The United States Revenue Cutter Bear began her life with an Arctic expedition that nearly came to a disastrous end. The expedition, under the control of the then First Lieutenant Adolphus Washington Greely, U.S. Army, was one of two groups sent to the Arctic to establish a series of observation stations. A dramatic turn of unfortunate events left Greely and his crew stranded in the unforgiving Arctic winter without ample food and clothing.
A fleet of three Navy ships came to rescue the crew, but for months they had been surviving on rock moss, leather sledding equipment, and whatever small game they could find. Many of the crew had died or gone mad from privation, and those who survived were nothing but starving skeletons.
When it looked like the Bear's career might be over, she was transferred to the Treasury Department for use in Alaskan waters and the Arctic Ocean. This new beginning was the start of a 41-year career on the Alaskan Patrol that has yet to be surpassed. Her first skipper was Captain A. A. Fengar, but in 1885, it was the dynamic "Hell Roaring"' Mike Healy, a vibrant African-American Captain with an unpredictable temper, that made the Bear famous. Healy was a respected Captain, and he commanded the Bear for more than nine years, longer than any other.
Over time, Healy and the Bear became legendary in the harsh terrain of Alaska. The Bear assumed many duties while on the Alaskan Patrol. She carried mail that accumulated in Seattle during the winter, and transported Government agents and supplies. She often transported prisoners South from Alaska, and the deck of the ship sometime served as a courtroom where justice was served swiftly but fairly. The Bear also conducted special investigations, undertook crime prevention and law enforcement. She and Healy were often the only law in that far away part of the world. The Bear also conducted surveys to improve navigation charts of Alaskan waters, and her surgeon gave medical attention to natives, missionaries, and whalers.
One of Healy's s undertakings was the importation of reindeer from Siberia to provide sustenance for the natives who were constantly at risk of the threat of famine. Healy said the reindeer would also be an excellent source of clothing and transportation for the natives.
After the change in command after Healy, the Bear continued to have many other adventures, such as the Overland Rescue of 1897, where she assisted in the rescue of eight whaling vessels and their crews, totaling about 275 men, that were trapped in the ice pack off remote Point Barrow, Alaska. The ship sailed as far North as she could equipped with dog teams, sleds, and guides, but when the crew could not cut through any more ice, they set out on a 1,600 mile journey through frozen, trackless wilderness. The "Overland Expedition for the Relief of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean" as it was ponderously called, became one of the great epics of the north.
During the strenuous expedition, the crew collected a herd of nearly 450 reindeer. Driving the herd ahead of them in the face of icy winds the party reached Point Barrow about three and one-half months after being put ashore by the Bear. To the despairing whalers, the arrival of the relief party was nothing short of a miracle. Healy's foresight had paid off.
|As the stricken whaling crews await aboard their vessels, the desperately needed supplies are hauled over the frozen tundra by members of the Revenue Cutter Bear. (Credit: USCG)|
The Bear continued sailing during both world wars, but continued her routine patrol of Alaskan waters. She also had the role in a film, serving as the set for the filming of Jack London's "Sea Wolf". The end came for the Bear in the early 1950ís as she was being towed to Philadelphia. Her old timbers were no longer strong enough to withstand the vicious battering of the North Atlantic, and she was lost to the sea.
Now the Bear lies in her final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. After a legendary career, she remains a shining symbol of bravery, courage, and hope.