The ship that wouldn't die

Doomed to a museum after fifty years of stirring Aretic adventures, Bear came back to fight her second war and triumph at another pole. Now eighty, she lies in Halifax harbor, still ready to be recalled to duty

Lawrence Earl December 6 1958

The ship that wouldn't die

Doomed to a museum after fifty years of stirring Aretic adventures, Bear came back to fight her second war and triumph at another pole. Now eighty, she lies in Halifax harbor, still ready to be recalled to duty

Lawrence Earl December 6 1958

The ship that wouldn't die

Doomed to a museum after fifty years of stirring Aretic adventures, Bear came back to fight her second war and triumph at another pole. Now eighty, she lies in Halifax harbor, still ready to be recalled to duty

Lawrence Earl

Her once-graceful masts are cut down to stubby proportions. Her sails are gone. Her stripped engine room is flaking red with rust. A slim, black-painted empty shell, wearing an anachronistic polar - bear figurehead, she lies in a backwater of Halifax harbor, ignored by towering Atlantic liners, sleek naval craft, rusty freighters and puffing tugboats. Even in a great Bluenose seaport where men love ships and tales of ships, she is unnoticed, forgotten.

Yet of all the thousands of vessels ever to enter Halifax harbor, none has embarked on so many daring excursions as the Bear. None has lived so long and varied a life, nor made so many headlines. She has been rhymed about and sung about, preached over and prayed for, loved by her crews,

wept over by sourdoughs who hated to see her depart, wildly cheered by sophisticated New Yorkers, and made into a living myth by the Eskimos she sometimes served. She was called the “indestructible ship.”

Certainly no vessel had ever matched her thrilling adventures in icy seas. Bear had rescued the pitiful survivors of the Greely expedition; helped save Captain Bob Bartlett's Canadian Arctic Expedition party; kept two hundred and eighty-three ice-trapped whalemen from starving in possibly the most spectacular mass rescue in Arctic annals. Bought for a song by Rear Admiral Richard E. Byrd, she made for him two noteworthy voyages to the white barrens of Antarctica. Two American presidents widely separated in history—Chester Arthur and the second Roosevelt — honored her for her achievements.

Born when steam was replacing sail, she had been cannily designed to use both. She was built as a barkentine—foremast squarerigged, main and mizzenmasts rigged fore-and-aft—but she had been given in addition a two-cylinder compound engine working up three hundred horsepower, able under prime conditions to force her ahead at eight knots, nine with sails assisting.

continued on page 42

The ship that wouldn’t die continued from page 21

Bear earned a nation’s thanks for rescuing a doomed expedition

True, she was not fast—but her hull was six inches of solid oak, sheathed over from keel to waterline in two-and-ahalf-inch Australian iron bark, a wood so heavy it could not float. Her deck was weighty teak; her bow metal-armored against the ice. One hundred and ninetyeight feet six inches over-all, she had an astonishing displacement of 1,675 tons —double that suggested by her size.

Tough? She had suffered nearly everything a craft could, short of sinking. Surviving ice-jams and accidents, she contributed in no small way to this continent’s northern development, to her own glory and to the reflected glory of her six owners—including one government, one world-renowned explorer, and even one museum.

The man who ordered her built at Dundee, Scotland, was Walter Grieve, a Scot, who was head of Bain Johnston's, a St. John's, Nfld., sealing company. He wanted a sealer to outlast any other.

Bear was so planned and so made. Adzes shaped her beams, drawknives smoothed her massive oaken timbers. Late in 1874, when an infant Winston Churchill was mewling at Marlborough, her launching was celebrated. Under each mast, heads-up shillings were placed to bring her luck. Soon she set sail under Alexander Graham, first of her more than thirty skippers, for her home port of St. John’s to join Grieve’s other sealers—Tiger, Leopard, Wolf and Lion.

There Graham signed two hundred and seventy-three seal hunters to work the ship on shares. At that time, Newfoundland law said no ship might leave the capital’s harbor on the annual hunt before one o’clock in the afternoon of March 10. This made each start as tense as that of an Oklahoma land race.

That year, the starting cannon sent Bear speeding through the harbor's shell ice as if it were only a mirage. In two days she found the ice pack off Labrador. Soon her lookouts, searching feverishly for seal, found them—adults and baby whitecoats whimpering on the ice.

