The U.S. Coast Guard's History in the Arctic
[By William H. Thiesen, Ph.D., Coast Guard Atlantic Area Historian]
“. . . to stand for 40 hours on the bridge of the [cutter] Bear, wet, cold and hungry, hemmed in by impenetrable masses of fog, tortured by uncertainty, and the good ship plunging and contending with ice seas in an unknown ocean.” – Capt. Michael Healy, Revenue Cutter Bear
Healy’s quote indicates the skill and daring required of cuttermen who have navigated the waters of Alaska, Bering Sea and the Arctic. For over 150 years, the U.S. Coast Guard and its ancestor agencies have played a major role in Alaska and Arctic operations.
In 1867, there were no roads or railroads available for transportation to or within Alaska. That year, the Revenue Cutter Service became the federal government’s representative in the territory. Revenue cutters did a little of everything including the annual “Court Cruise.” Cutters transported judges, public defenders, court clerks, and deputy U.S. Marshals to hear criminal cases throughout the isolated region. Revenue cutters were also responsible for protecting the native seal herds.
Between 1874 and 1913, two different cutters named Rush served on the Bering Sea Patrol enforcing fish and game laws, including sealing regulations. Due to these cruises, seal poachers tried to conduct their illegal hunts before the cutters arrived for their seasonal patrols. This practice resulted in the phrase, “Get there early to avoid the Rush!” The Bering Sea cutters proved so successful at law enforcement that by the end of the 1800s, the Treasury Department charged them with enforcing virtually all Alaskan game laws.
The most famous cutter in the history of Alaska, the Bear, was transferred to the Revenue Cutter Service in 1885. After that, Bear patrolled the Bering Sea for 34 cruises and more than four decades. The cutter’s first captain, “Hell Roarin’” Mike Healy, was the first African-American commanding officer in any federal maritime service. In a series of deliveries in the early 1890s, Healy transported numerous reindeer to Alaska to supplement the diminishing whale and seal populations that had served as native Alaskans’ primary food source. He commanded several West Coast cutters before retiring in 1903 as the third-most senior officer in the Revenue Cutter Service.
In 1897, eight whaling ships became trapped in Arctic ice near Point Barrow, Alaska. Concerned that their 265 crewmen would starve to death, the whaling companies appealed to President William McKinley to send a relief expedition. In late November 1897, Bear set sail northward from Port Townsend, Washington, under the command of Capt. Francis Tuttle. With no chance to push through the ice to Point Barrow, Tuttle put a rescue party ashore farther south to drive a herd of reindeer to the whaling ships. Tuttle placed Lt. David Jarvis in charge of the party accompanied by Lt. Ellsworth Bertholf (later commandant of the Coast Guard), Ship’s Surgeon Samuel Call and three enlisted men. Using sleds pulled by dogs and reindeer, the men set out on snowshoes and skis on Dec. 16. Three months and 1,500 miles later, they arrived at Point Barrow. The expedition managed to deliver 382 reindeer to the whalers with only 66 animals lost. At the insistence of McKinley, Bertholf, Call, and Jarvis received the Congressional Gold Medal.
From left to right, Lt. Ellsworth Bertholf, Dr. Samuel Call and Lt. David Jarvis pose for a commemorative photograph. U.S. Coast Guard photo.
In the 20th century, the Coast Guard’s responsibilities in Alaska grew. With formation of the modern Coast Guard in 1915, the service took responsibility for the U.S. Life-Saving Service station at Nome. With Prohibition, the interdiction of illegal liquor in Alaskan waters became more important than ever. When the U.S. Lighthouse Service joined the Coast Guard in 1939, more Alaskan shore installations came under Coast Guard authority. In the 1940s, Coast Guard-manned vessels served in World War II’s North Pacific theater of operations, including weather patrols, convoy escort duty and the re-supply of U.S. military bases. In the 1950s, Coast Guard vessels also supported the construction of the Cold War’s Distant Early Warning (DEW) Line of radar installations in Northern Alaska.
Finding the Northwest Passage across the Arctic had been an ambition of mariners since the 1500s. The establishment of the DEW Line made it desirable to find alternative re-supply routes to these remote outposts. So, in July 1957, the Coast Guard’s 230-foot icebreaking cutter Storis and 180-foot buoy tenders Spar and Bramble sailed through the Bering Sea to attempt a crossing over the North American continent. Early on, it became apparent that ice navigation would not be practical for merchant ships, but the three cutters continued their 4,500-mile odyssey. To pass through the heavy ice floes, Storis ran its bow up onto the ice and used its weight to break the ice creating a channel for the others. The ice floes became heavier about halfway through the trip forcing the ships off course to the south. Storis became lodged in the ice and when explosives failed to free it, the crews made plans to winterize the cutters and abandon them until spring. Storis finally broke free and the small flotilla forged ahead and emerged in the Atlantic after 64 days. These cutters were the first American ships to make the passage from the Pacific Ocean to the Atlantic and Spar later became the first ship to circumnavigate the continent.
The Coast Guard has been the sole U.S. operator of icebreakers since 1965. That year, the U.S. Navy transferred its icebreakers to the Coast Guard, making it the federal government’s only provider of that mission. Since the 1960s, the Coast Guard has been assigned the responsibility for developing and maintaining a fleet of icebreaking vessels capable of operating effectively in the heaviest ice regions of the Arctic. With sea ice diminishing around the North Pole in recent years, arctic operations have increased in importance. In August 2017, Coast Guard Cutter Maple retraced the route of the 1957 Northwest Passage cutters 60 years after that historic feat.
For 150 years, the Coast Guard and its ancestor agencies have played a vital role in Alaska and the Arctic. The service’s ice operations provide the U.S. with the capability to support national interests in ice-bound waters, including the movement of maritime transportation, search and rescue, law enforcement, environmental protection and the pursuit of marine science. The service continues to make an impact in Alaska and Arctic waters and the Coast Guard’s ice operations mission remains as important as ever.
This article appears courtesy of Coast Guard Compass and may be found in its original form here.
The opinions expressed herein are the author's and not necessarily those of The Maritime Executive.