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San Juan Islands, Washington State, United States
A society formed in 2009 for the purpose of collecting, preserving, celebrating, and disseminating the maritime history of the San Juan Islands and northern Puget Sound area. Check this log for tales from out-of-print publications as well as from members and friends. There are circa 500, often long entries, on a broad range of maritime topics; there are search aids at the bottom of the log. Please ask for permission to use any photo posted on this site. Thank you.

12 October 2011

❖ US Coast Guard's Most Famous Vessel ❖ BEAR (update)

Looking to sea from the deck of the BEAR.
Undated, original photo
from the archives of the S.P.H.S.©
The Cutter BEAR
by R. H. (Skipper) Calkins

"From the time I began my career as a waterfront newsman, the historic old cutter BEAR, Uncle Sam's most widely known mercy ship in Alaskan waters, fascinated me. Perhaps it was her barkentine rig which gave her an appearance unlike any of her fleet mates, and her glamourous service as an Arctic whaler, before she was purchased by the US government. For years she was pay dirt as I panned the waterfront in quest for news and feature stories, some concerning the fabulous gold strikes of the Klondyke.
      At that time, my rival on the marine beat was a stocky fellow with an English accent who had reached our shores from Australia. He was a pompous individual, a two-fisted drinking man, who made the bar of the old Rainier-Grand Hotel, where many waterfronters gathered, his often-frequented club.
      I had bumped the fellow from down-under with a story concerning the purchase of a ship by the Pacific Alaska Navigation Co., and was told he was gunning for me.
      One day I picked up the rival sheet and read under screaming headlines what purported to be a story of the rescue of a freighter afire at sea, by the "famed" cutter BEAR. Such extravagant expressions as "a blazing torch", "blistered decks", and "seafaring men periled" were used.
      When the BEAR reached Seattle, I was the first man aboard. I questioned every one from the captain to the cook and discovered that my rival on the marine beat had not allowed the lack of facts to spoil a good story. The freighter "rescued" had a bunker fire, the BEAR was nearby and convoyed her to Dutch Harbor where she discharged part of her bunker supplies, reloaded, and proceeded.
      However, from that time on, I never missed a sailing or arrival of the BEAR. I made friends of the officers and crew and praised the service of this old mercy ship.
Original postcard from Byrd's Antarctic expedition on BEAR.
Saltwater People Historical Society archives. ©
      The stout little barkentine-rigged wooden-hull vessel had her steam engines removed and replaced at Boston by a six-cylinder 600-HP Diesel. The tall stack from which black smoke billowed as she arrived off the Arctic coast of Alaska, giving her the name of "big smoke ship" among the Eskimos, was removed. A power plant which saved valuable space, due to the smaller fuel supply needed, was installed in the BEAR, one of the world's oldest vessels.
      During her long service in the Bering Sea and the Arctic, the BEAR was driven by a two-cylinder compound steam engine. Until 1912 she was navigated by a two-blade propeller, installed by her builders 38-years before.
      The BEAR's 'black gang' experienced plenty of grief when the old cutter sailed from Seattle each spring bound for Point Barrow and the little settlements near the top of the world.
      The coal-fired steam plant required 392 tons of fuel, part of which was stored on the vessel's deck. With her steam engine going at full speed, the old BEAR was able to log about nine knots. Under canvas alone, which she carried for her barkentine rig, the vessel, in a spanking breeze, could make about eight knots.
      I remember seeing the old BEAR each fall after her annual cruise to the Arctic. We were welcomed aboard by the genial skipper, a heavy-set bespectacled man, who took us to the officers' quarters. Here, seated at a table drinking steaming hot coffee and eating rolls, we received the news of the long Arctic cruise. Captain Cochran usually called for the log book in order to give newsmen details of rescues and assistance rendered the natives of the far-flung Arctic coast. After the interview was over, the captain would present trinkets of ivory made by the Eskimos.
      The BEAR was built in Greenock, Scotland in 1874 for the Arctic whaling industry. In 1884 she was purchased by the US and assigned to the Navy for service in the Greely Relief Expedition. In 1885 she was transferred to the US Revenue Cutter Service for duty in the Bering Sea and performed this service until her replacement in 1928 by the Diesel-powered cutter NORTHLAND.
      The BEAR earned more fame in the Arctic than any other vessel. To the natives she meant law, order, civilization, and justice. The big 'smoke ship' to the Eskimos was a symbol of power of the white man.
      Although the BEAR spent her winters at a wharf in Oakland, she was sent to isolated little settlements along the northern coast; she usually began her annual cruises in Seattle.

      The BEAR called in at Elliott Bay on her way to the Far North to take aboard stores and embark government employees. Sometimes she carried a famous scientist who was en route to isolated districts of Alaska to study glacier formations or the origin of the ancient tribes which first settled the westernmost islands of the Aleutian chain. 
      Famed for her cruises in Arctic seas as a mercy ship and to Little America with personnel of the Byrd Polar Expedition, the historic old Coast Guard cutter BEAR, last was reported carrying Jewish immigrants from the Mediterranean to Israel."
The Seattle waterfront long will remember the historic old cutter BEAR, which ranks as the Coast Guard's most famous vessel. Retired by the government under the stigma that she was too old and too slow, the BEAR was converted into a motorship for her part in the second Byrd Antarctic Expedition
From: High Tide The Big Stories of Seattle's Waterfront 1952.


Captain C. S. Cochran.
The old USRC BEAR finally made her last
northern cruise in gov't service in 1926.
The veteran commander Cochran was on her
bridge during most of her recent service.
The historic BEAR terminated her government service
and was given to the city of Oakland, CA, as a
maritime shrine, she still had a long and thrilling
career ahead of her, which was to span
more than a generation. 

Undated original photo from the archives of
the S.P.H.S.©

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