The Maritime History of the Great Lakes
Helen (Schooner), aground, 20 Sep 1921

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      A marine era ended almost unnoticed on September 20th. 1921. When the two masted Schooner "HELEN" foundered during gale force winds on the last vestige of "Oshawa Island," l ¼ miles East of Oshawa Harbour on the North Shore of Lake Ontario. After 3 days of merciless pounding, the aging vessel finally succumed to the breakers racing across what is now the Darlington Shoals. This 70 ft. Schooner was the last of the "Stone-Hookers" to operate on the Great Lakes. While researching the "Helen" incident as a possible "diving target," I uncovered a story of one man and his ship that I am sure readers will find both touching and unique.
      From 1850 to 1900, fleets of "Hookers" were owned and operated on a family,, or partnership basis, throughout the Great takes. On calm summer days it was commonplace to see several of these sturdy little vessels anchored below Oshawa's lakefront headlands. The rocky shoals below Bonnie Brae and Stevensons Points being prolific areas for "stone-hooking" during this period. Due to the extremely hazardous nature of this occupation, for both ship and crew, these small Schooners could only operate during relatively calm lake conditions. During windy periods, they could often be seen "wind-bound" in North Shore Harbours and shore-ponds -- waiting out even a moderate blow.
      Anchoring the "Hooker" close to a boulder strewn reef, the crew would pole or scull a flat bottomed scow into the reefs shallows. When the bottom was visible from the surface, a 2 pronged implement called a "stone-rake" was manipulated under a fair sized boulder, this would be hauled to the surface and piled on the scow. Once loaded to capacity, the scow would return to the anchored Schooner, and the "hard-heads" transferred into the vessels hold. This back-breaking task continued until the Schooner had a full cargo of stone. Then, usually with very little free-board, and the heavily laden scow in tow, the vessel would sail to one of the many burgeoning lake-shore communities, where Harbours and docks were being constructed to attract trade and conmnerce into their areas. Pulling alongside a partially constructed dock or break-water, the cargo of "hard-heads" were manhandled overboard into the massive wooden cribbings that were used in dock and pier construction during this period.
      Hard pressed financially as freight and passenger bookings dropped off alarmingly due to the increasing competition from the more reliable steam-ships and railroads, Many proud and independent Schooner/Owner Captains were eventually forced into the lowly "Stone-Hooking" trade for a livelihood. Being compelled to help in the construction of deeper Harbours and break-walls, to protect their nemesis -- the Steam-Ship, was a bitter pill for many Schooner Captains to swallow.
      The final blow to the "Stone-Hookers" came with the development of new techniques in concrete dock construction, making the relatively short-lived wooden cribbings obsolete. Another factor in the demise of the "Stone-hookers", was the public outcry during this period for smoother road surfaces. This resulted in the demand for beach cobble-stones dropping off. During the era of the Stone-Hookers" thousands of tons had been scooped out of Lake Ontario's shore-line shallows for paving Toronto streets and side-walks. The Schooner "HELEN" survived these changes long after her counter-parts had disappeared from the Great Lakes due to the far-sightedness of her owner/Captain; John Goldring of Newcastle, Ontario. It is a pleasure to relate the story of this remarkable man and his long forgotten ship. later in this article, I will describe the
"chain of events" that led to the discovery of the wreck-site in 1964.
      The Schooner "HELEN" was born at a small ship-yard near Long Point, Lake Erie. She was christened the rather disenchanting name "J. J. Pugsley" by her original owners. Birthdate unkown, but circa 1870. Young John Goidring acquired the vessel in 1872, during his travels on the upper Great Lakes as a Schooner seaman. To eliminate confusion, it should be mentioned, that John Goldring was the elder half-brother of
Captain Richard Goldring of Port Whitby fame. Richard owned and operated a fleet of sailing vessels out of Port Whitby, Ontario, between 1890 and 1911.
      The "J. J. Pugsley" was a typical Great Lakes tow-barge, she was sturdily constructed, flat bottomed and broad of beam, with 7 ft. of clearance in her holds. The vessels bulky lines were of little credit to the ship-designers art. However, to a ruggedly independent man like John Goldring, acquiring the "Pugsley" was the culmination point of his plans. After years of thrift and hard-work on the Great Lakes wind-ships, he was now Master of his own vessel at the age of 31.
