The Arctic Whaling Voyage of the Schooner Polar Bear, 1913-1914
by: John R. Bockstoce, Ph.D
Polar Bear stuck on ice. September 13th, 1913
The schooner Polar Bear's ten-thousand-mile voyage in the North Pacific and Western Arctic stands out amid the colorful history of American whaling. Not only was the Polar Bear caught by arctic pack ice and forced to overwinter on the exposed coast of northern Alaska, but four of the crew then hiked out from the ship with dog-teams on a punishing overland trek, traveling south across the uncharted Brooks Range and reaching home safely just before Christmas 1913.
The Polar Bear's voyage, during which at least five of the Polar Bear's passengers documented the cruise with their cameras was the most thoroughly photographed American whaling expedition. These prints and negatives consist of approximately six hundred images. They include views of coastal and interior Alaska, the Aleutians, Kamchatka, the Chukchi Peninsula, and Western Arctic Canada, as well as highly evocative scenes of whale hunting and fur trading with the natives of Siberia and Alaska. This remarkable group of images is further enhanced by the diaries of four of the crew who recorded both the hum-drum events of the voyage and the exciting and sometimes terrifying moments of danger, high adventure, backbreaking labor, and skillful seamanship.
The voyage is also significant because it occurred on the cusp of the transition from whaling to fur trading as the primary economic activity in the Arctic. The Polar Bear's expedition was one of the last American arctic whaling voyages. It took place at a time when the bowhead whale population of the Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas had been severely reduced by more than a half-century's commercial hunting, and by then only a small market for whale products remained; simultaneously, however, the value of furs, especially arctic fox furs, was on the rise, and these images also document the rise of the maritime fur trade in the Western Arctic.
Dunbar Lockwood sewing clothes. September 4th, 1913
The New Bedford Whaling Museum's photographic archives contain four collections from the Polar Bear's voyage of 1913-1914: the Eben Draper collection, which is the largest, the John Heard, Jr. collection, the Bernhard Kilian collection, and the Dunbar Lockwood collection. Draper, Kilian, and Lockwood not only collected images taken by themselves but also those taken by other members of the expedition, including Joseph Dixon and Will E. Hudson, and possibly others as well. After the conclusion of the voyage the participants exchanged their photographs with one another, with the possible exception of John Heard, Jr., whose photographs of whaling activities in Amundsen Gulf are not duplicated in the other collections.
Because of this exchange of photographs among members of the expedition, the Draper, Kilian, and Lockwood collections also contain images of events that took place when a particular photographer was not present. Bernhard Kilian, the Polar Bear's engineer, was the only one of this group to participate in the entire voyage. Will Hudson, a professional photographer, joined the crew at the commencement of the voyage in Seattle, but departed overland from the north coast of Alaska with Louis Lane, Dunbar Lockwood, and Eben Draper. Dunbar Lockwood came aboard in Vancouver. Draper and Heard met the Polar Bear at Nome, and Heard departed from Nome a year later. Joseph Dixon went aboard at Seattle and left the schooner from Point Barrow the following summer.
Timeline of Photographers onboard the schooner Polar Bear
Hudson, Will E. 1937. Icy Hell: Experiences of a news reel cameraman in the Aleutian Islands, Eastern Siberia and the Arctic fringe of Alaska. New York: Frederick A. Stokes Co.
Kilian, Bernhard. 1983. The Voyage of the Schooner Polar Bear: Whaling and Trading in the North Pacific and Arctic, 1913-1914 (John R. Bockstoce, ed.). New Bedford: Old Dartmouth Historical Society and the Alaska Historical Commission.
© New Bedford Whaling Museum 2015