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History Repeats Itself: The Disaster of 1876

Ships trapped in the ice in 1876.  The Florence, in the foreground center, was able to escape despite losing her rudder to the ice.  From Harpers Weekly (Bockstoce 1986)

Ships trapped in the ice in 1876. The Florence, in the foreground center, was able to escape despite losing her rudder to the ice. From Harpers Weekly (Bockstoce 1986)

The old saying "fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me" is undeniably applicable to this second disaster to befall the whaling industry in the 1870's. Despite the growing marginal profits of whaling in the Western Arctic, the industry had the vessels fitted out for the work, the decision to keep whaling was as much due to interta on the part of the ship owners as the potential for profit.

There were only 20 vessels in the fleet in 1876, largely as the result of the losses in previous years, particularly in 1871, and from the lack or reinvestment in new whaling ships by the owners (part of this decision was likely the coming of steam whalers, which would change the face of whaling in the Westen Arctic one more time).  The bark Arctic was lost early in July, when it went as far as Point Franklin and got crushed in the ice when the wind shifted onshore.  The crew abandoned, found their way 20 miles to the shore, and were picked up by the bark Onward.  Another wind shift offshore created a lead too enticing to most of the remainder of the fleet to resist, and they headed toward Point Barrow.  When the wind shifted back, they had to retreat to the lee of the Point – the ice in this region generally moves from west to east driven by the currents – but ultimately all were trapped except the Florence, which had escaped for the time being.  

The whaling crews on the shore.  From Harpers Weekly (Bockstoce 1986)

The whaling crews on the shore. From Harpers Weekly (Bockstoce 1986)

Captured in the ice twenty miles offshore and being swept eastward along the coast of the Beaufort Sea, seeing that all hope of freeing the ships was lost, the captains reluctantly decided to abandon the ships and head for shore.  Around 300 men, dragging whaleboats and as much of the ship’s provisions as they could, started across the jutting and craggy ice.  Fifty men chose to stay with the ships, hoping to for a salvage windfall.  The shoreward party finally arrived, exhausted from the trip, and sailed the whaleboats to Point Barrow, where they found the Three Brothers and Rainbow frozen in the ice but otherwise undamaged.  The proceeded further down the coast to find the Florence, now also trapped by the ice.  With the ice thickening, it appeared that the only option available to them was to overwinter, but all knew provisions were insufficient to get a group of this size through the winter, even supplementing with hunting.  However, to the surprise of all, September 14th brought an unexpected lead in the ice, and the three ships were freed from the ice, the crews loaded aboard, and they raced for open water.  While all of the assembled crews aboard these three ships were soon transported to safety, the same could not be said of the fifty that stayed behind.  It was later learned that five men made it to shore, but only three survived the winter.  So unlike the events of 1871, not everyone walked away from this disaster.  Only one of the abandoned ships was salvaged the following year.

Nine more whaling ships were lost in the following three years, most survivors of the 1876 disaster.  Clearly, the 1870’s was the most staggering blow to an industry in decline.  Nearly 70 ships were lost during this decade, and most of the rest of the fleet did not come through unscathed, where even the vessels that escaped the ice were damaged in some way, some extensively.  Changes and reinvestment would have to be made to sustain the industry, but with oil from the ground starting to be pumped, hard business decision would lie ahead.    

An excellent, well-written detailed description of these events, and the entire history of whaling in the Western Arctic is: Bockstoce, John.  1986.  Whales, Ice and Men: the History of Whaling in the Western Arctic.  University of Washington Press, Seattle, WA, 400 pp.