      At the opening of the shipping season in 1872, Goldring had the "Pugaley" towed down lake Erie -- through the Erie Canal into Lake Ontario. The vessel was then drydocked for re-building and re-fitting. According to reports, Goldring actually "stepped" the two 60 ft. masts, and converted the 70 ft. tow-barge into the "gaff rigged" Schooner "HELEN" himself. For operation in the notoriously shallow waters of North Shore Harbours and small grain ports, he installed a unique "side-pivoting centre-board". This was hinged to the vessels keel, and locked in the vertical (sailing) position by chains extending from both sides of the hull amidships. This could be pivoted to either Port or Starboard by means of a deck mounted hand-winch, giving the vessel 8 ft. more clear-
ance under the hull. This massive iron-bound contrivance was 18' x 8' x 4 inches thick, tapering to 2 inches thick at it's lower edge. In later years, during the vessels "Stone-Hooking" period, this device proved to be indispensible since it allowed the "HELEN" to operate in the shallows ontop of outlying shoals. This also gave Goldring the added advantage of "hooking" even larger boulders by means of a boom extending from the rear mast. A large set of "stone-tongs" (similar to ice tongs) were lowered overboard from a pulley-block attached to the boom, very large boulders could be lifted and swung safely into the vessels now deckless hold. This device proved to be far superior to the scow and stone-rake method previously described in this article, and still used by most of the "Stone-Hookers".
      Later, a new-fangled and revolutionary innovation was carried out, and the "HELEN" became the first Schooner on the Great lakes to have a gasoline auxiliary engine installed, popularly called the "internal combustion engine" during this period, which, to quote Marine Historian C.H.J. Snider:- "Was as far in the future as the flying machine'" ("Schooner Days", Evening Telegram 1943). Driven by a crude cast-iron propeller 22" in diameter, the "HELEN" could now operate effectively during the "becalmed" conditions that often plagued the "wind-jammers." During stormy lake conditions, it was now possible for (Goldring to manoevre the vessel into Harbours and docks unaided -- while other "Hookers" anchored off-shore riding out a blow. It was the "HELENS" versatility that guaranteed her survival long after the rest of her kind, had faded into the mists of time. Thus, according to C.H.J. Snider, giving the "HELEN" the historical marine distinction, of being the last "Stone-Hooker" to operate on the Great Lakes.
      In retrospect: How could 31 year old John Goldring foresee as he re-built the vessel in 1S72, that he would be destined to "tread the decks" of the "HELEN" for the next 50 years?. At the tine of her demise on the Darlington Shoels -. John Goldring was in his 81st. year !. Surely a remarkable record for one man and his beloved ship?. It should also be mentioned, that for economic reasons, this veteran Captain handled the 70 ft. vessel alone for several years prior to the wrecking -- John Goldring was indeed, an incredible man for his years: It seems fitting and "in character" with this self-reliant old sea-dog, that he was alone at the helm of the "HELEN," when his "voyage of 50 years" came to an end on the Darlington Shoals.
      The "HELEN's" oak rudder still "bears witness" to the adverse chain of events that led to the foundering. Inspection of the cast-iron steering flenge substantiates a contempory news report, that the pins securing the flange to the 10 ft. tall rudder post had sheared-off as Goldring battled the high seas, enroute to his home Port of Bond Head (Newcastle). No longer responding to the helm, the vessel became uncontrolable and drifted broadside to the S/Easterly gale force winds. The steering flange is still "jury rigged" with the square iron spikes, that John Goidring desperately hammered between flange and post 57 years ago. In what proved to be a futile attempt to lock the flange, and stop the vessels fatal drift towards the breakers boiling across the Darlington Shoals.
      In 1954, my good friend the late Charles Templar, retired marine engineer, aroused the writers interest in the "HELEN" incident. Which at that time seemed a very unlikely "diving target" due to the vessels shallow water location. The estimated depth of the collision point with this boulder strewn clay bank, being only two fathoms. Like most shallow water wrecks in the Great Lakes, the aging hull would have been torn apart by the crushing weight of shifting ice during the winter months. It could also be expected, that her timbers would have been scattered by 3 decades of storms and violent wave action in this extremely exposed area. Metal fittings, and other marine hardware would be buried under tons of shifting sand, since over the years, shore-line erosion has chronically altered lake-front contours in this area. The normally poor underwater visibility ontop of the shoal, would make systematic "grid search patterns" for the wreck-site almost impossible.
