The Diving Helmet


John Syme 'Jack' Laurie  February 4, 1991
I have never forgotten the day in 1931 during the great depression when a sixteen-year-old friend, Gordon Isaac, submerged into lake ontario wearing a homemade diving helmet which he had built all by himself.
In reaching the later years of my life I thought the story deserved to be recorded.
The Port Hope harbour activities of that period of time leading up to the advent of the diving helmet were interesting and pertinent to the story.

The town of Port Hope lies sixty-five miles east of Toronto, nestling on the north shore of Lake Ontario and upward from both banks of the Ganaraska River.
The river mouth in 1931 was a good harbour in itself and there was a large inner harbour basin that was protected from the onslaught of storm waves entering the river from the lake. At the end of the main harbour dock was a lighthouse and farther back was a little-used frame building called the ticket house. Moored in the inner basin was an old sailing schooner, the Julia B Merrill. Her last use was hauling coal from Oswego, New York, to Port Hope, but now she had been idle at the local dock for some years. Dick Woodcock was the watchman living on the schooner.

Prohibition was in effect in the United States, and to help satisfy their thirst, a number of rum runners operated out of Port Hope's inner harbour. Some used specially built boats for the trade, and one group had a World War I sub chaser. Others had smaller high speed boats for handling the more expensive whiskies. All shipments were cleared of Canada Customs for export to Cuba even though our local customs officers knew the destination was just across the lake to the USA.
Adding to the local harbour activity were several commercial fishing families who set their nets only a few miles offshore. The predominate marketable fish in the lake at the time were whitefish and the original large lake trout. Most of these prime fish were packed in ice and rock salt and exported to New York City.

It was the early summer of 1931 when a half dozen of us young fellows [the Protestant Hill Gang] became involved in the harbour scenerio. Two brothers in our group were sons of the local harbour master. Their father had given them the responsibility of igniting the lighthouse lamp each evening. The oil for the lamp was stored in the old locked ticket house so this gave us access to the key and the building. Inside was a large wooden table surrounded by six old captain's chairs. Without official permission we sort of took over the building that summer and called it our clubhouse. Thus we became a part of the life around the harbours.
We swam in the lake and all around the harbours. We went to see the rum runners loading their boats in the daytime and on occasions we were hired to help load the boats. In the evenings we sat on the dock and waved to the rum runners as they moved out of the harbour enroute to meet their cohorts across the lake. At times we would visit Dick Woodcock on the Julia B Merrill and he would regale us with old stories of his sailing days.

When the fishing boats came in we visited their dock area to see if they had a good catch and we watched them sort the fish. We knew lake Ontario was becoming overrun with lamprey eels but it was appalling to see as many as three eels clamped onto a single large lake trout. A son of one family had the job of removing the eels and with his fingers he closed off the two holes behind the eels' heads. This broke the suction and released their grip. He then threw the eels into a barrel of oil.
Usually the catch included lots of suckers and ling which were sold at the dock for ten or fifteen cents each. The ling looked like huge mudcat. In those depression years there was always a lineup to buy these low grade fish.

One day we were sitting in the clubhouse and chatting about numerous subjects when Gordon Isaac, our youngest member, said we should have an underwater diving helmet so we could explore the bottom of the lake and the harbours. We looked a little askance at Gordon and asked how we could possibly get or build a diving helmet. Gordon replied, "We haven't any money to buy anything, but I think I'll try to build one."
Well, he did more than try. He immediately visited the town dump and picked up an old galvanized hot water tank and an abandoned gasoline tank from a model T Ford car. He cut the top eighteen inches off the water tank and cut a square opening for a viewing window. In the window opening he sealed a piece of clear mica from a motorcycle windshield he had located at the dump. He strengthened the mica with strips from his home Meccano set.
Then at the helmet bottom he made two semi-circular cuts for shoulder rests. A length of two inch steam hose, also from the dump, was fitted into the cutouts to protect the shoulders.

The old Canadian Northern Railroad running just north of Port Hope had gone out of business. The rails had all been lifted and the steel bridge over gages creek, east of the town had been dismantled and hauled away for scrap. Gordon remembered the bridge breakup crew had overlooked the lead cushioning pads bolted to the concrete piers. He and his brother, Eric, took a wrench and the family corn broom to the bridge site. They removed the lead pads from the piers and then threaded the broom handle through the bolt holes. With one on each end of the broom handle they carried the heavy pads home.
Gordon had figured the weight of the steel helmet alone would not be sufficient to hold a diver on the lake bottom, so he attached lead bars to the lower front and back of the helmet.

