USS Bear


Cutter USS Bear In Ice

Sinking In Atlantic

The Amazing Story Of The U.S. Cutter Bear


By James Donahue


The early steamship Bear, utilized by the United States Revenue Service at the turn of the century, was involved in a daring rescue of several hundred men, the crews of eight stranded whaling ships, caught in the ice at Point Barrow, Alaska, in late 1897.


As time progressed the plight of the trapped sailors became known to the nation. The ships were caught by not only ice but an ill-favored December wind, and the food supply was gone. The men were threatened with starvation.


Captain David H. Jarvis, the commander of the Bear, came up with a daring plan to save the men after the whaling companies appealed to President William McKinley for help. It seems the U.S. government, at some earlier time, transported herds of reindeer from Siberia to Alaska as an experiment to help the North American Inuits. The idea was to turn the tribes of hunters into herdsmen. It was a failed experiment, but the reindeer were still there.


In November, Jarvis set sail on the Bear with a crew of volunteers willing to participate in the daring rescue. The plan was to reach the frozen ice, then round up a herd of reindeer and drive them across the tundra to the stranded whalers as a food supply.


The steamer made it to Cape Vancouver, and from there a party wet out along the coast. It was led  by Captain Jarvis, his second-in-command, Lt. Ellsworth Berthold, and the ship's surgeon, J. S. Call. Also on the trip were Coast Guardsman F. Koltchuff, W. T. Lopp, supervisor of the Teller Reindeer Station, and Charlie Ariserlook, a native reindeer herder.


The men set out on Dec. 16, 1897, and utilized dog sleds, reindeer sleds, snowshoes and skis. They traveled 1,500 miles from Cape Vancouver to Point Barrow and successfully rounded up and delivered 382 reindeer.


At Sea



This was not the first time the Bear made headlines as a rescue ship in the far north regions of the world. During its years of service, this ship became a legend in its own time.


It was the Bear, then owned by the U.S. Navy, and a second ship, the USS Thetis, that set out in 1884 to rescue the ill-fated Greely Expedition, which became trapped at Lady Franklin Bay in Northern Greenland. That expedition set up camp to study winter conditions in the far north in 1881, but then became trapped. After what was a hazardous journey beating through ice, Bear and Thetis finally arrive at the expedition's camp. Only Lieutenant.Greely and six of his men remained alive.


After that trip, the Navy turned the Bear over the the Revenue Service for use on patrol in the Bering Sea.


The Bear was designed for fighting the ice. She was built as a seal hunting ship at Dundee, Scotland, in 1874. She was a 200-foot-long wooden hulled ship, but her hull was made of six inch thick oak planks reinforced with heavy steel plating. She was rigged as a barkentine  and powered with steam.


Because she was the largest of the government cutters, the Bear was assigned the northern duty. She sailed the Bering Sea, the Chukchi Sea and the Arctic Ocean, often through uncharted ice-choked waters.


Between 1886 and 1926, the Bear was a floating government at sea. The crew, under the command of Captain Michael Healy, took census, counted ships, seized vessels violating seal hunting laws or found smuggling liquor and firearms to the natives. The ship took soundings, bearings, geodetical and astronomical observations, recorded tides and currents north of the Aleutian Islands, and escorted whale ships into Point Barrow. In those years the ship became legendary. The crew acted as judge, doctor and policeman to the Alaska natives.


The Bear also returned to play a major role in rescue operations following the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. That is because the ship's home port was technically San Francisco, where she moored during the harsh winter months.


In 1915 when the Revenue Service became part of the Coast Guard, the Bear became USCGC Bear. She continued patroling the Bering Sea during World War One and remained with the service until 1921 when the government said the ship was obsolete.


But that was not the end of this amazing ship. Because no replacement ship was available, the Bear continue Coast Guard service for another three years, during which she was trapped in ice, pushed ashore in a storm and reportedly destroyed. But after that, the Bear was dragged back into deep water and found to have suffered little damage.


Finally, in 1928 the Bear was replaced by the new cutter Northland. The ship was turned over to the City of Oakland where she moored at her old winter home of San Francisco and was used as a museum. During this brief retirement, the Bear was featured in a Hollywood film, The Sea Wolf," in 1930.


The Bear sprang back into the news in 1934 after she was purchased by Admiral Richard Byrd for a new expedition to the South Pole. The ship was renamed Bear of Oakland.and then sailed to New Zealand for a refit.


Byrd took the Bear on three Antarctic expeditions that pushed the vessel to its limits. When President Roosevelt commissioned Admiral Byrd to lead an expedition to Antarctica to lay claim to territory, Bear served as the expedition flagship. Also participating was the Northland.


The Bear arrived off Antarctica on Dec. 31, and in the weeks that followed, set new records by pushing through ice to points never before reached. At one point the ship became trapped and nearly crushed by the ice. She escaped because her spotting aircraft found a lead through the ice.


World War II brought the Bear back into Navy duty. She joined the Navy as a Greenland patrol boat. By then her rig was reduced to two pole masts. With two heavy diesel engines, she became a motor vessel.


While on that patrol Bear captured the German ship Busko, which was setting up a radio station for communication with U-boats. It was the first U.S. capture in the war. The Bear served in the war until new vessels were built to replace it, and she was laid up at Boston.


After the war, the old ship was purchased by Frank M. Shaw of Montreal and renamed Arctic Bear. In 1948 she was towed to Canada for conversion as a sealer, but the plan failed and the Bear was abandoned at Halifax.


Then in 1962 she was purchased for conversion to a restaurant and museum ship with plans to moor it at Philadelphia. She was renamed Bear. But the Bear was a tired old ship by then, and the years of lying abandoned in the mud at Halifax had taken their toll.


While under tow behind the tug Irving Birch, on her way from Halifax to Philadelphia, a gale broke the towline. Bear's foremast collapsed, poking a hole in her rotting hull. She slowly filled and sank even as Coast Guard vessels were standing by.


The Bear was lost on the morning of March 19, 1963, 250 miles east of Boston.


Last Hours

Great And Lost Ships Of The World