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Bowdoin (Artic Exploration Schooner)
National Historic Landmark Study
by James Delgado, 1989
Designated December 20, 1989

Present and Historic Physical Appearance

Schooner Bowdoin cruising off Rockland Breakwater Lighthouse, Maine, in 1988. Photo courtesy of Outward Bound, Inc.
The 1921, two-masted auxiliary schooner Bowdoin, official number 221251, listed in the National Register of Historic Places at a national level of significance, is an operating vessel currently moored at Castine, Maine, where she was recently relocated. Owned by the Schooner Bowdoin Association, Inc., the vessel has been transferred to the Maine Maritime Academy for use as a sail training vessel on a two-year lease with an option to buy. When not moored at any one of several berths off Castine, Bowdoin sails the coast of Maine.


As built in 1921, Bowdoin is two-masted auxiliary schooner 88 feet long, with a 20.2-foot beam, and a 9.4-foot depth of hold. The vessel is registered at 66 tons gross and 15 tons net and displaces 210 tons.[1] The vessel is ballasted with 21 tons of iron and concrete for additional stability. The schooner was built almost entirely of white oak; she is framed with double sawn frames spaced 24 inches on centers with long and short arm floor timbers passing over the keel. Staunchly built, Bowdoin is planked with 2 3/4-inch thick oak fastened with locust treenails. Over the outer planking another layer of 1 1/2-inch greenheart sheathing protects the bow from ice.[2] Built to be tough and manueverable, Bowdoin was designed with a spoon bow, reinforced with a steel beak piece, to ride up on pack ice and crush it with her weight.[3] The hull form is similar to the "knockabout" type of hull, with "easy entrance, sharp bilges to elude the grip of the ice, and wide quarters to shunt drift ice away from the propeller."[4]

Bowdoin, while designed by a naval architect, was built to parameters expressed by her original owner, Adm. Donald B. MacMillan, based on his years of Arctic experience:

She should be of wood and not one whit larger than is necessary to carry the equipment and provisions of the personnel, plus the quality of seaworthiness in sailing the waters en route to the objective point. Theoretically a small ship can be constructed stronger than a large one. She will lift more easily when under pressure, she can worm herself through narrow leads, she can take sharper corners, she can hug the land for safety, take refuge from the pack behind rocks and ledges, anchor in shallow harbors, and when frozen in can be more easily and quickly banked with snow and more economically heated. She should have the very best of a white oak frame, heavy oak planks, white pine decks, a heavy ceiling of Oregon pine, and an outside sheathing of greenheart or ironwood to serve as a protection against the abrasive power of ice. To be without this to court disaster from the minute one enters the ice.[5]

The ship's ceiling is hard pine and Douglas fir, 2-3/4-inches thick above and 1-3/4 inches thick below the turn of the bilge. The upper strakes of ceiling form the sheer clamps, with the top edge about an inch higher than the top of the shelf so that the deck beams lock over them. The deck is 2-3/4-inch white pine laid square fore and aft. The top futtock continues through the deck to form the rail stanchions, and are capped with a 2-1/2- inch oak rail.[6]

Bowdoin was built with a two-masted, baldheaded schooner rig. The baldheaded design, with no topsails, and the lack of a bowsprit reduces the danger of taking in or making sail in icy waters. A smaller crew is also required for handling sail on a baldheaded rig. This rig is also found on bankers and other fishing craft of the period that frequented North Atlantic waters. Bowdoin carries four sails; a jib and forestaysail forward of the foremast, a foresail, and a mainsail. With a jumbo staysail and flying job she carries 2,900 square feet of canvas.[7] The foremast carries an "ice bucket" or lookout, a common feature of vessels that sail in icy waters and a visually striking identifying feature of the schooner. All standing rigging is wire rope.

The schooner carries an auxiliary engine that drives a single screw, which is protected by a skeg that runs from keel to rudder foot. Admiral MacMillan felt that when "navigating in such dangerous waters a ship should have the double margin of safety by being well equipped with both sails and power, for rapidly whirling propeller blades in contact with ice are easily bent and stripped, and shafts broken."[8] The original engine, a 60-horsepower Fairbanks Morse, capable of burning crude oil, kerosene, and even seal oil if necessary, was replaced in the 1970s. The engine now installed in Bowdoin is a 190-h.p. Cummings diesel.

