Broken Toys of the Motor City's Nobility

Hidden somewhere in one of the many slips that line the Detroit River sits an old forgotten motor yacht from Detroit's golden era, named Helene. She was owned by Charles E. Sorenson, who was one of Henry Ford's highest-ranking lieutenants—once upon a time among the most powerful and feared men in the Motor City.

Sorenson was a master mechanic and patternmaker who helped Ford design the prototype for the Model T, and he was also instrumental in the first moving assembly line experiments at the Piquette Plant. He was the chief mastermind tasked with implementing the new assembly line idea at the Highland Park Plant, and making sure it was a logistical success. An article in Hemmings Motor News by Jim Donnelly even goes as far as to say that Sorenson was literally the "architect" of the Ford Motor Company's rise as a global power, while "old man Henry" was merely the face behind its products.

The 106-foot boat was named after Mr. Sorenson's wife Helen, and built in 1927 by the renowned Defoe Shipbuilding Co. in Bay City, Michigan. According to one source, she was constructed as a "temporary vessel" for Sorenson until a larger one could be built, which is surprising since the Great Depression intervened soon after and even the wealthy were forced to make ghastly sacrifices, such as tolerating yacht shortages. Then again, Sorenson was one of Detroit's richest men after all.

According to an old thread on boatnerd.comHelene is one "of the last" of the classic 1920s "commuter yachts" still left on the lakes. Probably the most famous of these would have been the Delphine, owned by the Dodge brothers. I have no doubt that Sorenson would have used the lesser-known Helene to report to work at the Rouge Plant on occasion, by sailing up the Rouge River.

Sorenson was Ford's "production boss," meaning he was the one who had to make sure the plant's output was high and costs were low. When Henry Ford made the ridiculous assertion during WWII that he could build a plant to make 1,000 airplanes a day, it was Sorenson who was put in charge of making it happen—the Willow Run Bomber Plant was the result. Although the "1,000-planes-a-day" claim was never met, Willow Run's eventual production capability was an incredible "bomber-an-hour."

According to Sorenson's biography, My Forty Years with Ford, his lifelong passion for the water stemmed from his childhood in Buffalo where he often rafted on the Niagara River. He owned a series of vessels, most notably the Helene. Despite its gorgeous polished wood and brass, and its large stateroom with a king-size bed, its open decks were said to have been a drawback, meaning that guests would have to go outside into the weather to go between the lounge and the dining salon. Ghastly!

The book Ford: The Man, The Times, The Company, by Allan Nevins described Sorenson as tall and Danish, handsome, energetic, and mentally keen. But he was also given to fits of "grim moodiness," and described as "iron-handed," with an "explosive temper." Then again I suppose that could describe anyone who was forced to tolerate (or who was able to tolerate) working with Henry Ford for an extended period of time. It might be going too far to say that Sorenson was hated amongst Ford workers, but he was certainly seen as something of a slave-driver, who had the ability to strike fear into the men—one of the very qualities that endeared him to Mr. Ford. He soon earned the nickname of "Cast-Iron Charlie."

Henry's son Edsel however despised Sorenson, for his tendency to scream at people or use threats to scare the workers into speeding up. When Edsel Ford took over the company presidency in 1919 he immediately canned Sorenson, but Henry went over his head and had Sorenson rehired (which was probably when everybody realized that Edsel had merely been installed as a puppet so his father could legally buy up a controlling majority of the company's stock).

Sorenson was one of Henry Ford's "lieutenants," meaning that he was often the taskmaster who carried out Mr. Ford's dirty work. Henry depended on his lieutenants but he also played them against one another to see which one would prove stronger or more loyal. William Knudsen was another prominent engineer of Danish descent who Henry hired to oversee production, though it was quickly evident to Knudsen that his job essentially duplicated Sorenson's. Henry no doubt did this so as to force the two men to compete out of a fear of looking inferior to the other in the eyes of their shrewd master.

Naturally the person who profited from this gladiatorial combat was Mr. Ford—he had the two best production engineers in the country working as hard as they could for him to prove their mettle. Knudsen allegedly finally went to Ford to complain and demand that he choose between Sorenson and himself, but Ford merely blew it off. Knudsen eventually resigned, and went on to become the president of General Motors.

By the time the Rouge Plant superseded the Highland Park Plant as the seat of Ford's empire, Sorenson was the unchallenged czar of everything that went on within that massive new industrial fortress, with only Harry Bennett—Ford's personal bodyguard—above him in power.

Sorenson became so synonymous with the way the Rouge operated that it was widely thought that he was one of the evil managers portrayed as prowling about the corners of the famous Diego Rivera mural that serves as the centerpiece of the Detroit Institute of Arts. The mural was considered so scandalous for the way it portrayed the evils of "Fordism" when it was unveiled in 1933 that it might have been destroyed, if not for Edsel stepping in to prevent his father from doing so (Henry was apparently under the impression that the mural would glorify Ford). The DIA later asserted that the portrayal was not of Sorenson, but more likely that of his lackey, the despised Mead L. Bricker.