The hunters climbed recklessly over Bear’s side, leaped like ballet dancers from slippery floe to floe as if death did not lurk in every treacherous leap. As gieat chunks of ice ground together, the seal slaughter began, the hunters clubbing baby seals to death, concentrating on them because of the value of their fuzzy fur.

Day upon day the killing went on. At last, when the month - old whitecoats could swim, they disappeared into the thawing sea on their way to summer rendezvous off Greenland. No record is available of Bear’s original cost, but this first haul of more than twelve thousand seals—the year's record—was said to have recovered a fourth of Grieve’s payment to her builders.

During ten years at “the hardest, bloodiest hunt in the world.’’ the sealing captains enviously voted Bear best ship in the fleet. She had surpassed her owner’s every hope. In the summer of 1883, she sailed for an overhaul in Greenock. When she arrived back in St. John’s her captain did not dream that for at least three-quarters of a century her sealing days were over; nor that she was headed for adventure on adventure.

Bear pulled in to her St. John's wharf early in 1884 to be met by the distraught United States consul, who told her captain his government had paid Walter Grieve $ I ()(),()()() for her. She was to attempt the rescue of Lieut. A. W. Greely’s expedition to the Canadian Arctic. A U. S. army officer, Greely had set out in 1881 to set up a meteorological station in Lady Franklin Bay, but supply ships had failed to reach him because of ice. Now a shocked American people, aware that the twenty-five-man survey party must be near starvation, was demanding action.

Turned from her planned destiny, Bear became a unit of the U. S. Navy. On April 24, 1884, urged on by prayers to “save Greely and his men,” the stout barkentine left for ice-blocked northern seas.

Late in May, after vain attempts to locate, leads through the pack into the

coast of Grinned Land, where Greely was last reported, Bear found an opening. While she followed a narrow channel near shore, death flung its first challenge at her when she piled onto an uncharted sunken rock. She hung precariously on its knife edge while her commander shouted frantic orders, finally shuddered free under full steam astern. Nearly any other ship would have been holed and sunk. The Bear sailed on, her timbers scarcely dented.

Ode to a business woman

The type of business she prefers Usually isn't hers.

Ida VI. Purdue

But every day of searching thinned the chances of finding any Greely men alive. Bear felt her way through blizzards, fog and drifting ice, seeking desperately for signs of the lost encampment.

On June 21, in a driving blizzard, a shore party heard a human sounding cry. Scrambling up a rock-strewn slope, excited seamen came upon Sergeant Long, one of Greely’s men, who collapsed at their feet, his sunken eyes wild with the light of a terrible victory.

“How many of you are alive?” he was urgently asked.

“Seven," Long said, and began to weep uncontrollably.

Weeks later, Bear sailed into New York harbor, met by the cheers of thousands at the water’s edge. She had heard her first — but not her last — heartfelt ovation. At the wharfside, President Arthur came aboard to thank vessel and crew on behalf of a grateful nation.

Congress had stipulated that Bear be sold once the Greely mission was done. However, her rescue work had attracted the sentimental attentions of officers of the U. S. Revenue Marine, predecessor of the Coast Guard, who put in an impassioned bid to take over the now-celebrated ship.

Early in 1885, she changed hands, and set out under arms to police the misty Bering Sea against what Washington considered to be illegal sealing operations, largely by ships based in British Columbia ports.

The life and times of the Bear took on infinite color and variety in the next few years. Her deck became an outpost court, her captain the judge. Eskimos thronged out in kayaks and oomiaks to meet “the fire canoe,” swarmed over her sides with gifts of carved walrus tusks and furs. At times, pitifully near starvation, they begged food which was always forthcoming. No wonder the ship became a living legend to them.

But Bear had less tasteful duties in policing sealers who pursued hunting tactics unilaterally declared to be illegal by the U. S., even in waters beyond the international three-mile limit. The Russian government had claimed all of the Bering Sea, Washington said, and had disposed of the claim by the sale of Alaska to the U. S. Other nations, Britain and Canada particularly, declared the American interpretation had no basis in international law.

Complications set in when, during Bear’s first seasons in Alaskan waters, the Revenue Marine captured nearly a score of Canadian schooners which, they claimed, had been sealing illegally. The schooners were destroyed, their captains fined. When Britain and Canada protested, Washington retorted that a seal census showed the herds to be facing extinction. The U. S. would clamp down even more ruthlessly on “poachers.”

