Geographic Connection to Pennsylvania: Pottstown, Montgomery County
Polar explorer Lincoln Ellsworth attended Pottstown's The Hill School.
Awards: Congressional Gold Medal
Lincoln Ellsworth was born in Chicago, Illinois, on May 12, 1880, to the wealthy businessman, James W. Ellsworth. He moved to Pottsville, Pennsylvania, in 1895 and attended the Hill School. After high school, Ellsworth struggled through college, first at Yale and then at Columbia University. After college, he worked as a surveyor for the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad. Ellsworth’s true passion, however, was always exploration and in 1925 he participated in his first Arctic expedition, followed a year later by another Arctic voyage. He ended his career of exploration by mapping Antarctica. Lincoln Ellsworth died in New York City on May 26, 1951.
Lincoln Ellsworth was born on May 10, 1880, on Ellis Avenue on Chicago’s South Side. His father, James W. Ellsworth, a wealthy businessman and banker, and his mother Eva Frances Butler married on November 4, 1874. Ellsworth had one sibling, a sister Clare, born on November 5, 1885. When Ellsworth was eight-years-old, his mother became seriously ill and eventually succumbed to the illness in 1888. After Eva’s death, James Ellsworth moved his children to the family farm in Hudson, Ohio. Lincoln Ellsworth lived on the farm until 1895. During his time there, he developed an ideology centered on physical strength and endurance and also began developing his dreams and desires to explore.
In 1895, Ellsworth’s father was remarried to Julia M. Fincke; after the wedding, Ellsworth was sent to Pottstown, Pennsylvania, where he attended the Hill School, a school that emphasized “moral principle and obedience to authority.” Ellsworth struggled at school, and it took him two years longer than average to graduate. Still, the school’s headmaster described Ellsworth’s “patient and tireless devotion to his work as an inspiration to us that will be a sustaining memory to our hearts when the achievement of the facile and brilliant minds have been forgotten.” Such praise foreshadowed the tireless effort Ellsworth would put forth to accomplish his goals later in life.
In the fall of 1900, Ellsworth entered Yale University’s Sheffield Scientific School. His father hoped this would lead to Ellsworth assuming responsibility of his mining empire, but Ellsworth’s academic troubles caught up to him once again, and he was dropped from Yale at the end of the year. In the fall of 1901, Ellsworth gave university life another chance and enrolled at Columbia University. Ellsworth still did not take well to academics and dropped out in the spring of 1903 to pursue a surveying opportunity with the Grand Trunk Pacific Railroad. One last short-lived attempt at schooling in 1908 at McGill University marked the end of Lincoln Ellsworth’s academic career.
After he ended his academic career, Ellsworth dabbled in a number of professions, all of them focused on outdoor adventures. After his first experience in surveying for the Grand Trunk Pacific Rail Company, he traveled to Alaska for another surveying job. It was perhaps during this time that Ellsworth first became interested in polar regions, as suggested by one of his journal entries in which he says: “As far as the eye could reach stretched masses of floating ice…..How very lonely and desolate this waste of ice looks and feels. It fascinates me.”
After returning from Alaska, Ellsworth took up a job in his father’s coal mining operation, which he could not stand. In 1906, he was once again presented a job opportunity from the Grand Trunk Pacific to survey a rail line through Yellowhead Pass in British Columbia, which lasted from 1907 to 1908. Afterwards, Ellsworth found himself in an aimless, five-year period of life. From 1908 to 1913, he lived off the trust established for him by his father and simply traveled and expressed his adventurous personality, first by visiting the Yucatan peninsula in Mexico, then by climbing the Cordillera Andes in Colombia, and finally by completing a 1,800 mile trek from Port Essington, British Columbia to Edmonton, Alberta, Canada.
