Bear, 1885

Bear of Oakland

Feb. 12, 2020


Builder: Alexander Stephen & Son, Dundee, Scotland

Length: 198' 4"

Beam: 30'

Draft: 17' 11"

Displacement: 703 tons

Cost: ??

Launched: 1874

Commissioned: 2 March 1885 in RCS

Decommissioned: 3 May 1929 (USCG)

Disposition: Foundered under tow off Chatham, Massachusetts, on 19 March 1963.

Machinery: Compound-expansion steam, 25 5/8" and 50" diameter x 30" stroke, 101 nominal hp (1885)

Complement: 51

Armament: 3 x 6-pound rapid-fire guns (1885)

Cutter History:

The United States Revenue Cutter Bear was originally constructed as a sealer.  She was built by Alexander Stephen & Son in their Dundee Shipyard (Yard No. 56) on the east coast of Scotland.  She was completed in 1874 and delivered to W. Grieve of Greenock, Scotland.  She spent the first ten years of her life getting her sea legs with a sealing fleet operating off Newfoundland.  World-wide fame came to the Bear in the early 1880s shortly after the historic Greely Expedition to the Arctic came to a disastrous end.  The Expedition, under the command of the then First Lieutenant Adolphus Washington Greely, U.S. Army, was one of two groups dispatched to the Arctic to set up a series of observation stations.  Despite elaborately made plans, a series of misfortunes left Greely and his party stranded in the pitiless Arctic winter without adequate food and clothing.

To assist the Greely party, the United States Navy organized a rescue fleet of three ships, consisting of the USS Bear, USS Thetis and the USS Alert.  On 22 June 1884, less than two months after her departure, the Bear sighted the pitiful remnants of the expedition.  For months they had been surviving on rock moss, leather sledding equipment, and whatever small game they could find.  Many of the group had either died or gone mad from privation.  Those who had survived resembled skeletons.  The surgeon accompanying the expedition had committed suicide.

For a while it looked as though the Bear's career was over.  Not long after her return from the Greely rescue, she was declared unfit for further service by the Navy.  Then in 1885, she was transferred to the Treasury Department for use in Alaskan waters and the Arctic Ocean.  That was the beginning of a 41-year career on the Alaskan Patrol which has yet to be surpassed.  Her first skipper was Captain A. A. Fengar but in 1885 the colorful "Hell Roaring"' Mike Healy, a dynamo of a man with an unpredictable temper, assumed command.  Healy was a good skipper, and he commanded the Bear for more than nine years, longer than any other.  In time, Healy and his ship became legend in the lusty, brawling Territory of Alaska.

The Bear's duties on the Alaskan Patrol were many.  She carried mail which had accumulated at Seattle during the winter, as well as Government agents and supplies.  On her trip south from Alaska, she transported Federal prisoners and other questionable characters whose presence in Alaska 'was undesirable.  The deck of the Bear often served as a court where justice was dispensed swiftly but fairly.  The Bear also conducted investigations, undertook crime prevention and law enforcement.  She and other cutters like her were often the only law in that turbulent part of the world. The Bear also conducted soundings to improve charts of Alaskan waters, and her surgeon furnished medical attention and surgery to natives, prospectors, missionaries, and whalers.  These duties are still part of today's Bering Sea Patrol.

Not the least of Healy's s accomplishments was the importation of reindeer from Siberia to provide food for the natives who were never free of the threat of famine.  As Healy reasoned it, the reindeer would also be an excellent source of clothing and transportation.  The wisdom of this measure was dramatically proved a few years later during the famous overland trek to save marooned whalers near Point Barrow, Alaska.  

Of all the Bear's exploits, none has captured the public imagination more than her Overland Rescue of 1897.  It was in the fall of that year that Captain Francis Tuttle, the Bear's new commander, learned that eight whaling vessels and their crews, totaling about 275 men, were trapped in the ice pack off remote Point Barrow, Alaska.  The Bear had only recently returned from her patrol duties, but at the order of the Secretary of the Treasury, she prepared to go to the rescue.  This was the first time that an Arctic voyage was attempted during the winter season.

By 14 December 1897, it was clear that the Bear had come as far north as she could go.  Approximately 85 miles off Cape Nome, the ice was so thick that she was forced to turn back.  But before she returned, the Bear landed an over-land party on Nelson Island, near Cape Vancouver.  It consisted of' First Lieutenant D. H. Jarvis, Second Lieutenant B. P. Bertholf, and Surgeon S. J. Call, all of the Revenue Cutter Service.  Equipped with dog teams, sleds, and guides, Jarvis and his companions set out for Point Barrow.  Before them lay a 1,600 mile journey through frozen, trackless wilderness.  But 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 exhausting journey, Jarvis and Call 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.

The Bear, which had been in service since 1885 was still around in 1917 when the United States entered World War I.  For the duration of the war she served under the U. S. Navy.  This, however, did not change her routine patrol of Alaskan waters.  In 1929 the 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".

The Bear was getting on in years now, but there was still some great moments ahead for the stout old ship.  In the early 1930s, the famed Arctic explorer, Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN, was looking for a vessel suitable for operating in ice in his Second Antarctic Expedition.  Hearing that the Bear was available, he opened negotiations with officials of the City of Oakland, California, where the vessel had been serving as a marine museum.  The bargain was concluded for the incredibly low price of $1,050 -- one of the best buys in history.  An entry in her log for 19 June 1932, reveals that she was en-route to Boston for overhaul and refitting with a volunteer crew aboard.

Refitting completed, the Bear, on 25 September 1933 left Boston 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 the 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, the 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.  The 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 the 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 the 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 the 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.

NOAA and the U.S. Coast Guard are sending expeditions to sea to locate the wreck of this iconic cutter.


Bear Cutter File, U.S. Coast Guard Historian's Office.

Bixby, William. Track of the Bear. New York: David McKay Company, Inc., 1965.

Burroughs, Polly. The Great Ice Ship Bear: Eighty-Nine Years in Polar Seas. New York: Van Nostrand Reinhold Company 1970.

Rankin, Robert H. and H.R. Kaplan. Immortal Bear: The Stoutest Polar Ship. New York: G.P. Putnam's Sons, 1970.

Ransom, M.A. and Eloise K. Engle. Sea of the Bear: Journal of a Voyage to Alaska and the Arctic, 1921. Annapolis: Unites States Naval Institute 1964.

Rapaport, Stella F. The Bear: Ship of Many Lives. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company 1962.

United States Congress. House. Donation of Coast Guard Cutter Bear to Oakland, Calif. H. Rp. 2095, 70th Cong., 2d sess., 1929, Serial 8979.

________.________. Relief of Owners of Schooner Spokane Damaged by U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. H. Rp. 542, 60th Cong., 1st sess., 1908, Serial 5229.

________. Senate. Donation of Coast Guard Cutter Bear to Oakland, Calif. S. Rp.1471, 70th Cong., 2d sess., 1929, Serial 8977.

________.________. Relief of Owners of Schooner Spokane Damaged by U.S. Revenue Cutter Bear. S. Rp. 81, 60th Cong., 1st sess., 1908, Serial 5222.

Wead, Frank. Gales, Ice and Men: A Biography of the Steam Barkentine Bear. New York: Dodd, Mead & Company 1937.