Saturday, December 26, 2009

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 5

Egads! I've been snooping in too many old moldy memoirs. My brain was overcome by the fumes. I've become so stuffy from sniffing musty odors as to turn off my readers before I've even gotten through the introduction. This is not my intention and I'll do better as the fascinating story of Bob Alcumbrack's journey into treasure, err, cannon hunting unfolds.

The main story reiterates why it is in a treasure hunters best interest to keep mouths shut when challenging bright thinkers. Why just this morning I was reading my new "Armchair" reader called "The Amazing Book of History" and happened to read that something about bright thinkers. Bob was a bright thinker who challenged this historian's brain to think beyond the accepted facts of wiser men. Bob's mission to find the cannon wasn't simple, in fact, the plan for cannon resurrection was flawed with too many things that went wrong, which didn't have a difinitve quick fix. This story repeats itself often, but each time it does the picture of what happened gets clearer. The passage of time has a way of changing outcomes. Years of research changes our vision. Your going to feel like Bill Murray, the obnoxious weather guy in "Ground Hogs Day" who relives each day until he gets what's wrong right and eventually overcomes life's problems. Each day changes for the better or worse before final changes.

Speaking of wrong - why I heard that the latest Star Trek movie had 287 set mistakes, mostly in clothing attire. Clothing didn't match color to color, insignias on clothing disappeared when the character turned around only to reappear in the next scene. Even hair color, skin tone and hair styles and set scenes were different from scene to scene only seconds apart. Just shows what the litany of set changes and speaking parts can do in any movie when attention to detail isn't paramount. This shows the lack of coordination in set skills amongst directors. The simplest details get lost on budget overruns. We all face problems so let's return to Search for A Sunken Cannon.

Problems started the day a young physician stepped off the Grand Rapids and Newaygo RR's northbound train through Kent City, Michigan, in July 1885. It was hot and dry. Dust clouds rose from passing horses. The green tenderfoot doctor just out of medical school departed the passenger car and stood outside the freight car. The conductor handed him each bag and he set them down carefully. He walked up and transferred them onto the trolley dock car for safekeeping until he turned from exploring the town.

"Toot, toot-T" the train locomotive's whistle sounded, the wheels chugged, the train leaving on its northward journey. His foot stepped from the shipping dock down to the dusty street. He'd be back shortly to collect his medical supplies, but he hadn't gone more than a hundred feet when he saw the shingle above a door on Main Street. The small town already had a doctor and he realized the town couldn't support two doctors.

Sad he returned to the train depot and sat on the bench in the shade. He found a copy of a Grand Rapids newspaper under the shipping deck bench. In hand and reading he suddenly found himself reading the sad and tragic story about Walter Tompsett's death in Cannonsburg. This was the town that could have used a physician and surgeon so he waited for a southbound train, and departed at Comstock Park. In his personal diary he wrote "I could have saved the young man."

He checked at the livery stable, but alas, he didn't have enough money to rent let alone buy a horse and buggy. He couldn't go on to Cannonsburg. Instead he had to work, save his money and then buy them when he could. It was September before he had enough money to buy a horse and buggy and ferry his medical equipment to Cannonsburg. Like many people nothing went smoothly and in fact when he got to Cannonsburg he arrived in a town that was locked in deep depression. When meeting someone nobody spoke to each other, no smile or handshake and not even a simple "hello." People refused to speak after he tried to introduce himself. They were emotionless. How would you engage in small talk if none answered?

Cannonsburg wasn't the only town where a cannon accident cast of silence fell over the town. Grand Haven officials suffered, too. One of their men helping fire a celebratory cannon was killed, too. Each accident cast a pall of silence over other Michigan communities struggling with pride of cannon ownership. Prematurely discharging of old iron cannons cast after the Civil War was responsible for killing hundreds of men at Fourth of July celebrations. The weapons killed, maimed and injured the young and old without respect of experience. Most didn't have artillery training and too many fine men were dying needlessly. The death rates were taxing township and village officials and when someone died during peacetime exercises officials risked being sued for wrongful death. Federal officials told local and state governments it was time to get rid of old post war cannons.

