The Icebreaker

The Icebreaker

While Neil Armstrong was walking on the moon, another exploration of historic significance was taking shape in the Arctic. Creighton’s Betsy Elliot-Meisel, PhD, profiles the ice pilot of the SS Manhattan.

By Adam Klinker

It’s called “The Attic,” and for millennia, the Arctic remained the last frontier — its frigid, forbidding climate unnavigable by all but an intrepid native population that weathered not only the frozen tundra but the push of colonial powers, Cold Warriors and now economic development in the region.

In the 1960s and 1970s, as the Arctic became increasingly central to the Cold War and oil reserves were discovered there, a renewed push to open the Northwest Passage to regular travel resulted in a race at the top of the world, one that strained relations not only between adversaries like the United States and the Soviet Union, but also longtime allies like the U.S. and Canada.

In August 1969, just a month after Neil Armstrong walked on the moon, the SS Manhattan, a 115,000-ton, 1,000-foot-long oil tanker, embarked on its own, terrestrial voyage of exploration: from Baffin Bay in Canada’s extreme northeastern islands, through the old Northwest Passage to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, where oil had been discovered.

Aboard the privately owned American ship was arguably the world’s foremost ice pilot, retired Capt. T.C. Pullen of the Royal Canadian Navy. Now, Pullen and the Arctic voyage of the Manhattan are the subjects of a Canadian Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council grant in which Betsy Elliot-Meisel, PhD, Creighton University associate professor of history, is a collaborator, composing Pullen’s biography.

“With Pullen aboard, you had the last Canadian captain of an all-season icebreaker. You had, quite possibly, the greatest ice captain who ever lived,” says Elliot-Meisel, who has written extensively on Canadian history, the Cold War and the Arctic. “It was an American ship and the Americans were going to get to Prudhoe Bay. But while there was an American captain, it was Pullen’s expertise that safely guided the biggest ship of its day and got it through the roughest ice conditions on the planet.”

In just under a month, the Manhattan, accompanied by Canada’s famed icebreaking vessel, CCGS John A. Macdonald, navigated some 3,000 miles of heavily iced seas and steamed into Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point of U.S. territory. The Manhattan took on its cargo, a single barrel of Prudhoe crude, and the next day sailed back the way it had come.

Though the route, proven navigable by the intrepidity of Pullen, shaved thousands of miles off other seafaring passages, the U.S. ultimately scrapped any future plans for hauling oil by sea and instead built the Trans-Alaska Pipeline.

In so doing, the U.S. essentially beat an informal retreat from the Arctic while still wishing to maintain some influence in the region, over and above the sovereignty of Canada and other nations. The policy continues to this day. When the Cold War ended, U.S. policy interests in the Arctic dropped to nothing, though economic and defense interests persist.

For nearly 50 years, the U.S. has not signed the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, a treaty to which more than 160 nations are party.

“American hubris is such that we say, ‘Well, we’ll do what we want,’” Elliot-Meisel says. “But that’s gone for the Arctic. It’s detrimental because we’re now seeing a lot of non-Arctic countries in the Arctic. For example, China is in the Arctic, which concerns us. Further, we don’t have a seat at the table for competing continental shelf claims among the Arctic states.”

But the Manhattan’s voyage, given Pullen’s work, also kicked off Canada’s northern strategy.

Canada’s sovereignty, the sovereignty of the First Nations and other indigenous people in the Arctic, and the environmental impact being felt in the Arctic are also now in play as competition in the region continues between proponents of, among other things, development and resource extraction and those committed to environmental protection and stewardship.

For Elliot-Meisel, it stirs up the image of Pullen, the ice-hardened navy captain who was nonetheless sensitive to what was happening at the top of the world. Pullen’s personal papers, recently published and forming a large basis of Elliot-Meisel’s biography, show a leader who understood breaking the ice both physically and metaphorically.

“Pullen was a proud Canadian and one who believed that Canada had the expertise to be a leading Arctic state,” Elliot-Meisel says. “He advocated for a year-round Arctic presence with icebreakers to assist shipping and to protect Canadian sovereignty. But his support of continental security also meant cooperation between Canada and the U.S. which started in World War II and continued during the Cold War.

“He died too early, in 1990. But I think that had he lived, he would have advocated a different conversation around the Arctic. While he supported resource development, he was mindful of the indigenous people and their use of the Arctic land and waters. With his influence in Canada and his work with Americans, we might have seen more U.S.-Canada cooperation and the U.S. more serious about what’s happening ecologically and environmentally.”