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Connection on the Ice

Storms, Ice and Whales

Captain John Keenan, Arctic Whaler

Whaling captains at Port Clarence, Alaska, 1887. Left to right, standing: William I. Shockley, Leander Owen, John B. Tobey, Joseph Whiteside, David B. Adams, Martin V. B. Millard, and possibly Joseph Fisher; seated: William B. Ellis, John Keenan, Joshua G. Baker.
From the New Bedford Whaling Museum, published in John R. Bockstoce,
Whales, Ice & Men: The History of Whaling in the Western Arctic (Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, 1995), page 225

Port Clarence is now the name used for the whole bay just southeast of Cape Prince of Wales; the whaling community of that name was at the eastern shore, just south of present-day Teller. Port Clarence was a common supply point for whalers operating in the Bering Sea, or enroute to Japan or Siberia.

John Keenan was at Port Clarence as Relief Master of the whaling bark Eliza. Registered as 297 tons, she was built in 1852 at Mattapoisett, Massachusetts. In 1887 she had sailed from San Francisco, California to Japan and Okhotsk.

Other voyages that Captain Keenan undertook included:

  • 1879 - sailed from San Francisco, California, to the North Pacific as Captain of the Norman, a Bark of 317 tons which had been built in 1850 in Rochester, Massachusetts;
  • Nov.12, 1881 to Nov.24, 1882, sailed from New Bedford, Massachusetts to the North Pacific as Captain of the Stamboul, a Bark of 247 tons which had been built in 1843 in Medford, Massachusetts.
Thanks to Captain Keenan's great-grandson, Ed Broecker, for that information, as well as what follows.

The Troy Times

Troy New York
Saturday, March 12, 1910

Death of old-time Whaling Ship Captain and Explorer
Had Many Exciting Experiences in the Far North
The Call of the Deck Hard to Resist
An Adventurous Life

      Capt. John Keenan, Arctic explorer and old-time whaler, died last evening at his home, 731 Broadway, Watervliet, after having been ill since last Saturday evening, when he was stricken with paralysis. Captain was born in Port Schuyler* seventy-five years ago. When fourteen years of age, he gave way to a longing for the sea, and in company with James Pilling, a Watervliet lad of his own age, left home and secured a place on a whaling vessel at Nantucket July 10, 1850, bound for the Northern seas. The hardships which he went through only strengthened his taste for the sea, and because of his natural aptitude for handling a sailing vessel he was soon promoted to first mate, sailing in that position in the ship Oliver Crockett in 1871. In 1876 he captained the British vessel W.A.Farnsworth, which was lost in an ice pack, those aboard escaping by walking over the pack. Several years later he was at the wheel of the James Allen, flying the Stars and Stripes. Just about this time, the sperm whales were being driven farther north, and whaling vessels were forced to voyage to unknown waters.

In Unknown Waters

      While Captain Keenan was in command of the James Allen, that vessel underwent the hardest trip of the Captain’s career. He piloted his craft into waters that had never before been visited by man, and in a heavy fog the boat ran afoul of an ice pack and was dashed to pieces. At the same time a large pack broke up, and the crews of thirteen whaling vessels were put in the same plight as Captain Keenan’s. Lifeboats were manned, and the crew of the James Allen prepared to battle for their lives. The boats of Captain Keenan were the only means of escape for 300 men, and there were were only provisions enough for forty men for forty days. For three days and night(s) the men travelled over ice packs, carrying their boats where navigation was impossible, and in that time made only twenty-three miles. They finally reached Point Barrow, where three ships were stationed. During his career as a whaler Captain Keenan made and lost several fortunes because of his uncontrollable desire for the sea, which worked his financial ruin, destroying his boats and producing unfruitful trips. Only a year ago, Captain Keenan stated that he always had a desire to find the North Pole, but the nearest he came to it was seventy-four degrees, and that was in 1888, when he had only a small ship and poor means for travelling.

Discovered a New Land

      There is a tract of land off Point Barrow named after the worthy old sea captain. It is known as Keenan’s Land. The land was discovered by accident. It was after a very long and perilous voyage when the vessel was caught in a terrific gale, which at the first blow dashed to pieces the rudder, and the main mast went by the board. The small craft drifted helplessly before the wind and at top speed was beached on a strip of land which now bears the Captain’s name. The party was safely landed, and references to maps and observations made proved that the land had never before been touched by man. The flag of the United States was fastened to a staff made from parts of the wreckage and placed on the highest point of land that could be reached. The discovery was reported at Washington, and the land was officially named after Captain Keenan.

Met Famous Explorers

      Captain Keenan while on his trips often met with famous explorers. He met George W. DeLong on the latter’s expedition in 1879 when he left San Francisco in the ship Jeanette, bound for the pole. At this time when the news was circulated that Dr. Cook had discovered the pole, Captain Keenan was interviewed. He said that at first he was inclined to disbelieve Captain Cook’s story, for some of the achievements credited to him seemed beyond human endurance. Later, he said that he began to believe Dr. Cook’s story, for the route which he took was the one that he always said would have to be traversed to reach the pole. Captain Keenan said his route was better, for game could be found farther north than along the Pacific side.

Retained His Longing for the Sea

      Last year Captain Keenan said he still had the longing for the sea, and despite his years if the oportunity presented itself he would again embark for a sea voyage to the north. He said he would carry to his grave a desire to breathe the sea air. Captain Keenan had in his Port Schuyler* home a valuable collection of skins , ivory and other products of the north, picked up on his various voyages. The survivors of Captain Keenan are two sons, James Keenan, manager for Cluett, Peabody & Co., in Chicago, Ill., John Keenan, Jr. also of Chicago, and a daughter, Mrs. Joseph Hennessey, who resided with the Captain in Watervliet.**

* Port Schuyler became Watervliet, but the old name was used in common conversation for many years.
** The last line should read:
The survivors of Captain Keenan are two sons, James Keenan, manager for Cluett, Peabody & Co., in Chicago, Ill., Charles F. Keenan, also of Chicago, and a daughter, Mrs. Joseph Hennessy, who resided with the Captain in Watervliet. Another son, John B. Keenan, and his wife Lillian Meagher resided with the Captain until John B. Keenan died of typhoid in Troy Hospital April 1, 1902.

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