      It is a sad reflection on our times, that the "HELEN's" proximity to Oshawa's sewage outfall, guarantees a prolific growth of algae in the area during the summer months. It was anticipated that this would effectively conceal a "low-profile" wreck-site from the archaeological diver. The visual outlines of man-made objects (marine artifacts) would be disguised by this obnoxious marine growth. For example:- Several "venerable" oak dead-eyes, circa 1872, were located ontop of the shoal wearing long shaggy green "whiskers", making them comnletely indistinpuishable from the `bewhiskered" cobble-stones in the same area.
      It became obvious that the most opportune time for conducting an underwater survey, was in the early spring before the algae bloomed. And preferably, during periods of off-shore winds which circulate the deep clear water into the shore-line shallows. A massive, almost legendary boulder situated ontop of the shoal, approximately 300 yards off-shore, would be the focal-point of the proposed search pattern. According to a news report published in l881, the Steamers "CALEDONIA" and "NORSEMAN" had both collided with this, quote:- "menace to shipping", in the spring of that year. It was reported that the "NORSEMANS" pumps were incapable of handling the water pouring through the gash in her hull, and she finally sank alongside the boulder, taking 11 ft. of water in her boiler-room and holds before settling on the bottom.
      Research into the "HELEN" incident indicated that a very large boulder, did in fact, deliver the coup-de-grace to the vessel after she drifted helplessly onto the shoals. Could this have been the same "menace to shipping" that had gouged a hole in the "NORSEMANS" hull 40 years previously ?. The following news report published in the Ontario Reformer, dated September 21, 1921, seemed to substantiate this theory.
I quote in part:-
      County Constable Culling told the Reformer today, that this is the third vessel (Sch. "Helen") to
      become stranded on the rock since navigation opened in the spring. He also stated that he had
      warned the Marine Department in Qttawa in the spring, that the rock was a source of danger. The
      Marine Department should place a buoy.or light-house there. Or blow the rock out of the water,
      said Constable Culling.
      End of Quote.
      This "menace to shipping", as it was aptly called in the 1881 news report, was located by the writer in the spring of 1956. The boulders "scarred" upper surfaces and gouged sides, being grim evidence of it's toll on North Shore shpping down through the years. It should be mentioned, that following the wrecking of the Schooner "HELEN" in 1921. The Marine Department took Constable Cullings advice, and installed
a red canister buoy on the Southerly limits of' the Darlington Shoals. This is still maintained in this location by the Canadian Hydrographic Service, and can be clearly seen to the S/E. of Oshawa Harbour. Relying on sophisticated electronic eouipment, modern mariners approaching Oshawa Harbour from the S/East, still take grim chances cutting across the relatively deep water to the inside of the buoy. Unaware that this monsterous boulder still lurks just below the surface, waiting to add yet another victim to it's long list of casualties. When diving in the area in 1964, the upper surface of the boulder was used as a convenient resting place, sitting only waist deep in 3 fathoms of water). At the base of the boulder, a large amount of "marine debris" lay scattered in the sand, some of the debris was of a modern nature. A broken aluminum "lower unit" from an outboard motor lay partly buried in the sand, while close by a badly damaged 3 bladed bronze propeller protruded out of the bottom. Several outboard motor `skegs", and a broken depth-sounder transducer was also located in the same area. "Proof positive" of the boulders involvement in many marine `happenings"
down through the years.
