During his 1906 Arctic expedition to find the North Pole, the famed explorer Robert Peary reported seeing a mysterious land: “I could make out . . . the snow-clad summits of the distant land in the northwest, above the ice horizon,” Peary later wrote. “My heart leaped the intervening miles of ice as I looked longingly at this land, and in fancy I trod its shores and climbed its summits.” The explorer named the land after his expedition’s financial patron George Crocker, a California banker.
Seven years later, Peary’s disciple, Donald MacMillan, organized an expedition in search of Crocker Land. The University of Illinois joined the American Museum of Natural History and the American Geographical Society in financing this ill-fated voyage of discovery. Originally planned for two years, the expedition was stranded in Greenland for more than four years with members enduring frostbite, snow blindness, near-starvation and madness, and an Inuit guide would pay the ultimate price–all in quest of an Arctic land that never was.
The University’s financial support reflected President Edmund J. James’ ongoing campaign to raise the institution’s scientific reputation, but Illinois also “contributed” two recent graduates to MacMillan’s team. Maurice Tanquary and W. Elmer Eklaw was selected as zoologist and W. Elmer Ekblaw as geologist.
A native of Lawrenceville, Illinois, Maurice Tanquary received a B.S. from the University in 1907, a M.A. in 1908, and a Ph.D. in 1912. As an undergraduate, Tanquary belonged to numerous student groups, including the Acacia fraternity (of which he was a charter member), the Ionian literary society, and Delta Sigma Rho, an honorary oratorical fraternity. At the time he was tapped to join the Crocker Land Expedition, Tanquary was an instructor in entomology at Kansas State University.
It was, however through Ekblaw’s involvement, especially via the documentary record he created, that one hundred years later we can have such a clear glimpse of the strength of Illinois loyalty across the icebergs and glaciers during this difficult expedition. The son of Swedish immigrant parents and a Rantoul native, Walter Elmer Ekblaw was the proverbial “Big Man on Campus” while a student at the University of Illinois. A gregarious individual, he was a a member of numerous student organizations, including Acacia, the Scribblers literary society, Sigma Xi science fraternity, and the Daily Illini. To Illinois alumni, he may be most remembered for the work he did with Clarence Williams to create the University’s first Homecoming in 1910. He excelled in the classroom as well, obtaining a B.A. from the University in 1910 and a M.A. in geology two years later. In particular, Ekblaw’s letters back to President James, Dean Thomas A. Clark, and faculty and alums provide a personal perspective on the challenges of the trip in an era long before e-mail or even effective radio communication. Throughout the expedition, Ekblaw’s letters evidenced his Illinois Loyalty in the frozen North.
Indeed, it appears that Ekblaw may have been responsible for first presenting the idea of sponsorship to President James. After the untimely April 1912 death of George Borup, the originally planned expedition geologist, the expedition was put on hold. With his freshly minted Masters degree, Ekblaw was appointed to serve as geologist, and by December he had reached out to President James to encourage University support. James may well have seen participation in the expedition as a means to not only gain specimens for the institution’s growing natural history research collections but also to add to its scientific prestige.