Maritime mystery: Bath museum tackles origin of 1940s ship steering wheel

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BATH — It may be time to call Sherlock Holmes.

An aged steering wheel section from an unknown ship, recently found on a cleaning mission in the basement of City Hall, is now in the hands of the Maine Maritime Museum, where authorities on local seafaring history are unraveling the mystery of where the machinery originated.

The museum posted a notice on Facebook Jan. 4 seeking information about the wheel, but Nathan Lipfert, the museum’s senior curator, said no tips were received.

“The ownership angle is a little bit of a twist for us; we’re not sure who the owner actually is,” Lipfert explained while examining what he estimated is the roughly 300-pound object. “The city employees have represented to me that it doesn’t belong to the city. They were happy to get it out of their basement.”

It is something the museum would like to add to its collection, if possible, he said.

“It’s obviously been aboard a vessel,” he noted. “It’s used; it’s worn.”

Now in the museum’s basement, the wheel sits on a pedestal, and has a General Electric “marine selsyn unit” for a rudder indicator, a Sperry gyro-compass repeater, and mounts to facilitate other pieces of equipment, according to the museum’s Facebook post.

The repeater would reflect the bearing reading of the ship’s gyro-compass, Lipfert explained.

“Selsyn” is short for “self-synchronous,” Lipfert explained in an email following the interview, adding that the term refers “to a variety of rotary, electromechanical, position-sensing devices used for the precise transmission of angular data between two or more remote points.”

A clue to the wheel’s age comes from the manufacturer’s tag for the selsyn unit, dated 1944, one year before the end of World War II.

Photos Lipfert found of the interior of the Allen M. Sumner class of destroyers – many of which Bath Iron Works built – showed steering sections that are identical to the one at the museum, leading him to believe the wheel came from a vessel of that class.

“That matched perfectly with another BIW-built destroyer named Laffey, that was a very famous vessel during the war,” Lipfert said.

Because the gyro-compass repeater is a Mark XXIV model, which was used after the war, Lipfert figures it was a replacement for the original that went with the wheel – likely a Mark XV.

“We can only surmise that this wheel came from an old BIW-built destroyer, removed when the vessel was scrapped,” the Facebook notice states. “But someone must know the story here, and we would love to know it.”

The museum has BIW’s contract files, but “it doesn’t look like they kept everything,” Lipfert said. “And I don’t think it gets down to the serial numbers that we might find on something like this.”

The museum also hasn’t determined how long the wheel sat in the basement at City Hall. Warren Rogers, a longtime custodian at City Hall until 1992, said he did not recall seeing it in the basement. A maintenance person, who has worked there 16 years, told the museum it had been there the whole time, Lipfert said.

And perhaps before that, the wheel had been involved in some World War II battles.

“If this thing could talk,” Lipfert said with a smile. “It’s been somewhere.”

Those with more information can reach him at 443-1316, ext. 328, or lipfert@maritimeme.org.

Alex Lear can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 113 or alear@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @learics.

Nathan Lipfert, senior curator at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, is trying to unravel the story behind a ship steering wheel that could be seven decades old.

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A Maine native and Colby College graduate, Alex has been covering coastal communities since 2001, and currently handles Bath, Topsham, Cumberland, and North Yarmouth. He and his wife, Lauren, live in the Portland area, and Alex recently released his third album of original music.