Charles Sorenson was the commodore of the Detroit Yacht Club, and a member of the Grosse Pointe Yacht Club, as well as sailing clubs in Miami Beach and the Bahamas. The same year the Helene was built, the Sorensons built a house on Miami Beach where they spent Christmastime. Prior to 1923 they lived in an old farmhouse in what became Rouge Park, as I wrote about in another post. After Mr. Sorenson became more nautically inclined, he lived in the Detroit Towers on East Jefferson overlooking the Detroit River and Belle Isle, and also had property at Grayhaven Island, which I also explored in another post. Undoubtedly these were convenient residences, since he could probably dock at both.

The author of My Forty Years with Ford wrote that Henry Ford II recalled seeing Sorenson walking around the Ford Rouge plant in wintertime with his collar turned up against the cold because he had gotten used to the warm Florida weather. Miami Beach had actually been turned into quite the elite resort thanks to snowbird Detroit auto barons like Sorenson, Carl G. Fisher, and Ransom Olds.

Photo by Cavemonkey
By the time of Edsel's early death, Sorenson had become vice-president of Ford Motor, and was perhaps the only employee still left who had been there since the beginning. It was thought that Sorenson would step into the presidency, but Henry surprised everyone again by resuming the company presidency until his own death. Sorenson was instead railroaded out of the company shortly after, (allegedly) partly because Harry Bennett had it out for him, and (allegedly) partly because Clara Ford thought he would keep Henry Ford II from his rightful place as heir. Such was life in the ranks of the Ford Motor Company back then. In 1944 Sorenson resigned and moved to Miami Beach.

Jim Donnelly's article goes on to mention that Sorenson also briefly acted as president of Willys-Overland after leaving Ford, where he oversaw the creation of a civilian version of the Jeep for the post-war market. He died in 1968, having probably lived long enough to see that vehicle become almost as revolutionary as the Model-T had been.

A post on by a man claiming to be the grandson of Charles E. Sorensen indicates that there was indeed a second Helene built by the Bath Iron Works in Maine and launched in 1931, and that the first Helene was sold into the charter business. He said their family spent "many summer afternoons cruising the St. Clair River" near Algonac, where she was berthed behind their summer home.

When My Forty Years with Ford was written, this yacht was then owned by Shamrock Chartering Co. of Grosse Pointe, who used it for cruises as an excursion boat. Sorenson also owned a racing yacht named White Cloud, "which was well known in southern waters."

Helene's exterior woodwork was all teak, "salvaged from a U.S. Navy vessel" supposedly, and the structural members were of select grade Douglass fir. The Helene was powered by twin Detroit Diesels, producing a combined 1,050 horsepower. Sounds like Helene could boogie if she wanted to.

Another comment elsewhere online said that while in lay-up here Helene had once lost power and her bilge pumps died, causing her to sink at the dock. Reportedly her bow was damaged when they raised her again.

Up in the pilothouse, I was pleased to see that Helene had one of the classic style wooden helms, but photography was a bit tricky with the light coming in through the windows from the east:

One of the other posts on says that the owners were reportedly doing restoration work on Helene, hoping to be done in time to salvage some of the 2005 boating season. Since she is still sitting here a decade later in some state of disassembly tells me that not all has gone as planned.

Another person on said that he crewed aboard the Helene around 1978 when it was used as a private charter craft by the Verbiest family, and lived in the crew quarters on the boat for the summer. He said that the Helene got a lot of use back then, taking people on excursions sometimes six days per week.
The most memorable trip was when the family took her to Mackinaw Island, through the Soo Locks into Lake Superior, and under the big Mackinac Bridge just into Lake Michigan. I can't say all of the trip was smooth sailing. Crossing Saginaw Bay heading north had waves crashing over the bow, and I turned several shades of green. With some ribbing and advice from Capt. Bill Graham, I think I managed to keep breakfast where it belonged.

I should have gone below decks to see that large stateroom and other quarters that would have been down there, but my crewmate alerted me to the presence of authorities who were in the area. The sheriff's patrolboat had been buzzing around in the area and we were pretty sure he was trying to figure out where we had disappeared to.

Here is what looks to have been the lounge perhaps, in the forward-most compartment above deck...

...and once again balancing the light situation was tricky—especially when rushed due to the fact that the law was lurking near.

So that my craft's sudden disappearance would not seem overly suspicious, I jumped back aboard after shooting these few quick snaps, and we got underway again under the guise of harmless fishermen. There are also security personnel on land who patrol the area where Helene is moored (and probably cameras on the shipyard as well), so unfortunately unless you can bring the stealth like a Navy SEAL diver, this is about as good as it gets.

Photo by Cavemonkey
We decided to putter around to some other places of interest in the area. There is another sunken wreck near the Helene, an old railroad ferry named the Detroit, which you can see in this aerial view:

We apparently passed right by this wreck without my seeing it, though I believe my crewmate might have said he saw something.