      Eventually, by extending the search radius away from the boulder in systematic "stride lines", a long trail of heavy marine hardware was located leading in a South-Westerly direction into deeper water, this included:- Several lengths of stud-link chain, dozens of bent and twisted wrought-iron spikes, frayed lengths of wire-rope, many devises of various sizes, splicing thimbles, pieces of cast-iron embossed with a leaf pattern. One of the larger pieces dug out of the sand, seemed to be conveying a very encouraging message --"the word Success" was found embossed in scroll-work under the algae. It was discovered later that the cast-iron fragments were from the vessels wood burning stove. This was used for heating and cooking in the "HELENS" deck cabin aft. Surprisingly enough, a rusty sledge-hammer was noticed along the trail, standing upright on a hard clay bottom -- it's water worn shaft still pointing to the surface. The most significant discovery at this point, was a "Crance Iron" (sometimes spelt "Crans"). This heavy piece of marine hardware substantiated the fact that this "trail" of wreckage was from a sailing vessel -- and not the mastlass tow-barge wrecked in the same area in the early 1900's. It was at this point in the tentative search for evidence of the old "Stone-Hooker" -- that the wreck became a top priority diving project. For those unfamiliar with the hardware used in the construction of old sailing vessels, it should be explained that "Crance Irons" came in varying shapes and sizes. They were used for clamping the jibboom to the bowsprit on schooner rigged vessels, on the underside of the foremost "Crance" there was usually a ring to which the bob-stay chain was attached with a clevis. The other end of the chain extended to, and was securely attached to the vessels stem just above the waterline. This arrangement was designed to take the strain of the "standing rigging" off the jibboom and bowsprit.
      This long "trail" of non-buoyant debris, indicated that the wreck, or a large section of it, had gradually shifted along the bottom into the deeper water to the South/west of the shoal. This movement occurs as the cargo, or ballast, drops through the vessels crumbling hull -- already weakened by the wrecking. Once free of weight, and in a state of near neutral buoyancy, the waterlogged timbers are lifted and moved by the constant wave surge, particularly in shallow water locations. It follows that the timbers are usually shifted in the direction of the most prevailing winds. This movement is accelerated by high seas, gale-force winds, currents, and gradually sloping bottoms away from the shoal area. Similiar "trails" of non-buoyant debris starting at the vessels collision point with a shoal, have led the writer to other previously undiscovered wreck-sites in the Great Lakes.
      Due to the rugged underwater terrain to the South/West of the Darlington Shoals, the "HELENS" "trail" became indistinct, and difficult to follow. Hundreds of hours were spent searching, what proved to be, a vast maze of clay-banks and deep channels gouged out of the bottom by water action -- many of these being 10 to 15 ft. deeper than the average depth in the area. Some of the channels explored, gradually tapered into narrow "shoulder hugging" crevises that often made it necessary to back-out from under unseen sloping walls and clay overhangs. Several precariously balanced clay archways were passed under while checking the accumulation of' waterlogged timbers laying in the bottom of the channels. This proved to be a time-consuming and tedious task -- particularly under the low visibility conditions that were the norm in this area.
      A length of wire-rope was eventually located strung out across the bottom, which according to a compass reading once again extended in a South'Westerly direction. This was followed for a considerable distance until it crossed a 10 ft. wide channel, approximately 6 ft. deep. Using the "wallowing and feel" method under 3 ft. of algae, a small "Belaying Pin" and a wooden "Sheave" was located -- several large unidentified steel fittings to heavy to handle without using buoyancy, or a surface winch, were left to be recovered at a later date. Attaching the reel of the surface float to the algae covered wire-rope, an ascent was made up the nylon line to drop the belaying pin and wooden sheave inside the float for safe-keeping. Swimming back down the line, the wire-rope was relocated and followed until it disanpeared under a large patch of sand and gravel. Circling once again to the South.'West, it was again located approximately 50 ft. from where it had disappeared. Expectetions ran high as it trailed along the bottom clearly visible for another 100 ft.. Broken chain-links, srniliar to those checked earlier, were noticed en-route (3" Stud-Links). Several mast bands, spikes and scattered timbers lay within the limited visibility on both sides of the wire-rope. This finally ended in a tangled and rusty coil close to the edge of a 15 to 20 ft. vertical clay drop-off. Peering down, some massive timbers could be seen protruding out of the gloom below. Words fail to express the breathtaking feeling of exilaration,
and almost reverence experienced at this moment. I now felt that the "moment of truth" had arrived -- and that my search for the Schooner "HELEN" was finally over. After researching the era of the "Stone-Hookers" -- and in particular, the life and times of Captain John Goldring. I now felt almost emotionally involved as I looked down at the barely visible timbers below.
