Maritime mystery solved: Tip leads Bath museum to origin of ship's helm

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BATH — Almost a week after requesting the public’s help identifying the origin of a section of an old ship’s steering wheel, the Maine Maritime Museum has its answer.

Bath Naval Historical Park – a group that 20 years ago tried to bring a historic Bath-built ship back to be showcased as a museum vessel – it turns out borrowed the piece of machinery from the U.S. Navy. For many years the equipment sat in the basement of City Hall, where it was recently found on a cleaning mission.

The museum, which now has the machinery in its own basement, posted a notice on Facebook Jan. 4 seeking information about the wheel, but Nathan Lipfert, the museum’s senior curator, said no tips were immediately received.

“The ownership angle is a little bit of a twist for us; we’re not sure who the owner actually is,” Lipfert explained in an interview last week while examining the object he estimated weighs roughly 300 pounds. “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’s obviously been aboard a vessel,” he noted. “It’s used; it’s worn.”

Then came some news over the weekend.

Lipfert said he was contacted by Paul Berry Jr., one of the leaders of the Bath Naval Historical Park group, which 20 years ago sought to bring the DDG-2 Charles F. Adams back to Bath to be exhibited as a museum piece.

“She had been built at Bath in 1960, the first purpose-built guided missile destroyer,” Lipfert explained. “While the group was trying to raise money for this project, they had an office in the basement of Bath City Hall. In the process of working on this project, which was ultimately unsuccessful, they borrowed from the Navy the helm unit of DDG-1, an earlier destroyer named Gyatt built in 1945 at Federal Shipbuilding & Drydock Co. in Kearney, (New Jersey), (and designated) as DD-712.”

Turns out, that helm unit is the mystery wheel.

The vessel’s DD-712 designation was changed to DDG-1 when the Gyatt was converted, in 1956, into the first-ever guided missile destroyer, Lipfert explained.

The helm unit is still U.S. Navy property, and since the Gyatt was constructed in New Jersey, the Bath museum is “not particularly interested” in putting the vessel’s helm unit on display, Lipfert said.

“Because she was the immediate predecessor to the Adams, this artifact from Gyatt was pertinent to what the BNHP people were trying to do,” he explained. “Since the BNHP project was abandoned, their people have been waiting to see where the Charles F. Adams will end up, thinking that any future Adams museum will want the Gyatt helm.”

The museum will store the machinery until the BNHP group is ready to return it to the Navy, Lipfert said. A group in Jacksonville, Florida, “seems to be close to its goal of being able to bring the destroyer there,” he added.

The helm 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 came 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 identical to the one at the museum, which led 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 post states. “But someone must know the story here, and we would love to know it.”

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

A tip last weekend led Nathan Lipfert, senior curator at the Maine Maritime Museum in Bath, to the origin of a ship’s helm found in the basement of Bath City Hall.

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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.