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New Braunfels native lost on Arctic expedition

By Myra Lee Adams Goff

It’s been four years since Jennifer Niven wrote the book “Ada Blackjack” in which she told a 1921 tale of an ill-fated Arcticexpedition to Wrangel Island by four men and an Inuit Eskimo woman (Blackjack). One of the men was New Braunfelser Milton Galle.

Niven’s local resource contact was NB Librarian Lynn Thompson who allowed me to read her files. Niven’s book was not my first contact with Galle’s story. The first book written about the adventure was the 1925 book,“The Adventures of Wrangel Island,” which was recommended reading for advanced readers at Carl Schurz School in the late 60’s. Also as a child I had heard of Galle’s story from my mother. In the early 40’s I was taking piano lessons from Alma Galle, Milton’s mother, and when I balked at practicing, my mother told me I was not to give Mrs. Galle any more stress; she had enough. Here’s why:

Take yourself back to 1920 New Braunfels (mentally, that is).The Chautauqua was coming to town as it had since 1917. The Chautauqua was a traveling entertainment and weeklong lecture series. Milton Galle, who had graduated from NBHS in 1919, was a good-looking, popular young man who suffered from Wanderlust (the desire to wander) and to get out of NB and see the world. On the lecture circuit was Arctic Explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson, and Galle was enthralled with the lecture. He too wanted to explore the Arctic!.

The Chautauqua had begun with a parade around Main Plaza where the performers invited the audience to come to the big tent located where the Producers Co-Op is now. Ironically, if you cross the railroad track right behind this area, you will be in the back yard where Galle and his family lived at 227 Academy. The large house still stands. It was built in 1914 by Harry Galle (Milton’s father) after becoming one of the heirs to a family glass factory fortune in Alsace-Lorraine.

Galle joined the Chautauqua but came back to NB after the traveling season was over. He sold rawhide whips but was not happy. When the Chautauqua returned in 1921, he was looking forward to Stefansson’s lecture once again but 28 eight year old E. Lorne Knight and 28 year old Fred Maurer were sent to speak instead. Both had been with Steffanson in the Arctic and once again the prospect was intriguing to Galle. He left with them and joined the Chautauqua again, this time as Steffanson’s secretary.

Steffanson was determined to get back to the Arctic and to claim the small Wrangel Island off the coast of Siberia for the United Kingdom. His idea was to colonize it for one year. He chose Knight, Maurer, 20 year old Allan Crawford, and finally Galle.After hiring Ada Blackjack as a cook and seamstress, the group of five was transported to Wrangel Island with six months supplies. A supply ship was to come in 1922 but regrettably could not break through the ice. After two years with no supplies delivered, Knight fell ill with scurvy and he and Blackjack were left behind in January of 1923 while the other three took off towards Siberia for help. Galle’s notes left behind on the island showed that he was against abandoning the camp when they did and that he definitely intended to come back.

Meanwhile Arctic explorer Harold Noice was hired by Steffanson to pick up the five. When Noice arrived on Wrangel Island, he found only Blackjack alive. They buried Knight and returned to Nome to report that Crawford, Galle, and Maurer had apparently perished in the ice. The island was ultimately claimed by the Soviet Union.

The men were never found but the Galles never fully gave up hope. To this day there is no marker in the family plot at Comal Cemetery. Knight’s complete diary also left behind gives us a harrowing description of the adventure, particularly the final days. What I remember of gentle Alma Galle, I can’t imagine her reading Knight’s diary and his tales of Milton’s many encounters with bears.

I’ll practice the piano!

Milton Galle in 1919. Photo owned by Bill Lawless.