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AFSC Historical Corner:  Roosevelt,  Bureau's First Pribilof Tender

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Roosevelt
Peary's 3-masted steamer Roosevelt at Newburgh, New York, in 1909.
Detroit Publishing Co. photo collection.  Library of Congress.


Vessel Details
Year built: 1905
Location built: Bucksport, ME
Builder: McKay & Dix
Designer: unknown
Other names/id: SP-2397 (Navy, WWI)
Length: 182'
Breadth: 35.5'
Draft: 16'
Tonnage (tons): 654 gross
Original engine: 1,000 hp compound
Average speed: 8 knots
Known skipper: Hans Bierd (1918-19)
Pribilof service: 1917-19
Disposition: sold in 1919

In 1915, the Bureau of Fisheries (BOF) purchased its first dedicated Pribilof Islands tender for $40,000 in New York. Before the Roosevelt could be used, however, she required extensive overhauling and wasn't actually ready for Alaska service until 1917. In the meantime, the U.S. Navy collier Saturn was used by the Bureau to service the Pribilofs in 1915, and in 1916 the steamer Elihu Thomson was chartered from the Pacific Cold Storage Company of Tacoma, Washington.

At a cost of $150,000 provided by the Peary Arctic Club, the steamship Roosevelt was built specifically for Robert Peary's 1905 and 1908 Arctic explorations. The ship was named after President Theodore Roosevelt, who had been openly supportive of Peary's expeditions. McKay and Dix Shipyard in Bucksport, Maine, constructed the 1,600-ton, 184-foot schooner. Launched on 23 March 1905, the Roosevelt was christened by Peary's wife, Josephine. The ship's thick flexible wooden and steel-sheathed hull was uniquely braced by struts, providing ample protection while traveling through, or being held in, frozen ice. The egg-shaped hull design allowed her to ride above the ice, rather than being crushed by it. The vessel had sails on three masts, a high-powered steam engine, and a large propeller on a 1-foot diameter shaft designed to push her through thick ice.


Following her historic journeys to the Arctic, the Roosevelt was purchased in 1910 by John Arbuckle, "the great tea, coffee, and sugar merchant of Brooklyn" according to Peary. Arbuckle's personal interest was salvaging wrecked ships. He significantly modified the Roosevelt into an ocean-worthy wrecking tug that successfully recovered several large steamships, such as the Yankee, and other shipwrecks. After Arbuckle's death in 1912, the Roosevelt remained inactive with the rest of his salvage fleet near the Brooklyn Bridge in New York until she was purchased by the BOF in 1915. The Bureau felt a vessel of this type was necessary for the long open supply runs in the Bering Sea between the two main Pribilof Islands (St. Paul and St. George – some 40 miles apart) and Unalaska, which was 250 miles away from the Pribilofs in the Aleutian Islands chain.

Roosevelt hull construction   Roosevelt hull construction
The Roosevelt's hull during construction, 1904-05;   (left) midship cross section looking aft,   (right) massive trusses strengthen
the sides against ice pressure (horizontal timber pictured is 14" x 16").
  Photos from R. E. Peary. 1917. "Secrets of Polar Travel".

The Roosevelt experienced a considerable delay in getting to the Pacific Northwest. In July 1915 – while sailing from New York to Norfolk, Virginia, to pick up coal for the Pribilofs – the Bureau's new tender experienced significant mechanical failure requiring repairs at the Norfolk Navy Yard. A thorough inspection revealed that additional work was needed, including a general overhaul. A significant part of this work required replacing the coal-fired engine with an oil-burning one, and restoring the foremast which Arbuckle had removed. Another improvement included the installation of a more efficient 3-blade propeller. At the end of summer 1916, the overriding demands for steel during World War I created a delay for forging the new tail shaft, which further prevented the vessel from sailing for several months. By this time the total cost of the ship and its repairs had reached $72,000 – still a bargain compared to the minimum $100,000 cost of building a new vessel that would meet the Bureau's requirements.

  opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal
The Roosevelt leads a parade of hundreds of vessels during the formal opening of the Lake Washington Ship Canal in Seattle on 4 July 1917.
Photo from the PEMCO Webster & Stevens Collection, MOHAI.
 

