In January 1883, Howard Blackburn was trawling in a two-man dory with Tom Welch when a winter storm separated them from their mother ship, the Grace L. Fears. Blackburn froze his hands to the oars, rowing north for five days and 60 miles. Blackburn landed on Newfoundland’s shore with his crewmates body. A family found Blackburn and during the long winter nursed him back to health. In Gloucester he had been given up for lost, but when Blackburn returned—without most of his toes and fingers—he was a hero. He ran a saloon for much of his life, but also made tremendous solo voyages: rowing along the coast of Florida and sailing twice across the Atlantic: to England in 1899, and three years later in a recordsetting 39 days to Lisbon. Blackburn is buried in the Beechbrook Cemetery in West Gloucester.
— Joseph E. Garland, author/historian
Sailor and undaunted adventurer, Howard Blackburn, opened a local tavern and shop on Main Street in 1886 called The Old Blackburn Tavern. Today, Halibut Point restaurant is located within this historic building for over three decades. On display is some photographs of Blackburn along with the original cash register.
Despite Captain Blackburn’s disabilities sustained from his harrowing voyage when he was 20 years old, he continued on to complete more daring voyages and operate his successful tavern business. He was a beloved raconteur.
For more on Blackburn visit The Cape Ann Museum
Pictured Left: Howard Blackburn’s Tavern, and home, 289-91 Main Street, backing on to Vincent’s Cove. Designed by architect Ezra Phillips in 1900 (plans in Cape Ann Museum collection). photo c1910. photographer unknown.
Blackburn Challenge both celebrates and helps to keep alive the story of Howard Blackburn’s desperate mid-winter 1883 rowing of a small fishing dory from the Burgeo Bank fishing grounds to refuge on the south coast of Newfoundland. Though Blackburn survived he ultimately suffered the loss of most of his fingers and toes due to frostbite. In spite of his handicap, he later went on to twice sail solo across the Atlantic Ocean, earning himself the title “The Fingerless Navigator”. His story is told in Joseph E. Garland’s book, “Lone Voyager”.
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 Fisherman Rest section of Beechbrook Cemetery in Gloucester.
Beechbrook is an active cemetery and dates back to 1878. It contains the “fisherman rest” section which was established by John Hays Hammond and the City’s Veteran section.