Herschel Island is the Yukon’s most northerly point, and one of its most beautiful. For a stretch in the late 19th century, it was also the busiest. This 16 x 13 km2 island, well north of the Arctic Circle, was home to a bustling community of whalers.
The bowhead whale brought them to the island. The world’s second largest whale species, with its mouth full of baleen, lives exclusively in Arctic and sub-Arctic waters.
Crews of American whalers headed into the far north in pursuit of the profits to be had from baleen and whale oil. The first recorded commercial whaling to take place off of Herschel Island happened in 1889.
The island was a fine place for whalers to wait out the long Arctic winter due to its large natural harbour, and before long they created the settlement of Pauline Cove.
By the winter of 1893-94, Pauline Cove had grown into a community of over 1,500 people, consisting primarily of whalers waiting out spring, very few of them with their families along.
This made it the most heavily populated place in the Yukon at the time.
What are 1,500 bored whalers going to do through the seven to eight months of winter waiting?
The answer came from a fellow named Hartson Bodfish of San Francisco, first mate of the whaling vessel Newport. In 1894, Bodfish discovered a small collection of baseball bats and balls stowed away in the hold of a ship.
It was not long before he put these tools to use.
On February 19, 1894, Herschel Island saw its first baseball game, but not its last. The lines were created using ash, and a sail was put up as a backstop. The officers played the crew, and the result was never recorded.
Great and terrible things would come from that first game. A league of four teams was established, the most northerly baseball league to ever exist.
Rules were established, among them that every game would be played “regardless of the weather”. Teams were formed with names like the Arctics, the Northern Lights and the Herschels.
Officers and crew played on teams together, and all men were treated equally on the ball diamond.
Setting up a playing field in the Arctic during the mid-winter months went about as well as you might expect. Finding a sufficiently flat place to lay out the diamond was a constant struggle, and there could be no such thing as a permanent location for the field.
When the field was successfully set up, games often ended up with ridiculous scores like 85-10 and 38-31 as a result of things like ice hummocks and frost heaves making fielding almost impossible.
It just wouldn’t be a Yukon story if these disputes failed to end in tragedy. On April 11, 1895, a crewman was fatally stabbed by another during a dispute about where to lay out the diamond. This was Herschel Island baseball’s first casualty. Sadly, it would not be the last.
The idea that each game be played no matter what the conditions were has a kind of noble feeling to it. It’s easy to romanticize the idea that the sport must go on, regardless of circumstances.
As with so many noble sentiments, it ended poorly.
On March 7, 1897, a freak blizzard arose during the 2nd inning of the day’s game. The players valiantly attempted to carry on, despite the brutal conditions.
The result of this effort was the death of five men. Three players on the field and two spectators in the stands succumbed to the elements.
The league would carry on despite the tragedy.
Herschel Island’s whaling industry, and the epic baseball league that came with it, was doomed by the changing times. By 1907 the whaling market had utterly collapsed.
Abundant petroleum replaced the need for whale oil, and mass-produced steel springs replaced baleen in common manufacturing processes. The community of whalers that had so abruptly sprung up would just as suddenly die.
After the whalers left, Herschel Island carried on, acting as a northern administrative post for a number of years, as well as continuing on as a centre for the fur trade. Its best years were behind it, though, and Herschel Island would never regain the bustling population and raw enthusiasm that made it the Arctic home of the Great American Pastime.