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A test of endurance: William Bakewell and Shackleton's expedition to Antarctica.

Sir Ernest Shackleton's Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition (1914-1917) is one of the most incredible stories of survival of the Modern Era. After the ship Endurance became trapped in ice and sank off the Antarctic coast, its crewmembers survived for nearly two years before being rescued. Michigan-native William Bakewell was among them.


In August 1916, crewmembers of Ernest Shackelton's ship Endurance were rescued near Antarctica after an epic 22-month struggle to survive following the loss of their ship in the middle of an ice pack. Of the 28-man crew, just one of them was an American--William Bakewell, a former resident of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. Today, Bakewell is buried in the U.P.'s Skandia Township and remembered for his role in such a heroic undertaking.


William Bakewell had already lived a life full of adventure by the time he signed on with Shackleton's expedition in 1914. Born in Joliet, Illinois, in 1888, Bakewell ran away from home when he was 11 years old and found work as a young farmhand along the Missouri River. He rode the rails until the age of 15, when he was thrown off a boxcar in Seney, a roaring lumber town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

Bakewell began working in Seney's lumber camps and noted in his memoirs that those years "changed him from a boy to a man." He learned to drive horses, skid logs, and trap animals for food. He bought a rifle and became an excellent hunter. In nearby Grand Marais, Bakewell had his first experiences with "Red Squirrel Whiskey, wild women, and many fights."


The Seney lumber camps were known throughout Michigan as some of the toughest in the Midwest. They were characterized by many ethnic rivalries, especially discontent shared by old lumberjacks toward recently arrived Finns, who were believed to be taking the lumberjacks' jobs. Bakewell later admitted that he was an instigator of many fights between the two groups.


Bakewell eventually grew tired of life in the lumber camps of Seney and walked north into Canada. He worked his way west along the Canadian railway and south into Montana, where he worked as a ranch hand for several years before traveling to San Francisco in 1913.


It was not long before Bakewell ran out of money in San Francisco, at which point he addressed a longtime desire of his to go to sea. In January 1914, he signed on as an "able seaman" aboard the British ship Philadelphia, which sailed around South America to England. Bakewell next found work on another ship docked in South Wales--the Golden Gate. Bound for South America with a shipment of coal, the vessel ran aground at Montevideo, Uruguay, which left Bakewell without a means to return to England.



Stranded in Montevideo, Bakewell took a riverboat to Buenos Aires, Argentina, and began searching for a ship that could take him back to England. It was there that he spied Ernest Shackleton's Endurance in the harbor. According to his memoirs, it was "love at first sight."

Shackelton was attempting to make the first ocean-to-ocean land crossing of Antarctica. Following Roald Amundsen's conquering of the South Pole in 1911, Shackleton believed that a complete land crossing of the continent remained the final objective of Antarctic exploration. He planned to sail his ship Endurance to the Weddell Sea. There, he would march his party across the continent to the Ross Sea. Since Shackleton had just dismissed two seamen in Buenos Aires, Bakewell volunteered to join his crew and was signed on as an able seaman at ten British pounds a month.

While provisioning the ship, Bakewell secretly helped Perce Blackborow, an underage shipmate from the Golden Gate, stow away on the Endurance. Two days later, Shackleton was enraged to find Blackborow aboard his ship but soon came around and accepted the stowaway as a member of the ship's crew. However, Shackleton promised Blackborow that if they ran out of food on their expedition, he would be the first to be eaten.



On October 26, 1914, the Endurance left Buenos Aires and spent a month docked at the Grytviken whaling station on South Georgia Island before sailing for Antarctica on December 5. The ship never reached its destination. After sailing south for nearly 1,000 miles, during which it forced its way through dense pack ice, it became trapped within the ice of the Weddell Sea just 20 miles short of Antarctica's Vahsel Bay. On January 18, 1915, Bakewell noted that the ship had become "fast in the ice and frozen in for the winter."


The Endurance was trapped for nearly a year. The ship drifted 1,186 miles in the ice pack until it was finally crushed and swallowed by the sea in November 1915. During the sinking, Bakewell went back to the ship, stripped to his waist, and dove underwater to retrieve a number of iron saucepans, which later proved to be invaluable. "All hands were so enthusiastic over our haul," Bakewell remembered in his memoirs. "I felt well paid for my bath." Shortly before the Endurance slipped beneath the waves, Bakewell was also able to secure glass photographic negatives taken by Frank Hurley, the expedition's official photographer.

With the loss of the Endurance, the objective of the expedition was no longer exploration but instead a struggle for survival. The ships' 28 crewmembers camped on the ice flows for three months, and when the ice began to melt and break away, they loaded into three lifeboats.



After five sleepless days in the open boats with temperatures reaching near zero degrees and frigid waters raging around them, the crew at last reached the icy, mountainous Elephant Island and clambered ashore. It had been 497 days since they had last set foot on dry land.


