The Long Blue Line: Arctic Cutter Bear—“A symbol for all the Service represents” Part 1

This blog is part of a series honoring the long blue line of Coast Guard men and women who served before us. Stay tuned as we highlight the customs, traditions, history and heritage of the Coast Guard.

William H. Thiesen, Ph.D.
Atlantic Area Historian, United States Coast Guard

Painting of U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Bear under sail and steam on the Bering Sea Patrol. U.S. Coast Guard image.

Painting of U.S. Revenue Cutter Service Bear under sail and steam on the Bering Sea Patrol. U.S. Coast Guard image.

The Bear is more than just a famous ship; she is a symbol for all the service represents—for steadfastness, for courage, and for constant readiness to help men and vessels in distress.”
–Capt. Stephen Evans, U.S. Coast Guard, 1790-1915

As the quote above indicates, the cutter Bear’s story reflects the Service’s core values. This extraordinary ship, on which legends were made, remains the most famous cutter in Coast Guard history.

Built in 1874, Bear was designed specifically to work in ice-bound conditions, long before the use of icebreakers. It was a 198-foot, 700-ton barkentine rigged steamer constructed in Scotland for sealing in northern waters. In 1874, iron proved too brittle for use in the cold Arctic, so Bear’s hull was built of wood, reinforced with six-inch thick oak planks and sheathed with Australian “ironwood” for a total hull thickness of 10 inches. Bear also boasted a steel-plated bow; retractable screw and, in case of long periods underway, it had extra space for fuel, supplies or added passengers.

USS Bear anchored in Greenland in 1884 as part of the famous Greely Relief Expedition. U.S. Navy image.

USS Bear anchored in Greenland in 1884 as part of the famous Greely Relief Expedition. U.S. Navy image.

In 1881, Lt. Adolphus Greely, a member of the U.S. Army’s Signal Corps, led an expedition to study the weather and winter conditions on Ellesmere Island northwest of Greenland. Attempts to relieve Greely’s expedition in 1882 and 1883 proved unsuccessful and members of the expedition began to die of disease and starvation. In 1884, the U.S. Navy purchased Bear and, in June 1884, the crew managed to help rescue Greely and the five surviving members of his expedition.

The colorful Capt. "Hell Roarin'" Mike Healy, first commissioned African-American ship captain and famed skipper of the Bear. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

The colorful Capt. “Hell Roarin'” Mike Healy, first commissioned African-American ship captain and famed skipper of the Bear. U.S. Coast Guard photo.

In the spring of 1885, the Navy transferred Bear to the Revenue Cutter Service and, in early November, began a voyage to California around Cape Horn. Capt. Michael Healy took command of Bear in April 1886 after the cutter arrived at its homeport of San Francisco. A veteran of Alaskan waters and skilled ice pilot, Healy was the first African American to receive a commission from the U.S. government and the first to command a federal ship. Under Healy, Bear served on the Bering Sea Patrol, which comprised between 15,000 and 20,000 miles of cruising. Conditions on Bering Sea were harsh, dangerous, stressful and at times deadly. Healy described the pressures of serving on the Bering Sea assignment: “to stand for 40 hours on the bridge of the Bear, wet, cold and hungry, hemmed in by impenetrable masses of fog, tortured by uncertainty, and the good ship plunging and contending with ice seas in an unknown ocean.”

As an Alaskan cutter, Bear crews saved lives at sea and preserved the lives of those struggling to survive in Alaska’s frozen frontier. The native people of Alaska had relied heavily on whaling and fishing when the territory came under U.S. control. However, after foreign whaling, fishing and sealing vessels entered Alaskan waters, fish stocks began to diminish causing large-scale malnutrition and starvation in native villages. To solve the problem, Healy convinced authorities that Siberian reindeer should be introduced to Alaska. Healy’s views won over government officials and, in 1892, he brought over the first shipment of reindeer to the Seward Peninsula and established a reindeer station at Port Clarence. By 1930, Alaska’s domesticated deer herds totaled 600,000 head and 13,000 native Alaskans relied on the herds for life’s essentials.

