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Howard Blackburn


January 1883

Howard Blackburn "The Lone Voyager"The sch. Grace L. Fears sailed out of Liverpool, N. S. on the twenty-first of January, 1883, under the command of Capt. Alec Griffin. Three days out of Nova Scotia found the Grace L. Fears on the southern slope of Burgeo. Tom Welch of Newfoundland, was paired with Howard Blackburn in the dory, and they set out in their dory to haul the trawl lines. Just as they got to the second buoy, the wind fell back to a calm. Welch and Blackburn got the last trawl aboard, and headed for the ship.

A fierce snow squall descended, and Blackburn and Welch lost sight of the Grace L. Fears. They tried to row for the schooner, but could not find it in the storm. They threw out an anchor and tried to wait out the storm. That night, the storm ended, but the sea was still rough, and the wind continued to blow. Every wave threatened to swamp the dory. Blackburn and Welch bailed continuously, trying to keep the dory afloat. Each wave's spray added to the glaze of ice that built up on the dory. The dory was in danger of sinking under its weight. They spent the night bailing and using a fish-killer to knock off the buildup of ice.

When dawn arrived, they saw that they were alone on the vast ocean. They tried to row north, in the direction of Newfoundland, but the water was still too rough to make any progress. In the process of rigging a sea anchor, Blackburn's mittens were washed overboard. The boat kept filling with water from the waves, and the men kept bailing and knocking off ice.

Blackburn knew that without the protection of his mittens, his hands would freeze solid in the cold. Without his hands, he would be helpless. Before they froze solid, he bent his frozen fingers around the oars. and waited until they were frozen stiff. He then slipped his frozen claws off the oars, and started to bail again..

All the second day, they bailed the dory, and smashed at the ice that was building up on the boat. Blackburn's hold on the fishkiller that they were using to smash the ice was so clumsy that he hit the ice with his frozen hand more often than not. The little finger of his right hand was a pulp. In an effort to protect his hand, he removed his right sock, and putting his bare foot back into his boot, worked the sock over his damaged hand. Each time he bailed, the toe of the sock dipped into the water, forming a ball of ice that would drag the sock off of his hand. When he went to whack the iceball against the gunwale to break it, the sock flew off of his hand and into the sea.

"It was now Welch's turn to bail, but he made on attempt to get up, and when I said --Tom, just quick, he said --I can't see. As the water had to be bailed out before another sea broke on her, there was no time for an argument, so I jumped up and bailed out the water. I then said --Tom this won't do. You Must do your part. Your hands are not frozen and beating to pieces line mine -- showing him my hand with the little finger just hanging by the skin between the fingers. I have always been sorry that I showed him the hand, for he gave up altogether then and said --Howard, what is the use, we can't live until morning, and might as well go first as last."

After more hours of bailing, Blackburn called out to Welch and received no answer. His dorymate was dead. He picked up the body and dropped it in the stern. He clawed off one of the mittens and tried to put it on, but his hands were too swollen and distorted. Barehanded, he continued to bail and pound ice.

The third day, the storm abated. By sunrise, the ocean was nearly calm. Taking the only remaining pair of oars and putting them in the gunwales, he forces his claws over the handles and started to row for Newfoundland.

"The friction of the oar handles had wore away so much flesh from the inside of my hands that I could hardly hold the oars, and often my hands would slip off the ends of the oars. When I, forgetting that I could not open my hands, would make a grab for the oar handle and when the backs of my fingers would strike the oar, it would sound just like so many sticks.... When bending forward to take a stroke I would keep one hand a little higher that the other, but sometimes I would forget and take a stroke as if my hands were all right. Then the end of the oar would strike the side of my hand and knock off a piece of flesh as big around as a fifty cent piece, and fully three times as thick. The blood would just show and then seem to freeze."

He continued to row all of the third day, stopping at night in fear of losing the oars overboard in the dark. At the dawn of the fourth day, he saw an island that appeared to be deserted, so he rowed past it. By late in the afternoon of the fourth day, he could make out a stretch of coast on the horizon. He continued to row. By dusk, he approached a mouth of a river.

"I could tell by the water running out that fresh water could be found if I could only row up the river against the tide, and at that time I would give ten years of my life for a drink of water. I rowed some distance up the river, when all at once my mind gave way. I seemed to think that some former shipmates was laughing at the little headway I was making"

He spent the fourth night in the shack by the riverside, using an old net for a blanket. He knew that if he fell asleep he would never wake up.When he came out of the shack on the morning of the fifth day, he found that his dory was sunk by the waves in the night. Realizing that it was his only means of escape, he tried to remove Welch's body to prepare to bail the dory. His claws were able to get Welch out of the boat, but Blackburn dropped him when he tried to lift him to the wharf. Tom Welch sank to the bottom.

Blackburn managed to plug the dory, and bail out the water. He once again began to row. Every so often he had to bail, for the dory was leaking badly. He left the river, and rowed eastward for five or six miles until he entered a cove. He saw a house, but no sign of life, so he continued to row.

