The incredible story of Howard Blackburn

Apr 25, 2023 | Charting the Past

Howard Blackburn earned the nickname, “Man of Iron.” Photo courtesy of Cape Ann Museum.

By William Amaru

Howard Blackburn was born in 1859; he “crossed over” in 1932. His birthplace was Nova Scotia, Canada. He emigrated to Gloucester as a teenager and started a career as a mate aboard fishing schooners.

In 1883, he sailed aboard the Grace L. Fears on a winter trip to the Grand Banks, an historic fishing ground 100 to 200 miles east of Newfoundland; they were in search of halibut. The schooner would return safely to Gloucester, her holds full, but Blackburn would not be aboard.

Howard was a large, very powerful young man, highly respected among the crew and officers of schooners he fished aboard. That January day he and his crew mate, Thomas Welch, set out from the deck of the 100-foot schooner in a 20-foot dory. Propulsion was provided by a single set of oars or “sweeps”; one man rowed the boat.

Moving away from the mother ship far enough to set their quarter-mile line of baited hooks was accomplished quickly. The part of the Grand Banks they were fishing, Burgeo Bank, was (and still is) home to large schools of halibut. In the later part of the nineteenth century, halibut returned the highest price, but it was necessary to travel hundreds of miles from Gloucester to reach the grounds where they were found. It was dangerous work aboard 100-foot schooners with their 20 or so dory fishermen, gales and snow common in January. Incredibly tough, resilient men like Howard Blackburn seemed made for this type of work.

When they set out from the schooner before daylight, the weather was placid but cold. Blackburn and Welch set their 300-hook longline, baited with a whole herring on each hook. The hooks found the bottom in 20 fathoms where halibut feed. They hauled in their line by hand after it was in the water an hour. As expected, they filled their fish checker and began rowing.

A change in the weather was developing. Snow began to fall and the wind came up. After retrieving the buoy line and dressing the fish, they continued to row for the schooner, visible but barely so, in increasing snow. All too quickly, the snow became a squall, obscuring the mother ship. Taking turns, Blackburn and Welch rowed all day but could not find their ship. Snow came harder and the wind increased until the little dory was nearly impossible to control as it slid down the face of mounting seas.

Dark comes early that far north and with it bitter, bone-stabbing wind. The pain of exposure was seeping through their oil gear. With little chance of running down their schooner, a decision was made to row west rather than in circles. This heading would put them in line with passing ships and eventually land. It was a desperate, perhaps foolish decision, land being more than 100 miles away.

By morning, with Blackburn rowing steadily through the night, his mate was already nearly frozen to death; sometime during the day, he died of exposure. Blackburn’s realization that he was alone to die or struggle to survive led him to the decision that saved his life.

He discarded his woolen mittens, formed his hands around the oars and watched them freeze in place. He knew his frozen hands would remain curved around the oars and make it possible for him to row west until he was either rescued, found land, or died.

The bitter cold persisted for his incredible odyssey. Unbelievably, he rowed for five days and nights with little or no food and water, his hands frozen to the oars and his toes frozen as well. He encountered no vessels but finally reached the southeast coast of Newfoundland where he was taken in by a local family. He was nursed in the manner people of this remote outpost had used for hundreds of years to treat frostbite. Poultices of flour and herbs were applied to his hands and feet. Despite their efforts, he lost all his fingers and his thumbs to the first joint of the hand. Several toes could not be saved.

Despite all this, with the care of his rescuers his health returned. They gave his mate an honorable burial in the local cemetery in spring. He returned to Gloucester a year later, to the welcome of a fishing community who had given him and Welch up for dead. They were half right.

Blackburn’s test continued. A man with no fingers cannot haul a trawl line and go to sea for his living. Through the generosity of the citizens of Gloucester this “Man of Iron,” as he became known, was given $500 to do with as he pleased. In 1884, this was a small fortune and Blackburn did what he would do for the rest of his life; he acted wisely. He used the money to buy a store near the waterfront to sell cigars and other sundries. He saw the profitability of owning a small saloon, and opened a grog shop across the way from the pier from whence he had once fished.

“The Man of Iron” was not content to settle down and run a business. He had a partner run the tavern while he put together a plan to sail — singlehanded — to Europe. He purchased a small schooner, named her Great Eastern, rigged her so a man with no fingers could sail her, and set out for Europe. He arrived in England in 62 days.

Later, in Great Republic, he made a record-breaking trip sailing singlehanded to the coast of Portugal in 39 days. It was 1901 and the 42-year-old man with no fingers, hobbled by the loss of toes, was seemingly unstoppable. He was greatly admired by the citizens of Gloucester who saw him as the embodiment of a true Yankee original, a man of the sea and the world.

Blackburn then turned his attention to business in his hometown. He ran his tavern with bootlegging on the side; as first Gloucester and then the nation went dry, demand for strong spirits increased. With his knowledge of ships, local waters, and determination, he became an immensely successful businessman within both the legitimate and illegitimate fields of his day.

Howard Blackburn never slowed down. It was as though his confrontation with death had left him with a need to live more than a single life. But in 1932, at 72, while planning his third singlehanded cross-ocean trip, the end came even for him. He put away his oars as he “crossed over.” He could row no longer.

The force of Howard Blackburn was singular and extraordinary. His will to live and face every challenge should serve for us to aspire to.

(This story is dedicated to the memory of Orleans lobsterman Brian Gibbons. “A Good Man Never Dies” – Callimachus)


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