Tom Gross – a dedicated researcher of the famed and ill-fated Franklin Expedition – thinks he may know where Sir John Franklin is buried, which would be a discovery of international significance.
In fact, Gross believes he has actually flown over and seen the possible grave of Franklin, who died in 1847 while searching for the Northwest Passage in what is now Nunavut.
However, that sighting was in 2015 and Gross has not been able to again find the site since, either by air or by ground searches.
Gross said that he was flying a plane over the western coast of King William Island in Nunavut when he saw unusual huge rocks about 400 feet below.
“I remember looking and there were two black upright stones sticking up, and they did not belong there,” he said, noting they were not a natural part of the hill. “Somebody had put them there. And as I got closer I could see in behind it, cut into the side of the hill, was beautifully walled in. The stones were standing. Here were the remains of a doorway. The top had fallen in.”
Gross said he circled around a few times to try to get a better look at it, but it is “unbelievably well hidden” and the walls blended in with the hill because they were made out of the same rock, while the black pillars for the doorway stood out.
“I believe this is Franklin’s vault,” said Gross. “It’s a mausoleum. So inside is Franklin’s grave and also smaller vaults that are probably going to be the papers and other documents.”
The researcher said the site, which he estimated is 12×16 feet in size, might also include other graves.
“On the last pass over, I looked right down into it,” he said. “It is a perfect rectangle. Somebody engineered that.”
When he spotted the site, Gross said he scanned the land to get his bearings.
“I looked at the coast and I looked around, and I said, ‘I know where I am,'” he recalled. “And we must have been all brain dead or something.”
Unfortunately, in the three summers since, Gross has unsuccessfully tried to locate the site once again.
“And we couldn’t find it,” he said. “It just disappeared.”
Gross was not the only person to see the possible grave.
It was also seen by Darcy King, who was one of two other people in the plane in 2015.
“There were a couple of pillars. One was knocked over,” said King. “They were darker in colour. And then it looked like there was almost a perfectly square formation there. That’s what I saw. I saw more or less the same thing that Tom did.”
King said the site stood out as man-made, but he added what it is hasn’t yet been proven.
Like Gross, King believes it might be Franklin’s grave.
“I think it’s a possibility, yes, for sure,” he said.
King, the co-owner of Landa Aviation in Hay River, has gone along with Gross at least four times to help with his exploration and enjoys the search.
They are planning on doing an air search and ground search next year.
When asked if he is disappointed they haven’t once again found the site of the possible grave, King responded such things can happen.
“I don’t know how to describe it. It’s just disorientating,” he said of the search area. “Everything looks the same.”
Gross said the Government of Nunavut is aware of what he saw because he wrote about it in reports for his archaeological permits.
However, he noted this is the first time he has talked about it in the media.
Plus, he discussed the sighting in a Sept. 14 presentation at the Hay River Heritage Centre.
Gross noted that the sighting fits a story he had heard in Gjoa Haven about a stone house on King William Island.
It also fits with a story reported by Peter Bayne in the 1860s.
Bayne, one of the searchers for the Franklin Expedition, reported a story from an Inuit elder about seeing two ships stuck in the ice years before on the west side of King William Island and seeing a camp on the shore with one big tent where many men were sick. According to the story, some died and were buried in a hill behind the camp. However, it was said that one man died on a ship and was brought to shore and not buried in the ground like the others, but was buried in an opening in the rock, and many guns were fired.
“So I know that it’s the Bayne story. I know it,” said Gross of his 2015 sighting. “Now I know that the Bayne story is true.”
Gross has been searching for Franklin’s grave since 1994, when he became interested in the Franklin Expedition while living in Nunavut and he has gone searching almost every summer since.
In 2014, he found a cairn of stones on the shore of Erebus Bay, which prompted the search inland.
Gross said the possible gravesite is in a roughly 77-square-kilometre area about 145 kilometres as the crow flies from Gjoa Haven.
“It’s not over,” he said of his search to once again find the site. “It’s still a big area. And we’re just going to have to pick it apart.”
Gross said he is going to reapply for an archaeological research permit from the Government of Nunavut to keep looking in coming summers.
“When I see that and I verify what that is, it’s done. It’s over,” said the 59-year-old. “That’s it for me.”
Some people may doubt his description of the site of what might be Franklin’s grave, noted Gross. “But I know what I saw.”