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The Final, and Likely Fatal Blow: the Events of 1897-1898

Whalemen waiting for ship to arrive, Barrow 1898 (Bockstoce 1986)

Whalemen waiting for ship to arrive, Barrow 1898 (Bockstoce 1986)

As whaling in the Western Arctic was approaching the turn of the century, the technology had changed, the ships looked different - the era of steam whaling had arrived -- gone were the stalwart crews of whalemen - replaced thieves, beggars and those unlucky enough to be pressed into service - and the captains were not much better. Whale oil, as a commodity, was at a low ebb in value. Only whalebone was sustaining its value, but this too would crash within a decade. Despite all this economic (and otherwise) decline, whaling continued.

Whalemen waiting for ship to arrive, Barrow 1898 (Bockstoce 1986)

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As far back as Captain Roys in 1848, the ship captains and others in the region had been lobbying the US Government to established a rescue station in the Western Arctic as a place of refuge for whalers who become stranded there when their ships were lost or trapped in the ice. The station was finally built in 1889 under the supervision of Captain Michael Healy and First Officer David Jarvis of the US Revenue Cutter Bear, after a near disaster the previous year that stranded 110 sailors and saw the loss of six whaling ships and more than an equal number that were frozen in. The station was built to house 50 men and contained provisions to sustain them for a year. Despite the original rationale to establish the rescue station, reinforced by the losses in 1876, 1881,1882, and 1888 where the station could have demonstrated its full value had it been available during these disasters, the three years following the establishment of the station were relatively uneventful, and in 1896, the station was abandoned and sold. The events of the following two years would provide strong evidence that closing the station was an unwise decision.

Reindeer and Sleds (image: Alaska Digital Archive)

Reindeer and Sleds (image: Alaska Digital Archive)

In 1897 three ships were lost to the ice, and another four were trapped... the schooner Rosario, was lost the following year. The events of 1897 involved great peril to the ships and the crews involved, but under the skillful and experienced guidance of Charles Brower, longtime manager of the trading and whaling station at Point Barrow, losses of life were kept to around sixteen - from the ill-fated crew of the Navarch - and the more than 200 others stranded over the winter of 1897 were sustained by Brower's survival skills and resourcefulness. While the rescue station had been formally closed, it was put back into service, and housed nearly a hundred men for that long winter: others stayed on the ice-bound vessels relying on their on-board provisions and supplies from Brower and the local natives to survive.

Food was the greatest concern. To supply the crews stranded in Barrow, the government launched a major operation, under the leadership of Lt. David Jarvis (for whom the US Coast Guard's highest award for heroism is named) and two other officers from the Bear, to drive a herd of 400 reindeer from Cape Prince of Whales to Barrow, a distance of more than 700 miles during 55 days of the deep Arctic winter over nearly impassible terrain. The husbandry of reindeer was a relatively recent import to Alaska, and herds of sufficient number were requisitioned by the Government for this purpose. The compelling story of this "Reindeer Rescue" is well-told in the recent book by John Taliaferro (2006) In a Far Country: The True Story of a Mission, a Marriage, a Murder, and the Remarkable Reindeer Rescue of 1898. As intrepid and unquestionably heroic as this feat was, when the herd eventually arrived in Barrow, the reindeer had lost considerable weight from the exertions of the trip, and the stranded crew members were in far better shape, owing to Brower's resourcefulness and good hunting that winter, than anyone expected.