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Dr. Samuel J. Call in the Arctic Seas

by Murray Lundberg

      In the history of Alaska, heroes are plentiful. The northern frontier attracted men and women who often had large measures of bravery, fortitude and physical stamina in their makeups. But even in a land of heroes, some rise above - such a man was Samuel Johnson Call, who was awarded a Congressional Medal for bravery during an Arctic rescue mission in 1897-98.

      Born in Missouri in 1858, by the age of 22 he was employed by the Alaska Commercial Company (ACC) as the surgeon at their Unalaska post. He was to spend five years at Unalaska, during which time he made lengthy trips to villages from Attu to St. Michael (Cocke). As the only physician in the Aleutians, he of course met many of the men of the Revenue Cutter Service, including Captain Shepard of the cutter Richard Rush and Captain Michael Healy of the Bear. After leaving the ACC in 1890, he was accepted into the Revenue Cutter Service, and was posted to the Bear when she sailed north in 1891. On that voyage was Dr. Sheldon Jackson, and the following year, Dr. Call assisted Dr. Jackson in his project to import reindeer from Siberia to Alaska. As a result of seeing the results of that project, Dr. Call became a life-long promoter of the value of reindeer-herding in Alaska.

      The latter part of the century was a period when whales were one of Alaska's most famous resources, and dozens of ships cruised the Bering Sea in search of what could be fabulous wealth. But the icy seas could also trap and kill even the most experienced sailors. Shipwrecks in 1876, 1881, 1882 and 1888 had resulted in the construction and staffing of a rescue station at Point Barrow in 1889 to try to avert a tragedy that was almost inevitable. However, the costs of maintenance were naturally very high, and in 1896, the rescue station was sold.

      The open-water season of 1897 ended early, and abruptly. In the last week of September, 8 whaling vessels became trapped by the early ice. The crews organized themselves, and sent 2 men of 1,700-mile trek to call for help, as none of the ships had enough supplies to last over the winter. Charles Walker was sent along the relatively easy Herschel Island/Mackenzie River route, while George Tilton was to try a new route south along the Alaskan coast. Both men made it, even though Walker spent a few weeks at Herschel, getting drunk while hundreds of his mates waited.

      Charlie Brower, who operated a supply post at Point Barrow, and Edward Avery McIlhenny, a naturalist who was spending the winter in the old rescue post, had both sensed that winter might be early and that some ships could be trapped. To prepare for this possibility, they had been storing as much game as possible in their ice cellars. With further hunting and salvaging of supplies, assisted by local Eskimos, the trapped sailors were successful in accumulating an impressive list of stores for the winter:

  • 2,300 ducks and geese;
  • 1,200 caribou;
  • 30,000 pounds of whitefish;
  • more than 1,000 beluga whales, from a small patch of open water when they had been trapped by the ice;
  • a large stock of coal; the Navarch was carrying 80 tons, but two men set her on fire when they got tired of hauling coal! (Bockstoce)

          When word reached Seattle that eight ships were trapped near Point Barrow, the government had no way of knowing that the natural bounties of the land had ensured the survival, if not the comfort of the whalers. A rescue mission was immediately organized by the Revenue Cutter Service - on November 27, three weeks after returning from her annual Alaskan tour, the cutter Bear headed north again, with a volunteer crew under Captain Francis Tuttle, who had orders to use all possible means to reach the whalers.

          Captain Tuttle's experience in northern waters led him to expect to be able to reach Cape Nome before the ice stopped the ship. However, the furthest the Bear could reach was near the village of Tanunak (north of Cape Vancouver), still 1,200 miles from Point Barrow (see map). An expedition was organized, under the command of Lieutenant David H. Jarvis, to travel overland to Point Barrow, gathering reindeer along the way to feed the whalers. Accompanying Jarvis were 2nd Lieutenant Ellsworth Price Bertholf, Dr. Samuel Call, and Eskimo guide F. Klotchoff.

