “junior Arctic senator” and advocating the formation of an Arctic caucus, much as Maine’s Senator, Angus King, has done. Maine has risen to prominence as a “near-Arctic state” in part by piggybacking on the rise of the North Atlantic Arctic region. Iceland sits at the leading edge of this regional boom, thanks to its development of sizable shipping and fishing industries since independence following World War II.

A hundred years ago, when the Western Arctic was a hive of whaling and mineral prospecting, the North Atlantic Ocean was mostly a icy graveyard of ships (like the Titanic), with the eras for cod fishing and whaling long gone. World War II, however, changed everything. It transformed the North Atlantic into a geostrategic ocean, with U.S. military bases opening in Iceland and Greenland.

Today, the 19th- and 20th-century ties between San Francisco and the Arctic resource economy are almost inconceivable given the Bay’s switch from industry to digital. San Francisco’s withdrawal from Arctic economic networks highlights the fluidity of networks of trade, commerce, and people over time. More broadly, it also demonstrates the shape-shifting nature of regions. The Arctic region, at least in an economic sense, once could have been said to extend down to San Francisco. Now, it largely excludes the City by the Bay, but instead includes places like Maine and Singapore.

Although China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore’s activities in the Arctic are now increasingly seen as natural and unsurprising, it is possible to imagine a future world in which we are surprised to learn that these countries were ever involved in Arctic activities, much as we might look back on San Francisco’s previous engagement with Arctic resource development with bafflement today.

In trade networks, city’s positions are rarely permanent. What is more permanent over time, however, is the Arctic’s status as a peripheral supplier of resources for the rest of the world. The Arctic region’s continual state of underdevelopment cannot just be explained by its resource richness: Norway, too, has lots of oil and used to have lots of whales, but it has managed to escape many of the ills of boom-and-bust, resource-based economies. How to bring lasting development to the Arctic that doesn’t irrevocably plunder its natural resources is the billion-dollar question.