Haze Gray Photo Feature

The Cutter Bear

Sealer, Rescue Ship, Revenue Cutter, Exploration Vessel, Patrol Ship

The cutter Bear probably was the most famous polar exploration ship of all time. Originally built as a sealing ship, she served the United States as a rescue vessel, a revenue cutter, a Coast Guard cutter, a polar exploration vessel, and an Arctic patrol ship during a career of unmatched length. She was in the service of the US Government for nearly 60 years, and she survived to be nearly 90 years old.

The Early Years

The famous cutter Bear was built in Dundee, Scotland, in 1874, as a sealer. She was heavily built, with six inch thick oak planks, to endure the abuse of arctic ice. She was rigged as a barkentine, and carried a steam engine. From 1874 to 1884 she made annual trips to the arctic sealing grounds.

In 1884, shortly after completing an overhaul, the ship was purchased by the US government to be used for the rescue of the Greely Expedition, which was trapped in Lady Franklin Bay in Northern Greenland. The expedition, under the command of Lieutenant A. W. Greely, had set up a camp to study the winter conditions of the north in 1881. Their relief ship in 1882 had failed to reach them, and the 1883 ship also failed to break through the ice. When the 1883 relief ship failed to reach the camp, the men gambled that a rescue ship would be coming, broke camp, and started trekking south. From August to October 1883 they moved south, then set up camp for the winter. By springtime the food had run out; they were desperate.

The Bear was the last hope of the trapped expedition, and the government wasted no time in despatching her north. After a hurried trip to New York she was outitted for the mission and commissioned in the US Navy. Bear left New York April 25th, 1884, then stopped at St. John's for final supplies. With the USS Thetis, another sealer purchased for the rescue, as flagship, Bear headed north from Canada on May 4th. She pushed onwards under steam and sail, and soon entered the ice. Battling through the pack ice while keeping a lookout for the expedition, she pushed forward. On June 22 Bear and Thetis finally arrived at the expedition's camp. Only Lieutenant Greely and six men remained alive. Bear immediately turned south and raced the men to Portsmouth, NH for medical treatment.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear at Brooklyn Navy Yard, preparing for the Greely rescue.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear's companion Thetis during the Greely rescue. This photo of Thetis has been confirmed as dating to the rescue mission. The similarity in the equipment carried by Thetis to that aboard Bear is notable.

Bering Sea Patrol

Upon completion of the rescue the Navy turned Bear over to the Revenue Cutter Service for use on the Bering Sea patrol. In 1886 Bear, operating from San Francisco, started a routine she would carry out for more than 40 years. Each spring she sailed north into the Arctic, acting as a mail boat, supply ship, hospital, police department and court for the isolated northern settlements. She rescued dozens of ships and persons in the frozen northern expanses during this time. With the coming of winter, she would return to San Francisco to lay up for the winter. Bear became an institution of the northern settlements; she was recognized far and wide. She also made important contributions "at home" -- her crew played a major role in rescue operations following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear, probably soon after she joined the Revenue Cutter Service.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear on Bering Sea Patrol.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear working through the Bering Sea ice to rescue a trapped ship.

In 1897 Bear embarked upon one of her greatest missions. After a busy summer she was heading south for the winter, and put into Seattle along the way. There she was met with the news that 8 whaling ships with 265 men aboard were trapped in the ice off Point Barrow, the northern point of Alaska. President McKinley personally asked if Bear would try a rescue dash, although no vessel had ever sailed north at that time of year. Bear accepted the challenge, and sailed north on 27 November, with a volunteer crew. She drove northward into the cold, stormy seas for many days, finally grinding to a halt in the ice at Cape Vancouver, Nelson Island. She was still 1200 miles from the whalers. Three of her officers, Lieutenants Jarvis and Bertholf and Surgeon Call voluntarily left the Bear to trek through across the ice to the whalers. Their remarkable journey took 120 days, averaging 10 miles a day. For 800 miles they drove a herd of reindeer ahead of them, to feed the trapped men. They were just in time. When the rescue party arrived with the herd of reindeer, the whalers had run out of food and were reduced to eating their boots.

Bear plowed forward again in the spring, finally arriving off Point Barrow in July. She was promptly trapped in the ice herself; the pressure of the ice bulged her decks and threatened to break her rudder. Only by an all-hands effort to cut the ice away from her hull was the ship saved. With the rescue completed, she sailed south and broke out of the ice.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear at Oakland, California, in during her off-season.

In 1915 the Revenue Cutter service became part of the Coast Guard, and Bear became USCGC Bear. During WWI she worked for the Navy, but went back to Bering Sea patrol after the war. Bear was deemed obsolete in 1921, but no replacement was available, so she served on. In 1924 she was trapped in ice, pushed ashore in a storm, and reported to be destroyed, but she was eventually hauled off with little damage. 1926 marked Bear's 36th and final voyage into the Bering Sea. In 1928 the new cutter Northland was commissioned, taking over Bear's duties.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear in drydock, showing damage to her forefoot. This photo is undated, but was quite possibly taken during repairs following Bear's 1924 grounding. The damage visible her is consistent with being ground over rocks. This almost certainly is not ice damage, which would make itself evident near the ship's waterline, not at the bottom of her hull.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear's forefoot after the damage had been repaired.