Painting showing the 1892 transfer of Siberian reindeer by Cutter Bear under the command of Capt. Michael Healy. U.S. Coast Guard image.

Painting showing the 1892 transfer of Siberian reindeer by Cutter Bear under the command of Capt. Michael Healy. U.S. Coast Guard image.

Under Healy, Bear’s humanitarian support of Alaska not only included better nutrition for native communities, the crews also protected endangered seal herds from poachers. Cutters patrolled the waters off the Pribilof Islands seizing poaching vessels of all nationalities. Bear enforced seal hunting regulations into the early 1900’s and, in 1892, was on hand when military action nearly erupted between the U.S. and Great Britain over seizure of British sealing vessels.

By 1896, Healy had served 10 grueling years on the Bering Sea Patrol. During this time, Bear controlled illegal liquor distribution used to exploit native people in the territory. Native people called the Bear “Omiak puck pechuck tonika” or “the fire canoe with no whiskey.” Ironically, while one of Bear’s missions was to interdict the smuggling of illegal liquor to native Alaskans, the stress caused by a decade of cruising encouraged Healy’s own drinking problem. In 1896, the Service relieved him of command, dropped him to the bottom of the captain’s list, and placed him out of Service for four years. The Service later reinstated him and he commanded other cutters before retiring in 1903 as the third-most senior officer in the Revenue Cutter Service. Physically spent, he died a year later at the age of 65.

A year after Healy transferred off the Bear, eight whaling ships became trapped in pack ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. Concerned that the ship’s 265 crewmembers would starve to death, the whaling companies appealed to President William McKinley to send a relief expedition. For a second time in its history, Bear would support a major rescue mission into the Arctic. In late November 1897, soon after completing its annual Alaskan cruise, the Bear crews took on supplies and sailed north from Port Townsend, Washington. This would be the largest of several mass rescues of American whalers undertaken by Bear during the heyday of Arctic whaling. And, it was the first time before recent global warming that a ship deliberately sailed into Arctic waters during the harsh Alaskan winter.

Painting showing Cutter Bear rescuing shipwrecked whalers. U.S. Coast Guard image.

Painting showing Cutter Bear rescuing shipwrecked whalers. U.S. Coast Guard image.

To lead the so-called Overland Relief Expedition, Bear’s captain, Francis Tuttle, placed Lt. David Jarvis in charge of a team including Lt. Ellsworth Bertholf, Surgeon Samuel Call and three enlisted men, and tasked them with driving a herd of the newly introduced reindeer to the whaling ships. Using sleds pulled by dogs and reindeer, the rescue party set out on snowshoes in mid-December 1897. In late March 1898, after over three months and 1,500 miles in ice and snow, the rescue party arrived at Point Barrow. The expedition delivered 382 reindeer to the starving whalers with no loss of human life. Jarvis later recounted the rigors of the expedition: “Though the mercury was -30 degrees, I was wet through with perspiration from the violence of the work. Our sleds were racked and broken, our dogs played out, and we ourselves scarcely able to move, when we finally reached the cape [at Pt. Barrow] . . . .” For their work, Congress awarded Bertholf, Call, and Jarvis a specially struck Gold Medal. Jarvis later assumed command of Bear, as did Bertholf, who rose through the ranks to become the first commandant of the modern Coast Guard.

Gold had been discovered in Canada’s Klondike in 1896 bringing with it hundreds of thousands of prospectors, miners and their followers to the coastal towns of Alaska. The Klondike was followed by gold discoveries in Nome and then Fairbanks, Alaska. This rapid migration to the Alaskan gold fields continued for over 10 years and brought with it the need for law enforcement, medical services and humanitarian relief. In the boomtowns of Nome and St. Michel, revenue cuttermen from the Bear and other cutters patrolled the streets, cared for the sick and enforced the law where there had been none before. In addition, Bear evacuated hundreds of invalids, criminals, and sick and desperate miners from the gold fields back to Seattle, where they received proper care.

This is hardly the end of the cutter’s illustrious history that we proudly claim as part of the Coast Guard’s Long Blue Line. Check back next week to continue reading about the crews and missions of Coast Guard Cutter Bear.

 

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