Fort Conger




Fort Conger

Site Information

Country: Canada
Location: 81° 44' 37" N - 64° 46' 33" W
Field Documentation Date(s): July 1st, 2012
Project Release Date(s): July 1st, 2013
Time Range: 0 BCE - 0 BCE
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Greely’s expedition house at Fort Conger. [Peary Expedition Photograph]

Site Description

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Fort Conger is located in Quttinirpaaq National Park on northeastern Ellesmere Island. The nearest community on Ellesmere Island (Grise Fiord) is located more than 800 km to the south, while Canadian Forces Station Alert is approximately 100 km to the northeast. Fort Conger is situated approximately 10 m from the ocean on the east side of Discovery Harbour, with a steep bank (2.5 m high) leading from the site to the ocean. Access is generally only possible by helicopter or by Twin Otter, with a landing strip located about a kilometer from the site. Due to the extreme remoteness of the site, human visitors are rare but cruise ships have been able to penetrate to this location.

Forty-two features, many of which are related to the three historical expeditions described below are located on this tableland. Artifacts are also scattered across the site, although many have become the subjects of unauthorized collection and removal.
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Greely’s expedition house at Fort Conger. [Peary Expedition Photograph]

History

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Geographic Exploration
The site began its association with European exploration during the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-76. In that year, Captain George Nares of the Royal Navy, in search of a new Farthest North, led a party of two ships to northern Ellesmere Island. The HMS Alert under Nares’s command sailed on to the shores of the Arctic Ocean, while the HMS Discovery wintered in the sheltered harbour which bears the ship’s name today. Here, the crew of Captain Henry Stephenson wintered aboard the ship, which was frozen into the ice in the fall. On the shore, they built structures to house scientific instruments, and commemorated their presence with a post office cairn, constructed with empty food tins. While the expedition’s men embarked on a series of sledging excursions to explore the region in the spring of 1876, many were stricken with scurvy, and Nares ordered the premature return of the party to England.

Six years later, Lieutenant Adolphus Greely of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps led an expedition to the same site, which they intended to use as a base for scientific exploration during the International Polar Year of 1882-83, the first coordinated international scientific research program in polar regions. Naming the site Fort Conger after an American senator, Greely and his party resided in a large prefabricated expedition house they transported by ship and reassembled on site. Over the next two years, the expedition party carried out scientific observations and exploratory work, but when a resupply vessel failed to appear after two years, Greely ordered a general retreat to the south in 1883. The expedition ended in disaster, as 19 of the 25 expedition members died from exposure, malnutrition, and other causes, including execution for pilfering food.

In early 1899, the American explorer Robert Peary first arrived at the site, which he converted to his own use as a base camp to support a series of attempts to reach the North Pole. In 1900, when Peary’s own supply vessel was unable to cut through the ice of Nares Strait to reach Fort Conger, he ordered his party, including the Americans Matthew Henson and Thomas Dedrick, and a party of Inughuit guides, hunters, and seamstresses, to dismantle Greely’s expedition house and reuse the lumber to build the more suitable, iglu-sized shelters which stand today. Today, these shelters, admirably suited to the polar environment, and displaying Inuit techniques of adaptation that enabled the European explorers to survive, still stand as monuments to the great age of Arctic exploration.

Inuit History and Significance
Fort Conger is also a site of importance to Inuit history. For the pre-contact era, sites documenting former occupations by both members of the Arctic Small Tool tradition and the Thule culture are present in the vicinity of Discovery Harbour. In the North Pole exploration era, majority of the persons who travelled to or wintered at Fort Conger/ Discovery Harbour, were the Inughuit from northwestern Greenland. They formed the bulk of the work force for the expeditions of the explorers Robert Peary, Donald MacMillan, Godfred Hansen, Lauge Koch and Edward Shackleton, which visited this site between 1899 and 1935.
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Project Narrative

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In 2007, technical advisors from the Environmental Sciences Group of the Royal Military College of Canada identified the need for remediation / monitoring at Fort Conger due to elevated levels of inorganic contaminants (arsenic, copper, lead, and zinc and PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons)) found on the site. The contamination was widespread and focused mainly on the area around the Greely house foundations. There was evidence for the uptake of inorganic contaminants (arsenic, copper, lead, and zinc) into plants growing on the site. In 2006, deposits of pure arsenic trioxide powder were found on site. This is a highly toxic and soluble form of arsenic that appears to have disseminated widely around the site through dust transport, leading to a footprint of arsenic contamination centered on the Greely house foundation. The pure arsenic powder was excavated and containerized in 2007, and later removed for disposal in southern Canada, but hotspots of arsenic-contaminated soils remain.

