San Francisco: The 20th-century golden gateway to the Arctic

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San Francisco: The 20th-century golden gateway to the Arctic. Photo: Mia Bennett, 2015.

In 1936, the newly built Arctic schooner North Star of Herschel Island was loaded from a dock in San Francisco onto a larger trading ship, Patterson, for its inaugural voyage north. For $23,000, two Inuit two fox hunters, Jim Wolkie and Fred Carpenter, had ordered North Star to be built at the G.W. Kneass shipyard in the Mission Bay district of San Francisco, a city that now seems unlikely for Arctic activities of any sort. Together, North Star and Patterson sailed out under the Golden Gate Bridge – just three years old at the time – for the Canadian Arctic. 

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North Star of Herschel Island: A schooner built in San Francisco for use in the fur trade in the Canadian Arctic. Photo from Nauticapedia.

The vessels sailed 5,000 miles from San Francisco to Herschel Island, an outcropping in the Beaufort Sea five miles north of the coast of the Yukon. While North Star was going to support the fur industry, earlier in the century, an enormous whaling industry had been based at Herschel Island, with its southern hub located in San Francisco. Although global whale stocks had been decimated towards the end of the 19th century, the discovery of bowhead whales in surprising numbers around the island drove the opening of a commercial industry there in 1889. Whaling in the Western Arctic directly benefited San Francisco. The first arrival of whale products from Herschel Island to the city sparked a global rush for whales in the Canadian Arctic. R. Bruce MacDonald writes in his book, North Star of Herschel Island: The Last Canadian Arctic Fur Trading Ship:

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A woman’s corset, stiffened by baleen. Photo: LACMA/Wikimedia Commons

The general belief was that there were no whales in the western Arctic but in 1889 the whaling ship Grampus took a gamble and headed up and around Point Barrow. Here there were thousands of whales, enough to fill thousands and thousands of barrels of oil and to supply the seemingly endless need for baleen that was used primarily for making women’s corsets as well as umbrellas and buggy whips. Grampus spent the season filling her holds and returned to San Francisco having taken twenty-two Bowheads. One large Bowhead whale of one hundred tons might produce a ton of baleen which sold for about five dollars a pound or about ten thousand dollars. Her arrival back in the United States set off a gold rush and whaling ships from around the world set off to fill their holds from the western Canadian Arctic. 

Almost overnight, Herschel Island became the largest settlement in the Yukon with 1,500 residents. As the whale population in the Atlantic had become severely overhunted, San Francisco quickly replaced New Bedford, Massachusetts as one of the world’s most important whaling cities. Dozens of whaling voyages set out annually from San Francisco to the Western Arctic. Most of the sailing ships (called schooners) used in the region were built in San Francisco or Vancouver, too. There were constant shipping runs between San Francisco and the Beaufort Sea, with ships going north with supplies for both the Inuit and non-Native peoples and ships coming south with oil, blubber, and furs.

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Excelsior-1897 sets sail for the Klondike from San Francisco. Photo by Sam C. Partridge. Library of the University of Washington via Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

The boom on Herschel Island was of enough relevance to San Francisco that the city’s newspaper, The San Francisco Call, reported on its current events, not all of which were glorious. In 1895, The San Francisco Call described a “disastrous” year of “scurvy, desertions, deaths from consumption, one stabbing affray and the birth of the first purely Anglo-Saxon girl in the Arctic.” (It is also interesting to note in the clipping below that American shipyards at the time were getting excited about building ships for Japan – quite the opposite situation from today, where Japan is building ships for the Arctic!).

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News about Herschel Island in The San Francisco Call, September 21, 1895. From the California Digital Newspaper Collection.

In 1907, the global adoption of petroleum led demand for whale oil to plummet. The energy transition led to Herschel Island’s abandonment. By then, Arctic bowhead whale stocks had also been decimated to levels from which they still have not recovered. Today, nobody lives on Herschel Island, although the indigenous Inuvialuit come from the mainland sometimes to hunt, fish, and camp.

San Francisco’s commercial ties to the Arctic would still continue for a good many years partly thanks to its shipbuilding and construction industries and the continuation of the fur trade in the Canadian North, which outlasted whaling. Beginning in 1936, every year in early August, North Star would sail from Aklavik, on the Canadian mainland, with all the furs that had been trapped in the previous winter to Sachs Harbour on Banks Island, in the Canadian Arctic Archipelago. In late August, the ship would sail with supplies from Aklavik and Tuktoyaktuk, on the Arctic Ocean coastline, to Sachs Harbour.

Weakening linkages between the West Coast and the Arctic

North Star’s resupply journeys continued until the early 1960s, at which point cargo flights came to replace sailing – and streamlined steel replaced salty wooden masts as the main mode of transport in the Canadian Arctic. The storied schooner sat washed up on a beach until 1968, when she was sold, re-outfitted, and given a new lease on life as a ship to guard the entrance to the Northwest Passage from potential Russian incursions during the Cold War. Later, she worked as an oil surveying ship in the Beaufort Sea, as her official website explains. (It seems that this ship is a maritime microcosm for all of the major events in the Arctic over the past two centuries!) With all its icy romance, North Star, which now is docked in Victoria, British Columbia and can still be chartered, was the “last of the sailing Arctic cargo ships.”

