Skip Navigation


Security Levels

Revenue Captain Michael A. Healy, USRCS



Captain "Hell Roaring" Michael A. Healy, U.S.R.C.S.


James "Jack" O'Dell


The early American pioneers braved high mountains, cold winds and desert heat to go west.  In doing so they left an indelible mark on future Americans and American history. At the same time other Americans were making equal contributions in an even more hostile environment: Alaska and Arctic Waters of the North Pacific.  In ships fashioned solely from wood, courageous American sailors braved high seas, strong, bitter, piercing winds, ice floes and Arctic cold to ensure that America's interest, justice, protection and services reached this unforgiving environment.

During this time, the exceptional seamanship and navigational abilities of one man, Michael A. Healy, stand out.  This man, a captain in the U. S. Revenue Cutter Service, rose to meet the North Pacific's challenge in such a manner as to make America one of the foremost authorities for ice operations and polar transit missions.  His seamanship and navigational skills became the standards for the time, and his leadership still personifies the capabilities required by all captains who continue to challenge one of Mother Nature's most demanding maritime environments.

Survival in these waters was linked more to the skill of the sailors and the seamanship of their captains than to the construction of the ships.  Ships and crews relied totally on expert seamanship and captains who possessed more than normal navigational and leadership skills.  One such man, Captain, Michael A. Healy, came to personify all these requirements and more. His skills enabled a young nation to carry its flag successfully and secure its interest in one of its most demanding territories.

Healy's accomplishments are even more remarkable when you consider the time in which they were made as well as his lineage.  Healy's ships and crews plowed the Northern Pacific and Arctic waters in the 1870s following the Civil War.  With the tensions of the Civil War still very much on the surface, Healy earned the respect and devotion of his crew, his nation and the international community.  This despite his father being an Irish immigrant and his mother a slave.  It was no small feat when you consider that sailors of that day were some of the saltiest to ever sail a vessel, and probably, just as tenacious as the seas on which they sailed.

Not only did Healy's superior seamanship and outstanding leadership enable him to be respected by some of the saltiest and toughest afloat; it enabled him to overcome all obstacles and be respected both in his country and in the international community as an authority for successful ice and polar transit operations.  One rescue in particular reflects Healy's superb skills as a captain and underscores the value of his methods, his leadership and his discipline while reflecting his ability to prepare his crew to meet and respond to any unexpected turn of events.  During this rescue, his ship and crew were to meet and overcome the unexpected while facing down the most savage of conditions that could confront man and ships at sea; multiple vessels being bashed into kindling by a raging storm with a voluminous appetite for men and ships.


In the twenty years that Healy served in the Alaskan waters, Mother Nature tossed him the gauntlet many times, but in 1888 she was to give him a challenge that no one before or since has ever had to confront. She blew up a gale so powerful that some say, even she took refuge from her own forces. It appeared as if Mother Nature had accepted Healy's seamanship as a challenge to her dominance of the Pacific and Arctic waters and was serving notice who was boss.

Recognizing the power of this gale, an Alaskan whaling fleet took refuge behind a bar at Point Barrow, Alaska. They secured their vessels, in what they thought was a safe haven, while gale force winds were whipping up huge waves as only storms in the North Pacific and Atlantic can do. Then, as the fleet hunkered down in the safety behind the bar, Mother Nature dealt them a surprise. She shifted the winds from the southwest to the north.

Now, skyscraper waves crashed across the bar, ships parted cables and were pounded on rocks, crews took to life boats smaller than waves that reached out to devour them, while the Grim Reaper grinned and bided his time as he prepared to receive his catch of the day.  Well, the Reaper and Mother Nature had miscalculated Healy's skill and determination. Healy's orders roared. The cutter Bear's crew did not hesitate, but made straight for the vessels in distress. They had only one fear, that they could get to everybody in time.

The value of Healy's discipline and seamanship now would be tested beyond human expectations. Not ever knowing the meaning of quit, "Hell Roaring Mike Healy" and the cutter Bear plucked 160 able seaman from the Reaper's net and more than answered Mother Nature's challenge. Captain Michael A. Healy and the Revenue cutter Bear had picked up the gauntlet and successfully returned it.