The two accidents caused many local governments to shudder in their tracks. Cannon liability was something officials had to address, but it was prohibitively expensive and many couldn't afford it so they opted to replace cannon firings with fireworks. Firework liability insurance wasn't cheap then or as today. The firework company I work for in July pays each pyrotechnics $5 million dollar insurance policy. This wasn't cheap and deaths are inevitable, still it gave small government officials a way of disposing cannons and replacing with fireworks. Destroy or recycle, but never bury or sink cannons, because they could be resurrected and used again. Most officials knew they didn't want to witness a tragedy like Tompsett's in their own communities. Most old cannons were either smashed to oblivion or recycled into other post consumer products.

In 1884 nearly 250 men were killed by prematurely discharging old cannons, some from the American Revolutionary War, War of 1812 and Civil War days. Accidents were rising to epidemic proportions since 1870 and Cannonsburg city fathers remembered what happened in 1884 in Rockford, but even experienced artillerymen from the Civil War suffered injury. Marshal Alfred Pickett and friend H.D. Lovelace were seriously injured when the town's cannon prematurely discharged. They got reckless loading the cannon and didn't adhere to practicing safe firing point procedures. They were so excited they showed extreme lack of judgment.

Cannon Township officials were adamant they had to get rid of their ancient weapon so the day before the Fourth 1885, they hurriedly buried the cannon, but failed to keep its location secret and several young men overheard a conversation and knew where to find it. They rushed to the secret burial spot, dug it up, cleaned and moved it to the picnic grounds high above Cannonsburg and fired off a shot announcing grand celebrations the next day. It disheartened those who buried it for they feared it was only a matter of time before a tragic accident visited their community. At the picnic they fired off a shot. After celebratory speeches and after lunch was over the cannon's roar echoed up distant valleys.

Boom, boom, BOOM! The firing getting faster until "BOOM" and when the noise stopped a young Tompsett laid on the ground, his knee, tissue and bones blown across the grass, blood staining the ground, the young man screaming, writhing on the ground holding his leg. He was nesting the powder and the ramrod struck his knee. The knee was totally obliterated, the lower leg dangling by a piece of skin. It was a sad ending to a day of joyous celebration.

Within 12 hours Walter Tompsett was dead. He bled to death before physicians and surgeons could arrive. He was consoled by his wife Rena and the Rev. Dr. who prayed for his soul. Upon his death the cannon was spirited out of town cross country -- not by road travel, but five men who disappeared up Joyce Street and returned minus the cannon an hour later. For 101 years nobody in Cannonsburg slipped a tongue where or what happened to the cannon. This is what Bob Alcumbrack had searched for all those years. He couldn't fathom why they just didn't smash or render the cannon useless by plugging the vent or barrel. He thought they reburied the cannon, but where?

Can you imagine the scene in the white space between the black print? It was a horrible scene of carnage. Tompsett screamed in agony, his blood spurting out from severed arteries and veins. Muscle tissue was shredded, scorched and burned. The joyous community picnic screeched to a halt as city fathers raced down the hill yelling "We knew it, we knew it'd happen. Why didn't you let it stay buried!" But alas, they were more responsible for the accident because they buried it first and didn't keep silent, but talked to someone else, the young men straining their ears to here where it was buried. Hindsight from the future would ask "Why didn't the officials object to firing the cannon? Why didn't they stop the young men? Why didn't someone plug the vent hole with a nail? Where were the lawmen?"

The questions are endless, but the township officials were most at fault. But wait - someone else was burned by the blast, too, but that wasn't revealed until years after the tragic accident. Seven men were firing the cannon, but only five spirited the cannon out Cannonsburg. All this fueled Bob Alcumbrack's wildest dream for 50+ years.

Cannonsburg people in attendance of that tragic accident and picnic out of respect for Tompsett, became the ultimate secret society. The folks never said anything ever again about the missing cannon. It's as if the cannon disappeared from earth. No neighborhood news from "Flash" came to any newspapers about the Fourth of July picnic, except the accident news, and even a year afterward no news relating to the accident was published. Not one peep was ever spoken about the cannon for over 100 years -- it was if it didn't exist. This is why skeptics doubt the cannon's existence.

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