While the Roosevelt was lying idle, the 8th annual Convention of the Southern Commercial Congress was being held in Norfolk during the month of December 1916. Both the Roosevelt and the Bureau's steamer Fish Hawk participated in the event by exhibiting several fishery-related items and devices.

Soon afterwards, on 23 January 1917, the Roosevelt finally sailed for Seattle, Washington, but was impeded by an international incident which detained the vessel for over a month at Guantanamo, Cuba. This event was followed by yet another delay of 3 weeks for necessary repairs at Balboa, Panama.

At last on 23 April 1917, the Roosevelt arrived in Seattle bringing with her supplies for the U.S. Navy and the Bureau of Lighthouses. That summer, a dedication took place on 4 July to mark the opening of Seattle's new Government Locks, connecting Puget Sound with the Ship Canal and Lake Washington. The Roosevelt became the first large ocean-going vessel to enter the canal when she led a flotilla of hundreds of boats – including the Bureau's newly built Alaska boat, Auklet.

By year's end, the Roosevelt had made two trips to the Pribilofs with personnel, building materials and various supplies. On her return trip in August, she hauled 4,882 fur seal skins and 606 fox skins to Seattle for rail shipment to St. Louis, Missouri, where they were prepared for auction. For her first year of service, it was estimated that the work done by the Roosevelt versus using hired or chartered vessels, as previously done, had more than the covered the cost of purchasing the ship. Perry Moore, of the Foss Company, was aboard the Roosevelt in 1917 and later recalled that his trip was "plagued with severe storms, engine breakdowns and a mad man...loose with a fire axe".

In 1918, the Roosevelt's January voyage marked the first time that it was possible to sail reliably to the Pribilof Islands in the winter. That spring the vessel became involved in a dramatic sequence of events. First, on 27 April, the Roosevelt debarked Seattle for the Pribilofs filled with cargo, including three 1-ton trucks. The ship was unloading supplies at the Pribilofs when diphtheria broke out among her crew. After the St. Paul Island physician administered the antitoxin, the Roosevelt steamed to Unalaska for quarantine. Fortunately for the island inhabitants, the disease was confined to the ship.

Roosevelt
The 2-masted Roosevelt near Ketchikan, Alaska.  Sadlier-Olsen Family Collection photo, ca. 1898-2001, ASL-P289-126.  Alaska State Library.
 
 

Then while quarantined at Unalaska, disaster struck in Bristol Bay. Several cannery vessels filled with workers became stuck in pack ice facing destruction and death. The quarantine delayed the Roosevelt's rescue attempt for 3 days until 27 May. Her hull design allowed her to cut through the heavy ice – 16 feet thick in places – and save 21 people from the sunken vessel Tacoma who had sought refuge on an ice floe. The remaining 115 passengers had managed to board another endangered ship, the St. Nicholas, which at the time was within an estimated 12 hours of sinking.

Fortunately, the Roosevelt had arrived on the scene in time. For the next few weeks her captain, Hans Bierd, and crew safely towed five vessels out of danger. Three of these ships were the St. Nicholas with over 300 onboard, the Centennial with 161 persons, and the Star of Chile with 220. Remarkably, the Roosevelt received only minimal damage during the ordeal. As a result, the cannery associations sent letters of appreciation and commendation to the Roosevelt's captain and crew.

During World War I, suitable seagoing BOF vessels, including the Roosevelt, were transferred to the U.S. Navy for military use. From 18 March 1918 to 11 June 1919, the Roosevelt was available to the Navy, which installed three 3-pound guns onboard and identified the ship as SP 2397. The vessel was based at Seattle and patrolled the U.S. West Coast and Alaska waters, while continuing the transportation of general cargo and skins to and from the Pribilofs for the BOF.

On 17 January 1919, it was reported – and later confirmed by Steamboat-Inspection Service surveyors – that the Roosevelt was once again in need of extensive repairs and overhauling. The ship was taken to the Puget Sound Naval Shipyard at Bremerton, Washington, on 21 April. Dry rot had set in and after additional inspections it was decided that the $186,000 cost for the necessary work was too high. Consequently on 4 June, the Roosevelt was condemned and moved to Seattle for auction. Captain Bierd resigned his commission on 18 June and the crew remained long enough to transfer equipment from the Roosevelt to her replacement, the newly purchased tender, Eider. On 15 July 1919, the Roosevelt was sold for $28,000 to the high bidder, Capt. M. E. Tallakson.

