1880 – Present
In 1865, the Lighthouse Service’s tender Shubrick, then operating under the Revenue Cutter Service, became the service’s first unit to touch Russia’s Alaskan coastline. The tender was the flagship supporting Western Union’s expedition to string a telegraph cable from North America to St. Petersburg, Russia. The plan was overtaken by the laying of the Atlantic cable. In 1867, after the Alaska purchase, the revenue cutter Lincoln transported officials to tour the vast new territory. It was noted at the time that Alaska comprised 56 percent of the U.S. coastline. Cutters have sailed to Alaskan waters ever since. The Bering Sea became the center of the service’s multifaceted duties in the north. The work in Alaska’s western and northern waters would become known as the Bering Sea Patrol.
The Bering Sea Patrol started as a reaction to the large scale harvesting of the fur seals. The illegal killing of these animals threatened to lead to their extinction and to deprive the U.S. of a revenue source. Since revenue was involved, the RCS was called upon to protect the seals. In 1880, USRC Corwin, as a collateral duty, placed her bows over the Arctic Circle and cruised some 6,000 miles in the frigid waters of the far north. This marked the beginning of an annual cruise that continues to this day.
The revenue cutters soon found themselves engaged in more duties than simply protecting seals. The small cutters provided a badly needed search and rescue service in an extremely isolated region. In 1880 and 1881, Corwin, under the command of Captain Calvin L. Hooper, searched for the steamer Jeannette and two whalers, Mount Wollaston and Vigilant. Throughout the seasons, Hooper maneuvered his cutter through ice-blocked waters and even sent parties overland by dog sled waiting for the ice to break.
During the Bering Sea Controversy of the 1890s, when the United States and Great Britain teetered on the brink of war over the illegal killing of the seals, the work of the service multiplied and more cutters were needed. The cutter Corwin, operating with the Navy, apprehended the British steamer Coquitlan. The ship was bonded for $600,000, which Evans thought “paid for most of the expenses of our summers work.” A patrol commander was appointed in 1895, with his headquarters at Unalaska during the patrol season.
Patrols usually began in late April or the first part of May. The cutters would sail northward from ports on the West Coast, or Hawaii, making their first port of call at Unalaska for briefings and assignments. Then the ships would sail for their designated areas around the Aleutian Islands, the Pribilof Islands, or the heavy fishing areas. The cutters had the authority to stop, and board, vessels violating sealing and fishing laws. Patrol length usually stretched from 20 to 30 days and thereafter the ships would return to Unalaska for further assignments. After about a week in port, the cutters would be underway again to a new assignment. This routine was in force until at least October, when all the ships returned to their homeports.
The cutters performed a variety of tasks and became, in effect, the only government known to those who resided in the isolated Bering Sea and coastal Arctic Regions. They provided the only form of law and order in this isolated unforgiving land. They performed these duties in a region where no other law enforcement agency existed. They conducted Court Cruises to bring a judge and court attendants to hear criminal cases. Often the ship’s crew formed the jury. They brought doctors to native villages and to remote settlements. They provided many civil functions, even performing marriage ceremonies and holding church services. Between from 1892 to 1906, cutters brought reindeer from Siberia to Alaska in an attempt to make herders out of the native hunters. The experiment failed, but it introduced a herd of over half a million reindeer to Alaska. And they prosecuted search and rescue cases.
Alaskan operations were the Service’s first serious encounter with operations in ice. Both Lincoln and Corwin had been conventional steamers. The next vessels to work in Alaskan waters were Bear, and Thetis. Both had been constructed for work in icy regions. Bear, which has been called the Coast Guard’s equivalent of “Old Ironsides”, was built in Dundee, Scotland in 1874 as a sealer and whaler. She was 198 feet in length and 1,700 tons, with auxiliary reciprocating steam engine and barkentine rig. Her suitability for ice operations was not based on ice breaking ability, but on extraordinarily strong wood construction. She was framed of English oak with substantial longitudinal teak reinforcement and had iron plating on her stem. Her hull could be subjected to considerable ice pressure, and, because of the inherent flexibility of wood, regain its shape when free.
