The Long Blue Line: America’s first ice ships and icebreakers

During the Age of Sail, the seasonal pattern of icebound winters froze-in merchant vessels and reduced the wintertime demand for revenue cutters on the Great Lakes, in the Northeast and in the Mid-Atlantic States. In some cases, cutters were decommissioned in December, winterized and their crews dismissed until the spring thaw.

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Color photograph of Northland, with cut-down masts, sitting in the ice in World War II’s Greenland Patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Color photograph of Northland, with cut-down masts, sitting in the ice in World War II’s Greenland Patrol. (U.S. Coast Guard)

William Thiesen, Historian, Coast Guard Atlantic Area

Though various ice-strengthened vessels were built in the era, most were simply ice resistant, and had neither the requisite horsepower nor hull design for forcing the vessels through the ice.
-Donald L. Canney, Historian and Archivist, U.S. Coast Guard retired

During the Age of Sail, the seasonal pattern of icebound winters froze-in merchant vessels and reduced the wintertime demand for revenue cutters on the Great Lakes, in the Northeast and in the Mid-Atlantic States. In some cases, cutters were decommissioned in December, winterized and their crews dismissed until the spring thaw.

Two historical trends changed this age-old routine in northern waters. First, the development of steel hulls and steam engines. During the Age of Sail, breaking ice proved impossible with brittle wooden hulls and wind power unable to push ships through ice. Steam and steel provided the technology necessary to survive, crush and clear ice-covered waters. 

Second, as maritime interests chased valuable resources into icebound waters and commercial shipping continued further into the winter months, the duties of the Revenue Cutter Service increased in frozen areas previously considered unsafe in wintertime. For example, in 1867, Alaska became a U.S. territory luring adventurers and those exploiting natural resources on land and at sea. Alaska’s vast maritime frontier required the support of the Service’s law enforcement, humanitarian and search and rescue missions.

Rare photograph of Bear sitting in the ice while aiding another vessel. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Rare photograph of Bear sitting in the ice while aiding another vessel. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The first revenue cutters designed to operate in the ice were “ice resistant.” These included the famed cutter Bear, which was heavily constructed with a wooden hull over a foot thick. Built in 1874 for seal hunting, Bear had wooden sheathing covering its planks to resist puncture and compression by ice flows. It also had metal plating on its bow allowing it to push through leads and openings in the ice without damaging its stem. Bear carried a full sail rig, but relied on steam power to navigate through the ice.

In 1885, Bear began its service career when the U.S. Navy turned it over to the Revenue Cutter Service. Bear proved effective only in the warmer months and normally did not steam north of the Arctic Circle in winter months. One of the few attempts to do so was the Overland Rescue, which began in November 1897, when Bear steamed north to relieve starving whalers trapped in the ice near Pt. Barrow, Alaska. Bear made it to Cape Vancouver, as far north as pack ice permitted, then disembarked a rescue team that drove a herd of reindeer 1,500 miles north to the icebound whalers. The rescue succeeded due to land-based dog sleds, while the cutter remained stuck in the ice until the spring thaw. Other cutters carried on Alaska’s storied Bering Sea Patrol, but none of them had hulls reinforced to serve in the Arctic ice.

In the early 1900s, the Age of Sail began to fade and the Revenue Cutter Service began a more aggressive approach of not just surviving in the ice but breaking and clearing it. This unofficial mission took root in New England and the Mid-Atlantic States as merchant vessels began operating into the winter months. To work in the ice, the Service began retrofitting existing steam-powered cutters to serve in icy conditions.

Records indicate that the first iron cutter reinforced to serve in icebound waters was the Apache (ex-Cutter Galveston). Commissioned in 1891 to serve on the Galveston Station, the Galveston served there several years and survived the cataclysmic Great Galveston Hurricane of 1900. In 1904, the Service modernized the cutter, replacing its powerplant with a 1,200 horsepower steam engine, reconfigured its superstructure and, to aid in icebreaking duties, replaced the cutter’s original clipper bow with a plumb bow. In 1906, after retrofitting its hull and powerplant, the Service assigned Apache to the Chesapeake Bay where waterways and coastal areas commonly froze solid in the early 20th century.

Rare photograph of Apache (ex-Galveston), the Service’s first revenue cutter retrofitted to break ice with a reinforced plumb bow replacing its original clipper bow and bowsprit. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Rare photograph of Apache (ex-Galveston), the Service’s first revenue cutter retrofitted to break ice with a reinforced plumb bow replacing its original clipper bow and bowsprit. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In addition to the Chesapeake Bay, the Revenue Cutter Service began assigning cutters year round to the Northeast. Constructed in 1908 to operate in Massachusetts, the heavily built steel-hulled Acushnet was robust enough to cruise New England in the winter months.In addition to the Acushnet ,the Service built the Androscogginin 1908. Designed to break ice and keep open harbors in winter, the Androscoggin was the Revenue Cutter Service’s last cutter built of wood. At the time, some ship designers still preferred wooden hulls to serve in icebound waters. With an iron-reinforced spoon bow and powerful steam engine, Androscoggin cruised the Maine Coast from Eastport south to Massachusetts. Androscoggin was likely the first icebreaker designed to ride over the ice and crush it rather than backing and ramming.