Poor maintenance of the vessel in the 1960s led to restoration work in the early 1970s. The decks and houses were partially renewed in kind, a new foremast was handcut and shaved from spruce, the engine was replaced, and a new generator and wiring system was installed for a 60-cycle, 110-volt power system. In 1978, the mainmast was replaced with a new Douglas fir stick.[9]

A major restoration of the vessel was undertaken in 1980-1984 under the supervision of Jim Stevens, who owns the yard where Bowdoin was built. The ballast was removed and replaced, wasted frames from stem to stern rebuilt, a new stem, horn timber, and keelson added, planks replaced, and a new deck laid.[10] The work restored Bowdoin's sagging lines, giving her the saucy sheer that distinguishes the hull, and carefully adhered to Admiral MacMillan's original choice of timber and the shipwright's methods of construction when she was built in 1921.


Bowdoin is painted white, as she was throughout her career. The deck is arranged as it was when she was sailing Arctic waters. She retains her original rig, including the ice barrel on the foremast. The deck is broken by a slight rise abaft the foremast that marks the beginning of the forecastle deck; the remainder of the deck is flush. Skylights are arranged on the centerline commencing aft of the windlass. The windlass is a Hyde Windlass, electrically driven but also capable of being worked by the original pump-brake arrangement. Near the windlass are the two steel catheads, set into the deck and passing over the bulwarks. The ship carries two 500-lb. anchors and 90 fathoms of studlink chain that "add an impressive ground tackle...."[11] Two low deckhouses and the masts take up little space, leaving much of the deck clear. The steering gear and wheel are aft, with a detachable binnacle mounted between the wheel and main deckhouse. The ship has two pumps; now electrically operated, they are also capable of hand pumping. Each is an Edson's Patented Diaphragm Pump No. 3. The ship's brass bell is mounted on the mainmast. It is inscribed "The Bowdoin from Whittier School, Merrimac, Mass."

Below deck, Bowdoin was built with four major compartments. These begin with the forecastle, with galley, pantry, and berths for 14 crewmembers. The mess table, with hinged sides, is set forward of the foremast. The lockers for the berths in the forecastle serve as the benches. The forecastle ceiling planking is overlaid with tongue-and-groove siding, a feature found in Gloucestermen and other North Atlantic vessels. The original galley stove has been removed; in its place an Aga coal-burning stove, based on a 1920s pattern, was installed in May 1989. A ladder at the after end of the forecastle leads to the deck; a small skylight and hatch above the mess table also provides access. On the port side of the forecastle's after end is a head and the pantry. A watertight bulkhead separates the forecastle for the forepeak and chain locker forward and another midships berthing compartment aft. This space holds 9 berths and the ice chest. A watertight bulkhead separates this compartment from the engineroom, which is reached through a hatch atop the main deckhouse or through a hatch in the forward bulkhead in the main cabin.

The engineroom contains the engine, batteries, generator, pump lines, and the electrical panel, as well as the modern compressor for the Buell air horn. The after cabin, used by Admiral MacMillan, holds two double berths, a head, and chart table. Here the modern navigational equipment, including radar, depth finder, and the ship's radio are kept. The bulkheads are lined with scenes from Bowdoin's Arctic voyages. A hatch in the after bulkhead leads to the lazarette, used for storage. A ladder on the bulkhead provides access to the deck and the helm.

The ship is maintained in excellent condition. All replacement and repairs have employed in-kind materials and workmanship. Retaining integrity of workmanship, materials, association, feeling, and setting, Bowdoin strongly retains her identity and a strong sense of association with Admiral Donald B. MacMillan, as befits a vessel built to her owner's specification to serve as the stage for much of his life's work.


1. Annual List of Merchant Vessels of the United States (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1931)

2. Peter H. Spectre, "The Bowdoin Project," WoodenBoat, Issue No. 47 (July-August 1982), p. 37.

3. Arthur E. Spiess, "National Register of Historic Places Inventory/Nomination Form, Schooner Bowdoin...." (August 1979) Section 7, p. 1. Hereafter cited as Spiess, "Schooner Bowdoin."