The source of these contaminants seems to have been the Lady Franklin Bay Expedition, which used elements such as arsenic to preserve natural history specimens. When the station was abandoned, the containers corroded and the chemicals leached into the soil. Recording the site in detail through the use of 3D laser scanning before further erosion and contaminant migration occur and remediation may be required is one way of preserving the site, its information and evocative presence.

Parks Canada approached Dr. Peter Dawson, Department of Archaeology, University of Calgary, to inquire about the possibility of using laser scanning to create a 3D digital archive of the site. This data set would be used to document Fort Conger and serve as baseline data for creating a 3D virtual world about the site and its history. Dr.Dawson approached his close collaborator Dr.Richard Levy, Faculty of Environmental Design, who agreed to be involved in the project. Both have worked on a variety of projects involving computer modeling and laser scanning. Also brought into the project was engineer Chris Tucker, who has an extensive experience in survey and laser scanning. In the summer of 2010, Chris and Peter used a Z + F Imager 5006i laser scanner, equipped with a motorized M-Cam camera retrofitted to the scanner for automatic color mapping, and a Minolta Vivid 910 laser scanner to capture 3-dimensional images of Fort Conger for the purposes of conservation, preservation, and community outreach/education.

An existing north-south/east-west grid line was re-established using a Leica Total Station. This grid line was initially created by archaeologist Caroline Philips in the late 1970s when the site was first surveyed and mapped by transit. The grid was used to establish the provenience of targets required for registering the many point clouds created as the scanner is moved around the site to capture structures, features, and artifacts. Targets were affixed to the Peary cabins, and were set up on survey tripods around the scanning area. The X, Y, and Z coordinates of these targets were established beforehand, using a Leica Total Station and Fixed Differential GPS. Once the scanning had been completed, data sets (point clouds) were downloaded onto a laptop computer.

Software was then used to register (i.e., stitch together) the various point clouds by identifying targets common to multiple scans. The result is 3D point clouds showing the artifacts and structures present at Fort Conger at a remarkable level of detail. For the purposes of this project, only 11% of the detail captured during the scanning process was used. This was done to facilitate the manipulation of the datasets using desktop and laptop PC computers. Even at 11%, the scans revealed such details as the staining caused by nails on the wall boards of the Peary huts.

Besides the Peary huts and the foundation of the Greely house, the locations of secondary features such as observatories and a grave were captured, as were the many artifacts present on the surface of the site. A Minolta Vivid 910 scanner was also taken to Fort Conger. This scanner provides even higher resolution scans at sub-millimetre levels of accuracy. Our original intentions were to use the Minolta scanner to scan selected artifacts at Fort Conger. However,weight concerns coupled with difficulties associated with using the scanner under conditions of natural versus artificial light required that we revise our plans. In the end, we used the Minolta scanner to scan three artifacts, primarily as a means of demonstrating the utility of this scanner for future research. While the sensitivity of the scanner to light levels above 500 lux is problematic, they can be overcome by setting the unit up inside a tent or by covering the instrument with a tarp.