We then continued on to Grassy Island where I saw this decrepit old marker listing dangerously, almost as if ready to tip over completely and fall off its little islet.

There is not much on Grassy Island itself, except perhaps the faintest traces of an old lighthouse that was there in the 1870s, but in any case I was having trouble even with my extraordinarily shallow-drafting boat to get close enough to it in order to make a landing, thanks to its being surrounded by a girdle of treacherous shoals.

This thing looked interesting though, so I moved in as close as I dared:

This was about as close as I could bring us, in light of the many rocks that were here.

Great Lakes Steel's Ecorse Works looked even more imposing from the water than it does from land:

I talk more about Great Lakes Steel in another post. On our way back to the launch we passed Zug Island, and saw this busted old pumphouse or whatever it is:

Since I've always wanted to be able to say I've been on Zug Island, we decided to pull over this time and investigate.

A good portion of it had collapsed.

This spot sits across the channel from where the old Detroit Sulphite Pulp & Paper Co. used to be.

Not much was inside.

Normally U.S. Steel's corporate security thugs will try to accost you for photographing their mill from land, under the cockamamie pretense that it is prohibited by "Homeland Security," but they were going to need some water wings if they were going to harass me today:

My 14-foot boat next to the 1,004-foot ore carrier, Edwin H. Gott...which was not underway at the time, otherwise I would never have dared get this close:

Love that river in the summertime.

As an extra special bonus, here is a photo of a nifty little artifact that can be found in the Burton Collection of the Detroit Public Library. As the story goes, it was allegedly given to Mr. Sorenson by Joseph Stalin as a thank-you gift in exchange for Sorenson doing such a good job helping Russia get an auto industry set up in that country on behalf of Ford:

The chest was eventually donated to the library by Mrs. Sorenson.

My Forty Years with Ford, by Charles E. Sorensen & Samuel T. Williams
American Odyssey, A History of A Great City, by Robert Conot, p. 203, 206
Ford: The Man, The Times, The Company, by Allan Nevins, p. 267
The Secret Life of Henry Ford, by John Cote Dahlinger, p. 133-135
Michigan, A History of the Wolverine State, Third  Rev. Ed., by Willis F. Dunbar & George S. May, p. 432, 533-535


  1. The sunken railroad ferry is the HURON, built in 1875. The DETROIT was stored south of there, but was scrapped in LaSalle Ontario a few years ago.

  2. You do get some interesting finds, Mr. Nailhed, and 'Cast-Iron' Charlie's yacht is another! My favorite story about 'Cast-Iron' Charlie is about the time he thought he'd teach a worker a lesson. Sorensen spotted a worker seated on a nail keg while splicing some wires. Sorensen kick the keg out from under the worker, who leapt up and floored Sorensen in retailiation. Sorensen yelled, "You're Fired!" The worker responded, "The hell I am! I work for the telephone company!" I sense a little joy in everyone who told that story!
    Although there was certainly friction between Sorensen and Edsel, Charlie called Edsel his 'Ford's Greatest Failure', the last chapter in his book.

  3. My father was Captain of the Helene for a year while it was owned by the Verbiest family. I was in high school and crewed that summer, 1966. At that time the Helene was berthed at the St Clair Yacht Club at the end of one of the piers. She was a beautiful boat at that time. The power was the twin Detroit Dsls hooked to input into a single transmission. According to me Dad it had been repowered after WW2 with this set up which he said had been originally a tank power system. Life boats at that time were a 16 and a 13 foot Boston whalers with Johnson power. Also recently had been upgraded with radar system. Verbiest would use it to entertain clients from his insurance business. On weekends it was all about family..
    Didn't get paid much but the benefits were Top shelf. Sad to see the old gal in such a state.

  4. 1000 horsepower in this thing. It must have pulled 20 knots I would think or maybe more.

  5. I crewed on the Helene during one summer in 1971. Please contact me if you know what happened to any of the crew and especially Captain Bill Graham

    1. I crewed on the Helene as a deck hand during the 1964 & 1965 seasons, and again as mate in 1969 & 1970. The captain's name was Karvonen(sp?). Bill Graham was then Skipper of the neighboring yacht Seven Seas. She was a great little ship (though I don't believe she ever made 20 knots, she was fast enough for her size.

    2. Bill Graham is doing well, I see him often. We've been "neighbors" at a certain marina on the nautical mile for several years now.

  6. Not too many years back, I attended an estate sale at Billy Graham's house on Harbor Island in Detroit. I purchased a " WATCH PARTS " piece of art that was made for Captain Billy. This was a fairly good resemblance of the Helene. Also purchased was a full color picture of the Helene, fully decked out as a flagship, along with some T-shirts of the crew. The artwork is maybe 30" long and framed under glass. I will be posting a picture of this piece soon.

  7. As a "River Rat" in the '70s and '80s, I recall seeing Helene moored at Sinbad's marina or Kean's many times.


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