4. Donald B. MacMillan, "Notes for the Arctic Cruiser," as cited in Spectre, "The Bowdoin Project," pp. 33-34.

5. Ibid.

6. Spectre, "The Bowdoin Project," p. 37.

7. Spiess, "Schooner Bowdoin."

8. MacMillan, "Notes for the Arctic Cruiser," p. 34.

9. Spiess, Op.cit.

10. Spectre, "The Bowdoin Project," p. 36.

11. Renny Stackpole, "The Saga of the Arctic Schooner Bowdoin," Sea History, Summer 1986, p. 24.

Statement of Significance

Bowdoin, clad in winter ice, at Refuge Harbor, Greenland, April 10, 1924. Photo by Donald B. MacMillan courtesy of National Geographic Society.
The 1921 auxiliary schooner Bowdoin is a unique vessel in the annals of American maritime history and the saga of Arctic exploration. The brainchild of Adm. Donald Baxter MacMillan (1874-1970), an Arctic explorer, educator, aviator, author, anthropologist, and philanthropist who made 29 voyages to the Arctic between 1908 and 1954, for which he was awarded the National Geographic Society's coveted Hubbard Medal, Bowdoin was the setting for much of MacMillan's achievements. He made 26 of his Arctic voyages in Bowdoin. Bowdoin is the only auxiliary schooner ever built in the United States specifically for Arctic exploration and the only surviving historic vessel in the United States associated with Arctic exploration except the nuclear submarine Nautilus, a much more recent vessel. Bowdoin is one of a handful of historic Arctic vessels left in the world and exemplifies the rugged conditions and the hardy navigators who braved the frozen north to unlock its secrets.

Bowdoin is architecturally significant; her design, construction, and outfitting reflect the conditions she met in the Arctic. In her career Bowdoin logged more than 200,000 miles, while 300 crewmembers gathered information on Arctic ornithology, biology, anthropology, geology, meteorology, and oceanography, resulting in scores of scientific papers, articles (many in National Geographic), and books. Much of the information and knowledge of the Arctic, Labrador, and Greenland that exists to date was gathered aboard Bowdoin. During the Second World War, Bowdoin and MacMillan were commissioned by the U.S. Navy to serve on the important Greenland Patrol, assisting in the defense of Greenland and survey for air bases to support the Army's task of establishing an air link to ferry aircraft to Great Britain. Continuing her Arctic career after the war, Bowdoin sailed north until 1954, when the 80-year-old MacMillan "retired." In 1959 he sailed her south to commence a new career as a museum vessel.

The preceding statement of significance is based on the more detailed statements that follow.


The exploration of the Arctic challenged the initiative and imagination of Europe and America for more than a century. The first forays into the frozen interior of the north searched for the Northwest Passage; later exploration pushed for the North Pole itself. The annals of polar exploration are replete with tales of hardship and disaster--the search for two ships' crews and the scientific complement from Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic expedition occupied the attention of the English speaking world for three decades. At first a largely British venture, exploration of the Arctic interior later occupied the attention of Scandinavian explorers and adventurers, and, beginning in 1874, the United States.

Three Americans made invaluable contributions and rank among the greatest Arctic explorers of the 20th century--Robert Edwin Peary, Richard E. Byrd, and Donald B. MacMillan. Peary made his first trip to the interior of Greenland in 1886 and capped his career with his famous North Pole expedition of 1908-1909. Departing from New York on July 6, 1908, Peary and Matthew Henson reached the Pole on April 6, 1909. The epic achievement was made possible largely through the efforts of many, not the least of whom was Peary's Chief Assistant, 35-year-old Donald B. MacMillan, whose frozen feet left him 100 miles short of the expedition's final goal.