The data, consisting of point clouds taken from each of the scan locations can be viewed with the web-based plug-in for Leica Truview, a panoramic point cloud viewer which allows one to point, zoom and measure the point cloud data. The data were also converted into a file format for use with Polyworks software. Polyworks has the capability to merge multiple point cloud objects scanned from different locations and with different coordinate systems. The software uses complex mathematical algorithms to piece together overlapping scan patches into one complete point cloud. The resulting point cloud can then be post-processed to create a triangular mesh surface, which is then used as the basis for solid modelling.
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Area Descriptions

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16X1, Dedrick's Hut
16X10, Greely's Station House
16X11, Memorial Boards
16X1F, Peary's Tent Foundation
16X2, Inughuit Hut
16X3, Henson's Hut
16X30, Artifact Stockpile
16X4, Barrel Hoop Ring
16X5, Thermometer Observatory
16X6, Metal Storage Tanks
16X7, Brick Pedestal
16X9, Post Office Cairn

16X1, Dedrick's Hut

16X1, Dedrick's Hut Description:

Occupied by Thomas Dedrick, the doctor on Peary’s expedition, this is a single-room,
rectangular building with a semi-subterranean interior. The double walls are filled with silt and gravel and the interior was insulated with salvaged paper. Its interior dimensions were 3.45 m x 2.72 m with height ranging from 1.08-1.58 m. Six layers of various materials comprised the walls of this hut; paper was attached to the interior wall of boards while tar-paper and canvas were affixed to the exterior side of the interior boards, followed by a layer of silt and gravel, an exterior wall of boards and an exterior layer of tar-paper. Doors are located on the east, west and south walls with a window in the north wall. A four-burner stove located in the southeast corner dates to 1867. When this hut was originally recorded in 1977, it was evident that the walls had been papered with newspapers, weather maps, charts and graph paper abandoned by Greely.


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16X10, Greely's Station House

16X10, Greely's Station House Description:

First Lieutenant Adolphus W. Greely, Fifth Cavalry, Acting Signal Officer, US Army Signal Corps established Fort Conger in 1981 as an American weather station and base for scientific observations of the First International Polar Year. The company built a large house at Discovery Harbour as well as several outbuildings and observatories. The station house was a prefabricated construction, 60 x 17 feet with a steep roof whose gable reached 18 feet. “The interior of the house was divided into three rooms, one 17 by 15 feet for the officers, which was separated from the large room of the men by an intermediate space 8 by 17 feet, of which 6 by 8 feet served as an entry, and a small space of 11 by 8 feet was allowed the cook as his special domain. At the north and south ends lean-tos of canvas and tar-paper were constructed, which served useful purposes as store-houses, and also afforded intermediate stopping places between the warm quarters and the wintry air. A similar addition was made in the second year to the west side of the house” (Greely 1886 I: 88-91). The joists and flooring (4 m x 2.5 m) shown above are the remains of the original kitchen. Coal is spread over the southeast corner of the floor. The floor is made of tongued and grooved boards of variable widths.


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16X11, Memorial Boards

16X11, Memorial Boards Description:

The inscriptions on these boards commemorate two men of HMS Discovery, A. B. Paul and J. J. Hand, who died of scurvy while on a sledging journey to Greenland. The plaques were attached to the east wall of Henson’s hut in 1965 by geologist R. L. Christie who found them on the ground surface. Originally the free-standing memorial was attached to a wooden frame on three posts and Greely’s men refitted the memorial. In 1977, the plaques were removed for conservation and a year later pieces of the frame were recovered and removed. The original plaque for Hand was made of white oak while Paul’s plaque was made of Honduran mahogany. The top of each board is sculpted with a radiating sun image in each corner and the original frame exhibited an artificial leather flower at the center of the upper crosspiece.


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16X1F, Peary's Tent Foundation

16X1F, Peary's Tent Foundation Description:

This feature presents as a rectangular depression with sod walls about 0.5 m above ground level and is connected to Dedrick’s hut(in the background of the image) by a passage leading to a semi-subterranean doorway. Outside the foundation on the north embankment, was a tent pole and wires, perhaps for guying the tent.


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16X2, Inughuit Hut

16X2, Inughuit Hut Description:

This is a single-room structure with a door in the east wall and a window facing south. The roof, west wall and the outer layer of all walls are missing. The roof lies on the ground several meters away. Wall construction is similar to Dedrick’s hut. The top of the door on the east wall is at ground level and connects with a depression running to the door on the west wall of Dedrick’s hut. These are the interconnecting tunnels that ran between all huts and to Peary’s tent foundation.


