Friday, March 24, 2017
California’s Polar Queen By Shirley Raye Redmond
If you’ve ever studied a map of Greenland and wondered how Miss Boyd Land and Louise Glacier got those labels, you may be surprised to learn they were named for a spunky American socialite named Louise Arner Boyd. Born in September 1887, the only daughter of millionaire mine owner John Franklin Boyd, Louise was always a tomboy. She loved riding ponies with her two brothers on the family’s large horse ranch in the foothills near San Francisco Bay.
As a girl, Louise studied photography, botany and geography. She was particularly fascinated by tales of Alaska and the daring fortune hunters who were still rushing to the Yukon Territory in search of gold. She was also intrigued by haunting descriptions of icebergs, polar bears and Eskimos. More than anything else in the world, the plucky California girl wanted to see the frigid Arctic for herself.
In 1920, at the age of 33, the attractive, blue-eyed spinster astonished her San Francisco social circle when she unexpectedly chartered her own seal-hunting ship. She hired an experienced crew and acquired the best photographic and scientific instruments her vast family fortune could buy, and set sail for the ice-packed Arctic regions. Putting aside her chinchilla cape and lavish ball gowns, Louise donned heavy boots and a parka and headed for a six-week journey to the Arctic. She took photographs and drew maps. She collected botanical specimens for botanists friends back in California and was “amused by the puniness of the vegetation, compared to the giant redwoods back home.”
In the summer of 1938, Louise planned her usual polar journey, despite the war raging in Europe. With her expedition concluded, she left her cameras, measuring devices, radios, canoes, polar clothing and scientific equipment in Alesund, Norway, fully intending to return the following year to continue her explorations.
Louise was in New York when she learned that the Nazis had impounded her equipment after invading Oslo. The spunky heiress was furious. She immediately sailed for Norway, took repossession of her belongings and brought them home to the United States aboard a luxury liner.
Unable to publish her new scientific findings, for fear that the Germans would use the information to invade Iceland and Greenland, Louise returned to California. She was resigned to spending the war years experimenting with her prized camellias and raising money for the San Francisco Ballet Company. But the United States government had other plans for her. When she was asked to head up a secret mission in the Arctic Sea for military intelligence, Louise readily agreed.
Louise was proud to serve her country. Upon completion of the secret mission, she was hired as a special consultant—for a dollar a year—for the military intelligence division of U.S. Government. She was the first woman to ever serve in such a capacity. When World War II was over, the Army gratefully presented Louise with a Certificate of Appreciation for “outstanding patriotic service to the Army as a contributor of geographic knowledge and consultant.”
Back at Maple Lawn, the aging heiress continued to fascinate her frequent guests with exhibits of Arctic photographs and memorabilia. But before retiring from exploration, Louise had one more polar dream to pursue. She wanted to reach the North Pole. In 1955, at the age of 68, Louise chartered an airplane and became the first woman to fly over and around the North Pole.
She accepted numerous awards for her contributions to geographic exploration, such as being named the first female member of the American Polar Society. But her generosity and costly polar expeditions eventually took their toll on the Boyd fortune. She died penniless in a nursing home ten years later on September 14, 1972. She was 85 years old. Her ashes were scattered in the Arctic regions she had always found so alluring.
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