In 1908 people crowded into Bellingham’s Beck Theater to hear noted Norwegian Artic explorer Captain Roald Amundsen speak. Invited by local Norwegian Americans, he would return in 1913 and 1926, each time with more stories and accomplishments to share.
Amundsen was born in 1872 in Norway. The youngest son of a wealthy shipowner, he was fascinated from a young age by the polar regions. More explorer than scientist, most of Amundsen’s expeditions were focused on achieving “firsts.”
Though sometimes supported by the Norwegian government, his travels were largely funded privately. Faced with continuous money problems, lecture tours, like his visits to Bellingham, helped pay off his debts.
Amundsen Visits Bellingham in 1908
Amundsen and his crew were the first to cross the Canada’s Northwest Passage by ship, an expedition that stretched from 1903 to 1905. During this expedition, he stayed with indigenous group the Netsilik Inuit and learned many critical polar survival skills that would aid in his later voyages.
After this trip, Amundsen embarked on a lecture tour in the United States. The Sons of Norway, a Norwegian American organization, sponsored Amundsen’s Tuesday, March 24, 1908 talk at Bellingham’s Beck’s Theater. Tickets cost from a quarter for schoolchildren and up to a dollar for adult attendees.
Bellingham mayor James deMattos introduced the speaker before his presentation, echoing Caeser by saying of Amundsen that: “he came, he saw, he conquered.” Giving a “graphic account” of his travels, Amundsen shared 150 stereopticon views. Images of Inuit sparked great interest in the crowd.
“The Great Artic Explorer” was too tired from travel for a proposed banquet but held an informal reception to meet people after his talk. He stayed overnight at Mr. and Mrs. Olaf Udness’ home on Garden Street before continuing his tour.
South Pole Discoverer Returns to Bellingham in 1913
In 1911, Amundsen achieved his greatest claim to fame: being the first to reach the South Pole in Antarctica. His claim was heavily disputed at the time. A British expedition, led by Captain Robert Scott, arrived a few weeks later to find the Asmundsen team’s Norwegian flag already placed in the snow. Sadly, Scott and his crew perished on their return trip.
Amundsen went on another speaking tour in the United States to raise money. The Sons of Norway again scheduled him to give an illustrated lecture at Beck’s Theater, now renamed the Metropolitan Theater, on Wednesday, April 9, 1913. Many people traveled to hear the lecture and a special train even came from Sumas. Tickets sold from 50 cents to $2.
This time Amundsen was given no introduction when he took the stage at 8:30. Everyone knew who he was. The “modern Viking” shared charts, moving pictures, and stereopticon images of his travels. People especially enjoyed hearing about his sled dogs.
Reporters praised him as modest, using “I” only once. The last image in his presentation was him and a group standing before a Norwegian flag over the South Pole. He spoke of his plans to reach the North Pole next, by freezing his ship into an ice floe. He also praised Captain Scott’s expedition.
Before the talk he was served dinner by Mr. and Mrs. E.T. Fremming and Mr. and Mrs. P.P. Lee at the Lee home. The dining room was decorated with Norwegian flags and red carnations. His place card had hand-painted Norwegian flags. After dinner they took him for an auto tour of Bellingham. A “luncheon” in his honor was served at Henry Engberg’s home after the talk.
Bellingham 1926 Visit After North Pole Flight
Although his attempt to float over the North Pole ended in failure in 1919, Amundsen was not ready to retire. He tried to fly across the Pole in 1923, but his party was forced to turn back after the plane was damaged.
Undeterred, Amundsen tried again in 1925. This attempt failed as well. The two planes went down. Running low on food, they shoveled tons of ice off the planes before Riiser-Larsen was able to bring the crew back in one of the planes. They had been believed lost.
A year later, Amundsen gave his final lecture in Bellingham. Sponsored by the Optimist Club, it was held February 22, 1926, at the Whatcom High School Auditorium. Themed “Our Airplane Dash for the North Pole,” Amundsen discussed his latest attempt to reach the Pole. Tickets cost $1 or $1.50.
Over the North Pole
In May 1926, mere months after his visit to Bellingham, Amundsen set off with American millionaire explorer Lincoln Ellsworth and Major Umberto Nobile to cross the North Pole in Nobile’s airship, the Norge. Though the Norge was basically a framed, hydrogen-filled, rubber-cloth balloon with a gondola attached — and was hard to maneuver — they were successful.
Bellingham Mourns Amundsen
In 1928, Amundsen’s plane was lost on an international rescue attempt to save Nobile and his crew, whose airship had gone down in the Arctic. Although Nobile and his crew were eventually rescued, Amundsen’s body was never recovered.
Bellingham mourned. Visiting Rev. Frederick Ring of Chicago, a friend of Amundsen, held a memorial service at the Scandinavian Methodist Church. The city’s mayor ordered flags to be flown at half-mast on December 14.
Many things have since been named after the explorer, such as the Amundsen-Scott Station in Antarctica as well as the Amundsen Sea in the Southern Ocean. Roald Amundsen’s life was an inspiration to many across the world, as well as right here in Bellingham.