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The Terrible Odyssey Of Howard Blackburn

July 2024
14min read

For well over two hundred years, the doryman was an integral part of American life, though rarely given his fair due. He was a fisherman, the hardiest of a hardy lot who went down to the sea in ships and from there, in tiny boats, to harvest both the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. If it was a hard trade, it also was a proud one, so much so that an anonymous doryman at the turn of the century was driven to a splendid bit of doggerel: “I want no fuss with the pale-faced cuss—/ The clerk or piano tuner—/ Who spend their lives in those hives/ In the struggle for more mazuma./ But give me the wind-swept ocean’s space,/ Where the ‘flat ones’ flop in the dory’s waist,/ And the salt scud whips in your upturned face,/ As you pull for the side of your schooner.”

One of the doryman's principal fishing grounds was the Grand Banks, an enormous patch of the Atlantic that lies south of Newfoundland and nurtured the largest crop of cod and halibut in the world. Among the hundreds of thousands of dorymen who worked the Banks in those two hundred years were the Gloucestermen, the fishing folk of Gloucester, Massachusetts, who from generation to generation plied their trade in one of the most inhospitable environments on earth—the North Atlantic.

One of them was Howard Blackburn. He was born in Port Midway, Nova Scotia, in 1858 and emigrated to Gloucester in his teens, serving as a doryman on several Grand Banks schooners. In the middle of January, 1883, he signed on board the Grace L. Fears, bound for the Burgeo Bank off the southern coast of Newfoundland—beginning an adventure that would mark him for the rest of his life. That horrifying and courageous tale follows, told in Blackburn’s own words as taken down by a reporter for the Salem (Massachusetts) News in August and September, 1932:

After we had found an anchorage, we had hardly returned to the vessel the first morning, after setting our trawls [multiple-hook fishing lines attached to buoys], when Capt. Griffin said he feared a blizzard was coming on and told us we’d better go right back and haul them. This was Jan. 25.

Thomas Welch, a Newfoundland boy, somewhat younger than I was and newer at the trade, was my dory mate. I had never seen him before I met him on this trip. The wind was southeast and our trawls were all set in that direction, so we all pointed our bows to our outermost buoy. The journey home would be made with the wind. It was a long hard pull but we made the buoy, came about and squared away for the Fears.

Just as we pulled in the last of the trawl the wind fell away to a flat calm. I knew what this might mean and so was not a bit surprised when a few minutes later it breezed up from the northwest. That brought us right to leeward and we would have a dead-head wind to row in.

Soon flakes of snow were blowing into our dory and the wind was increasing in force. We could see most of the other five dories and some of them were already headed for the schooner, we started toward it rowing right against the wind. We were in a whirling mass of snowflakes, some of them with sharp, frozen edges that seemed to cut the face as with a knife. The snow and vapor soon became so thick we could not see many lengths ahead of us. Of course, we lost sight of the schooner in the blizzard but we had her position correctly.

We rowed to windward until we thought we must be abreast of the vessel. As we could hear no bell or other sound we thought we might have gone by her. Night was coming on. There’s no twilight in those northern latitudes. Darkness closes down on you as fast as a drop curtain in a theatre.…

“We’ll have to anchor,” I said to my mate. He agreed with me. During the night it stopped snowing and we could see a riding light in the distance. This was the first time we had caught sight of our vessel and to our dismay we had not gained an inch. We were practically in the same position as we were when we started rowing.

The next morning it was still blowing hard and getting colder. We decided it would be best to put the dory to a drag.

This saved the boat for us as it would not have lasted long at anchor. Between us we managed to smash in the head of one of the trawl-buoys. Tying the end of the painter around the staff that goes through the buoy, it would ride the seas open side to us and filling with water, check our progress.

