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The Bering Sea Patrol
1880 - Present

In 1865, the Lighthouse Service’s tender Shubrick, then operating under the Revenue Cutter Service, became the service’s first unit to touch Russia's Alaskan coastline. The tender was the flagship supporting Western Union’s expedition to string a telegraph cable from North America to St. Petersburg, Russia. The plan was overtaken by the laying of the Atlantic cable. In 1867, after the Alaska purchase, the revenue cutter Lincoln transported officials to tour the vast new territory. It was noted at the time that Alaska comprised 56 percent of the U.S. coastline. Cutters have sailed to Alaskan waters ever since. The Bering Sea became the center of the service’s multifaceted duties in the north. The work in Alaska’s western and northern waters would become known as the Bering Sea Patrol.

The Bering Sea Patrol started as a reaction to the large scale harvesting of the fur seals. The illegal killing of these animals threatened to lead to their extinction and to deprive the U.S. of a revenue source. Since revenue was involved, the RCS was called upon to protect the seals. In 1880, USRC Corwin, as a collateral duty, placed her bows over the Arctic Circle and cruised some 6,000 miles in the frigid waters of the far north. This marked the beginning of an annual cruise that continues to this day.

The revenue cutters soon found themselves engaged in more duties than simply protecting seals. The small cutters provided a badly needed search and rescue service in an extremely isolated region. In 1880 and 1881, Corwin, under the command of Captain Calvin L. Hooper, searched for the steamer Jeannette and two whalers, Mount Wollaston and Vigilant. Throughout the seasons, Hooper maneuvered his cutter through ice-blocked waters and even sent parties overland by dog sled waiting for the ice to break.

During the Bering Sea Controversy of the 1890s, when the United States and Great Britain teetered on the brink of war over the illegal killing of the seals, the work of the service multiplied and more cutters were needed. The cutter Corwin, operating with the Navy, apprehended the British steamer Coquitlan. The ship was bonded for $600,000, which Evans thought "paid for most of the expenses of our summers work." A patrol commander was appointed in 1895, with his headquarters at Unalaska during the patrol season.

Patrols usually began in late April or the first part of May. The cutters would sail northward from ports on the West Coast, or Hawaii, making their first port of call at Unalaska for briefings and assignments. Then the ships would sail for their designated areas around the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, or the heavy fishing areas. The cutters had the authority to stop, and board, vessels violating sealing and fishing laws. Patrol length usually stretched from 20 to 30 days and thereafter the ships would return to Unalaska for further assignments. After about a week in port, the cutters would be underway again to a new assignment. This routine was in force until at least October, when all the ships returned to their homeports.

The cutters performed a variety of tasks and became, in effect, the only government known to those who resided in the isolated Bering Sea and coastal Arctic Regions. They provided the only form of law and order in this isolated unforgiving land. They performed these duties in a region where no other law enforcement agency existed. They conducted Court Cruises to bring a judge and court attendants to hear criminal cases. Often the ship’s crew formed the jury. They brought doctors to native villages and to remote settlements. They provided many civil functions, even performing marriage ceremonies and holding church services. Between from 1892 to 1906, cutters brought reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in an attempt to make herders out of the native hunters. The experiment failed, but it introduced a herd of over half a million reindeer to Alaska. And they prosecuted search and rescue cases.

Alaskan operations were the Service's first serious encounter with operations in ice. Both Lincoln and Corwin had been conventional steamers. The next vessels to work in Alaskan waters were Bear, and Thetis. Both had been constructed for work in icy regions. Bear, which has been called the Coast Guard's equivalent of "Old Ironsides", was built in Dundee, Scotland in 1874 as a sealer and whaler. She was 198 feet in length and 1,700 tons, with auxiliary reciprocating steam engine and barkentine rig. Her suitability for ice operations was not based on ice breaking ability, but on extraordinarily strong wood construction. She was framed of English oak with substantial longitudinal teak reinforcement and had iron plating on her stem. Her hull could be subjected to considerable ice pressure, and, because of the inherent flexibility of wood, regain its shape when free.

Thetis was a similar auxiliary steamer, though barque rigged. These two vessels were assigned to Alaskan and Bering Sea duties from the 1890s to the 1920s, along with other conventional cutters. Their duties varied, and, given the harsh climate, often dangerous. For many years the Revenue Service was the sole source of Federal authority in the territory, including seven years when the Treasury Department was given charge of the rugged landmass. Duties of these vessels and men included protection of sealers and whalers, providing general police protection, and emergency operations. One of the more unusual tasks was importing Siberian reindeer to provide a food staple for starving Eskimos.