The crew was stranded miles from civilization. Shackleton ordered Bakewell and Harry McNish, the ship's carpenter, to outfit the largest lifeboat for him and five others to attempt to sail 800 miles to the whaling station on South Georgia Island. Shackleton's group left Elephant Island on April 24, 1916, leaving the other 22 crewmembers, many of them in poor physical condition, behind to await rescue.

It was while stranded on Elephant Island for four months that Bakewell's life experiences, skills, and temperament brought accolades from his fellow crewmembers. His talent as a hunter, cultivated during his time in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, kept the crew supplied with seal and penguin meat. Bakewell's hunting ensured that his shipmates would not be forced to eat Blackborow, the stowaway, though the young man was ailed by frostbitten toes that had to be amputated by the ship's doctor while on Elephant Island.

Incredibly, Shackleton's party successfully navigated what was deemed the "most stormy stretch of ocean in the world" and reached South Georgia Island. The journey by lifeboat took two weeks through frozen, mountainous seas. Upon reaching shore, the group was forced to hike for five days over glaciers and peaks before at last reaching the whaling station.

Four months later, after a harrowing series of attempts to reach his remaining crewmembers, Shackleton at last returned through the ice pack in August 1916 to rescue Bakewell and the others. Not one of the 28 crewmembers of the Endurance died during the entire ordeal.


Following the rescue, Bakewell sailed to Argentina and found work as a manager of a sheep ranch in Patagonia. With the First World War raging, he soon signed onto several British merchant ships, two of which were sunk by German torpedoes in the Atlantic. Finally, he married and settled into a career. He and his wife, Merle, had a daughter, Elizabeth, in 1927. According to his daughter, Bakewell's last great adventure was in 1945 when he moved the family to Dukes, Michigan--a town roughly 20 miles southeast of Marquette. He had wanted to go to Alaska, but Merle adamantly refused.

Bakewell spent the last 24 years of his life in Dukes. He first tended a dairy farm, but after a tornado tore his barn apart in 1953, he sold his cows and raised sheep instead. Bakewell was active in his local community as a member of the Farm Bureau and the Masonic Lodge, and he also ran a commercial sawmill. He died in 1969 at the age of 81.

Up until the end of his life, Bakewell continued to receive recognition for his role in the Trans-Antarctic Expedition. In 1964, Elizabeth and her father attended the fiftieth reunion of the Endurance expedition in London. Bakewell received further recognition as the sole American to be in Shackleton's crew and was inducted into The Antarctica Club. In 1967, a recently discovered Antarctic island was named after him.


At the 2010 dedication of a Michigan State historical marker in his name at Skandia, Michigan, many remembered that Bakewell seldom recounted his adventures. "Like everybody else here, we didn't appreciate him at the time," his daughter said. Fortunately, Bakewell wrote an account of his life and adventures that largely focuses on his experiences on the Endurance expedition. His memoir, The American on the Endurance: Ice, Seas, and Terra Firma Adventures of William Bakewell, was edited by his daughter and is now a part of the historical record of Shackleton's famous expedition.

Jeremy W. Kilar, Ph.D., is emeritus professor of history at Delta College. His book, Michigan's Lumbertowns, is listed among the "50 Essential Michigan History Books."He has written extensively about Michigan lumber and immigration history, including Germans in Michigan, and is a past contributor to Michigan History and Chronicle magazines.


Caption: Previous page: Shackleton's ship Endurance trapped in the Weddell Sea. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress, LCUSZ62-8789.) Above: William Bakewell pictured in Buenos Aires in 1916. (Photo courtesy of the Robin Mackenzie-Stornoway Historical Society.)

Caption: Seney, Michigan, as it appeared during the 1940s. (Photo courtesy of Paul Petosky.)

Caption: Left: Perce Blackborow stowed away on the Endurance but was soon accepted by the ship's crew. (Photo courtesy of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge.) Right: Ernest Shackleton, polar explorer and leader of the Imperial Trans-Antarctic Expedition. (Photo courtesy of the State Library of Victoria.)

Caption: Above: As the winter dragged on, the ship became surrounded by ice and was eventually crushed. Below: The Endurance trapped in the ice pack of the Weddell Sea. (Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-16498 and LC-USZ62-17180.)

Caption: Above left: With the Endurance slowly sinking, Shackleton's men were forced to camp out on the ice. Above right: Shackleton (right) with Frank Wild, second-in-command of the expedition. Below: Much of the crew was left on Elephant Island to await further rescue. (Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-15943, LC-USZ62-8745and LC-USZ62-16491.)

Caption: Above: Shackleton and five crewmembers sailed from Elephant Island to South Georgia Island in the reenforced lifeboat James Caird. Below: Shackleton returned for his crewmembers on Elephant Island in August 1916. (Photos courtesy of the Library of Congress, LC-USZ62-9523 and LC-USZ62-10323.)
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Author:Kilar, Jeremy W.
Publication:Michigan History Magazine
Geographic Code:1U3MI
Date:Jan 1, 2017
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