Between 1912 and 1925, Ellsworth tried on numerous occasions to organize or participate in Arctic exploration, but every time the explorations were cancelled either as a result of lack of funding or other extenuating circumstances. Finally in 1925, after agreements were reached on funding of an expedition to the North Pole, Ellsworth left for the North Pole on the Amundsen-Ellsworth Expedition. The expedition sailed from Norway to Spitzbergen, an island in the Arctic Ocean, where they were then linked up with their mode of transportation to the North Pole itself: airplanes.
This first polar expedition of Ellsworth’s left for the North Pole on May 21, 1925, and revealed the trials and perils that one should expect on such an ambitious expedition. The Amundsen-Ellsworth Expedition lasted 25 days and never reached the North Pole nor found any evidence of solid land near the North Pole. The expedition consisted of little more than trying to survive and escape the grasp of the area’s unrelenting ice after one of the two planes in the expedition got stuck in the sea ice. The plane would eventually be freed, and all would live to explore again; and that’s exactly what Ellsworth did.
For Ellsworth’s next expedition, he again teamed up with Amundsen, and they once again tried to reach the North Pole by air; however, this time instead of a plane, they uses a dirigible. By this time, the race to reach the North Pole had become extremely competitive, with even the U.S. Navy wanting to be first to the North Pole. On May 9, 1926, a dirigible expedition led by Navy Admiral Richard Byrd and financed by the U.S. Navy set off for and supposedly reached the North Pole. The news was disheartening to Ellsworth and members of the Ellsworth-Amundsen expedition, being that they were determined to be the first there. Undeterred, however, Ellsworth’s expedition left for the North Pole on May 11, 1926, and reached the North Pole at 7 a.m. on May 12, 1926. Seventy years later, in 1996, Admiral Byrd’s claims were disproved and the Ellsworth-Amundsen Expedition became recognized as the first to reach the North Pole. While this was long after Ellsworth’s death, it ensured his legacy would live on for generations to come.
While Ellsworth was disappointed with not being the first to reach the North Pole, he did not let the setback deter him from further exploration. From then on he concentrated his efforts entirely on Antarctic exploration. In the nine years between Ellsworth’s Arctic and Antarctic explorations, he met Mary Louise Ulmer. Ulmer was the daughter of Jacob Ulmer, a wealthy banker and industrialist of Philadelphia and Pottsville, Pennsylvania. Besides this geographic connection, Ellsworth and Ulmer also shared a passion for adventure and married in May 1933.
Ellsworth’s attempts at Antarctic exploration proved no easier, if not even more difficult, than his Arctic explorations. He intended to complete a trans-Antarctic flight from Dundee Island to the Ross Ice Shelf. His first attempt at this came in 1933 when he traveled to Antarctica on the Wyatt Earp, a ship he had purchased and named after his childhood hero. This expedition, as well as the second attempt in 1934, failed. But the praise of Ellsworth’s headmaster some 30 years earlier about his “patient tireless devotion” would prove prophetic, because on November 23, 1935, Ellsworth attempted his trans-Antarctic flight once more and succeeded, becoming the first man to fly across Antarctica.
During his time in Antarctica, Lincoln Ellsworth secured his legacy as a great explorer and documented crucial scientific and cartographic information by photographing and identifying what he would name the Sentinel Mountain Range. His life consisted of a long list of exploratory accomplishments, as well as scientific discoveries and cartographic advancements. For all of these accomplishments, he was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal on May 29, 1928, in recognition of his Arctic exploration.
Lincoln Ellsworth died in New York City on May 26, 1951.
The Last Wild Buffalo Hunt. New York: privately printed, 1916.
(With Roald Amundsen). Our Polar Flight. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1925.
(With Roald Amundsen). First Crossing of the Polar Sea. New York: George H. Doran Co., 1927.
Search. New York: Brewer, Warren & Putnam, 1932.
Exploring Today. New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1935.
Beyond Horizons. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, Doran & Co., 1938.
“Ellsworth Dead; Explorer Was 71.” New York Times 28 May 1951: 19.