USRC Bear (AG-29) was a steam barkentine, 199 feet overall in length, of heavy oak construction, powered by a compound reciprocating steam engine which produced 300 horsepower.
Built in Scotland in 1847, Bear served 10 years in the seal hunts in the Canadian Arctic. In 1884, Bear was purchased by the US Government to rescue the survivors of the Greely Expedition. In 1886, Bear was transferred to the Treasury Department for use in the US Revenue Marine’s Alaskan Patrol. Bear served in the capacity for the next 41 years and became a legend in the lusty, brawling, new territory of Alaska. Bear embodied the concept of the muti-mission ship by rescuing shipwrecked mariners, breaking ice, enforcing fisheries laws, carrying mail, making hydrogaphic surveys, and often carrying a US judge who held court and dispensed territorial justice. It was also from the decks of Bear that reindeer were introduced to Alaska.
Bear’s most dramatic rescue was the “Overland Expedition” which was launched in the winter of 1897 to bring relief to Alaska whalers frozen in the ice off Point Barrow. Stopped by ice and storms, Bear put ashore a party of crew members headed by LT D.H. Jarvis. The party made an epic dog sled trek over 1,600 miles of frozen Arctic wilderness to Point Barrow driving a herd of reindeer, ahead of them. They arrived in time to save the survivors of eight trapped vessels from almost certain starvation and provide shelter and medical attention until Bear was able to break through the ice and lead them out.
Bear was still around in 1917 when the United States entered World War I. For the duration of the war she served under the Navy. This, however, did not change her routine patrol of Alaskan waters.
In 1929 Bear was decommissioned and turned over to the city of Oakland, California, for use as a maritime museum. It was at this time that she served as the set for the filming of Jack London’s “Sea Wolf”.
Bear was getting on in years now, but there was still some great moments ahead for the stout old ship. In the early 1930s, she sailed with Admiral Richard E. Byrd, USN on his Second Antarctic Expedition. After a refit in Boston, Bear left on 25 September 1933 under the command of Lieutenant (j.g.) Robert A. J. English, USN. After a rugged trip, she reached the Bay of Whales and Little America in the latter part of January 1934. Once again in the United States Antarctic Expedition of 1939-41, Admiral Byrd called upon Bear’s services. This time, however, her boiler and engine were taken out and a modern diesel drive installed. Her auxiliary equipment was electrified. By 16 May 1941, she had completed her work in the Antarctic and was back at Boston.
By this time, the shadow of World War II was already stretching over the United States. In 1941, shortly after her return from the Antarctic, Bear was assigned to the Greenland Patrol. She took part in the capture of the Norwegian trawler Buskoe, which had been fitted out by the Germans to transmit weather reports and information on Allied ship movements. Bear’s days of active service were now drawing rapidly to a close. In June 1944, she was stricken from the Navy list of active vessels and turned over to the Maritime Commission for sale.
A Canadian steamship company purchased her in 1948 with the intention of converting her to her former role as a sealing vessel. But before this could be accomplished, the price of seal oil and skins dropped, and all work on her was stopped. For a while it seemed as though Bear were doomed to end her days in obscurity on a Nova Scotia beach. She was spared this fate by Mr. Alfred M. Johnston of Villanova, Pennsylvania, who purchased her for eventual use as a commercial museum and restaurant near Philadelphia. The end came for Bear as she was being towed to Philadelphia. Apparently, her old timbers were no longer strong enough to withstand the vicious battering of the North Atlantic.
Now Bear lies in her final resting place at the bottom of the Atlantic. After a legendary career, spanning several generations, she has at last found peace. But to all men who are interested in the lore of the sea, she will remain a shining symbol of courage. Her story will continue to be told as long as men sail the seas.