Donald Baxter MacMillan, son of a Cape Cod mariner, was born in Provincetown, Massachusetts, on November 10, 1874. Reared on tales of the sea, and an avid reader of history and fiction about Arctic exploration, young MacMillan left the Cape when his father was lost in a storm in 1885. Growing up in Freeport, Maine, he entered Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, in 1894, graduating four years later with a degree in Geology. MacMillan settled down to a teaching career. While teaching at the Worcester Academy, MacMillan supervised a summer training camp on Casco Bay in Maine. In the summer of 1905, he rescued nine persons from drowning. The publicity that followed brought MacMillan to the attention of Robert Peary, a summer resident of Casco Bay, who wrote the young hero to offer his congratulations. MacMillan responded with an offer to join Peary on his Arctic journeys.

When the Peary North Pole expedition sailed in 1908, MacMillan went along as Peary's chief assistant; "he was placed in charge of making tidal observations, preparing equipment, and organizing the Eskimos in search of food."[1] MacMillan returned to the Arctic on his own in 1910 and again in 1911-1912 to conduct anthropological research among Greenland's Eskimos while completing his MA at Bowdoin College. His work attracted the attention of the American Museum of Natural History, the National Geographic Society, and the University of Illinois, which organized the Crocker Land expedition in 1913 with MacMillan playing a prominent role in survey work and carving a niche for himself in Arctic annals:

Newspapers reported shipwrecks, severe hardships, and repeated calls for relief during the four years' sojourn of the expedition in the Arctic. After two relief ships had failed to reach MacMillan and an aide, they were finally rescued on August 4, 1917. Working from a base at Etah, Greenland, the northernmost village in the world, they had succeeded in obtaining extensive data in geology, botany, ornithology, meteorology, and ethnology. Two unknown islands and a large glacier were discovered...important mineral deposits were uncovered, and uncharted coastline was surveyed. The records of the cairns of earlier explorers, together with scientific specimens of Arctic life, furnished exhibits for several museums.[2]

Returning from the Crocker Land Expedition, MacMillan enlisted as a lieutenant in the United States Navy, where he spent the war years engaged in experimental aviation at Hampton Roads.[3] In 1918, while still in the Navy, MacMillan was granted a Doctor of Science degree by Bowdoin College. After the war MacMillan continued his graduate education, this time at Harvard University.

In 1920 MacMillan returned to the Arctic, working with an expedition conducting enthnographic research among Indians and Eskimos living on Hudson Bay's west coast. His experience in the Arctic and a strong desire to continue his work led MacMillan to seek funds to build an Arctic exploration vessel of his own. Small, sturdy, and built to MacMillan's specifications, the 88-foot schooner Bowdoin, named after his alma mater, was launched in 1921 and thereafter served as the base for MacMillan's explorations. The schooner's maiden voyage of 1921-1922 was to the shores of Baffin Island, where Bowdoin spent the winter iced in and banked with snow while the crew conducted geomagnetic experiments for the Carnegie Institution. In 1923-1924, Bowdoin, under the sponsorship of the National Geographic Society, sailed for North Greenland, where she froze in for a 330-day stay while the expedition gathered specimens, filmed wildlife with motion picture cameras, and gathered ethnographic information on the Eskimo.[4] The first short-wave transmissions from the Arctic were broadcast from Bowdoin on this voyage.[5]

Bowdoin in midsummer at Refuge Harbor, Greenland, July 1, 1924. National Geographic Society photo by Donald B. MacMillan.
Additional voyages north followed, and in 1925 MacMillan participated in another great feat in Arctic exploration. Under MacMillan's command, a joint National Geographic Society-U.S. Navy Expedition sailed north in two vessels, Bowdoin and Peary, to Etah, where MacMillan led a group of scientists while Navy Loening amphibious airplanes under the command of Richard E. Byrd flew more than 6,000 miles over the Arctic, marking the beginning of Polar aviation and garnering valuable experience for Byrd, who "gained knowledge that later he used to good advantage in his pioneer flights over both Poles."[6] The first natural color photographs of the Arctic were taken by National Geographic photographers on the expedition, which also daily broadcast reports by means of short-wave radio.

