MESSAGE IN A BOTTLE, OR RATHER, A TUBE!
Since 1961, when the Norfolk Naval Shipyard Museum moved from the shipyard to the city and became the Portsmouth Naval Shipyard Museum it has continually exhibited many artifacts on loan from the Naval History & Heritage Command. One of many of the Navy’s fascinating artifacts in the museum’s collections storage is a message from the past—139 years into the past!
In June 1871, an American expedition to reach the North Pole led by Charles Francis Hall got underway from New York aboard the steamship Polaris. Sponsored by the U.S. government, the expedition was intended to be the first ever to reach the planet’s northernmost latitude. However after reaching as far north as possible, a series of major setbacks ultimately led the expedition to abandon its objective. In efforts to communicate the status of the expedition a message was prepared, rolled, inserted into a small copper cylinder and cast into the sea. The message stated:
“United States North Pole Expedition, Steamer Polaris . . Winter quarters, Thank God Harbor, Polaris Bay, June 16, 1872. Latitude 81° 38’N., Longitude 61° 44’W. Having reached last fall with the vessel our highest latitude 82° 16’. We were beset into the ice and drifting south for several successive days. Made winter quarters in the above-named bay on September 4, 1871. Captain C.S. Hall died on November 8. Rest of the party is well and in high spirits. Two boats left for the North on June 8th to carry out the object of the expedition. (signed) S.O. Budington, Sailing-Master.”
“Whoever finds this paper is requested to forward it to the Secretary of Navy, Washington, D.C., with a note of time and place in which it is found. Or if more convenient, to deliver for that purpose to the United States Consul at the nearest port.”
It was not until 1949—76 years after the message was sent—that the cylinder was presented to the Secretary of the Navy. As is often the case with artifacts, the cylinder (and its contents) had been stored in an old trunk. Soon after, the owner gave it to a friend who then decided to give the message to the U.S. Navy as was originally intended by its author. Ultimately the message made its way to exhibition at the Naval Shipyard Museum, which had opened that same year in the yard and then was transferred with several artifacts to the museum’s current home—at # 2 High Street!