The Search for the Schooner Helen

By Melissa Cole, Curator

The Oshawa Museum has a unique collection of artefacts that were recovered from Lake Ontario by Robert Stephenson, an amateur shipwreck researcher and Lake Ontario diver. While in the RCAF in England during the Second World War, Mr. Stephenson did some experimental diving as a hobby.  Ship wreck material were not the only items he recovered from Lake Ontario shoreline around Oshawa/Whitby; he discovered rifles, safes, cars and the Hon. Gordon D. Conant Plaque that had been stolen in August 1966 from Lakeview Park. He found it a week later in 26 feet of water in the Oshawa Harbour.

Outside the Sea Shanty Museum that was on located Stone Street Oshawa on the property of Robert Stephenson. Archival collection of the Oshawa Museum

Robert Stephenson lived in Oshawa on Stone Street where he had a small museum that he called The Sea Shanty Museum. This is where he showcased the many treasures (ship wreck material) that he discovered along the shores of Lake Ontario in Oshawa. Once he decided to close his Sea Shanty Museum – the artefacts were donated to the Oshawa Museum and the Bruce County Museum & Archives in Southampton, Ontario.

Inside the Sea Shanty Museum. Archival collection of the Oshawa Museum

On the evening of September 20, 1921, an era of nautical history abruptly came to an end when the schooner Helen ran aground off McLaughlin Point. The Helen began her life some 51 years earlier as the tow barge, J.J. Pugsley.   At 70 feet long, 30 feet wide and sporting two masts, the Helen hardly appeared revolutionary.

However, a close inspection would reveal that she was the first Great Lakes schooner to be fitted with an auxiliary combustion engine — an innovation that, according to one marine historian, “was as far in the future as the flying machine.”

As futuristic as the Helen may have been, she spent the vast majority of her years as a stone-hooker.  This is a type of schooner specifically designed to lift stones from the lake bed and transport them to shore where they would be used in the construction of new harbours, docks, and roadways. From 1850- 1900, it was not uncommon for entire fleets of stone-hookers to be operating on Lake Ontario.

Of hundreds built, only one stone-hooker, the Helen remained in service past 1920. Soon however, the fateful day would come for the Helen. On September 20, 1921, she was heading home to Bond Head, Newcastle with a full load of stones when a strong gale forced her to crash against a large rock off McLaughlin Point (which had been named “Oshawa Island”).

Captain Goldring, who was alone aboard the ship, managed to escape before his command of 49 years sunk beneath the murky depths. The Helen was the third ship to meet her demise on Oshawa Island that year.

From left, Schooner Helen, circa 1920; the wreck of the Schooner Helen off the coast of Port Oshawa 1921; Diver Robert Stephenson with Helen’s hull, 1967. All images archival collection of the Oshawa Museum

The rotting hull of the Helen lay undisturbed and forgotten until 1964 when Robert Stephenson set out to locate the famous schooner.  When diving in this area around this large rock, Mr. Stephenson could sit and rest on this boulder with all his upper body out of the water.

At the base of the boulder, bits and pieces of marine hardware were found, as well as parts of present day motorboats and fittings from old steam vessels.  A long trail of heavy items was located by Bob, leading into deeper water in a south westerly direction.  There were splicing thimbles, iron spikes, stud-link chain, and one piece of iron on which was an encouraging message…the word “SUCCESS.”

Years passed and Mr. Stephenson had spent over 200 hours underwater searching.  Finally one day, a length of wire was located on the bottom, again leading to the south west.  It crossed a channel that was 10 feet wide and about 6 feet deep.  Wallowing under 3 feet of algae Bob found a small “Belaying pin,” a wooden “Sheave,” several large unidentified fittings and finally a wire led through a collection of “mast hoops” and other rigging parts to the edge of a 20 foot drop.  Peering through the dark water below was a number of massive timbers pointing up through the green gloom.  It was the HELEN!!!!

In 2014, Visitor Host Shawn wrote about Helen’s steering wheel, his favourite artefact, in celebration of our exhibit, IT’Story.

The steering wheel from Helen, recovered from her wreck by diver Bob Stevenson

My Favourite Artifact: The Helen’s Steering Wheel

By Shawn Perron, Visitor Host

My favourite artifact at the OCM is the steering wheel of the Schooner Helen. I first uncovered the history of the Helen when compiling information from the archives related to shipping in Oshawa. This was for the opening of the Sea Shanty Exhibit a few years ago. The story goes that the ship originally started out as a somewhat shabby flat bottom barge under the name of John Pugsley – hailing from the Long Point ship-yard of Lake Erie where it was constructed in 1850. However, the barge was completely transformed and customized into a remarkable Schooner in 1873 by Captain John Goldring of Port Whitby. Fitted with a gasoline auxiliary engine, unique side-pivoting centreboard, and new helm this was referred to by some as far in the future as a flying machine.

The Schooner Helen
The Schooner Helen

Despite making several important expeditions across the Great Lakes in its prime, the times changed with new technology and the bulk of shipping work was eventually handed over to steam ships. In these conditions many schooners were reduced to stone-hooking – this is when a stones are collected from the lake floor for pier work and other forms of constriction.  Yet, even in this environment the Helen excelled. Goldring managed to stone-hook independently which was quite a challenging task for a 70ft ship. After about fifty years of brotherhood the Helen and Goldring were sadly separated when the Helen was wrecked on Bluff Point (McLaughlin Point) on the shore of Oshawa in 1921.

The steering wheel from Helen, recovered from her wreck by diver Bob Stevenson
The steering wheel from Helen, recovered from her wreck by diver Bob Stephenson

Rummaging these archive documents I stumbled upon a related document I did not expect: a donation receipt with Helen artifacts from Robert Stephenson. After recovering pieces from the Helen wreck for his own museum in 1964 R. Stephenson eventually offered these pieces to the OCM. This included Helen’s side pivoting centerboard, Goldring’s clay pipe, and steering wheel, amongst other things. I was then excited to see something which I had studied the story of – a steering wheel which had been expertly guided for half a century through different jobs and waters before remaining in a watery grave for half a century – in the Sea Shanty Exhibit. Throughout my tours I was always sure to tell the story of the Helen and Goldring and how they persevered together throughout the years. In this way we offered visitors themselves a chance at the historic wheel.


IT’Story: Stories from the OCM Collection opens on Sunday May 18, 2014.

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