Revenue Captain Michael A. Healy, commanding officer of the cutters Chandler, Corwin, Bear, McCulloch and Thetis, became a legend enforcing federal law along Alaska’s 20,000 mile coastline. In addition to being a friend to missionaries and scientists, he was a rescuer of whalers, natives, shipwrecked sailors, and destitute miners.
Born the son of a slave mother in 1839, near Macon, Georgia, he was sent north by his Irish immigrant father to obtain an education. Healy, however, had other ideas and ran away from whatever school his father sent him too, whether it be in Massachusetts or Belgium. He finally ran away for good, only this time to sea. He began his 49-year sea career at the ripe old age of 15 when he signed aboard a clipper ship bound for Asia as a cabin boy. During the Civil War he requested and was granted a commission in the Revenue Cutter Service from President Abraham Lincoln.
Healy took command of the famous cutter Bear in 1886 and on numerous occasions drove himself and his crew well beyond the call of duty. In 1888, the Alaska whaling fleet had anchored behind the bar at Point Barrow to ride out a southwest gale. The wind veered to the north. Huge waves were breaking over the bar. Four different ships broke apart and sank, throwing their crews into the icy waters. During an incredible mass rescue, Bear’s crew saved 160 survivors.
From 1892 to 1895, Healy allied himself with Dr. Sheldon Jackson in an attempt to raise the living standards of Alaska’s native population. Aboard Bear, 500 reindeer and their handlers were ferried from Siberia in an attempt to transform the Eskimos from hunters and fishermen into herders.
Healy was “on the beach” for four years following a controversial court-martial conviction for “gross irresponsibility” and “scandalous conduct.” However, the 1900 Alaska god rush called for more cutters. Healy was given command of the cutter McCulloch and was sent north once again. He spent his last two years of service on Alaskan waters aboard the cutter Thetis. He retired in 1904 at the mandatory retirement age of 64 and died one year later.