Just as we threw the drag over, the dory shipped considerable water. We both had on the usual heavy mittens that all bank fishermen had to wear to save their hands from frostbite. I took my mittens off for what I anticipated would be the short time necessary to make the required knot. All else I had managed to do with mittened hands, with Welch’s aid. Quite naturally I dropped the mittens under my seat; but the water was gaining on us and they were soon floating about in a mass of ice and water.…

Welch tried to bail out the dory but the ordinary implement then furnished for this work, a shovel-like wooden scoop, made about as much headway as you would if you attempted to empty Gloucester Harbor with a tin dipper. We managed to knock the head out of an extra keg that was intended for use as buoy. With this Welch went to bailing before I finished my task. The water washed all the ice and my mittens to where Welch was bailing. I always supposed he caught them, one at a time, in his bailing-keg and tossed them into the sea. At any rate, I could not find them.

Soon my hands began to freeze. It is surprising how quickly a man’s mind will work at such a time. I could imagine a vessel coming along to pick us up and find Welch at the oars trying to row ashore while I sat on the thwart helpless if I allowed my hands to freeze as they were. Reaching down I picked up the two oars and sqeezing my fingers around the handles, held them there until I could no longer move my fingers. I knew then they were frozen stiff.…

I took my turn with Tom bailing out the water and breaking off the ice which formed on the inside of the dory with a gobstick, and throwing the ice overboard. (This stick is what we hit the big halibut on the nose with to kill them.)

I took off one of my rubber boots, pulled off the sock and tried to put it on one hand in place of the lost mitten. My hand was so swollen I could not get it in the sock farther than the heel. Soon the foot of the sock was a ball of ice and its weight kept pulling the sock off my hand. I had to haul it back with my fingers. Finally I lost the sock overboard as I tried to break the lump of ice in it on the gunwale.

Just before nightfall on the second day I finished my turn at bailing and was about to lie down in the bow of the dory with Welch when the dory shipped a bad sea. It was now Welch’s turn to bail but he did not move.

“Come, Tom, jump quick,” I said.

When he replied, “I cannot see,” I went back to bailing the dory again.

“Come, Tom,” I said again, “this won’t do. You must do your part. Your hands are not frozen and beaten to pieces as mine are,” showing him my right hand with the little finger nearly off.

“Howard, what is the use, we cannot last until morning. We might as well go first as last.”

I went aft and sat down in the bottom of the dory with my back to the wind, and taking the thwart with my two arms, moved it back and forth all night, when not obliged to bail the dory or break the ice. This kept me awake.

Welch kept groaning for some time with what might have been a prayer. I could not understand what he said. He called me twice by name but when I answered him, I could not understand what he said. The breaking sea made too much noise. After a while, hearing no sound from him, I went forward and shook him but found he was dead. Taking the body in my arms and watching my chance, I carried it aft and laid it down in the stern of the dory, where it was soon covered with ice for the spray froze as it fell.


Shortly after daylight of the third day it began to moderate. The Grace L. Fears was not on the horizon when I searched it. The wind had driven us from where she was anchored so I decided to row for shore. At first I had trouble getting my frozen fingers over the ends of the oars. After Tom died I took off his right mitten but my hand was so badly bruised and swollen I could not get it in.

After hauling in the drag I started to row for the shore which I figured was about 40 miles away. The friction of the oar handles soon wore away the frozen flesh on my hands. I had no extra pair of hands now to keep the boat clear of water. Welch’s body had slumped well down into the stern sheets and acted as ballast. However, we did not ship much water and I had little bailing to do.

I rowed all day and as night came on I put out the drag again and lay to the drag until morning. It blew quite fresh during the night but the dory shipped but little water. At daylight I hauled in the drag and began to row for shore once more.


Before nightfall of the fourth day I made a landfall. I rowed into what I knew was a river because the surface water was black, which meant it was fresh water riding on top of the salt waves. … I descried a fisherman’s hut and wharf but there were no signs of life.

