The USRC BEAR was commissioned on 2 March 1885.
The Bear, built in 1874 as a sealer, was the forerunner of the modern icebreaker. Heavily built with 6″ thick wooden planks, and powered with a steam engine, with back-up sails, she was purchased by the U.S. government in 1884, and quickly sent to assist in the rescue of the Greely Expedition, which had come to a disastrous end in the arctic. In 1885 the Bear was transferred to the Treasury Department where it was sent to Alaska to start its 41 year run on the Alaskan Patrol.
Argueably the most famous ship in U.S. Coast Guard history, I first became aware of The Bear upon reading James Michener’s historical novel “Alaska” many years ago. I’ve been fascinated with the ship ever since.
It was in 1885 when “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy took command. Healy, with his unpredictable temper, would captain the Bear for nine years, longer than any other skipper. Healy and his ship would become legendary in the Alaska Territory.
Mail carrier, escort, prisoner & reindeer transport, medical service, chart drawing, tracker of poachers, law enforcement and court of law… the deck of the Bear saw it all. In 1930, she even starred in the film adaption of Jack London’s “The Sea-Wolf”.
In 1897, The Bear attempted the first ever arctic voyage during the winter season, in order to rescue 8 whaling vessels and their 275 men that had become trapped in the pack ice off of Point Barrow. Officially, it was called the “Overland Expedition for the Relief of the Whalers in the Arctic Ocean”, long winded perhaps, but it was epic. The Bear came within 85 miles of Cape Nome when the thick sea ice forced her back. Landing an overland party on Nelson Island, equipped with dog teams, sleds & guides, the party set off on a 1600 mile journey. Collecting 450 reindeer, which they drove ahead, the rescue party arrived at Point Barrow 3-1/2 months later, to the great surprise… and no doubt relief… of the trapped whalers.
The Bear continued to patrol Alaska waters during WWI. In the early 1930’s, Admiral Richard Byrd purchased the Bear for his Second Antarctic Expedition. She again joined Byrd’s 1939-40 Antarctic Expedition. The Bear then returned to Antarctica in 1941 to evacuate personel and to assist in building an airstrip, as tensions rose leading up to the second world war.
At the start of WWII, the USS Bear was sent on Greenland Patrol, where it made the first U.S. capture of a vessel of the war.