We visited his home several times to see how he was doing, and the last time we were flabbergasted to see what he had accomplished. He had placed a fitting at the helmet top that would take a regular garden hose. In the gas tank he had installed a fitting for the other end of the garden hose. As well, he had placed two bicycle air valves in the gas tank for air intake. The Isaacs owned a double-barrelled bicycle pump and he had procured another from a neighbour.
His idea was that two of us would operate the two air pumps filling the gas tank with pressured air that would flow through the garden hose and into the diving helmet. While we were there Gordon said we were ready for an air test.
So two of us manned the pumps and the air successfully made its way into the helmet and Gordon was satisfied. The Isaacs had a small wooden cart, the kind we used to put one leg in and ride along the sidewalk pushing with the other leg. Gordon had made a platform for the cart onto which we loaded the helmet with the gas tank and hose and off we all went to the harbour for the grand submersion in Lake Ontario.

On arrival at the dock everything was assembled with air pumped into the helmet and then with a smile Gordon asked, "Who is the first to dive?" Several hesitated and one said, "You will not get me down in that contraption!" I could see Gordon's smile widen because he knew that he was going to do the first test dive.
There were landing steps down the side of the dock to the water on the lake side. Down the steps went Gordon with the helmet in place and looking like something from outer space. Waiting until he could feel good air pressure he lowered himself into the lake. What a sight it was with Gordon submerging, two guys on the dock pumping air into the tank and two playing out the garden hose. It was all very serious then, but now thinking back over sixty years later one has to smile.

As Gordon went down there was no sign of air bubbles, but it was prearranged he would pull on the air hose if he had trouble. two of us had bathing suits on and were about to dive in to investigate when air bubbles came up and they were moving along the surface so we knew Gordon was walking on the bottom. Someone yelled, "he did it! he did it!"
He stayed down a few minutes and we could see from the bubbles he had circled around and was moving back to the steps. Again it was another sight to see as Gordon and his creation broke the surface. We lifted off the helmet to see on his face a marvelous grin of either pride or satisfaction, or maybe both. We were very proud of him and now our club had a successful diving helmet because of his ingenuity and determination.

Several of us then made a dive and found it to be a wonderful exhilarating experience. It was an occasion that would be remembered all our lives. The equipment was stored in the ticket house where it was handy.
A few days later we were using the helmet when two men who were in a boat in the harbour mouth rowed into the dock. They were federal government men who were sounding the harbour depths for future dredging. They had lost their depth gauge overboard and wondered if we could find it. So, pleased as punch to be asked, we prepared the equipment and down into the depths went Gordon. After only several minutes he surfaced with the gauge in his hand and that old grin was on his face.
Word got around that there was a diving helmet in Port Hope and we were contacted to search under water for other lost material including an outboard motor in rice lake.

It was shortly after the depth gauge event that we heard the Julia B Merrill had been sold to toronto entrepreneurs and she was going to be burned as a spectacle off sunnyside Beach. We thought our old friend, Dick Woodcock , the vessel watchman, would be devasted. So we went over to the inner basin to see Dick, and there he was alongside others preparing the schooner for sailing to her last resting place.
As we watched, they were hauling up a mainsail when an upper rope block broke away and in falling it hit Dick a glancing blow on the head. He was knocked unconscious and was rushed to the hospital. On regaining consciousness he was told he had to remain in the hospital for several days.
Before dawn the next morning he got out of bed, donned his clothes and walked down to the Julia B Merrill. There was no way he was going to miss the last sailing of his beloved schooner.

Later we learned details about the burning of the schooner which took place on july 21, 1931. She was anchored off Sunnyside Beach in full sail and piled high with bales of straw, doused with kerosene and set afire. Sky rockets had been placed here and there and they flew in all directions. She burned to the surface of the water and eventually sank. It apparently was quite a spectacle to see, but to Dick Woodcock and our harbour gang we lost an old friend and it was a sad ending for one of the last schooners to sail the great lakes. No doubt her hull still rests there and probably is near the hull of the schooner, Lyman M Davis. She met an identical fate at the same spot in the year 1934.

In 1976, when I retired from business, a 'this is your life' party was held at our local golf and country club for me and my wife, Millie. As we walked into the club I couldn't believe my eyes! There on the head table sat the old diving helmet, somewhat rusty, with the mica window mostly eroded away.
I had no idea Gordon had kept it all these years. During the evening he explained its history and how it operated. It was one of the highlights of the evening and was quite astonishing to those in attendance.
This year (1991) I visited Gordon and his wife, Hazel, and there in the corner of their sunroom sits that old diving helmet, a much treasured object from a now distant past.
It brought back fond memories of our early years when we were young and carefree, and took us back to that wonderful and fascinating summer of 1931.


Some of the Protestant Hill Gang 1934
Story and pictures from Nancy (Isaac) McMann
Hold cursor over a face to see the name


 

 

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