Donald MacMillan, Provincetown’s Heroic Explorer
Remembering the man for whom MacMillan Pier is named
MacMillan Pier (or Wharf) in Provincetown, home of one of the world’s natural deep-water harbors, is a familiar landmark to Cape Cod residents and tourists. Perhaps less well known is the person for whom the pier is named, Donald Baxter MacMillan. A native son and local hero, MacMillan worked much of his life in the Arctic more than a century before the area became a focus for climate change research.
Born at home in 1874, MacMillan made more than 30 expeditions to the Arctic, including a 1908-09 trip to the North Pole with Admiral Robert E. Peary. But MacMillan was more than an explorer. He was a well-respected teacher who established a summer camp on Bustins Island off Freeport, Maine, to teach seamanship and navigation to American boys; helped establish a school for Eskimo children in Northern Labrador; and created a dictionary of the Inuktitut language for military use in World War II. Along the way he saved the lives of nine people from wrecked boats and eventually gained fame as a public speaker who toured the country talking about the remote, frozen frontier he knew so well.
Donald MacMillan made more than 30 expeditions to the Arctic, including a 1908-09 trip to the North Pole with Admiral Robert E. Peary.
“He was hugely influential as a teacher,” says Genevieve LeMoine, curator of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, from which MacMillan graduated in 1898. The museum has a treasure trove of material MacMillan donated from his explorations, including almost 10,000 images. MacMillan took his last expedition with students from his seamanship classes in 1954, LeMoine says, adding “some of those young men are still around.”
MacMillan’s explorations made an enormous impact on history, says John McDonagh, director of the Pilgrim Monument & Provincetown Museum. In total, the explorer’s achievements were vast, McDonagh says, especially for the era. “It was a huge accomplishment, almost like putting someone on the moon.”
The Provincetown museum recognizes MacMillan as a native son and honors his contributions to Cape Cod and our country’s culture. The museum’s collection includes “some real gems from specimens he collected and tools he used,” McDonagh says. Among them are impressive taxidermy specimens the explorer brought home, including a very rare white wolf, a polar bear, and a walrus, as well as MacMillan’s kayak and objects he gathered from the Inuit people.
Such specimens and objects represent the importance of the Arctic and humanize that time period. As McDonagh says, “It makes you really understand the natural history he encountered in the Arctic.” The museum’s gift shop also features a collection of books authored by MacMillan and biographies written about him.
MacMillan lived during a fertile time in America, which surely contributed to his adventurous spirit and wanderlust, McDonagh says. Henry Ford was building automobiles for the middle class, and the Wright brothers were experimenting with flight. “There was a lot of imagination and exploration, and a belief in what was possible,” McDonagh says.
MacMillan spent his early years at his parents’ home on Commercial Street. His father, Capt. Neil MacMillan, who instilled in him a love for sailing, was lost at sea when MacMillan was 9. When his mother, Sarah, died a few years later, the boy moved in with the family of Captain Murdick McDonald in Provincetown and later joined his sister Letitia and her husband in Freeport, Maine. MacMillan was a good student and earned the money to attend Bowdoin College.
After graduating, MacMillan spent 10 years teaching Latin, math, and physical education at Worcester Academy, among other schools, before establishing his summer camp for boys where seamanship and navigation were taught. When he saved nine people from boat wrecks off Bustins Island over the course of two nights in the early 1900s, he got the attention of Peary, who asked MacMillan to join his 1905 attempt to reach the North Pole. MacMillan couldn’t leave his teaching position, but he did accompany Peary on his successful journey to the North Pole in 1908. After his heels froze, MacMillan had to turn back from that journey, 26 days before Peary reached the Pole.
MacMillan then spent several years traveling to Labrador and studying the Innu and Inuit. He eventually organized a 1913 expedition to Greenland, known as the Crocker Land Expedition.
The expedition proved unsuccessful—Crocker Land, which MacMillan had set out to explore, did not exist—and with ships unable to penetrate the surrounding icy waters, MacMillan was stranded. He would have to wait until 1917 before Robert A. Bartlett, commanding the Neptune, could rescue him. While marooned, “MacMillan formulated the concept of a strong, easily maneuverable ship specifically designed for Arctic travel, to handle the dangers of northern waters,” according to his biography in the Donald Baxter MacMillan Collection in the Bowdoin College Library’s Special Collections. The fact that he spent this time conceptualizing a ship says a lot about MacMillan’s vision, bravery, endurance, and intelligence, McDonagh says.
When MacMillan returned to the United States, the country had entered World War I, and he joined the Navy. After the war, he designed the schooner Bowdoin, which was launched in 1921 from a shipyard in East Boothbay, Maine. That summer MacMillan sailed the Bowdoin to Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. He eventually married Miriam Norton Look, the daughter of longtime friends. “Though MacMillan at first refused to let her accompany him north, Miriam soon convinced him of her willingness and ability to participate in his Arctic travels,” the Bowdoin College Library biography notes.
MacMillan served in the Navy again in World War II and earned several medals during his military career. In recognition of his meritorious service, he was promoted to rear admiral on the Naval Reserve retired list in 1954.
In 1957 Provincetown leaders named the new pier constructed beside the old Railroad Wharf, MacMillan Pier; the admiral and Miriam attended the ribbon-cutting ceremony. MacMillan died in 1970 in Provincetown. He is buried in New Cemetery, off Alden Street, in the town where he was born.
Provincetown’s identity and history heavily influenced the man that MacMillan became. “There’s something about the geography and spirituality here that attracts creative people,” says Stephen Borkowski, a scholar and researcher and the current chair of the Provincetown Historical Commission. “His wanderlust was very much a product of the community.”
A natural human tendency, Borkowski says, is to feel limited by circumstance. So a figure like MacMillan can fill a void, standing as a symbol of someone who fought or overcame circumstance to achieve greatness. “There’s something heroic about MacMillan in this age,” he says. “This is someone who followed through on his dream. The stars had to align for him [to do this]. That exposure to the maritime community was an inspiration to him.”
MacMillan, in turn, is an inspiration to anyone seeking a new path, Borkowski says. “People need heroes.”
To learn more about MacMillan and his fascinating adventures, visit the Pilgrim Monument and Provincetown Museum, which is open daily through November 30, atop High Pole Hill; or check out the Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum & Arctic Studies Center at Bowdoin College in Maine. Learn more at pilgrim-monument.org, and at bowdoin.edu/arctic-museum.
A former editor at Cape Cod LIFE, Mary Grauerholz of Falmouth is a frequent contributor to Cape Cod Life Publications.