Thetis was a similar auxiliary steamer, though barque rigged. These two vessels were assigned to Alaskan and Bering Sea duties from the 1890s to the 1920s, along with other conventional cutters. Their duties varied, and, given the harsh climate, often dangerous. For many years the Revenue Service was the sole source of Federal authority in the territory, including seven years when the Treasury Department was given charge of the rugged landmass. Duties of these vessels and men included protection of sealers and whalers, providing general police protection, and emergency operations. One of the more unusual tasks was importing Siberian reindeer to provide a food staple for starving Eskimos.
Neither of these cutters were true icebreakers. They were ice resistant, meaning that they had reinforced hulls that allowed them to work in the ice. They had neither the requisite horsepower nor hull design for forcing their way through the ice.
In 1897 eight whaling ships were trapped in the Arctic ice field to the east and west of Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost point in Alaska. There was great concern on the part of the ship owners that the 265 men who made up the crews of the whalers would starve during the long winter months. USRC Bear, just returned from the Bering Sea Patrol, was ordered to re-provision and go to the aid of the whalers. In late November 1897, Bear, Captain Francis Tuttle commanding, sailed from Port Townsend, Washington, northward. There was never any chance of the cutter pushing her way through the ice to Point Barrow at this late date. Instead, it was decided to put a party ashore and have them travel along the coast. The men would enlist the aid of natives, stop at a reindeer station to buy a small herd of reindeer, and then drive the animals to Point Barrow. On 16 December 1897, using dog sleds, sleds pulled by reindeer, snowshoes, and skis, the men began the expedition. On 29 March 1898, after traveling 1,500 miles and fighting subzero temperatures, blizzards, and the long Arctic night, the party arrived at Point Barrow. The expedition managed to bring 382 reindeer to the whalers, having lost only 66. The reindeer meat allowed the whalers to survive the winter.
In 1899, USRC Nunivak, commanded by First Lieutenant John Cantwell was instrumental in the caontainment of a small pox outbreak in Nome. In 1919, USCGC Unlaga, commanded by Captain F. G. Dodge, played a major role in saving Unalaska and Dutch Haror from a Spanish Influenza epidemic.
By the early 1920s, Bear was ready to retire from the ice. The Coast Guard had a few coastal ice breakers, but nothing capable of work in Alaska. A study produced USCGC Northland. Though Northland has been called an icebreaker, her design was more influenced by the Bear than by European heavy icebreakers such as Ermak. Though she had the familiar cut away icebreaker bow and heavy plating to withstand ice pressures, her power plant lacked the preponderance of horsepower required for heavy icebreaking. She was 216 feet long, just over 2,000 tons and her twin diesel electric engines developed at maximum, 1,000 horsepower (the old Androscoggin had exceeded this output). Her hull, however, was welded steel, reinforced on her sides and she was thoroughly subdivided into watertight compartments. For the first years of her service life, she sported an anachronistic sailing rig, to satisfy those old Arctic hands who looked to sail propulsion to extract her from dangerous waters should her new internal combustion engines fail. She was commissioned in February, 1927 and took up station on the Pacific, operating from San Francisco, then Seattle, on the Bering Sea patrol. She made her last Alaska cruise in 1938. During World War II she was transferred to the Atlantic and the Greenland theatre of operations.
The Patrol was suspended during the war. Cutters continued to work the Bering Sea, but they were looking for Japanese.
The Patrol was resumed after the war and cutters continue to ply Alaskan waters. Alaska has become a modern American State so there is little need for the type of operations Mike Healy conducted. The patrols are now called Alaskan Patrols (ALPATs) and the main mission is enforcing fisheries regulations and maintaining the safety of the American fishing fleet.