In 1915, the modern Coast Guard continued icebreaking efforts begun by the Revenue Cutter Service. That year, the 165-foot steel cutter Ossippee was built with reinforced hull for light icebreaking duties. Ossippeere placed the older Androscoggin and broke ice on the Maine Coast.After World War I, the Service assigned another cutter to Maine to augment that region’s icebreaking capability. Acquired in 1921 by the Coast Guard, the 157-foot ocean-going tug Kickapoo was modified for icebreaking duties. The Service added to the cutter a six-foot icebreaker bow and eight feet to its beam. Like the AndroscogginKickapoo’s bow was designed to ride over the ice and crush it rather than breaking the ice with blunt force. With a powerful 1,600 horsepower steam engine, the Kickapooproved successful in its icebreaking role and took on buoy tending duties in World War II ending its career in 1945.

Black and white photo of the Androscoggin, last wooden cutter built for the Revenue Cutter Service. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Black and white photo of the Androscoggin, last wooden cutter built for the Revenue Cutter Service. (U.S. Coast Guard)

The Service retired Alaska’s ice-resistant wooden cutters Thetis, which served from 1899 to 1916, and Bear, which served until 1927, so the Coast Guard required a new cutter to serve in the icebound areas of Bering Sea. Rather than a heavy icebreaker, the Service built a modern vessel similar in some ways to the Bear. Commissioned in 1927, Cutter Northlandcame equipped with a sail rig, reinforced steel hull and a cutaway bow to push through openings and leads in pack ice. With a cruising range of nearly 20,000 miles, Northland’s diesel-electric powerplant proved economical for long Bering Sea Patrols, but it was too weak to break thick ice.

In the early 1930s, the Service built its first class of cutters with icebreaking in mind. Built of steel, the165-foot Escanaba-Class cutters had a slightly cutaway forefoot and double plating in the bow allowing them to break over a foot of ice. However, these cutters could not break the thickest ice in the Great Lakes where a number of them were stationed.

Photo of Cutter Ossippee. Built in 1915, Ossippee was one of the first classes of modern cutters designed for light icebreaking duties. (U.S. Coast Guard)
Photo of Cutter Ossippee. Built in 1915, Ossippee was one of the first classes of modern cutters designed for light icebreaking duties. (U.S. Coast Guard)

In 1936, the Coast Guard received its first official directive to break ice. On December 21, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 7521 directing the Coast Guard “to assist in keeping open to navigation by means of icebreaking operations . . . channels and harbors within the reasonable demands of commerce.” Written in response to a severe freeze blocking much-needed heating oil barges on East Coast waterways, Roosevelt’s executive order mandated the domestic icebreaking mission carried out unofficially for decades by the Revenue Cutter Service and then the Coast Guard.

Roosevelt’s directive led to the development of a class of 110-foot icebreaking tugs. Commissioned in 1939, before U.S. entry into World War II, the Raritan-Class of tugs incorporated an icebreaking bow that could break thick ice in the nation’s inland waterways, rivers and harbors. They also incorporated heavy hull plating and framing, and powerful diesel-electric powerplants. These tugs were the first Coast Guard cutters designed to break thick ice and not merely survive in it. Their successful design was proven in January 1940 when the 110-foot tug Arundel competed against the 165-foot Escanaba-Class cutter Comanche in breaking 12-inch sheet ice on the Hudson River. While the Comanchemade slow progress backing and ramming the ice, Arundelmade steady progress plowing through the ice with its icebreaking bow and powerful engine. These tugs served as a model for later icebreaking tugs, buoy tenders and cutters.

Rare image of Cutter Escanaba breaking ice near Sault Ste. Marie together with icebreaking car ferries serving that part of the Great Lakes. (U.S. Coast Guard).
Rare image of Cutter Escanaba breaking ice near Sault Ste. Marie together with icebreaking car ferries serving that part of the Great Lakes. (U.S. Coast Guard).

In the late 1800s and early 1900s, the Coast Guard took its earliest strides in icebreaking. The Service transitioned from ice resistant cutters to light icebreaking cutters and, just before World War II, to successful icebreaking tugs. The Service no longer used wooden hulls, but only steel. In addition, icebreaker bow design evolved and powerful engines were used to push icebreakers through the ice. World War II would mark a shift from the incremental technological change witnessed in the early 20thcentury. Instead, the war accelerated production of icebreakers capable of breaking thick ice domestically and in the icebound Polar Regions.

3 comments on “The Long Blue Line: America’s first ice ships and icebreakers”

  1. This is the best and most comprehensive article that I have ever read on the history and evolution of the US Coast Guard’s “ice” vessels prior to the WW2 era “Wind Class” heavy ice breakers. I commend Atlantic Area historian, William Thiesen for his bringing USCG’s history back to life.
    CAPT Don Taub, USCG, Retired

  2. Great Article, but I’m surprised you don’t mention the USRC Thomas Corwin, later Corwin. In fact the photograph of the Bear looks as if she is assisting the Corwin.

  3. Excellent Article about the early icebreaker fleet. I owned one of the Raritan Class 110’s in the late 90’s for about three years, the SNOHOMISH. I’d have to look up her hull numbers from the files but I think she was W-98. What an impressive boat and enjoyable to operate in commercial service towing between New England, Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean. A true seagoing design and we weathered more than one gale knowing the boat would take care of us (notwithstanding she rolled a lot in a beam sea).

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