I knew the habits of the Island fisherfolks. Those who could afford to make the move went into the deep woods at the foot of the mountains to spend the winter. There they were sheltered from the wintry blasts. Game was plentiful. With a sufficient supply of staple provisions they lived comfortably.…

I tried to row up the river but the current was so strong I could not make any headway. The sea was not bad. You’d call it rough, but the waves that were licked up by the wind were nothing to a fisherman. I did not have presence of mind enough at that time to take advantage of the eddies so reaching the little wharf near the hut was difficult. It was fast falling into decay. There was a flat rock on the outer end on which the sea was breaking. After a while I managed to get the stern of the dory on the rock.…

I decided to go ashore and make use of whatever shelter the hut offered. It was poor enough. There was no wood with which to build a fire and no way of lighting it had there been some. The only things in the hut were a table and an old bedstead with boards nailed across instead of a spring. The doors had rotted away and there were holes in the roof. The snow on the dirt floor was up to my knees. I turned the board on the bed dry side up, took a fishnet for a pillow and laid down. I soon began to doze and I knew that it would not do for me to sleep so I walked the floor until morning.

Shortly after daylight I went back to the dory and found it full of water with nothing in it but Welch’s body. The boat had pounded on the rock and knocked the bottom plug out, and also stove a hole through a plank on the port side near the bottom. The oars and thwarts were floating around in the water under the wharf. I managed to get them and threw them on the wharf.

I took the gaff and stuck it into the instep of Welch’s rubber boot and hauled him up on the stern of the dory. But he slipped into the water under the wharf, between the rock on which I stood and the bank of the river. He sank in about 12 feet of water.

After my failure to get Tom’s body upon the wharf I hauled the dory up on the flat rock by taking up the slack in the painter around a pile with my teeth as each wave came in, and tried to make her seaworthy. I put the plug back but I could not patch up the crack near the bottom on the port side. I had to list her to starboard after that to keep her from filling.

While I was at work on the dory I heard a noise like a gunshot. I crawled up on the wharf and made a loud cry for help, but got no response. You know a man’s mind works fast in times like these and like a flash the thought came to me: “I’ll set the house afire and the hunters will then come to me!”

I remembered seeing a flint and some tinder in a small tin box in the hut. I found I could not hold the flint, and the tinder was so damp no man could have made a fire with it. Not being able to attract the hunter’s attention, I got into the dory and rowed to the eastward to a cove called Gulch Cove. There were a number of huts at the head of this cove but no signs of life.

As I did not know how much farther east I would have to go before finding any place where people were living, I decided to make the attempt to get back to Little River to spend another night in the old hut. Perhaps the tide and the river current would then be more favorable. It was not a bad sea in which to row, for an experienced fisherman, well-fed and with normal hands, arms and legs. For one in my state it was an almost hopeless task; but one naturally clings tenaciously to life and I knew my only chance was to get under cover and find some sustaining food. I had hardly started on my return journey when I sensed the fact that as I rowed portions of my hands and fingers were being ground off on the oar handles. It is surprising how fast dead flesh disintegrates when rubbed hard. In a short space of time it seemed as though I was holding the oars with bones and muscles only. Soon the handles became too small for my finger bones to encircle and I had to use one hand to clamp the fingers of the other down so I could work the blades.

I finally made Little River and, in time, by taking advantage of the eddies at the points, I managed to work the dory across from one side of the river to the other, making a gain each time, just as a ship does when tacking.

I crossed the river not less than four or five times. Each time I reached an eddy I would stop rowing long enough to bail out the dory. After a struggle of a couple of hours I reached a place where the river was frozen across. A steamboat could have gone no farther. A man passing from one hut to another saw a shadow on the ice. He gave the alarm and soon every man and woman in the neighborhood…came out on the ice to see who I was and what I wanted. They were accompanied by 15 or 20 dogs. When they saw my hands, they cried:

“Your poor hands, go to the house at once.”

I answered, “I cannot just now, I want a couple of men to get in the dory with me and go down to the mouth of the river for my dorymate.”

“You poor man, go the house, we will get him for you.” I told them where they could find him and three men put off in the dory.

The villagers [eventually] brought Tom’s body from its resting place under the old wharf to the settlement and kept it until the ground thawed in the spring, when it was reverently buried.…

I followed the people to the home of Francis Lushman. My feet, of course, were frozen stiff, but I still could walk. As I stepped into the room the first thing that attracted my attention was the fireplace in front of which stood a number of homemade benches.

The first thing the Lushmans did was to cut my clothes off.

