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Category:  Did You Know?
Published:  January, 2010

Did You Know?
Did you know that a Uniontown native once found himself caught in an international incident involving the United States, Canada, England, Russia and an ominously named Russian navy vessel known as “The Red October?”

First, here’s a little background.

While the 1984 Tom Clancy novel, “The Hunt for Red October,” was the basis for a highly successful 1990 motion picture of the same name, the Soviet Union never had a submarine with the name Red October in real life.

However, Russia did have a naval vessel with that name in the 1920’s.

That ship figured prominently in the Soviet Union’s reclaiming of a nearly uninhabitable island near Siberia, and one of its few inhabitants, Charles Wells of Uniontown.

Wells was born in Uniontown in May of 1866. According to a published report in 1924, Wells has served in the Philippines during Spanish-American War. Upon his return, he moved west to Wisconsin, Seattle and eventually to a number of towns in Alaska.

The Russians had staked a territorial claim on tiny Wrangell Island (near Alaska) as early as 1911. However, between 1913 and 1924, there were several expeditions and territorial claims made under the auspice of the governments of Canada, Great Britain and United States.

In 1921, three Americans and an Eskimo woman were left on the island, but in 1923 it was discovered all but the woman had died.

However, that year there was a new effort to colonize Wrangell Island, when 13 Eskimos, along with trapper, prospector and Uniontown native Charles Wells were left behind.

By 1924, the Russians had apparently tired of attempts to occupy (even desolate) land just off their shores. Soon there was a rush to either capture or rescue Wells and his fellow settlers.

On June 6th, 1924, the Cumberland (Md.) Evening Times reported that, “An American named Captain Lane is sailing from San Francisco to Wrangell Island, in the Arctic Sea. He aims to bring back Charles Wells and the 13 Eskimos who were left there last year.”

The article said that Lane was “running a race with the Russians” to raise the Stars and Stripes, despite the fact that the Canadian flag was already flying there.

Newspaper readers of the day would have been about to witness a bit of geo-political intrigue worthy of a Tom Clancy thriller, if it had not been for the sentence at the end of that article.

“To normal Americans, in spite of the lure of illimitable ice at this time of year, Wrangell Island is nothing to wrangle about,” it said.

On August 30th, 1924 the Washington Post carried a dispatch out of Seattle that said the Russians were on their way to Wrangell Island.

“Red October, a vessel flying the Russian flag, armed with a 6-pound cannon and carrying a company of Russian infantry,” it said, was heading toward Wrangell Island.

The Russians had orders to take all of the inhabitants on the island (including Wells) prisoner and to establish Russian ownership of the island.

That report also claimed that a crew of American sailors might have been taken prisoner by the Soviet forces already on the island.

Days later, there were heightened tensions over the fate of Wells, his group and regarding the true national claims to Wrangell Island. A Moscow news dispatch reported that the Red October landed and removed all of the supposed interlopers on the island. Yet there were signs the dispute was becoming an international face-off. The U.S. State Department still maintained the island had been the property of the United States since 1881.

By mid-October there were reports sent around the world from Petropavlovsk, Kamchatka, Siberia. “After a tempestuous voyage, the Soviet Russian transport Red October, arrived here today from Wrangell Island with Charles Wells of Uniontown, Pa.,” said the front page story in the Bridgeport (CT) Telegram on October 25th, 1924.

The article, which was accompanied by a picture of Wells, reported that the Soviets had said the Americans had left the island willingly.

However, in another story, the leader of a Soviet expedition claimed, “Wells and his companions had attempted to flee when they caught sight of the red flag over the island, fearing they would be cast into prison or executed.”

There were conflicting reports about what happened to Wells and members of his party, after they had been taken to Siberia.

One report claimed they had been released and taken to Seattle and then returned to Nome, Alaska.

Yet, there is some evidence that Wells suffered another fate. According to a 1994 lawsuit that attempted to reassert Alaska’s ownership of Wrangell Island, (one that failed, by the way), it was stated that Wells died while in the custody of the Soviet government in Siberia.

Did you know that I’m always fascinated whenever I find old newspaper ads for products that I’d thought didn’t even exist a long time ago?

I’ll present lots of examples next week.