          The first reindeer were gathered near Cape Nome, where Charlie Artisarlook gave them 138 animals. At Cape Prince of Wales, another 310 animals were rounded up, and W. T. Lopp, a missionary, teacher and highly experienced reindeer herder, was persuaded to accompany them.

          The expedition finally reached Point Barrow with their reinder in March 1898. Many of the 382 remaining reindeer, however, had been driven nearly 700 miles in less than two months, and were so skinny that they were of little use once they arrived. The expedition was by no means a complete waste, though - discipline had fallen apart, fights and thefts from the Eskimos and each other were common, and hygiene was poor. Lieutenant Jarvis was able to restore order, and while he ensured the safety of the sailors, Dr. Call attended to their medical needs. While there had been 3 deaths over the winter, none were related to the living conditions. The old Pacific Steam Whaling Station, where bunks had been built for 144 men, was so filthy it was torn down for firewood.

          As spring passed into summer, successful whaling from shore made life infinitely easier on the men, and at the end of July the Bear and the Jeanette finally reached Point Barrow. The ice, however, closed in again, pinching the Bear so severely that the iron plates in the engine room deck were buckled (Bockstoce). In mid-August, by blasting their way through a pressure ridge, the surviving ships, the Bear, Jeanette, Newport, Fearless, and Jeanie were able to sail south. The Navarch was burned by the sailors, while the ice claimed the Orca, Jesse H. Freeman, Belvedere and Rosario.

          The rescue station where much of this saga took place still stands, although substantially modified - Charlie Brower's descendants now operate a restaurant in the building. It is one of the oldest frame buildings in Alaska, and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

          Dr. Call's adventures were far from over - in August 1899 he resigned from the Revenue Cutter Service and set up a private practise at Nome, the new gold-rush boom town. He was to remain there until 1903; during the summer of 1900, nearly 25,000 people were living in the area, and poor sanitation led to a high incidence of disease. Over the winter of 1901-1902, he undertook another trip which he told a reporter was potentially even more dangerous than the Point Barrow expedition. It resulted when a Catholic priest, Father Jacquet, became violently insane and needed to be taken to the mission at Holy Cross, 600 miles away. They left Nome on November 22, 1901:

    Dr. Call's fears proved well grounded. It was a grueling journey. Fr. Jacquet talked and shouted continuously except when asleep and had to be guarded around the clock. The party reached Holy Cross on December 18, rested two days and started back for Nome. They had a narrow escape when a blizzard caught them while crossing Norton Bay. They were trying to find the way when they discoveed that the ice was bending beneath their feet. Fortunately, the storm lulled. Just ahead was open water and the ice was beginning to break up around them. They managed to turn the teams and reach firm ice. It was January 14 when they reached Nome - and the 1,200-mile journey proved fruitless. The staff at the Holy Cross Mission could not adequately care for Fr. Jacquet and had to send him to the jail at St. Michael. (Cocke).

          In September 1903, Dr. Call returned to the Revenue Cutter Service, serving on the Thetis, and later the McCulloch. As with so many of our pioneers who pushed their physical limits, his health had deteriorated, and he was forced to retire in September 1908. He moved to Hollister, California to live with a sister, and on February 16, 1909, he died there at the age of 50.

          During his 27 years in Alaska, Dr. Samuel Call had served the country well. He had taken an interest in photography at around the turn of the century, and his photographs in the collections of the University of Alaska Archives and the Alaska Historical Library now serve to not only document life along the Alaskan coast during that period, but help to keep alive the memory of one of Alaska's true heroes.

    References & Further Reading:

  • John R. Bockstoce - Whales Ice & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle: University of Washington, 1995)
  • Albert J. Cocke - "Dr. Samuel J. Call", in The Alaska Journal, Vol. 4, No. 3, Summer 1974
  • Miner Bruce - Alaska: Its History and Resources (New York: Knickerbocker, 1899)
    To Yukon & Alaska Pioneer Biographies