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The Great Wide Open

The Great Wide Open

“I pledge my life in support of this truth, and am ready to explore the hollow,
if the world will support and aid me in the undertaking.”

-John Cleves Symmes Jr.

(Spoilers: They didn’t.)

A small village hidden within Miami Township along the southwest border of Ohio owes its name to Northwest Territory pioneer and delegate in the first Continental Congress, John Cleves Symmes. As for namesakes, sleepy Cleves, Ohio could do worse than a colonel in the American Revolution who was also the father-in-law to President William Henry Harrison and great-grandfather to President Benjamin Harrison.

For all his resume building, the real stuff of legend belongs to his wayward nephew of the same name and the exploits that arose from his unwavering belief in a hollow earth.

Symmes fought against the British like his uncle, this time at the siege of Fort Erie in the War of 1812 before being honorably discharged. There’s scarce information on how he conceived the notion, but shortly after a failed second career as a trader between the U.S. Army and Fox Indians, Symmes came to realize that the earth was not solid, but in fact a series of concentric spheres that each rotated independently upon their own axis.

Symmes also believed there are holes at each of the earth’s poles that allow access to the hollow inner earth. He theorized that the holes were so wide and the curvature so gradual one would not even notice they were entering. He would eventually drop the concept of concentric spheres in favor of a single inner earth.   

This was no passing notion either. Symmes soon sank all his time and resources into the theory. In 1818, he attested to mailing 500 copies of his first treatise on the subject, Circular No.1, to “each notable foreign government, reigning prince, legislature, city, college, philosophical societies, throughout the union, and to individual members of our National Legislature.”

Hedging his bets, Symmes also included a certificate of sanity in each of the mailings. For some reason, the scientific community did not respond favorably. The open derision he received did nothing to stop him from touring the country, speaking in support of his theory.

Symmes’ siren song eventually reached the ears of Jeremiah Reynolds, editor of Ohio newspaper, The Spectator. While Symmes is reported to have been a poor public speaker, Reynolds knew how to draw an audience and soon the two were touring the east coast together, charging 50 cents a seat to sold-out houses.

One of their speeches was received by Count Romanoff, chancellor of Russia under Czar Alexander. The Count was planning a polar expedition and invited Symmes to join them. He declined, but used the offer to leverage an audience with President John Quincy Adams. Not wanting to be outdone by Russia, Adams agreed to finance an expedition to the South Pole to test their theory.

Unfortunately for Symmes and Reynolds, Congress was no fan of Adams and his desire for a more federalized government. Because of this, they kept him on a short leash during his single term and an incoming Andrew Jackson quashed all pending legislature, which included the financing for Symmes and Reynolds’ South Pole expedition.

Disillusioned, the two soon fell out of favor with one another. Reynolds would eventually abandon his partner, but not before stealing all the globes and maps that they used in their presentations. Symmes returned to his Ohio home in 1829, broke, maligned, and the champion of a cause no one believed. He died of a stomach illness the same year.  

Reynolds had little time for mourning. By October of the same year, he convinced New England sealing captains to organize the South Sea Fur Company and Exploring Expedition. The “Annawan” set sail south from a New York harbor on their dime and made it as close as eight degrees from the South Pole, or roughly 480 nautical miles, according to ship records. It was also within those eight degrees that they ran out of food and found their preparations no match for the frigid Antarctic weather.

They retreated to a port in Valparaiso, Chile, but with little to show for their efforts, a spurned crew mutinied and opted to repurpose the “Annawan” as a pirate ship. Down and out in South America, Reynolds wound up fighting as a colonel on behalf of an Araucanian territory before the USS Potomac made port on its way from Sumatra. Reynolds talked his way aboard and served as a private secretary until he was able to return to New York.

Chronicles Reynolds penned, which recounted his larger-than-life exploits, proved a direct influence on Edgar Allan Poe’s Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket. Likewise, Herman Melville’s 1851 masterpiece Moby Dick is unlikely to have existed without Reynolds first publishing Mocha Dick: Or the White Whale of the Pacific in 1839.

As captivating as Reynolds haphazard exploits are, they would be nothing without John Cleves Symmes Jr. first daring to ask, “what if?” History did not favor him, but it does owe Symmes for spurring some of its more fascinating diversions.

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