The Antarctic Expeditions

Following the conclusion of her Bering Sea service, Bear became a museum at Oakland, near her old winter home, and was owned by the City of Oakland. Her rest at Oakland was not to last long, however.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear playing the part of Death Larsen's sealship "Macedonia" for the 1930 movie "The Sea Wolf". This filming probably took place during Bear's years as a museum ship at Oakland.

Shortly after Bear was retired Admiral Byrd decided to purchase the ship to replace his old City of New York for his next expedition to the South Pole. The Admiral requested that the City put Bear up for auction so he could buy her. This was done, but Byrd almost lost the ship when a scrap dealer unexpectedly bid $1,000 for her. Byrd informed the scapper of his intentions, bid $1,050, and acquired the ship. Bear was renamed Bear of Oakland sailed for Boston to refit. The old barkentine sailed from Boston on 25 September 1933 in company of the steamer Jacob Ruppert, bound for New Zealand. On the way she weathered many severe storms, one of which forced her into port and into drydock for repairs. She finally arrived at Wellington, NZ, on 6 January 1934.

Bear of Oakland sailed for Little America, the Antarctic base, on 19 January. 12 days later she arrived and unloaded her supplies and equipment. After making several exploration trips through the ice, she met a British ship offshore and picked up the expedition's doctor. She then had to fight her way back through the ice to drop off the doctor and pick up extra personnel; she barely made the trip. After 8 desparate hours conducting final loading and unloading operations, Bear sailed north out of the ice. She encountered terrific gales on the trip north, struggling through winds up to 100 miles an hour, and being blown onto her beam ends.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear of Oakland in drydock at Newport News Shipbuilding & Drydock. This photo was almost certainly taken during October 1933, when Bear of Oakland underwent emergency repairs in drydock at Newport News following storm damage suffered off Diamond Shoals. At the time she was en route from Boston to New Zealand for her first Antarctic mission.

 [THUMBNAIL] Dogs and gear on Bear of Oakland's deck, headed south towards Antarctica.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear of Oakland in the Antarctic ice pack.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear of Oakland in the ice during one of her Antarctic expeditions.

 [THUMBNAIL] Overhead view of Bear of Oakland around the time of her Antarctic expeditions.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear transferring cargo in the Antarctic ice.

Bear sailed north to New Zealand, spent the Antarctic winter in overhaul, and again sailed south on 1 January 1935. She was so deeply laden with supplies and equipment that she had but 20 inches of freeboard. Bear arrived at Little America on January 19 and began the evacuation of the base. The work went on around the clock for two weeks, with Bear shuttling between the icepack and the steamer Ruppert, standing by offshore. The evacuation was completed and Bear sailed north again on February 5th. Her voyage finally ended at Boston, where she lay alongside a wharf, unmaintained, for many years. Most people thought she would never sail again.

In 1939 President Roosevelt commissioned Admiral Byrd to lead an expedition to Antarctica to lay claim to previously unclaimed territory there. Bear was overhauled to serve as the flagship of the expedition; she was joined by Northland. Bear received new diesels engines and new spars before she sailed south on 22 November 1939. She arrived off Antarctica on the 31st of December. During the next few weeks she set new records by pushing through the ice to points never before reached. At one point she was trapped and nearly crushed, only escaping because her spotting aircraft found a lead through the ice. Again Bear spent the winter in New Zealand, returning to pick up the expedition in late December, 1940.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear in the ice during the 1939-1940 Antarctic expedition.

 [THUMBNAIL] Another view of Bear during the 1939-1940 expedition.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear, nearly obscured by ice, during her final Antarctic voyages.

The World at War and the Final Years

The Battle of the Atlantic was raging by the time Bear reached Boston. Due to a shortage of patrol ships she rejoined the Navy as a Greenland patrol ship. Her rig was cut down to two pole masts; she became a motor vessel. On the Greenland patrol she made the first US capture of the war: the German ship Busko, captured while setting up a radio station to assist U-boats. Bear served until new vessels were available to replace her; she was then laid up at Boston.

 [THUMBNAIL] Bear sails from Boston for service on the Greenland Patrol. Her appearance has been extensively altered during conversion for her new role.

 [THUMBNAIL] The cutter Bear as USS Bear (AG 29) during WWII, on Greenland Patrol. Note the floatplane.

After WWII Bear was offered for sale, and was purchased by Frank M. Shaw of Montreal for $5199.00. He renamed her Arctic Bear. In 1948 she was towed to Canada for reconversion to her original sealing role, but this plan fell through. Arctic Bear was abandoned in the mud at Halifax. In 1962 she was purchased and converted to a restaurant/museum ship for use at Philadelphia; her original name was restored. In March 1963 the tug Irving Birch towed her from Halifax, bound for Philadelphia. A few days out a gale struck, parting the towline. Bear's foremast collapsed, poking a hole in her hull, and she slowly filled and sank. She went down early in the morning of March 19, 1963, 250 miles east of Boston.

 [THUMBNAIL] The end of Bear.

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