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North Star of Herschel Island‘s typical sailing route.

As the age of aviation ushered in a new era of northern transportation, in 1970, the shipyard in San Francisco that built North Star and several other ships for use in the Arctic also shut down. If you’re curious, the rusty remains of the G.W. Kneass shipyard look like this from outer space.

Southern legacies of the Western Arctic

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were arguably more linkages between the Western Arctic and the Western Pacific than there are today. Indeed as late as 1842, the southernmost extent of the Russian empire extended from Alaska down to to Fort Ross, just 85 miles north of San Francisco. Russian traders came down from Alaska to California, going all the way to Mexico, in search of fur seals and otters as the animals were overhunted up north. Thus, until deep into the twentieth century, San Francisco was closely connected to the Canadian Arctic through the shipbuilding, whaling, and mining industries, and almost at one point through the transcontinental expanse of the Russian Empire.

After Russia sold Alaska to the U.S. in 1867, San Francisco and its neighbor to the north, Seattle, benefited from the booms that followed in subsequent years in their northern backyard, from the Herschel Island whaling boom to the Klondike Gold Rush from 1896-1899. Tens of thousands of people headed north from San Francisco and Seattle to try to strike it rich in the Yukon. When the whaling and mining frenzies came to an end, the Arctic-related fortunes of San Francisco did, too, but they left legacies behind in the way of populations made permanently larger by miners who settled down and new industries like shipyards.

Seattle, more so than its Californian cousin, managed to retain more of a stake in Arctic industries. The city still forms an important gateway to the American Arctic, with a major Alaska Airlines hub and numerous service and logistics firms for operations in Alaska. Shell based its drill ships for the Alaskan Arctic here in the summers before they headed north, provoking the ire of more liberal-minded Seattlers.

SF’s Bechtel Corporation: An unlikely developer of the Arctic

Despite the city’s disengagement from the Arctic, one key San Francisco company has continued to profit from operations in the Arctic since the mid-1900s: Bechtel Corporation, located in the South of Market district. Bechtel, which got its start in the 1900s, is the biggest construction and civil engineering company in the U.S. and the country’s fourth-largest privately owned firm as well. During World War II, contracted by the U.S. Department of Defense, it built the 1,400-mile Canol pipeline between the oil fields of Normal Wells, in Canada’s Northwest Territories and U.S. military sites in Alaska in just two years due to urgent worries about a Japanese invasion of the Last Frontier. Bechtel proclaims on its website: “From that moment on, Bechtel has been a key player in the development of Canada.”

It is admittedly incredible to think that this private firm based in San Francisco has played such a key role in building up the infrastructure of the Canadian North, along with other places in the Arctic. (It’s worth noting, however, that the Canol pipeline was eventually removed, meaning that not all of its projects have resulted in long-term benefits for Arctic development.) In Iceland, Bechtel recently built the Fjarðaál Aluminum Smelter – “the largest private investment in Iceland’s history” – for the controversial Karahnjukar Hydropower Plant.

Shape-shifting Arctic economic networks

Bechtel’s Arctic activities aside, if San Francisco had advanced or even maintained its position as a port and shipyard serving Arctic destinations, one could imagine a senator from California calling him or herself the “junior Arctic senator” and advocating the formation of an Arctic caucus, much as Maine’s Senator, Angus King, has done. Maine has risen to prominence as a “near-Arctic state” in part by piggybacking on the rise of the North Atlantic Arctic region. Iceland sits at the leading edge of this regional boom, thanks to its development of sizable shipping and fishing industries since independence following World War II.

A hundred years ago, when the Western Arctic was a hive of whaling and mineral prospecting, the North Atlantic Ocean was mostly a icy graveyard of ships (like the Titanic), with the eras for cod fishing and whaling long gone. World War II, however, changed everything. It transformed the North Atlantic into a geostrategic ocean, with U.S. military bases opening in Iceland and Greenland.

Today, the 19th- and 20th-century ties between San Francisco and the Arctic resource economy are almost inconceivable given the Bay’s switch from industry to digital. San Francisco’s withdrawal from Arctic economic networks highlights the fluidity of networks of trade, commerce, and people over time. More broadly, it also demonstrates the shape-shifting nature of regions. The Arctic region, at least in an economic sense, once could have been said to extend down to San Francisco. Now, it largely excludes the City by the Bay, but instead includes places like Maine and Singapore.

Although China, Japan, Korea, and Singapore’s activities in the Arctic are now increasingly seen as natural and unsurprising, it is possible to imagine a future world in which we are surprised to learn that these countries were ever involved in Arctic activities, much as we might look back on San Francisco’s previous engagement with Arctic resource development with bafflement today.

In trade networks, city’s positions are rarely permanent. What is more permanent over time, however, is the Arctic’s status as a peripheral supplier of resources for the rest of the world. The Arctic region’s continual state of underdevelopment cannot just be explained by its resource richness: Norway, too, has lots of oil and used to have lots of whales, but it has managed to escape many of the ills of boom-and-bust, resource-based economies. How to bring lasting development to the Arctic that doesn’t irrevocably plunder its natural resources is the billion-dollar question.

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