MacMillan made trips north every year from 1921 to 1938; from 1924 on, these were financed by private funds and with considerable institutional support. In 1935, MacMillan married Miriam Norton Look, who soon joined her husband on his Arctic journeys. An author and lecturer, Mrs. MacMillan played an important role in documenting MacMillan and Bowdoin's achievements and later played a strong role in seeing to Bowdoin's restoration. The advent of war ended Bowdoin's trips temporarily. MacMillan offered his schooner's services along with his own, and in May 1941 the vessel was purchased by the United States Navy. Commissioned on June 16, 1941, USS Bowdoin (IX-50), with recently commissioned Lt. Cmdr. Donald B. MacMillan in command, again sailed for Greenland as a member of the Greenland Patrol. While the Battle of the Atlantic raged, the need for bases in Greenland to provide air support for beleaguered convoys and to ferry needed aircraft to Britain brought a number of Coast Guard and Navy vessels to Greenland to survey the largely uncharted coastline. [7] After 27 months of highly successful duty, Bowdoin was placed on reduced commission in October 1943 while MacMillan reported for duty in the Navy hydrographic office. On December 16, 1943, Bowdoin was decommissioned. Stricken from the Navy list in May 1944, the schooner was sold in January 1945. Purchased by friends of MacMillan's, the battered schooner was refitted once again for Arctic exploration.

MacMillan established the MacMillan Moravian School at Nain in Northern Labrador in 1927 to feed, clothe and educate Eskimo children, and after the war he returned to his yearly supverisory and supply voyages. The Eskimo, who called him Nagalek, or "leader," came to greatly admire MacMillan. In 1929 Bowdoin carried the lumber, desks, blackboards, books, radio, blankets, dishes, food, and sleeping bags to start the school. He provided an electric lighting system for the village and school, brought two organs, one for the school and the other for the village church, and another year brought 20,000 false teeth and a dentists's chair.[8]

A unique feature of his expeditions, particularly after the war, was that he never took an experienced sailor with him. As Miriam MacMillan explained in 1951:

The scientists, professors, college and preparatory school students who go along to do research...make up his crew. He never takes a professional sailor. He depends entirely upon training these men and boys, some of whom have never been at sea. Each one stands watch for'ard, takes his trick at the wheel, scrubs decks, shines brass, helps the cook. And I'm no exception; I do all these things. I take orders from the Captain and mates and, when I'm scullion for the day, from our cook.[9]

One of MacMillan's "boys," Rutherford Platt, first shipped on Bowdoin in 1947 as a middle-aged botanist. Years later he wrote that "he treated each inexperienced hand as a responsible, trusted his quiet manner and with few words, he taught his philosophy of life. We learned about courage, the practical matter-of-fact kind that MacMillan had made the keystone of his life. Usually courage is thought to be resoluteness or boldness. Mac's brand was simply the knowledge that he was prepared for any emergency."[10]

Between 1921 and 1954 Bowdoin, with MacMillan at the helm, sailed more than 200,000 miles, making 24 trips beyond the Arctic Circle, the last when he was 80. Talented and dedicated, MacMillan sailed north, "boldly into the ice pack, cruising uncharted waters merely, as he says, "to learn something."[11] MacMillan was honored with an honorary Rear Admiral's commission from Congress, with numerous awards and medals from various societies and organizations, and, in 1953, with the Hubbard Medal, the highest honor that can be bestowed by the National Geographic Society. Society President Gilbert Grosvenor, in presenting the award, noted "I can find in history no other explorer...whose active devotion to solving the geographic secrets of the Arctic has continued for so long."[12] Admiral Richard E. Byrd, also present, remarked that the Arctic, once an unknown land and a barrier, was no longer so; "The man...who has shown us most about the truth of that Commander MacMillan."[13] MacMillan made his last voyage north that year, returning in 1954 to retire.

In 1959, Admiral MacMillan sailed Bowdoin to Mystic, Connecticut, where he turned the schooner over to Mystic Seaport Museum for display. Unfortunately, the vessel was not maintained as she should have been, and Bowdoin deteriorated. Taken off display, stripped of her gear, and her rig taken down, the laid-up schooner was covered with plastic. In 1967, at MacMillan's urging, the Schooner Bowdoin Association, Inc. was formed by friends of the admiral's, including former crew members and others interested in saving the ship. Mystic Seaport relinquished the schooner to the Association, which leased her to Capt. Jim Sharp of Camden, Maine. Sharp restored the schooner to operating condition and sailed her to Provincetown, Massachusetts, in 1969 on a sentimental journey to MacMillan's home, where the admiral, in his 90s, saw Bowdoin sail again one last time.[14] Donald MacMillan died in 1970.