U. S. Navy ships joined the Revenue cutters, and Britain assigned cruisers to prevent further seizure of Canadian ships. Now Bear was in the eye of the cyclone. For a while, even war seemed possible.

At the brink, Britain turned to rule of law. An international court met in Paris to ponder the quarrel, and it assessed the U. S. nearly half a million dollars in reparations. Yet Washington as well as Canada won a victory when the court established a closed season for seal-hunting from May I to July 31, and a licensing system under which only authorized vessels could hunt at all.

During that parlous time, Bear remained available for rescue work. In the fall of 1897, she was assigned to a job which was again to bring her page-one treatment in the world press. Eight whaling vessels had become trapped in the ice near Point Barrow, on Alaska’s northern coast. Captain Francis Tuttle, then Bear’s commander, was ordered after the trapped men. His problem: ice prevented a ship reaching them before next midsummer, by which time they would be dead. Tuttle’s desperate solution was to send an overland team to the rescue. Four men, under Lieut. D. H. Jarvis, volunteered for the trek, setting out from the village of Tun onak on December 14.

Across the snowy wilderness the part\ pressed, with fifteen hundred miles to go. Near Cape Nome, Jarvis persuaded an Eskimo friend to part with his herd of four hundred and thirty-eight reindeer, hoping to drive the animals across the ice to the trapped ships. How else could he deliver enough food to the starvation-menaced men?

Eight hundred miles and fifty-five days after they picked up the herd. Bear's volunteers delivered it to the whalers. “Some of the officers wanted to know if we’d come in a balloon,” Jarvis said later.

The whalemen’s reaction was hardly surprising. Nearly two thousand miles of ice separated them from open water, when the heroic team had reached them. But Bear was a great ship. Great deeds were expected of her company.

By now the gold rush to Canada's Yukon had begun, and the Revenue cutter played her part in that eventful era. In the late summer of 1897, waiting for the ice to recede northward, she policed the rambunctious prospectors holing up at Dutch Harbor until the Yukon River thawed for travel. With spring, shallowdraft steamers roared down the flooding stream, loaded with millions in nuggets and dust. Gold fever enfiamed the fortune hunters.

Even Bear's crew caught it. Dutybound to their ship, two of her officers grubstaked an Indian to search pay dirt on the Alaskan side of the border. When news came that he had struck it rich, the ship celebrated. Gloom descended when the crew learned local law did not allow natives to file claims.

Unfit to serve?

Such side issues never kept the ship from answering cries for help. When, in 1913, the Canadian Arctic Expedition ship Karluk, under Bob Bartlett, was imprisoned in ice, Bear set out to find her. On the way, crushing floes at last found a chink in the barkentine’s oaken armor. Five thousand gallons of sea an hour gushed into her hull. Pumps working furiously, she was forced to return south. Reaching Nome, the Bear's captain had an unexpected visitor—Bartlett himself. Karluk, crushed by floes, had gone to the bottom, and he had made for Nome by dog team and by hitching a ride on a schooner, to press for the rescue of his stranded men.

Speedy repairs put Bear in order. She headed for Wrangell Island where Bartlett had left his men, getting there only to find three dead of scurvy. Four others had wandered off to perish. But most were saved and taken by Bear to Victoria, B.C.

Then, after World War I, her luck turned truly sour. A new boiler — her third—blew, and she had to be towed to Seattle. There workmen reported her hull sprung in several places. Old bolts of Swedish iron — which held her timbers together instead of nails—were thought to have rusted away. The ship that had survived running into reefs, ramming by a lumber schooner, crushing by ice (once so hard that even the biack rats aboard, expecting her to sink, had scurried topside in a screaming panic and leaped onto the pack), was now declared unfit for service. She had outlived her original sealing companions, Tiger, Leopard, Wolf and Lion by decades.

When her officers rose to her defense, Bear was given a more careful check by Navy experts who found her bolts solid, her timbers strong. Patched and sent to sea, she proved herself by surviving a great storm with winds reaching a hundred and fifty miles an hour.

At the ripe age of fifty, Bear was solidly frozen into the ice pack during a fog. Floes piled mountainously against her while by radio her skipper reported her plight and prepared to abandon ship. Meanwhile newspaper editorials lambasted officials for risking lives by keeping the '’decrepit'' craft in service. It seemed to nearly everyone she was bound to die.