      In view of the tangled mass of wire-rope rigging, chains and rusty cables hazardously draped from the top of the bank down to the wreck site. It was expedient to follow the edge of the drop-off for a safe distance before descending into the murky gloom below. Dropping to the bottom, the wreck was cautiously approached from the North/West. The first piece of wreckage located, was a splintered mast, buried by half it's diameter in the sand. A wrought-iron "Hound-Band' clamped to the top of the rest, still had a badly frayed wire-rope "shroud" attached to the upper eyelet (standing rigging). The "shroud" trailed along the bottom in the general direction of the timbers noticed from the top of the bank. It was discovered that this was still secured to a shackle and eyebolt riveted to the vessels almost plankless frame. Timbers and planking lay scattered in wild profusion around the site. Several "chain-plates" were noticed hanging upside down, having swivelled in the elongated holes in rotting ribs. It was noticed with excitement, that some of the "chain-niates" still had their banded "dead-eyes" attached. Others dangled from the wire-rope rigging hanging from the top of the bank. Several stared sightlessly from out of the sand between the vessels soars. The vessels 10 ft. long oak rudder lay to one side, it's pivot pin still attached to the keel pivot, bracket. The rudders heavy cast-iron steering flange, having securely anchored it to the bottom in this location. Nearby, a massive hand operated bilge-pump (originally deck-mounted) protruded out of the bottom. A 10 ft. length of 4" diameter cast-iron pipe attached to the pump, pointed to the surface like a cannon.
      During the initial exploration of the wreck-site, three items were located that tentatively confirmed that the wreck was indeed the Schooner "HELEN," namely:-
      (1) The massive iron-bound Side-Pivoting Centre-Hoard -- installed by Goldring in
      1872 (located 50 ft. to the West of the wreck-site).

      (2) The "Helens" cast-iron propeller from her gasoline auxiliary engine (described
      previously in this article).

      (3) Surprisingly enough; a clay pipe with broken stem. Research had indicated that
      John Goldring had been a clay-pipe smoker through-out his life.

      Later, the identity of the wreck was positively established when the rudder was examined for the square iron spikes that Goidring had reportedly hammered in between the steering flange and rudder post on the night of the wrecking.
      Much could now be written describing the never ending exploration of the wreck-site to date, unfortunately, time and space does not permit even a short thesis on this subject. Readers may be interested however, in the following list of marine artifacts recovered from the site:-
      -- The vessels Oak Rudder. -- Grappling Iron.
      -- The Side-pivoting Centre-board. -- Belaying pins.
      -- Marline Spike. -- Dead-Eves & Chain-Plates.
      -- Bilge Pump. -- Shipwrights Caulking Iron.
      -- Sail Calipers. -- Set of "Stone-Tongs".
      -- Crance-Iron & Bob-Stay Chain. -- Shielded Candle Holder.
      -- Pulley Blocks. -- Clay-Pipe Bowl & Jack-knife.
      -- Misc. Carpenters Tools. -- Axe/Sledge/Crowbars/Mallet, etc.
      -- Part of a Brass Oil Lamp. (Cabin) -- Sail Cleats.
      -- Ships Helm (Steering Wheel). -- Other items to numerous to mention.
      -- Cast-Iron Propeller.
      The "HELENS" Steering Wheel was eventually located with an Underwater Metal Detector, on November 16, 1978. This 38" diameter artifact had eluded the writer since 1964, deeply buried under sand and gravel near the stern of the wreck. With the exception of the massive Centre-Board (claimed once again by the lake), all of the items listed have been carefully restored and preserved for posterity, since they represent the long forgotten and vital role of the Great Lakes "Stone Hookers" in the early development of our now vast lake-shore communities. And since marine historians have failed to emphasise the historical importance of the "wind-ships". The artifacts on display are a tangible reminder of the hardy breed of men - like John Goldring -- who manned the Great Lakes "Wind-Jammers", until progress finally destroyed their way of life.
      Artifacts from the Schooner "HELEN", and other sunken vessels, are on public display in a converted boat-house situated on lake-front property at the East end of Stone Street, Oshawa, Ontario. It should be explained, that following a felicious remark by a friend, the boat-house became known locally as -- "The Sea Shanty Museum". Since public attention was focused on this mini-marine-museum by the news media in 1971., and again in 1979, over 1,000 children and adults have signed the "Guest Book". Individual children, youth groups, and classes from local schools, have been entranced by the marine artifacts, and specialised diving equipment on display. The museums lake-shore location and nautical atmosphere, engenders visions of sunken ships, and the high adventure of underwater exploration. Youthful eyes light-up, when it is explained that the undiscovered wrecks in the Great Lakes are "time capsules" from by-gone era's -- that still wait in watery solitude to be discovered and explored.
