Captain Howard Blackburn, the Lone Voyager

Howard Blackburn, 1884–1885. Photo: Patten, Perkins and Stratton, Boston.

A Desperate Journey

A native of Nova Scotia, Howard Blackburn was fishing out of Gloucester for halibut from the schooner Grace L. Fears. A winter storm came up suddenly, stranding Blackburn and another fisherman in their dory. Blackburn lost his heavy fisherman's mittens overboard and knew that his hands would freeze, so he held them in curved position that would allow him to slip his frozen hands back over the oars. Five days later-days virtually without food, water or sleep-Blackburn had rowed back to shore. His dorymate died en route.

Howard Blackburn was taken in by a family living on the coast of Newfoundland. They sheltered him for the winter and tended to his injuries as best they could. His frostbitten hands and feet were soaked in a strong brine solution, then treated with poultices of flour and cod liver oil. Despite their efforts, Blackburn lost all of his fingers, both thumbs to the first joint and a toe.

Blackburn returned to Gloucester a hero, someone who had fought the sea for the highest stakes and won. He was unable to continue working as a fisherman because of his injuries, and sympathetic townspeople raised $500 to help him get back on his feet. He used part of the money to open a cigar store and soon applied for a liquor license.

Howard Blackburn's saloon. Collection of the Cape Ann Museum.

The Blackburn Tavern

The liquor license was granted in 1888, but an impatient Blackburn had eased into the saloon business in 1886. He continued to serve liquor during the years that followed, while the town periodically voted itself dry. Despite the problems that resulted from being a sometimes bootlegger, Blackburn and his business flourished.

The saloon was popular with townspeople and seafarers alike. Howard Blackburn was a bona fide hero, a larger than life character who had great stories to tell. And he could do coin tricks with his fingerless hands.

Following the Gold Rush

Blackburn's prosperity allowed him to embark on a series of ventures that added to the legend. In 1879, he caught gold fever and organized an expedition to the Klondike. Rather than follow the crowd overland, he and his party sailed south around the Horn, then back up to the Yukon. Although they reached their destination, the business venture ended in failure.

Solo Atlantic Crossings

Back in Gloucester and looking for a new challenge, Blackburn started planning his first solo crossing of the Atlantic. It had been done before-the first time by Gloucester's Alfred "Centennial" Johnson in 1876-but never by a man with no fingers. In 1899, Blackburn sailed the Gloucester sloop Great Western to England in 62 days. The Cape Ann Breeze called him the "Man of Iron."

By 1900, Howard Blackburn was one of Gloucester's most important businessmen, donating generously to charities and replacing the old wooden saloon with a fine brick building. The last remaining portion of the mahogany bar top can be seen in the Cape Ann Museum's library.

That same year, he decided to make his second solo crossing. He sailed the Great Republic to Portugal in 1901, setting a new record of 39 days. The Gloucester sloop Great Republic can be seen in one of the Cape Ann Museum's maritime galleries.

Later Life

Twenty years after he almost lost his life in a dory, Howard Blackburn decided to match himself against the sea again in a small boat, this time the Swampscott sailing dory America. He sailed out of Gloucester in 1903, intending to cross and recross the Atlantic, only to be defeated by foul weather and his own physical infirmities.

Time and early hardships took their toll, and Prohibition brought new business problems in the 1920s, but Blackburn never lost his zest for adventure. In 1931, at the age of 72, he was talking about another solo sail of the Atlantic in Cruising Club.

Blackburn died a year later. His funeral procession down Main Street included hundreds of people, among them the town's most powerful and influential citizens. The "Man of Iron" was buried in the Fishermen's Rest section of Beechgrove Cemetery in Gloucester.