Saturday, July 16, 2016

The Legendary Howard Blackburn: Gloucester Hero

As I am writing this on Saturday, July 16, 2016, the Cape Ann Rowing Club's annual Blackburn Challenge is in progress. It is a grueling race that involves rowing or paddling small sea craft on a twenty mile course circumnavigating Cape Ann in the open sea. Many people who live in coastal communities have experience in open sea rowing but twenty miles around the island is not for the feint of heart.
Howard Blackburn

The Challenge is to commemorate the accomplishments of Howard Blackburn who was born in Nova Scotia in 1859. At the age of 18 he moved to Gloucester to find work as a fisherman. In 1883 Blackburn was fishing from the schooner Grace L. Fears when a sudden winter storm came up separating him and his dory mate from the schooner. With no shelter and no provisions in bitterly cold conditions all Blackburn could do was row. He rowed for five days without food, water, or sleep. He had lost his mittens and knew his hands were in trouble so he set his fingers in a curved position wrapped around the oars and there they froze stiff.

Route of the Blackburn Challenge
Blackburn Tavern back in the day
Eventually he made it to the coast of Newfoundland where he was rescued and, though his rescuers tried to save his hands, he lost all of his fingers, both thumbs to the first knuckle, and a number of toes. By the time he returned to Gloucester he was a hero, but his fishing days were over. The people of Gloucester raised what funds they could and Blackburn went into business first with a dry goods store that eventually acquired a liquor license and became a saloon. Over the years in spite of various attempts at temperance and Prohibition, he continued to find sources to supply his saloon with booze, but even being a bootlegger wasn't sufficiently exciting. He caught gold fever and decided to organize an expedition to the Klondike.

After sailing around Cape Horn, Blackburn quarreled with his partners and eventually returned to Gloucester without ever panning for gold. But his thirst for adventure remained strong and in 1899 he set out to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a Gloucester fishing sloop, Great Western. After 62 days at sea, with no fingers and few toes, he reached England. In 1901 he repeated crossing the Atlantic, this time headed for Portugal where he arrived in 39 days. He also sailed down the Mississippi River and back up along the Eastern seaboard.
Howard Blackburn
Halibut Point today as painted by
Eileen Patten Oliver
Blackburn died in 1932 and is buried in the Fisherman's Rest section of Beechbrook Cemetery but his legend lives on in Gloucester. His tavern still stands and is now known as Halibut Point Restaurant & Bar. I am pleased to say I have imbibed more than a few cold ones there. Blackburn's story has been told in the book Lone Voyager, written by another illustrious son of Gloucester and my friend, Joe Garland. Joe, I am proud to say, is the man who told me I had to write The Old Mermaid's Tale: A Novel of the GreatLakes and he read every page of it as I was working on it. A few years back the entire community of Gloucester had a city-wide read of Lone Voyager with prominent citizens doing readings from the book in various locations.

The race today is, I believe, the 30th such race and there are plenty of participants. And now, I am going to go and look for the results.

Thanks for reading.


16 comments:

  1. Oh wow. How amazing. Sometimes not being an adventurous person pays off--I still have all my fingers!

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    1. Having all one's fingers is generally considered a good thing!

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  2. Hi, Kathleen!

    After reading your post and following the links to more info, I can understand how and why the adventurer Howard Blackburn became a local hero and an inspiration to modern day boaters and fishermen. Blackburn was made of sturdy stuff. The story of his survival in the dory and his later accomplishments boggles the mind. I hope all participants in this year's Blackburn Challenge made it around Cape Ann w/o serious problems or casualties.

    Thank you for a very entertaining and educational post, Kathleen!

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    1. Hi, Shady, thanks for visiting. Yes, I think you would like Howard. He was a man with plenty of spirit and adventure in him.

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  3. The story was so interesting. How sad to lose your fingers and toes to the cold. But his tavern looks so inviting! I wanted to walk right in and order a beer.

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    1. You would be welcome and you might see me there, too!

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    2. A bonus! I read your comment on my blog and would love to have some time on your site. Let me know what works for you. cleemckenzieATgmailDOTcom

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  4. What a harrowing story. Amazing resilience.

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  5. What an amazing person! Thank you for sharing this story.

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  6. Last week I took my kayak out on a small lake and the wind was against me, creating waves about 2 feet high that drenched me several times. After an hour, I'd only inched half-way up the lake, hugging the shoreline. When I turned around the wind blew me back to my starting point super quick. It was like white water rafting one way and surfing the other.

    This guy rowing for five days is unbelievable. What a story!

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  7. Sounds like a race with some history!

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