Healy distinguished himself by conducting many other valiant rescues. He displayed humanitarian qualities and a sense of right that enabled him to bring the United States Government to the Alaska Territories in a fair, prompt and authoritarian manner. He became highly renowned and respected by sailors, sea captains, settlers and natives alike for the integrity and well directed sense of purpose he brought to the territory known as "The Arctic Station." All viewed him as the U.S. Government in Alaska..

Later in 1897 and during a low point in his career, the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce would personally request that President William McKinley make Healy's services available to rescue more than 300 whaling ship seamen trapped in the northern ice. They knew --like most seaman, whaling captains and others-- that Healy was one of the most knowledgeable and skillful seaman ever to have challenged the formidable Northern Pacific and the Arctic waters surrounding Alaska.

Today, his knowledge and leadership still personifies the capabilities required by all captains who plow and challenge one of the meanest and most unforgiving environments that Mother Nature can offer. Examining Healy's roots, it becomes immediately obvious that he was destined to succeed in any under taking.


Born near Macon Georgia in 1839, he was the fifth child of ten raised by Michael Morris Healy, an Irish immigrant, and Mary Eliza Smith, a slave. Just as their father and mother would establish themselves as successful plantation owners, the Healy children would distinguish themselves in religion, education and maritime service.

Captain Healy would see a brother rise to become the first black Bishop of the Catholic church in North America, a sister would rise from a nun to become a Mother Superior, another brother would become president of the prestigious Catholic school Georgetown University, in Washington, DC, while some of his other siblings would become priest and nuns. However, young Michael Healy was not drawn to academics or religion.  He answered the beckoning call of the sea.  Adventure would be his forte, yet accomplishments would be his mark, the same as it was for his entire family of overachievers.

1854 found Michael Healy signed on the East India clipper Jumna as a cabin boy.  Healy's abilities stood out right away.  It wasn't long before he became Expert Seaman Healy, and then an officer on other merchant vessels.  Healy's talents and professional growth were bringing him to the doorstep of his country's service.

Only ten years later, 1864, after signing on as a cabin boy, Officer Healy applied for and received a commission in the United States Revenue Cutter Service.  Healy began his military career as a Third Lieutenant on cutters operating out of Boston, Massachusetts.

Like his brothers and sisters, Healy was always willing to accept and meet a challenge, so when assigned to Alaska in 1875, Michael A. Healy met its challenges head on.  His expert seamanship and mastering of the surrounding marine environments effectively assisted the United States in becoming one of the international community's premier maritime and polar operation authorities.  In addition, Healy's personal knowledge and skill at operating a vessel in ice contributed to the standards that led to better ship design and operations.  He and others laid down the base from which modern icebreakers are designed, constructed and operated.

In 1875, Healy's began his Alaskan tour as the Second Officer of the cutter Rush.  By 1877, he was serving as the commanding Officer of the cutter Chandler.  Recognizing Healy's talents and abilities, the Revenue Service made him a captain in 1883 and a year later he took over command of the cutter Thomas Corwin.  At this time, the Revenue cutter was, basically, the United States Government in Alaska.  It brought America's judicial and/or law, postal, lifesaving, medical and environmental services to Alaska.


Healy would join with the famous naturalist John Muir and the noted Alaskan missionary Sheldon Jackson to serve the humanitarian needs and welfare of native Alaskans.  Healy, then captain, would introduce reindeer to Alaska in order to replace the diminishing whale and seal populations that served as one of the natives' primary food sources while establishing law and order at the same time.  Also, his rescue forte was unsurpassed, as validated by the many Alaskan explorers or settlers who would see another sunrise due to the bravery of his service and that of his crews.

In 1886, Captain Healy would take command of the cutter Bear.  Now, the fortunes of the two would become so intertwined that the success and notoriety of one would be seen as the other. The Bear's ability to successfully carry out her missions, more than met the harsh demands of the Alaskan marine environment as well as the essential needs of the citizens of the Alaska territory.  This enabled the United States to establish a firm foothold and led to its successfully settling and developing the resources of this rich territory as the forty-ninth state.