      In this respect, it is deeply gratifying to the writer, that the "Sea Shanty Museum" is sowing the seeds of a life-long interest in our sadly neglected Great Lakes Marine History. And in a small way is introducing the younger generation, to the intriguing and challenging subject of Underwater Archaeology.

      Bob Stephenson,
      Oshawa, Ontario.
      December 1980

      . . . . .

      Sure Oshawa Harbor Wreck Is That Of Schooner MAGDALA, Pounded To Pieces By Gale.
      (special to the Evening telegram)
      Oshawa, July 13. -- The wreckage found only a short distance off the beach, west of Oshawa harbor, is that of Captain Farewell's schooner, the MAGDALA, James Smith of Detroit, who is now visiting at Oshawa-on-the-Lake for many years and sailed the Great Lakes in the old lake schooners for twelve years. He remembers well the night the MAGDALA was wrecked and recalls other shipwercks near Oshawa harbor.
      "That's part of the hull of the old MAGDALA all right," Smith informed the Telegram last night, referring to the wreckage which Oshawa firemen are attempting to take from the lake. "It's several hundred yards east of where the MAGDALA piled up, but the bottom could easily shift that much during the years. There would be nothing to stop it from shifting.
      "I remember well the night the old MAGDALA piled up," James Smith recalled. " I was quite yound then, but I remember the schooner was waiting outside of Oshawa harbor to move in and unload a cargo of coal. A gale from the southeast blew up and Captain Farewell tried to anchor, but the anchors dragged and before morning the schooner was grounded. It was blown right in alongside Guy's Point.
      "After the gale blew out most of the cargo of coal was removed from Her," James Smith said. Captain Farewell was going to try and float her again by filling the hold with empty coal oil barrels, and he planned to sail her to the Welland Canal and put her in drydock for repairs.
      But before she was floated a nasty gale from the west blew up one night and next morning the wreckage of the schooner was strewn all along the beach, all the way from the dock to Guy's Point.
      "I remember helping to salvage the anchors and other things of value." Mr. Smith recalled.
      From the description of the wood, the square spikes and long square iron rods found in the wreckage off Oshawa beach, Smith pointed out that it must be an old schooner, for the construction was of that nature in those days. The planks were fastened to the ribs with long spikes and then the planks were held together by means of the long iron rods which passed through the center of the planks and were riveted there.
      The loss of the schooner CALEDONIA over fifty years ago, of the Bluff Point, east of Oshawa harbor, was also recalled by Smith. He believes that on a clear day, when the water is smooth and still, the wreckage could be seen on the bottom there. The anchors and iron fittings of the boat were never sdalvaged.
      "It was in the late fall when the CALEDONIA went aground in a southeast gale," Smith claimed. "I was just a kid then, but the next day my mother and I were sailing to Oswego on the schooner BERMUDA, with Captain Allen. When we passed the point bound for Whitby, we could see the CALEDONIA out there on the rocks. It was loaded with coal too."
      Mr. Smith was of the opinion the CALEDONIA was a two-masted schooner, about 120 feet in length and about 300 tons.
      He also remembers the wreck of the schooner HELEN about fifteen years ago off Bluff Point. It was sailed by Captain Gouldring of Newcastle, who was able to come ashore in a punt. Most of the fittings of value were saved from this boat, which was a small stonehooker, but the wreckage, Mr. Smith believes, may still be seen under the water a short distance out from Bluff Point.
      "I gave up sailing 27 years ago, when the business became unprofitable and the owners could not pay their crews enough to make it worth while." Mr. Smith said. He recalled sailing on the schooners OCEAN WAVE, TRADE WIND, COLLIER, the WILLIAM KEMMERSON and the KEEWATIN.
      Toronto Telegram
      July 13, 1935

Media Type:
Item Type:
Reason: aground
Lives: nil
Remarks: Total loss
Date of Original:
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Geographic Coverage:
  • Ontario, Canada
    Latitude: 43.8675 Longitude: -78.825555
William R. McNeil
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Maritime History of the Great Lakes
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Helen (Schooner), aground, 20 Sep 1921