A ‘bear’ of a barkentine

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Revenue cutter and rescue vessel; explorer, humanitarian and war hero; floating museum and movie star — few vessels in the annals of maritime history can match the 70-year career of the steam barkentine Bear.

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She’s pictured here in the roadstead at Nome, Alaska, in the midst of her 42-year stint in the Revenue Cutter Service, dispensing law and order in the wild while surveying harbors and collecting hydrographic data.

Bear was built in Scotland and launched in 1874 as a new-generation sealing vessel. With her compound steam engine and 6-inch-thick wood hull, she was designed to break pack ice, serving in the Labrador-Newfoundland trade for a decade. In 1884, the U.S. government bought her and used her in the search for Arctic explorer Adolphus Greeley, and a year later she was assigned to Alaskan waters, where she looked out for seal poachers, shipwrecked whalers and illicit trade with native Alaskans. She also served as a floating courthouse. Her most famous skipper was Capt. “Hell Roaring” Mike Healy.

In 1926, Bear began a second life, serving as a museum ship, “acting” in the 1930 Hollywood film “Sea Wolf,” and voyaging to Antarctica with Adm. Richard Byrd and again with the U.S. Antarctic Service. From 1941 to 1944, she served in the Northeast Atlantic Patrol, where she captured an enemy supply ship.

In 1948, Bear was purchased for a sealing voyage she never made, and she sat decaying in Halifax, Nova Scotia, for almost 20 years. The end came in 1963. Bear sank in a gale when one of her masts drove through the bottom while the ship was under tow to Philadelphia to be used as a floating restaurant.

February 2014 issue