The example Healy set demonstrated that American seamanship was more than a match for the Alaskan environment.  Many times Michael A. Healy, the man, the African-American man, had to stand before the mast and bark orders to a tough-minded and steeled-honed crew.  With life-threatening winds blowing and huge waves breaking across the Bear's wooden deck and hull, Healy would have to wipe away the ice from his face and bark out orders that would send men high into the riggings to break loose ice, or adjust sail, while others had to clear ice from the decks if the ship was to stay on course and remain seaworthy.  And, staying the course was essential to successful Alaskan operations.

Then, just as today, ice was a dire threat to all vessels plowing waters in sub-frigid climates.  Too much ice above water is life threatening.  It may cause a vessel to roll over, turtle up. In the North Pacific, surviving such a catastrophe is not very likely.  Climbing rigging of a sailing cutter is not safe in any weather, but it is especially dangerous during a winter storm in Alaskan or North Pacific waters.  Before giving such orders, one must have earned the respect and trust of the crew. Healy and the Bear's successful record and reputation proved that he had.


With all his accomplishments and fame, Healy would still fall victim to the reform and culture movement that had been sweeping across the United States and finally had landed square in the middle of San Francisco.  Newly formed lady auxiliaries and temperance movements were dedicated to bringing culture to this port of ports on the Pacific.  The wide-open life style that appealed to many an Alaskan sailor was their target.  As these sailors were attracted to "Demon Rum," so were the ladies of the Women's Christian Temperance Union and not for the same reasons.

Unfortunately for Healy, the parlors and sitting rooms of San Francisco were frequented by a far more civil and cultured guest than were those throughout the Arctic Station.  Alaskan parlors were the domain of smugglers, mutineers, gamblers and other ornery, tough-minded individuals, along with the hardened, but law-abiding sailors, settlers and natives who strove to earn a living in this harsh environment.  As a whole, control of this population called for fair, quick and stern discipline, but for the unsavory, it had to be applied sternly in a direct, determined and enforced manner.

Obviously, one bent on less than law-abiding ventures or one who went beyond rowdy to mean or dangerous had more than one reason for wanting to see Healy gone.  Individuals such as these were looking for any opportunity to run the sheriff out of town.  So, when the WCTU went into action, it took full advantage of the opportunity to publicly lynch Healy's character.

In a misguided attempt to do good, the WCTU joined forces with individuals whose actions had brought them into conflict with Captain Healy.  By applying necessary and acceptable disciplinary practices to unruly individuals, Healy brought law and order to an area as primitive as any that Lewis and Clark found.  However, he still incurred the wrath of the WCTU based on information that was less than credible.  They considered Healy's methods to be cruel, and applying other rumor the WCTU charged him as an abusive drunkard.  These charges would wound Healy, although they were not legitimately substantiated and would later be dissolved.

The WCTU actions got the anti-Healy ball rolling.  Even though Healy's entire enlisted crew, most of the whaling captains, natives and settlers supported him strongly, he was disciplined.  Healy felt the pain that is caused when the rules of a settled and established society clash with the acceptable mores and norms of a frontier society.

Despite overwhelming support Healy found himself on the beach without command and reduced in standing on the captain's list.  This had a devastating effect. Yet, Healy rose above it.  He was restored to command and retired in 1903 as the third highest-ranking officer in the Revenue Cutter Service.  Hell Roaring Mike Healy once more demonstrated that his perseverance and commitment was such that he was more than able to meet life's challenges.  Today, the perseverance and commitment to excellence that he demonstrated remain visible American traits, now strongly entrench in American tradition.  It is only fitting that Michael A Healy be viewed as one who helped build such traditions.


As Healy's career personifies, Alaska was a tall order for the small Revenue Service, but its sailors, men like Healy, were titans in their accomplishments.  Today's U. S. Coast Guard, the successor of the Revenue Cutter Service, is like its parent a small service with giant successes to its credit.  U.S. Coast Guard men and women continue to carry on the traditions their forebears and the forebears continue to influence the success of today's sea services.  It is fitting that the Coast Guard's new scientific icebreaker be named after Captain Michael A. Healy-- a pioneer in ice and polar operations, Alaska's Wyatt Earp and an exceptional leader of his time.

Last Modified 1/12/2016