Flight to the Top of the World


Flight to the Top of the World

The Adventures of Walter Wellman

David L. Bristow

392 pages
18 photographs, 5 illustrations, 4 maps, index


July 2018


$29.95 Add to Cart
eBook (PDF)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

July 2018


$29.95 Add to Cart
eBook (EPUB)
Ebook purchases delivered via Leaf e-Reader

July 2018


$29.95 Add to Cart

About the Book

In his day Walter Wellman (1858–1934) was one of America’s most famous men. To his contemporaries, he seemed like a character from a Jules Verne novel. He led five expeditions in search of the North Pole, two by dogsled and three by dirigible airship, and in 1910 made the first attempt to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air—which the self-styled expert on aerial warfare saw as a mission of world peace. He endured hardships, cheated death on more than one occasion, and surrounded himself with a team of assistants as eccentric and audacious as he was.

In addition to his daring adventures, Wellman became a nationally known political reporter and unofficial spokesman for the McKinley and Roosevelt administrations. He was not the first newspaper-sponsored adventurer, but more than any of his predecessors he turned exploration into a real-time media event, and his reputation both flourished and suffered because of it. Wellman lived during a time of rapid social and technological change, when explorers were racing to fill in the last remaining blank spots on the map and when aviation promised to fulfill humanity’s greatest hopes and darkest fears. Flight to the Top of the World is a window into Wellman’s time and illuminates many of its dreams and contradictions.

Author Bio

David L. Bristow is an associate director at the Nebraska State Historical Society, where he serves as the journal editor of Nebraska History and book editor for the society’s scholarly and popular books. He is the author of Sky Sailors: True Stories of the Balloon Era and A Dirty, Wicked Town: Tales of Nineteenth Century Omaha.


"Walter Wellman deserves to be known. He led five expeditions seeking the North Pole. He was the first to try to cross the Atlantic Ocean by air. He was a widely read national affairs reporter in Washington, D.C., and a confidant to presidents. When he did these things—in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries—he was known, famous even. But today his name and his exploits have been lost to history.
David L. Bristow, in Flight to the Top of the World, sets out to bring Wellman back to public awareness."—Timothy Anderson, Nebraska History

"Walter Wellman is a name virtually unknown to most readers. Yet, he was one of our country's most famous individuals during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, recognized as both a journalist and an adventurer. . . . Bristow portrays him as one of the first "instant celebrities" now embraced by our present culture. Indeed, had he been born a century later, he would have undoubtedly starred in his own reality show. . . . Readers should appreciate Bristow's reintroduction of this colorful reminder of America's past."—J. Kemper Campbell, Lincoln Journal Star

"With its plethora of flying machines, newfangled radios, grubby mechanics, media frenzies, its Arctic backdrop, and more, this would be a great steampunk novel were it not entirely factual."—David James, Anchorage Daily News

“David Bristow does an admirable job of setting Walter Wellman’s story in the broader context of both American history and the history of polar exploration. This is an important addition not only to Wellman’s biography but to the history and impact of American journalism in the early years of the twentieth century.”—Tom D. Crouch, senior curator of aeronautics at the National Air and Space Museum and author of The Bishop’s Boys

Table of Contents

List of Illustrations
Prologue: Atlantic City, New Jersey, October 15, 1910
Part 1. Newsman in the Far North, 1891–1899
1. In Search of Christopher Columbus: The Bahamas, June 1891
2. Arctic Enthusiasm Is an Intermittent Fever: Washington DC, February 1894
3. A Dog Show and the Seven Islands: Belgium, Norway, and Spitsbergen, April–May 1894
4. Shipwrecked at the Hotel White Bear: Spitsbergen, May–July 1894
5. The President Cannot Be Stampeded: Washington DC, February–May 1898
6. Like Opening a Grave: Northbrook Island, Franz Josef Land, July 28, 1898
7. Tell Them What It Was Like for Us Here: Franz Josef Land, August–December 1898
8. The Strenuous Life: Franz Josef Land, February–July 1899
Part 2. The Insider, 1900–1904
9. The People Are Barely Able to Exist: Washington DC, Pennsylvania, and West Virginia, April–August 1902
10. With Johnny D’Mitch and the Coal Barons: Washington DC and Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, August–October 1902
11. This Crime against Organized Labor: Colorado and Washington DC, June–December 1904
Part 3. The Polar Airship, 1905–1909
12. Motor Sledges and Airships: Washington DC, 1903–1906
13. The Scheme Was Crazy Enough to Seem Workable: Paris, France, and Tromsø, Norway, January–June 1906
14. The Airship Station on Virgo Bay: Danes Island, Spitsbergen, July–August 1906
15. Wellman vs. Peary: Washington DC, November 1906–May 1907
16. Balloons, Aeroplanes, and the Acrobatic Photographer: Hawaii, New Zealand, Australia, and France, 1901–1907
17. Go? Of Course. What Else Are We Here For? Danes Island, Spitsbergen, July–September 1907
18. Lost in a Snowstorm above the Polar Sea: Spitsbergen, September 2, 1907
19. Campaigns and Dollars: Washington DC and Various Locations, 1908–1909
20. Under the Ice, Over the Ice: Danes Island, Spitsbergen, 1908–1909
21. Nowhere Does His Story Ring True: Norway, Denmark, France, and the United States, September–November 1909
Part 4. The Atlantic Ocean, 1910–1912
22. Mr. Wellman’s Unbusinesslike Charm: Chicago, New York, and the White Nile River in Egyptian Sudan, February–March 1910
23. The Funniest Damn Ship I Ever Joined: Atlantic City, New Jersey, July–August 1910
24. The Airship, Bringer of Total War and Universal Peace: Osawatomie, Kansas, and Atlantic City, New Jersey, August–September 1910
25. The Aero-Not: Atlantic City, August–October 1910
26. It’s Europe or Bust from This Minute On: Atlantic City, October 15, 1910
27. Only a Question of Time: Atlantic City, New York City, and the Long Island Coast, October 15, 1910
28. The Queen of Spades: Nantucket Shoals, North Atlantic Ocean, October 16, 1910
29. A Sort of Bleeding to Death: North Atlantic Ocean, October 17, 1910
30. CQD: North Atlantic Ocean, October 18, 1910
31. You’re All Right, Old Man! Atlantic City and New York City, October–December 1910
32. New Dreams for the Aerial Age: New York City, Atlantic City, and Akron, Ohio, 1911
33. The Most Perilous Element of All: Atlantic City, October 1911–July 1912
Epilogue: New York City, 1912–1934

            Also of Interest