Neither of these cutters were true icebreakers. They were ice resistant, meaning that they had reinforced hulls that allowed them to work in the ice. They had neither the requisite horsepower nor hull design for forcing their way through the ice.

In 1897 eight whaling ships were trapped in the Arctic ice field to the east and west of Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in Alaska. There was great concern on the part of the ship owners that the 265 men who made up the crews of the whalers would starve during the long winter months. USRC Bear, just returned from the Bering Sea Patrol, was ordered to re-provision and go to the aid of the whalers. In late November 1897, Bear, Captain Francis Tuttle commanding, sailed from Port Townsend, Washington, northward. There was never any chance of the cutter pushing her way through the ice to Point Barrow at this late date. Instead, it was decided to put a party ashore and have them travel along the coast. The men would enlist the aid of natives, stop at a reindeer station to buy a small herd of reindeer, and then drive the animals to Point Barrow. On 16 December 1897, using dog sleds, sleds pulled by reindeer, snowshoes, and skis, the men began the expedition. On 29 March 1898, after traveling 1,500 miles and fighting subzero temperatures, blizzards, and the long Arctic night, the party arrived at Point Barrow. The expedition managed to bring 382 reindeer to the whalers, having lost only 66. The reindeer meat allowed the whalers to survive the winter.

In 1899, USRC Nunivak, commanded by First Lieutenant John Cantwell was instrumental in the caontainment of a small pox outbreak in Nome. In 1919, USCGC Unlaga, commanded by Captain F. G. Dodge, played a major role in saving Unalaska and Dutch Haror from a Spanish Influenza epidemic.

By the early 1920s, Bear was ready to retire from the ice. The Coast Guard had a few coastal ice breakers, but nothing capable of work in Alaska. A study produced USCGC Northland. Though Northland has been called an icebreaker, her design was more influenced by the Bear than by European heavy icebreakers such as Ermak. Though she had the familiar cut away icebreaker bow and heavy plating to withstand ice pressures, her power plant lacked the preponderance of horsepower required for heavy icebreaking. She was 216 feet long, just over 2,000 tons and her twin diesel electric engines developed at maximum, 1,000 horsepower (the old Androscoggin had exceeded this output). Her hull, however, was welded steel, reinforced on her sides and she was thoroughly subdivided into watertight compartments. For the first years of her service life, she sported an anachronistic sailing rig, to satisfy those old Arctic hands who looked to sail propulsion to extract her from dangerous waters should her new internal combustion engines fail. She was commissioned in February, 1927 and took up station on the Pacific, operating from San Francisco, then Seattle, on the Bering Sea patrol. She made her last Alaska cruise in 1938. During World War II she was transferred to the Atlantic and the Greenland theatre of operations.

The Patrol was suspended during the war. Cutters continued to work the Bering Sea, but they were looking for Japanese.

The Patrol was resumed after the war and cutters continue to ply Alaskan waters. Alaska has become a modern American State so there is little need for the type of operations Mike Healy conducted. The patrols are now called Alaskan Patrols (ALPATs) and the main mission is enforcing fisheries regulations and maintaining the safety of the American fishing fleet.

Mike Healy

Revenue Captain Michael A. Healy, commanding officer of the cutters Chandler, Corwin, Bear, McCulloch and Thetis, became a legend enforcing federal law along Alaska's 20,000 mile coastline. In addition to being a friend to missionaries and scientists, he was a rescuer of whalers, natives, shipwrecked sailors, and destitute miners.

Born the son of a slave mother in 1839, near Macon, Georgia, he was sent north by his Irish immigrant father to obtain an education. Healy, however, had other ideas and ran away from whatever school his father sent him too, whether it be in Massachusetts or Belgium. He finally ran away for good, only this time to sea. He began his 49-year sea career at the ripe old age of 15 when he signed aboard a clipper ship bound for Asia as a cabin boy. During the Civil War he requested and was granted a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service from President Abraham Lincoln.

Healy took command of the famous cutter Bear in 1886 and on numerous occasions drove himself and his crew well beyond the call of duty. In 1888, the Alaska whaling fleet had anchored behind the bar at Point Barrow to ride out a southwest gale. The wind veered to the north. Huge waves were breaking over the bar. Four different ships broke apart and sank, throwing their crews into the icy waters. During an incredible mass rescue, Bear's crew saved 160 survivors.

