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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