Jim Sharp had restored what he could on Bowdoin for $25,000, using her as a wharfside museum in Camden and sailing her on charters. In the mid-1970s, though, Coast Guard requirements for passenger carrying, which would have called for rebuilding the schooner and destroying her historic character, forced Sharp to return Bowdoin to the Schooner Bowdoin Association. Used for sail training and leased by the Association to various groups, Bowdoin has persevered since then. A major restoration effort at the Maine Maritime Museum between 1980-1984 brought the schooner back to excellent condition. The work was supervised by Jim Stevens, owner of the Goudy-Stevens Yard in East Boothbay, formerly Hodgdon Brothers, who first Bowdoin in 1921. The restored schooner sailed in OpSail `86 in New York harbor in the parade of ships that celebrated the Statue of Liberty's restoration. In 1987-1988 she was leased to Outward Bound, Inc., an educational organization, and in 1989 was turned over to the Maine Maritime Academy in Castine on a two-year lease with an option to buy. Negotiations to purchase Bowdoin are now under way. The Maine Maritime Academy has assigned Assistant Professor Andy Chase as Bowdoin's skipper. Chase hopes to expand her cruises to northern voyages, so that within the next five years, Bowdoin might again sail north to the waters that she charted with Donald MacMillan at the helm more than fifty years ago. Admiral MacMillan was the last of the old-time Arctic explorers, and Bowdoin is America's last sailing Arctic exploration vessel.


1. Anna Rothe, ed., Current Biography: Who's News and Why, 1948 (New York: The H.W. Wilson Co., 1948) p. 402. Hereafter cited as Current Biography. Also see Everett S. Allen, Arctic Odyssey: The Life of Rear Admiral Donald B. MacMillan (New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1962). MacMillan's own writing, including Four Years in the Frozen North (1918) also extensively document his career.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid., pp. 402-403. Also see John Malcolm, "Donald MacMillan`s Bowdoin Sails Again," Down East, April 1977, p. 48.

4. Donald B. MacMillan, "The Bowdoin in North Greenland," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLVII, No. 6 (June 1925) pp. 677-722.

5. Ibid., p. 679; also see Current Biography, p. 403.

6. Paul H. Oehser, ed. National Geographic Society Research Reports, 1890-1954 (Washington, D.C.: National Geographic Society, 1954) p. 205. Also see Current Biography, p. 403; "To Seek the Unknown in the Arctic," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLVII, No. 6 (June 1925) pp. 673-675, and "The MacMillan Arctic Expedition Sails," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. XLVIII, No. 2 (August 1925), pp. 225-226, and Richard E. Byrd, "Flying Over the Polar Sea," U.S. Naval Institute Proceedings, Vol. LI, No. 8 (1925), pp. 1319-1338.

7. Ship's history file, USS Bowdoin (IX-50), Ships' History Branch, Naval Historical Center, Washington Navy Yard, Washington, D.C. Bowdoin is a member vessel of the Historical Ships Association of North America (HINAS). Also see U.S. Coast Guard, The Coast Guard at War: Greenland Patrol II (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Coast Guard, Historical Section, Public Information Division, July 1945), pp. 34, 36, 38, and 44.

8. Miriam MacMillan, "Far North with `Captain Mac'." National Geographic Magazine, Vol. CI, No. 7, p. 481.

9. Ibid., p. 465.

10. Rutherford Platt, "The Most Unforgettable Character I've Ever Met: Donald B. MacMillan, explorer, scientist, and teacher of courage and beauty to men." Reader's Digest, February 1966 (reprint) p. 2.

11. Rutherford Platt, "A Visit to the Living Ice Age," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. CXI, No. 4 (April 1957) p. 525.

12. "The Society's Hubbard Medal Awarded to Commander MacMillan," National Geographic Magazine, Vol. CII, No. 4 (April 1953) pp. 563-564.

13. Ibid., p. 564.

14. Peter H. Spectre, "The Bowdoin Project," WoodenBoat, pp. 32-33.

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