From 1892 to 1895, Healy allied himself with Dr. Sheldon Jackson in an attempt to raise the living standards of Alaska's native population. Aboard Bear, 500 reindeer and their handlers were ferried from Siberia in an attempt to transform the Eskimos from hunters and fishermen into herders.

Healy was "on the beach" for four years following a controversial court-martial conviction for "gross irresponsibility" and "scandalous conduct." However, the 1900 Alaska god rush called for more cutters. Healy was given command of the cutter McCulloch and was sent north once again. He spent his last two years of service on Alaskan waters aboard the cutter Thetis. He retired in 1904 at the mandatory retirement age of 64 and died one year later.


USRC Bear (AG-29) was a steam barkentine, 199 feet overall in length, of heavy oak construction, powered by a compound reciprocating steam engine which produced 300 horsepower.

Built in Scotland in 1847, Bear served 10 years in the seal hunts in the Canadian Arctic. In 1884, Bear was purchased by the US Government to rescue the survivors of the Greely Expedition. In 1886, Bear was transferred to the Treasury Department for use in the US Revenue Marine's Alaskan Patrol. Bear served in the capacity for the next 41 years and became a legend in the lusty, brawling, new territory of Alaska. Bear embodied the concept of the muti-mission ship by rescuing shipwrecked mariners, breaking ice, enforcing fisheries laws, carrying mail, making hydrogaphic surveys, and often carrying a US judge who held court and dispensed territorial justice. It was also from the decks of Bear that reindeer were introduced to Alaska.

Bear’s most dramatic rescue was the “Overland Expedition” which was launched in the winter of 1897 to bring relief to Alaska whalers frozen in the ice off Point Barrow. Stopped by ice and storms, Bear put ashore a party of crew members headed by LT D.H. Jarvis. The party made an epic dog sled trek over 1,600 miles of frozen Arctic wilderness to Point Barrow driving a herd of reindeer, ahead of them. They arrived in time to save the survivors of eight trapped vessels from almost certain starvation and provide shelter and medical attention until Bear was able to break through the ice and lead them out.

Bear was still around in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. For the duration of the war she served under the Navy. This, however, did not change her routine patrol of Alaskan waters.

In 1929 Bear was decommissioned and turned over to the city of Oakland, California, for use as a maritime museum. It was at this time that she served as the set for the filming of Jack London's "Sea Wolf".

Bear was getting on in years now, but there was still some great moments ahead for the stout old ship. In the early 1930s, she sailed with Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN on his Second Antarctic Expedition. After a refit in Boston, Bear left on 25 September 1933 under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert A. J. English, USN. After a rugged trip, she reached the Bay of Whales and Little America in the latter part of January 1934. Once again in the United States Antarctic Expedition of 1939-41, Admiral Byrd called upon Bear's services. This time, however, her boiler and engine were taken out and a modern diesel drive installed. Her auxiliary equipment was electrified. By 16 May 1941, she had completed her work in the Antarctic and was back at Boston.

By this time, the shadow of World War II was already stretching over the United States. In 1941, shortly after her return from the Antarctic, Bear was assigned to the Greenland Patrol. She took part in the capture of the Norwegian trawler Buskoe, which had been fitted out by the Germans to transmit weather reports and information on Allied ship movements. Bear's days of active service were now drawing rapidly to a close. In June 1944, she was stricken from the Navy list of active vessels and turned over to the Maritime Commission for sale.

A Canadian steamship company purchased her in 1948 with the intention of converting her to her former role as a sealing vessel. But before this could be accomplished, the price of seal oil and skins dropped, and all work on her was stopped. For a while it seemed as though Bear were doomed to end her days in obscurity on a Nova Scotia beach. She was spared this fate by Mr. Alfred M. Johnston of Villanova, Pennsylvania, who purchased her for eventual use as a commercial museum and restaurant near Philadelphia. The end came for Bear as she was being towed to Philadelphia. Apparently, her old timbers were no longer strong enough to withstand the vicious battering of the North Atlantic.

Now Bear lies in her final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic. After a legendary career, spanning several generations, she has at last found peace. But to all men who are interested in the lore of the sea, she will remain a shining symbol of courage. Her story will continue to be told as long as men sail the seas.