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By Toni C. Collins
Special to the Citizen
One of Cedar Key’s best kept secrets is about to be revealed. For a number of years, this secret was kept under wraps by a handfull of local historians who now feel this segment of Cedar Key’s maritime history should be shared with the world.
The secret involves a stern-wheeled paddle steamer named the Helen Denham, which spent many years plying the waters of the Suwannee and Waccacassa Rivers towing log rafts of cypress to the Tilghman Cypress Company sawmill at Lukens. The Helen Denham was scuttled in 1918 when Tilghman ceased operations and the remains of the vessel lie in a watery grave awaiting rebirth and preservation.
The Cedar Key Historical Society and the City of Cedar Key have decided it is time for the Helen Denham to take her rightful place in the maritime history of the Cedar Keys and want to bring about an investigation and interpretation of this historic artifact. In order to raise the necessary funds to preserve this significant site and showcase the maritime archaeological resources of the area to the public, the month of October 2010 has been designated as Save the Helen Denham Month.
Cedar Key Mayor, Pat O’Neal and Historical Society President, George Sresovich presented their plan to the Levy County Board of County Commissioners who adopted Proclamation 2010-56 to show their support for the project. The goal is to raise $20,000 during the month of October so exploration and preservation can begin in November.
The Helen Denham was built in Eustis, Florida in 1889 and for a number of years worked the St. Johns River. When Tilghman established a single band-sawmill at Lukens, a community located on the mainland at No. Four Bridge, the vessel was relocated to the Gulf Coast. During the six years the vessel was in service in the waters surrounding the Cedar Keys, she was piloted by Captain Dan McQueen, one of the most well respected river boat captains in the area.
The funds raised during this campaign will permit the engagement of a underwater archaeology team who will examine and map the site, register the site with the appropriate state and federal agencies, and implement plans for the protection of the vessel. Following proper interpretation, the site will be placed on the Florida Master Site File and nominated to the National Register of Historic Landmarks. This first step will serve as the anchor toward establishing an interpretive Maritime Heritage Trail by placing the rich maritime heritage of Cedar Key squarely in the public eye.
If you would like to do your part by contributing to the Save the Helen Denham Fund, please stop by the Cedar Key Historical Society between 1 and 4 p.m. Sunday through Friday, or 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday. Or you can mail your donation to the Cedar Key Historical Society, P.O. Box 222, Cedar Key, FL 32625-0222. For more information please call 543-5549.