The Oshawa Harbour – Part II

By Melissa Cole, Curator

Through the Great Depression and the Second World War, the harbour was a focal point of shipping for Oshawa, including huge supplies of coal, which was the primary means of heating homes in Oshawa during that time. 

In the 1930s the harbour continued to expand, and with the opening of the Welland Ship Canal with eight locks, this opened up Lake Ontario to larger ships, increasing business for the harbour in Oshawa.  Due to a serious flood in 1937, the coal piles and roads around the harbour were significantly damaged.  A new west pier was constructed by the firm William Bermingham and Sons of Kingston, Ontario.  The new pier was 1,082 feet and was constructed 42 feet west of the old structure.  In 1939, the outer harbour was dredged to a depth of 24 feet and the inner harbour and turning basin to 22 feet. 

The harbour in the 1930s

Unfortunately, the improvements that were being made to the harbour had a negative impact on the shoreline along Oshawa’s waterfront.  The shoreline was receding and the original breakwater was extended inward.  Portions of this cement wall can still be seen along the shoreline. 

The Thomas Bouckley Collection, The Robert McLaughlin Gallery.

In 1959 the St. Lawrence Seaway opened with excitement from the shipping community.  Unfortunately, it would soon be discovered that the lock system and sections of the seaway were not large enough to handle the anticipated ocean-going vessels.  These issues were not a concern for Oshawa; as the harbour continued to expand, due to municipal growth, Oshawa officials lobbied for a commissioned port.  Michael Starr, MP for the Ontario County riding, was instrumental in getting the Oshawa Port commissioned under an act in Parliament.  Federal money would continue to flow if they became a federal port. 

The new Harbour Commissioners Act, 1960, was proclaimed in 1962 with an autonomous body of commissioners – two federal appointees and one City appointee.  The Oshawa Harbour Commission was one of seven commissioned deep-sea ports in Canada.  At the time, Hamilton and Toronto were governed by their own acts, which were passed through Parliament much earlier. 

The first meeting of the commissioners took place at the Genosha Hotel on December 12, 1960.  Their first order of business was staff and land holdings.   Staff of the harbour at the time included a wharfinger, who managed the wharf, and a harbourmaster, who booked ships.  The first Harbour Commission also set out to create a yacht basin, a project that would become very controversial over time.

The port area was bordered by a line 600 feet east on the north of Harbour Road, 3000 feet south into Lake Ontario, west to Simcoe Street South, and 600 feet east on Farewell Street. (See image from 1960) 

Large tracts of land in the port area were either purchased or acquired and included the Second Marsh and surrounding land, such as the Beaton Properties and the former Gifford Farm, where the original Port Oshawa Pioneer Cemetery was located.  In the 1990s the City of Oshawa obtained ownership of the Second Marsh Lands and continued to work in collaboration with the Central Lake Ontario Conservation Authority, Ducks Unlimited Canada, and Friends of Second Marsh.

Two decades later, a major recession hit Canada, and the Oshawa Harbour suffered along with the rest of the country.  Competition was increasing from other modes of transportation. Through good years and bad, ships continued to call in at the Oshawa Harbour for goods of all types bound for destinations all over the world.  According to an article from the Oshawa This Week, in 1992 the Oshawa Harbour handled over 52 ships; one shipment included 22,000 tons of steel products from Lasco Steel (Gerdau).  That year, the first ship arrived on April 17, 1992 and its captain was welcomed with the traditional top hat ceremony.

In 2012, it was announced that the Oshawa Harbour Commission would become a Canada Port Authority.  The Port of Oshawa was the last port in Canada to be overseen by a harbour commission.  Between 1999 and 2001, 17 other ports in Canada became Canada Port Authorities. Oshawa couldn’t make the transformation because of an ongoing land dispute that was finally dealt with in a 2010 settlement agreement between the City of Oshawa and the federal government. 

In 2014, the City of Oshawa acquired the land located on the southeast corner of Simcoe Street South and Harbour Road, land that was returnted to the City as part of Oshawa’s settlement agreement with the federal government and the Port of Oshawa.  The Larry Ladd Harbour Trail on the City harbour lands opened to the public on July 1, 2018.  Designed with accessibility in mind, the Larry Ladd Harbour Trail comprises a pedestrian bridge and walkway and is an important link to the Waterfront Trail, Second Marsh and Oshawa Museum, as well as to Lakeview Park. 

On June 18, 2019, the Oshawa Port Authority became amalgamated with the Hamilton Port Authority, known today as the Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority (HOPA Ports).  Over the past decade, the Port of Oshawa has handled more than 500 vessels carrying over 3 million metric tonnes of cargo.  The Port handles an average of $23 million worth of cargo annually from salt and steel products to sugar, asphalt and grain. In 2020, HOPA, completed a Land Use plan for the harbour lands in Oshawa.  You can learn more through this link:

In 2021, the Oshawa Museum is excited to partner with the Hamilton Oshawa Port Authority to share the story of the Oshawa Habour in a new exhibit, From Ship to Shore: Looking at Oshawa’s Relationship with Lake Ontario. 


Missed the first part of the Harbour History? Read it here:

https://lakeviewparkoshawa.wordpress.com/2020/07/31/the-oshawa-harbour-part-1/

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.