Incredibly, Bear again tricked the prophets of doom. Forty-two days after the ice had seized her, it opened to free hcr again. But unfavorable publicity had done what cruel nature could not. In 1926, Bear left Barrow for the last time, whites and Eskimos unashamedly weeping as they bade her farewell. When the ice-scarred ship reached Oakland, she was decommissioned and the city claimed her as a maritime museum. The price: nil. Surely now her sailing days were done.

When in 1932 she was offered for sale, a junk dealer bid a thousand dollars for her as scrap; but, timing it like the climax in a nineteenth - century melodrama, a bold hero came to the lady’s rescue. Rear Admiral Richard Byrd bid one thousand and fifty dollars to win her, then brought her to life with a five-hundred-horsepower diesel engine. In the Thirties, Bear contributed largely to the success of Byrd’s two voyages to Little America. After the first, Franklin Roosevelt boarded her to praise ship and crew for their Antarctic exploits. After the second, once again—like an aging prima donna—Bear "finally” retired.

World War II changed that, however, when the U. S. Navy bought her from Byrd for $140,000—highest price she had commanded in any exchange since her launching-—and sent her to patrol the Greenland coast against enemy shipping. But, the war over, she was stripped of machinery and moored in a ship’s gravecard at Hingham, Mass., where, in 1948, the U. S. Maritime Commission offered her hulk for sale. Nobody appeared to want the battered old lady. Nobody, that is, but William Alfred Shaw, a lean and grizzled Haligonian who operated two sealing vessels and thought the old Bear might be fitted out to make a third.

For the price of a car

Anxious as Shaw was to own her, his businessman’s instinct told him first to discover if she was fit for duty. Having outlived four generations of sealers, had Bear's timbers rotted too far to risk sending her to sea again?

Calling his son, A. M. Shaw, and Joe Legge, both master mariners, into his office, he told them Bear was up for sale. Their eyes lit up when he named the ship. He walked to a window overlooking Halifax’s Barrington Street, stood there a moment, shoulders slouched. Straightening, he turned. "Go down and look her over,” he said. "Write me if she’s sound.”

When it came, the two captains’ report was cautiously favorable. Digging into the oak, they found nothing significantly wrong with the watertight hull. An outside expert was called in. He reported: “She is probably in better condition than most boats ten years old running around the coast today.”

Overjoyed, Shaw put in his bid. For a seemingly paltry $5,000 — hardly more than the price of a medium-sized car— he owned the ship he had secretly coveted for twenty years. Yet all he actually had was an empty shell. Even her hull, though sound, needed repairs.

Shaw's first move was cannily businesslike. Finding 83,333 pounds of lead ballast along Bear’s bottom, he sold it for more than twice her cost. For $1,750 he had her towed to Mahone Bay where a shipyard went to work on her.

Then came a series of rude shocks. Seeking a new engine, Shaw was quoted $150,000—thirty times the cost of the ship! "We have not made a clutch of the type originally installed in the Bear for years,” one firm replied to a query. Even a propeller would cost $1,695.

But a fine-toothed search turned up a second-hand engine, a thousand-horsepower job taken from a v/recked tug. for "about $20,000.” Shaw announced Bear would return to sealing next season and reaped a fine harvest of sentimental feature stories in seaport newspapers. Even the New York Times joined in to remind its readers of the ship's lofty niche in marine history.

Painfully, Shaw gathered together missing parts for Bear, put an iron bed in her to carry her engine. By then, the first sealing season in which he had hoped the ship would fly his banner had passed. He had already spent sixty thousand dollars on her when the scaling showed the first signs of a temporary decline.

Examining the experience of another, lighter ship, he came tardily to the decision that a thousand horsepower would not propel Bear at the eleven knots he required. That engine was never installed. Instead, Bear was moved to anchorage almost in the shadow of Halifax harbor’s graceful bridge, where she now awaits the resurrection her owner says will not be long delayed—unless a San Francisco maritime museum raises a previous offer to buy the ship. It that happens, the stout old barkentine may end her days as a collector’s item in California. But the sentimental side of the shipowner, which he tries hard to conceal, seems to indicate he would rather use her himself.

“No other boat alive has done what she’s done.” he said recently. "She is getting a new coat of black paint right now. Would I be wasting money to keep her in shape if I didn’t intend to put her back to sealing, where she began?”

Somehow. Shaw made it seem as if the eighty-four-year-old Bear would live forever. At any rate, she’s had a pretty good start,