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16X3, Henson's Hut

16X3, Henson's Hut Description:

Occupied by Matthew Henson, Peary’s associate, this single-room dwelling is the most complete of all three huts. It measures 3.6 m x 2.6 m. The roof slopes from north to south and, over the years, has become the repository for various items from across the site. Inside was found a board carved with the inscription “FROG EATER / N. SALER / PROF / OF / ANATOMY.” “N. Saler” refers to Corporal Nickolas Salor, Company H, Second Cavalry of Greely’s party (Gutteridge 2000: 324). The room is semi-subterranean with a sleeping platform and a door in the north wall at ground level. The door is subterranean with the trough from Dedrick’s hut connecting with this door. A large stove is in the northeast corner and a window in the west wall.


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16X30, Artifact Stockpile

16X30, Artifact Stockpile Description:

This stockpile resulted from the clearing of Greely’s station house by Peary. The contents of the stockpile were not completely recorded in 1978 but the following were itemized: 31 bedsteads, over 50 barrel hoops, two balls of nails rusted in the shape of the keg which contained them, tinned containers, metal strips and rods, ceramic stove pipes, brazier and grate fragments, shotgun cartridges and other remains. This was probably the original off-loading location for Greely’s Expedition.


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16X4, Barrel Hoop Ring

16X4, Barrel Hoop Ring Description:

This circular feature is made of 20 barrel hoop halves inserted into the ground in an overlapping pattern. The barrel hoops lean outward and the circle has a diameter of 2.41 m. Hattersley-Smith (1964: 115) opines that this feature contained the garden planted by Private Francis Long, Company F, Ninth Infantry of the Greely Expedition.


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16X5, Thermometer Observatory

16X5, Thermometer Observatory Description:

These panels of galvanized metal louvers are the remains of Greely’s Thermometer Observatory. The original structure was a wooden shelter 1.2 m square and 2.1 m high. The louvers were attached to panels that were probably supported on metal posts. Several thermometers on a revolving sheet iron drum were housed inside the structure. Presumably the louvered walls provided some protection for the instruments while allowing air circulation.


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16X6, Metal Storage Tanks

16X6, Metal Storage Tanks Description:

These tanks were probably left by Captain Henry F. Stephenson of HMS Discovery of the Nares Expedition and re-used by Greely. The upright tank (16X6A) is 91 cm x 95 cm x 122 cm deep. The sides are welded and riveted together and the top is wired to the body through the rivet holes. The circular lid of this tank is 54 cm in diameter. The embossing “DARLASTON BEST BEST” appears on the south side of the tank. The tank tipped on its side (16X6B) is similar inconstruction and a bit smaller, being 84 cm x 95 cm x 133 cm deep.


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16X7, Brick Pedestal

16X7, Brick Pedestal Description:

When originally recorded in 1977, this structure was composed of red bricks cemented together in seven layers to create a pedestal 60 cm x 65 cm high and contained within a square depression. A layer of cement spread over the top of the pedestal apparently secured a large limestone slab which had fallen to the side. A layer of mortar had been smoothed over the top of the slab to form a level surface. This pedestal was probably constructed by the Greely Expedition as an instrument pier for magnetic observations. In 1994, a pilot landing a fixed wing aircraft mistook the site of Fort Conger for the landing strip about 1 km northwest, landed directly on the site and clipped the pedestal on take-off. The pedestal was detached from its base, coming to rest several metres down slope.


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16X9, Post Office Cairn

16X9, Post Office Cairn Description:

Although it now resembles a refuse heap of discarded tin cans, the post office cairn is perhaps one of the most evocative features at Fort Conger when one recognizes its history. It was originally built by the Stephenson party of the Nares Expedition in 1876 as a message repository. It was a tiered pyramid of gravel-filled tin cans topped by a column of eight metal drums and a globe made of three interconnecting barrel hoops. Guyed by three wires, the structure stood about 5 m high and had a base width of 2 m. The base of the structure is now marked by a circular earthen mound with a height of less than 0.5 m and diameter of 3.5 m.


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