Donald MacMillan, Provincetown’s Heroic Explorer
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.
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