Southern Calls, Vol. 13, September 2016
by Lora D. Peppers | Monroe, Louisiana
Tucked away in the flowerbeds of the old Georgia Tucker schoolhouse, is a large tombstone, which marks the final resting place of Admiral Richard Byrd’s polar expedition lead sled dog Unalaska. How did a sled dog end up being buried in Monroe?
Here is his story.
Unalaska was born near the Mackenzie River on the Arctic Ocean in 1923. He was pure white, and was a mix of Wolf, St. Bernard, Setter and Siberian Husky. Admiral Byrd handpicked the animal to be his lead dog of the sled team that was part of his South Pole Expedition in 1929. The husky did his job well, and was put on display in a traveling lecture show about the expedition. Byrd and his team came to Monroe in December 1930 as part of the tour. The children fell in love with the expedition dogs and Unalaska was the star attraction.
On January 3, 1931, Carroll B. Foster, who was in charge of the exhibit, took Unalaska and his mate Lady to Forsythe Park for exercise. It was a Saturday afternoon and many people gathered to watch the dogs romp. Unalaska followed Lady across Riverside Drive, and Foster called for them to return. Lady made it back across, but Unalaska was hit by a Chevrolet Coupe. He was killed instantly and his body drug over fifty feet. The driver, upon driving past a group of children and adults who had come to watch the dogs, slumped in his seat and pulled his hat down over his eyes. He was never caught.
The death was given nationwide coverage. Admiral Byrd was notified and plans were made for a funeral. It was Principal Julia Wossman who suggested that the children handle the funeral. The city gave permission to bury Unalaska at Forsythe Park and a burial spot was selected on the lawn of the American Legion Home. The body was embalmed by the Cory-Davis funeral home and placed in a white velvet casket lined with pink silk cushions. Schools were closed at 2 p.m. the day of the funeral. Over two thousand children marched in the funeral procession. Local Boy Scouts formed an honor guard for the viewing as thousands of people filed past. Carroll Foster gave the eulogy and the flower-covered casket was buried between the two French millimeter .75 guns that had served during World War I. An evergreen tree was planted at the foot of the grave. The American Legion flag was lowered to half-mast as a token of respect. The story of Unalaska should have ended right there. Unfortunately, his rest would not be a peaceful one.
Local schoolchildren wanted a marker to place at the grave. A seven hundred pound Indiana limestone marker was donated by the company building Neville High School. Attached to the marker was a bronze tablet inscribed with Unalaska’s name and history, donated by the J.M. Supply Company. The inscription read: “Sacred to the memory of Unalaska, killed by automobile in this city Jan. 3, 1931, a dog of the Byrd Antarctic expedition, whose dauntless courage played an important part in that great scientific adventure. “A great leader and a true friend – he never turned back – Admiral Byrd.” Erected by the school children of the city of Monroe.” On July 9, 1931, little Armand McHenry, Jr. gave a dedicatory address and two little girls unveiled the marker.
The morning after the marker was dedicated, it was gone. It would have taken a wrecker and crane to move the heavy monument. Only fragments of the stone and an oily residue were left behind. The marker appeared to have been broken and hauled away. Some whispered that it had been thrown into the Ouachita River. It was never found. It seemed there had been a bitter argument between Legionnaires over the propriety of a monument to a dog on Legion grounds. Some believed only a person who had died during “the War” should have that honor. It was feared that the casket had been stolen too, but it was quickly dug up and found. The school children of Monroe had had enough. With Julia Wossman as their advocate, it was suggested to City Officials that the grave be moved to the grounds of Georgia Tucker Elementary School. The adults agreed. A second funeral was held and Unalaska was laid to his final rest on the grounds of the school. His new stone bears a carving of his likeness and an inscription that reads: Unalaska, a husky of Admiral Richard E. Byrd, South Pole Expedition, buried here. Jan. 1931. There he has lain undisturbed for over eighty years.
About the Author. . .
Lora Peppers, a Monroe native, grew up in Bastrop and graduated from ULM. Her love of history dates back to childhood when one of her favorite activities was visiting local cemeteries to examine headstones. Her job as a genealogist and historian has given her the opportunity to lead many lectures and author several books. She can be reached at email@example.com. (Written for Louisiana Road Trips, July, 2007)
Check back every Friday for another nugget of funereal miscellany!