He saw two schooners making their way westward and he pulled to intercept them. He was close enough to make out a man on deck, when the wind shifted, the schooner's sails filled, and the schooner was out of sight. It was almost nightfall, so Blackburn made his way back to the shack for another night. Once again, he had to fight the current to make his way into the river.

For three hours he fought the current in the river, making little headway. It was late in the night when he approached the cove.

"Some persons crossing the cove on the ice from one house to another saw the dory with only one man in it and came out to the edge of the ice and waited for me to land. As soon as the boat struck the ice they caught hold of her and two of the men was going to jump into the boat which was half full of water at the time. I stopped them and asked one man to get in and go with me to get my companion. I told them that I had left him at the house down the river. I wanted to make them think that I did not feel so bad as I looked, but they said ---you come out and go to the house, and we will go down for him. I got onto the ice. They bailed out the water and three men got into the dory and started for the mouth of the river. I then told them where they would find him, and they said --oh, he is dead?"

The men told Blackburn that he had come to Little River, a fishing settlement about twenty-five miles to the east of the town of Burgeo. The barren island that he had passed two days ago was Ramea, and there was a village on it, hidden from his view. The inlet that he was in this morning was Gulch Cove, and if he had continued rowing eastward, he would have come across a town where people were prosperous, and a doctor was there.

He was taken to the largest cabin, that of Mr. and Mrs. Lishman. There he was given a large bowl of tea made from the boughs of young spruce. His clothes and boots were cut off him, and he was put in a blanket by the fire. A half-barrel was filled with cold water and salt. Mrs. Lishman told him to put his hands and feet into the barrel.

"In a few minutes I was wishing myself in Welch's place. I will say no more about the agony I was compelled to undergo while the frost was being slowly drawn out. I asked them how long I would have to keep my hands and feet in brine. They said --your poor hands and feet are so badly frost burned that you must keep them in the water for about one hour. I still think that was the longest hour I ever spent......All the time that I sat there they fed me on bread and hot spruce tea, and although I had not tasted food of any kind for one hundred and fourteen hours, the bread and tea did not taste good, and when I would ask for water they would only say --we don't want to kill you, poor man. At last what they called an hour was up."

He spent the night on a straw pallet by the fireplace, with an old sail for a blanket, and his hands and feet wrapped with a poultice of flour and cod-liver oil. The next morning he was allowed to bathe with warm water.

"Then they lifted me out of the bed and sat me on the bench, and when they took the wrappings off the right hand, the little finger dropped off. The skin on all of the other fingers split open on the backs or tops and hung down, and the finger and thumb nails still hung to the flesh, which make my hands look as if I had eight fingers and two thumbs on each hand, and when Mrs. Lishman took the scissors and cut the skin away, I said --for God's sake don't cut my fingers off! She said --I am not cutting your fingers off; and she picked up one of them with the nail still on it!

Dry gangrene ate at Blackburn's fingers and toes, and every now and then, one dropped off. In fifty-one days he lost all the fingers of both hands, and half of the thumbs, two toes from the left foot and three toes and the heal from the right foot.A black scum formed over the stumps of the lost fingers and toes, a scum which Mrs. Lishman scraped off every day to keep the way open for scar tissue to develop. In five weeks his hands were nearly covered with new flesh.

"Every morning for the first two months someone would come in and say --well Skipper Frank, how is that man this morning? He would always tell them --well, the poor man will never live to see the sun go down. And in the evening when they would ask him how I was he would say --he will never see the sun rise. I got so used to it that I did not mind it.
One morning a man came in just after they had dressed my hands and feet and said --How is that man this morning? Skipper Frank answered -- by God he is agoing to live. "

When he left the Lishman's house in the end of April, he was given a small wooden box, shaped like a casket. In it were his amputated fingers and toes, to be buried, in time, with him. Blackburn however, buried his appendages in Burgeo, with the body of his dory mate, Thomas Welch. He arrived back in Gloucester, by train, on June 4th.

Within a week, $126.00 was collected from the citizens of Gloucester to aid Blackburn . It was reported:

"The recipient feels very grateful to those who have thus remembered him in his time of trouble, and will make every effort toward self-maintenance. In addition to the above sum the owners of sch. Grace L. Fears, comprising the Atlantic Halibut Company, from which vessel he got astray, very generously paid him the amount which they estimated as his share of the trip, $86.00."

With the donations from the citizens of Gloucester, plus his unearned share of the trip, he opened a cigar and tobacco store.

In 1897, Blackburn mounted an expedition to sail around the Horn, and headed for the Klondike on the sch. Hattie I. Phillips. The expedition of the Gloucester Mining Company ended in failure and Blackburn returned to Gloucester in 1898.

In 1899, he set sail alone for England, completing the trip in 62 days. He again sailed solo across the Atlantic in 1901, completing the trip to Lisbon in 39 days.

Howard Blackburn died on November 4, 1932, at the age of seventy-three.


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