In 1871, a whaling disaster in the Arctic hastened the end of the U.S. whaling industry as ice shipwrecked 33 whale ships.
Expanding ice crushed and mangled some of the vessels before the 1,219 seamen and their families escaped.
The disaster cost an estimated $1.6 million — about $38.7 million in 2021 dollars.
By then, petroleum products had already begun to replace whale oil. The whaling fleet in the North Pacific had dwindled to 40 ships, down from a high of 292 in 1846. Most came from New Bedford, Mass., while a few sailed out of Edgartown, Mass., and New London, Conn. The rest were from the West Coast and Hawaii.
The Whaling Disaster
William F. Williams, a boy from Wethersfield, Conn., sailed aboard his father’s whaling bark Monticello with his family. As a grown man he told the story of the whaling disaster.
He remembered especially the force of the ice: “There is within it a power which cannot be expressed and can only be partially comprehended,” he wrote.
His father, Capt. Thomas Williams, had set sail with his family from New London on Nov. 24, 1870. They headed for the South Pacific and Japan. On April 10, 1871, they left Yokohama for the Bering Sea, where they would hunt bowhead whales.
The Monticello formed a fleet of 40 whaling ships spread out in a 60-mile line.
They reached the Bering Sea in May. William Williams called it slow going.
“The view as far as the eye could see was one expanse of snow-covered ice, broken here and there by narrow leads and small areas of clear water,” he wrote. “Unless blowing very fresh there were none of the usual sea motions to the ship, which was not an unpleasant relief from the ceaseless rolling and pitching which prevails while at sea.”
Most of the time, he wrote, one or more ships was in sight, and frequently close enough for visits to be made and returned across the ice.
In June, the ice opened and the ships pushed through, catching five or six whales and hearing many more spouting in the distance.
Then the whalers encountered some bad signs, which probably influenced their later decision.
They learned of two whaling disasters, neither unusual in the Arctic. The advancing ice destroyed the bark Oriole and the bark Japan, which had been lost at sea. Eight of the Japan’s crewmen died and the others passed the winter with the natives. They couldn’t save any of the ship’s provisions, so they lived on blubber and walrus meat cooked with the hair on it.
In early August the ice broke up and much of the fleet could hunt for whales. Some of the ships anchored and some made fast to the ice. On August 11, the wind changed and the ice came in again. It broke holes into some of the vessels. The crews saved them by hauling them a long way over the ice.
The ice opened again and whaling resumed, but the natives warned them to get away as quickly as they could. The whalemen resolved to stay.
On Augusts 29 wind and snow came up strong from the southwest and the ice began to close in. Capt. Thomas Williams decided to turn back from the whaling grounds, but the Monticello struck an ice floe while tacking. The whale ship hung in irons and then ran aground.
Soon the ice surrounded the Monticello. But in the morning the crew saw most of the fleet anchored close off their position. The other whale ships sent their crews to help the Monticello get off.
Wrote William, “To me it was a gala day, the decks fairly swarmed with men, orders were executed with a snap and vigor that only a sailor can put into his work when he is pleased to.
“More anchors were laid out astern, and the chains taken to the windlass and hove taut. Casks of oil were hoisted out of the hold and rolled aft, and finally she floated and was towed off to the other ships and her anchor dropped, as it later developed, for the last time.”
The Monticello joined the rest of the fleet near Wainwright, Alaska, in a strip of water not half a mile wide between the pack ice and the shore. There were another seven ships somewhere, but the Monticello crew didn’t know if they were inside or outside the ice.
The Monticello’s boats captured a whale, but the others weren’t so lucky as the wind was so light. The crew had to cut up the blubber on the ice.
“Everybody prayed and whistled for a strong northeaster, but it did not come,” wrote William.
The Great Pack
A portion of the great pack of ice swung south and barred their escape. The Monticello anchored in water about 24 feet deep, but the ice was on the bottom. Each day the tremendous force of the ice pack pressing in drove the vessel closer to the shore.
On September 2, the brig Comet was crushed between a grounded ice floe and the moving pack. As the ship’s timbers snapped, the crew barely had time to escape. Five days later, the ice crushed the bark Roman and sank it. The next day, the bark Awashonks was crushed and pushed out on the ice.
The crews scattered among the ships that the whaling disaster had not yet struck.
The clear water began to freeze, so the seamen hammered copper onto the bows of the boats to the ice wouldn’t be cut through them.
The Whaleman’s Creed
The whalers realized their peril. They decided to find out if any ships were outside the ice. Captain Frasier of the ship Florida went down the coast in a whaleboat and returned from Icy Cape. He reported seven ships were outside the ice or able to get out easily, having narrowly escaped a serious position.
Part of the whaleman’s creed is to stand by his mates. The captains of the seven ships promised they would wait for the rest.
On September 12, the captains decided to abandon their ships. They signed a statement that there was no harbor, not enough provisions to feed a crew for three months and the countryside was bare of food and fuel.
The captains decided to take the whaleboats on the 70-mile voyage to the rescue ships. They had to leave behind everything that wasn’t an absolute necessity.
The Williams family found it terribly sad to leave the Monticello, their home for 10 months. The absolutely sound vessel had taken them through many trying times. They especially regretted leaving the priceless souvenirs they’d collected in the South Seas and Japan.
It took two days to row and sail to the whale ships that would rescue the crews and the families aboard the doomed ships.
The 1,219 refugees boarded the whale boats and formed a funeral flotilla. Overnight they camped on the beach as a storm raged around them. The next morning they could see the whale ships five miles away, but a 10-mile tongue of ice lay between them. The exhausted crews had to row around it. The weather worsened, threatening the small craft with annihilation.
Captain Preble, in his Notes on Whales and Whaling, described the journey. “All submitted to this new danger with becoming cheerfulness, and the little boats started on their almost hopeless voyage, even the women and children smothering their apprehensions as best they could,” he wrote.
Along the inside of the peninsula things went well, but when they rounded it they encountered a tremendous southwest gale and heaving seas.
“In this fearful sea the whaleboats were tossed about like pieces of cork,” wrote Preble. “They shipped quantities of water from every wave which struck them, requiring the utmost diligence of all hands at bailing to keep them afloat.”
The freezing saltwater saturated everyone’s clothing and spoiled all the bread and flour in the boats.
The Williams family made it — barely but safely — onto the Progress, which carried 188 officers and men, four women and four children, including an infant. By 4 pm all the refugees had boarded the seven vessels. To make room, the rescue ships had to throw all of their catch and most of their equipment overboard.
They set sail for Honolulu and arrived safely on October 23 without a single casualty.
Only later did they learn the fate of the ships. All liquor had been destroyed, but the medicine chests were left behind. The natives got into the medicine and some died. The ice crushed and sank most of the ships. Only the bark Minerva was later discovered intact and salvaged.
They learned the next year that the northeast gale they’d waited for came two weeks after they left.
“If we had waited until this gale came, without doubt the greater part of the fleet would have been saved, but this was knowledge not possessed by the captains,” wrote William Williams.
With thanks to History of New Bedford, Vol. 3, by Zeph Pease, and Report of the Commissioner for 1875-1878. This story about the 1871 whaling disaster was updated in 2022. Bowhead whale spyhops By Olga Shpak – http://ria.ru/earth/20140219/995484804.html, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33130137.