After her brief period with the BOF, the Roosevelt continued to operate in the Pacific Northwest as a 700-ton-capacity freighter. In April 1923, the West Coast Tug Company acquired the ship and modified her into a powerful ocean towing tug, considered the largest commercial tug on the West Coast. For 18 months she made outstanding tows in all weather and in record times. The largest tow ever recorded at the time for a single tug occurred in June 1924, when the Roosevelt pulled the 16,000-ton battleship Connecticut from Seattle to Oakland, California.

"For Sale"
A publication announcement in 1919 for the selling of the Roosevelt read:

"FOR SALE – The U. S. Fisheries steamer Roosevelt will be sold at public auction to the highest bidder on July 15, 1919, at 10 a.m., at Salmon Bay Wharf, Seattle, Wash., at which place the vessel may be examined by interested persons prior to time of sale.

The Roosevelt is a wooden, single-screw, oil-burning steamer built in 1905, length, 182 feet; breadth,
35 ft. 5 in.; and depth, 16 ft. 2 in. The vessel is of 654 gross tons. It has two Scotch boilers, built in 1907, and compound engine of 1,000 h.p. Fuel capacity is 859 barrels. Equipped with wireless. Vessel will be sold without boats or movable equipment."

The Roosevelt was acquired by the Washington Tug and Barge Company of Seattle in November 1924 and towed lumber barges between Puget Sound and California. Her delivery schedule again proved impressive, averaging two round trip runs per month. On a 6-day trip in August 1925 to San Pedro, California, she averaged 8 knots while towing the ocean-going barge Decula loaded with 2.4 million feet of lumber. That winter while towing two barges from Seattle to Florida, the Roosevelt lost her rudder and drifted for days in the Pacific before help arrived.

On Christmas Eve in 1929, the Roosevelt was towing the ex-mail vessel Starr in a heavy gale, when she became disabled after the tow line parted and tangled in her propeller – the Starr managed to set anchor during the ordeal. While drifting dangerously close to Wessels Reef, near Middleton Island, Alaska, the Roosevelt was rescued by the persistent efforts of Captain Peter Wold and his crew of the halibut schooner Attu, who were able to pass over a tow line.

Late December 1931, the ship was nearly lost at sea in a horrendous gale off Vancouver Island while towing the racing schooner Commodore. The Roosevelt's towline apparently parted. Her radio room became flooded and before the radio failed, the broken distress calls from the seven-man crew included "For God's sake hurry" and "...does not appear to have much chance to survive." Fortunately, the Roosevelt managed to seek shelter at Neah Bay, off the northwest coast of Washington and rode out the storm.

The aging tug had her final known inspection in 1936 and was purchased shortly thereafter by the California Towing Company of San Francisco. On 31 October 1936, the Roosevelt left Seattle with the Jason, a former U.S. Navy collier, in tow to New York City for scrapping. The heavy tow and rough seas, however, proved too much for the Roosevelt. About 250 miles after passing through the Panama Canal with a leaking hull, she experienced serious engine and boiler problems and was forced to turn around. She limped back to Cristobal, Balboa (Panama), and was salvaged by her crew to compensate for long overdue wages. To keep her from sinking, the Roosevelt was beached and abandoned in mid-January 1937 on a mud bank in the Old French Canal – a vessel graveyard where the worn out historic ship was left to slowly rot away with time.


Additional reading:

Grigore, J. 1968. The Ship that Refused to Die. The Sea Chest, Journal of the Puget Sound Maritime Historical Society, Dec. 1968. p.45-51.
Peary, R. E. 1917. Secrets of Polar Travel. The Century Co. New York. 313 p.
Anonymous. 1925. Launch and Tug Fleets of the Pacific Northwest. Pacific Motor Boat, June 1925. p.15.
"The S. S. Roosevelt".  Peary's Eagle Island web site  (last accessed 4-10-13).
Anonymous. 1917. Marine Pageantry Marks Opening of the Famous Lake Washington Canal. Pacific Motor Boat, Aug. 1917. p.5-10.
New York Times, 12 June, 1918, archived article.  New York Times web site  (last accessed 4-10-13).
 

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