The National Iron & Steel Heritage Museum
History Of Icebreaking
Among the many missions of the U.S. Coast Guard, icebreaking is viewed as a rather narrow specialty.  However, the specialty consists of a wide range of tasks – from the support of science expeditions to saving lives on frozen waters.  Icebreaking supports national defense, maritime safety, international trade, the global economy, and the lives of citizens.

1830s – The origin of icebreaking appeared along with the advent of steam propulsion.  It was found that side-wheel steamers with reinforced bows could deal with harbor ice, a problem in East Coast ports.  

1867 – The U.S. purchased Alaska, creating another need for vessels that could cut through ice.  The Revenue Cutter Service’s Lincoln, a conventional wooden steamer, became the first of many vessels to operate in Alaska.  

1874 – The vessel Bear was built and became the Coast Guard’s first “ice-resistant” vessel.  She was 198 feet in length and was built with extraordinarily strong wooden construction.  She was framed with English oak wood and had iron plating on her stern.

1899 – The Russian government accepted the British vessel Ermack, which is considered the first true icebreaker.  She was 10,000 tons with 10,000 horsepower and had 1.5-inch plating at the waterline.  She became the prototype of future icebreakers.

1908 – The cutter Androscoggin was commissioned.  She was purposefully built as a cutter to break through the ice along the Maine coast for the relief of shipping.  She had 1,600 horsepower, a spoon bow and was strongly built of white oak, with steel reinforcement and frame.  The Androscoggin was the last major naval or Coast Guard ship to have a wooden hull.

1927 – Bear was retired, and it was obvious that the Coast Guard needed to rebuild their icebreaking fleet.

1935 – The Escanaba-class of vessels for U.S. Coast Guard ice operations was completed.  These vessels were intended for light icebreaking on the Great Lakes and included the Escanaba, Tahoma, Mohawk, Comanche, Algonquin, and Onondaga.  Built of steel, the 165-foot cutters had double plating on the bow allowing them to break over a foot of ice.  

December 21, 1936 – President Theodore Roosevelt issued Executive Order No. 7521 which directed the Coast Guard “to assist in keeping open to navigation by means of icebreaking operations… channels and harbors within the reasonable demands of commerce.”  After this directive, the Coast Guard initiated an intensive study of icebreaker technology with the goal of building the first line of heavy vessels primarily for icebreaking.  

1939 – The Raritan-class was commissioned and included the Arundel, Naugatuck, Mahoning, and Raritan.  

WWII – The Coast Guard icebreaker’s biggest contribution to World War II was in Greenland waters.  President Roosevelt had pledged U.S. support to Denmark in resisting any Nazi attempt to take the island, protecting the security of the Western Hemisphere.  The U.S. Coast Guard became a major part of the Greenland patrol, operating 24 vessels in her waters, about eleven of which were equipped for icebreaking.  The cutter Northland carried out the first American naval capture of the war in September 1941, three months before Pearl Harbor.

1941 – The “Wind” class icebreakers were contracted.

1944 – The “Wind” class icebreakers were completed.

1950s – The Artic became a focus, with U.S. military bases in the region requiring periodical resupplying.  

1955 – The first Operation Deep Freeze to the Antarctic continent began.  These vital scientific and exploratory expeditions became an annual commitment, involving at least one heavy duty icebreaker in each.

1957 – The first transit of the Northwest Passage across the “top” of North American occurred, involving the cutters Storis, Spar, and Bramble.  The Spar became the first American vessel to circumnavigate the North American continent.

1965 – The number of major icebreakers in the Coast Guard multiplied, as the result of an agreement with the U.S. Navy.  A joint study on icebreaker utilization concluded that efficiency would be served best by combining all icebreaking under the Coast Guard.  The Navy transferred all icebreakers over to the service.

1968 – The discovery of oil on the North Slope of Alaska added a new dimension to Coast Guard duties in Arctic waters.  

1973 – The Coast Guard launched the USCGC Polar Star on November 17, considered the largest icebreaker in the western world.

1980s – the Coast Guard continued to add to its fleet of icebreaking tugboats, replacing the Raritan-class with nine 140-foot tugs

1994 – The Polar Sea became the first U.S. surface vessel to reach the North Pole on August 22.

1998 – The CGC Healy was launched.  Designed by both the Navy and the Coast Guard this new vessel was designated both a Polar icebreaker and a research vessel.

For icebreaker history since 2000, please visit the section titled “Recent History.”

Photograph: USCGC Westwind escorting a vessel through the ice, no date.  (Source: United States Coast Guard)