I begged for water but Mrs. Lushman would only give me a few drops. She said more would kill me. She brewed tea out of some boughs cut from a young spruce tree. I drank a large bowl of it without either milk or sugar.

Old Mrs. Lushman turned her attention to my poor hands and feet. She saw at once they were frozen. They set me on a bench and in front of the fire and wrapped a dry coverlet about me. They filled a tub made of half a flour barrel about two-thirds full of cold water used in curing fish. They made me put both hands and feet into this brine. Soon the frost began to come out; the pain was horrible; I wished I had died like poor Tom. I asked them how long I had to keep my hands and feet in this brine and they told me about an hour. That was the longest hour I ever spent in my life.

After the frost had all been withdrawn, Mrs. Lushman set about preparing a remedy that I never had heard of before and never heard of since. … Mrs. Lushman mixed a poultice of flour and codliver oil and bound up my aching hands and feet.

Next morning they filled the tub with cold water and put in some soft soap they made and washed my hands and feet in it. When they took the bandage off the right hand the little finger dropped off.…

The Lushmans made up a cot for me in the main room by the side of the fireplace, where I could lie and look at the stars. In heavy storms the snow, sifting down the chimney, often was blown into little drifts over my pallet. As I recall my bed an old sail furnished the principal protection from the earth floor. The coverlets were tan boat sails and my own clothing. On this rude bed I lay for nearly five months, nursed and fed by those simple, God-fearing people. I could not get up on my feet, so you can imagine the extent of their help in the daily process of breathing, eating and sleeping and the disposal of bodily wastes, to say nothing of the dressings my extremities called for daily.…

After the frost had been withdrawn from my hands and feet, gangrene set in causing the fingers and toes to fall off. The back of my fingers split open and the flesh hung down making it appear as if there were eight instead of four on each hand. Mrs. Lushman cut away the loose flesh with scissors. It is surprising how fast the flesh began to grow back, first above the wrists and then over the bones of the hands. A black scum formed at the stumps of my fingers. It was what you and I would call proud flesh, I have forgotten their term for it. Mrs. Lushman would scrape this off with the scissors so new flesh could grow over the bone. This task was far from pleasant for her and she tried to show her son Frank how to do it. The first time he tried he fainted, so his mother had to continue to do it. The bones at the joints of the fingers never straightened out after being frozen around the oars.

To facilitate the healing process the natives made a white powder from finely ground mussel shells. They collect the shells and dry them in the summer. Ordinary beach stones are used to pound them into dust. This powder, when applied to the wounds, caused the festering sores to exude the pus. Sometimes Mrs. Lushman would discover a swelling at a certain point. With her scissors she would scrape away the flesh and extract a piece of shell that had not been reduced to powder. She knew the cause of the swelling and removed it. In about five weeks my hands were nearly covered with flesh.

When the weather began to moderate in the spring, they put me in an open boat like a skiff. I could not walk but the hut was only about 10 feet from the high water mark in the cove. When I was ready to leave the hut for Burgeo, Mrs. Lushman handed me a small wooden box shaped like a casket. Upon asking her what it contained she said it was the custom of the islanders to save the amputated members to be buried with the body later. I buried mine with poor Welch.

Blackburn lost more than the fingers of both hands—he lost the toes and heels of both feet and had to wear specially fitted shoes to get around. Not that this slowed him down appreciably. In the years following his grisly ordeal, he continued to work and to sail. In 1897 he organized the first group of New England gold-seekers for a trip around Cape Horn to the Klondike, commanding the expedition’s Gloucester schooner, the Hattie I. Phillips, himself. In 1899 he crossed the Atlantic alone in the thirty-foot sloop, Great Western, in a twenty-eight-day voyage to Gloucester, England. In 1901 he did it again, this time to Lisbon in a twenty-five-foot sloop of his own design, Grand Republic, in thirty-nine days. He attempted one more transatlantic crossing in 1903 but was forced to turn back to Sydney, Cape Breton. In later years he was a successful Gloucester businessman and local philanthropist. He died in 1932 shortly after this interview—still a proud, and by this time renowned, dory man .


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