Monday, February 15, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 23

The first cannon burial by the Cannon town elders was a dreadful mistake that ultimately was responsible for the death of Walter Tompsett. Town elders William S. Johnson, Frank Ladner, Cornelius Harvey and James Thomas met in the wee hours before sunrise and hitched up several horses and dragged the old Cannonsburg cannon from storage and preceded to bury it in a not to distant secret location. Someone had overheard or saw the township elders whisk the cannon away and bury it beside a glacial stream not far from Cannonsburg. As senior elders it took longer dig a shallow hole alongside of the stream under a hot blazing July sun. The salty sweat poured off their foreheads into their eyes, while they took turns resting, swatting deer flies and mosquitos. After the cannon was buried they returned to town thinking they had stopped the first cannon casualty and would relax on the Fourth of July.

Hindsight from 101 years into the future (1986) I couldn't help but wonder why the officials decided to bury the cannon instead of smashing, destroying or recycling the old weapon? Could it be they felt since the cannon was an honorable gift given by the township's namesake it wasn't their right to destroy it? Surely they could have just disabled the vent or poured molten iron into the chamber plugging the bore. Actually they had hoped to preserve the cannon by burying it getting it safely someplace else before something happened and it premature burst like the Federal government was warning. Burying it they felt was the most logical choice and it would be out of site for the holiday festivities. They could have done many things to the old cannon, but they didn't want to accept the responsibility or liability should someone find or fire a sabotaged cannon. They had hoped the burial spot could be kept secret, but alas, they made the mistake of burying it too close to town and wagging their tongues and the result was that several young men weren't going to be denied the right to fire the old cannon. For too long they had watched their fathers have fun firing the cannon for 38 years and they weren't going to be denied firing it again.

Still Bob Alcumbrack didn't have answers to questions and this haunted his dreams both day and night. I was as perplexed as the cannon digging crew. Bob had concentrated so hard on what the oldest residents told him about the cannon - the awesome blast when it barked and how the blast echoed up and down valleys. Bob only investigated hearsay town folk, but he never investigated all the township officials and men that fired the cannon between 1848-1885. Bob believed that the first burial spot was the last burial spot for the cannon. Since the five men were gone only a short time they couldn't have gone very far so it must be buried in the same hole. Because Bob hadn't put found the answers to early questions Maggie McCarthy was sure he was chasing a "ghost cannon." What he did know was that the cannon was pre-Civil War manufactured, but what he didn't know was how old and his mind plus the newspaper article and history book sentences, well his mind said it had to be a small military cannon - a six-pounder. That was the smallest in the U.S. Army of the time period.

The biggest reason township elders buried the cannon is because it still gave them a sense of community pride and geographical importance. They had scruples and heeded the governments warnings, but felt it wasn't their sole responsibility to destroy the cannon. They just wanted it out of sight for safety until after the Fourth of July so they could dig it back up and formally decide its fate, which more than likely was recycling it into hitching posts, signs or other products.

Recycling useless objects was a concept whose roots sprang from English history more than 300 years ago and not just the 20th and 21st century versions of American environmental correctness. Early cannon makers invented the environmental concept of saving this planet called Earth. When the English were short on cannonballs and cannons they captured these guns were recycled into larger cannons. During that time the Brits lacked copper and tin to produce brass cannons. During war periods British peasants stripped the rooftops of lead shingles and smelted them down for cannonball production and recyled decripit cannons into more modern cannons. The art of English recycling was a lucatrive business, because nearly every king or queen was engaged in war and His Majesty's or Her Majesty's precious artillery was either being seized in lost combat or vessels sunk at sea. American's didn't even know the word "recycle." We just tossed everything into bottomless kettle ponds, bogs, cisterns and honey holes.

Bob had reason to believe the cannon was made of bronze, but what he didn't know the age of the old cannon. It was an ancient bronze cannon and it was no where near a six-pound military field cannon. Some in Cannon Township at the time Bob was digging thought he was on a fool's errand and that the cannon's legend was a hoax. Some business owners use the legend about the cannon as ways to promote business sponsored treasure hunts today. A dentist in the Bella Vista area has gone to great lengths to discredit tragedy of Walter Tompsett and has gone so far to say that the only reason someone got hurt is because some teenagers got careless and two Rockford newspapers last summer validated this claim and newspaper editors fell in with this faulty attitude of political incorrectness. Poppycock!

On July 4th 1885 seven young men aged 25-41 years old gathered together and hitched up some plough horses. They mounted a search party for the missing cannon that was buried 18 hours earlier. In morning twilight they found the cannon's grave beside the small stream. It was so easy an child could find the burial spot. Disturbed soil and discolored soil gave away its secret spot. The young men wrestled it from the hole, cleaned off the soil, mud, grass and decaying vegetative matter. Grinning from ear to ear they dragged it jokingly back through town to the dismay of township elders and repositioned it atop the hill near the old-two story Cannonsburg School and fired off a celebratory shot. The thunderous noise echoed up and down the valleys announcing that festivities would soon begin in earnest around 11:00 a.m.. Townskeepers said the cannon let out an "awesome blast" each time it belched fire and smoke. Shopkeeper windows rattled with each blast.

Mr. John Murray, was one of the five original cannon firing men and whenever Bob quizzed him about how awesome the blast was he always said the vibrations rattled windows for miles If that were true Bob surmised the cannon had to be spaded to the ground to keep it from recoiling or flipping over, but Bob could never get Murray to comment on the carriage architecture. Bob always said, "Murray's eyes misted or glassed over whenever he tried to get Murray to talk about the cannon accident. He was keeping the visual image of the accident and cannon description secret. He took that secret to his grave.

Other eyewitness accounts of the cannon's firepower said the cannon was tethered to the ground and its wheels were partially buried and blocked preventing recoil or flipping when fired. If the cannon were pre-Civil War it might of had recoil springs off the carriage axle leading to the trail spade. When fired the spade digs into the ground, the spring absorbs the recoil. On ancient cannons the spade was absent. Nobody ever told Bob if the cannon did or didn't have a spade. The carriage trail on an ancient cannon is very heavy, made of oak or iron, and up to twice the length of the cannon that's balanced on the axle. Knowing the length of the trail foretells the size of cannon and poundage. A six-pound cannon's carriage axle was six feet wide from wheel to wheel and the cannon was mounted in the center of a heavy carriage. This was precisely the measurements Bob witched above the coffer box indicating this massive cannon was at the bottom of his big dig site. If true it 'd weigh about 3,865 pounds. Bob's readings said 'the cannon was resting upside down, which meant he'd encounter woody debris in bilge water and concieveably tear apart the cannon carriage to recover the piece, but he might miss the brass plaque. His mind envisioned the entire cannon and carriage to be about 11 feet long and that was the reason for the cannon's awesome blast. He assumed that's why it took seven young men to dig up the cannon, but what I couldn't understand is how could four elder men bury such a large cannon the day before. Nobody that Bob ever interviewed gave any cannon dimensions. Never did the men reveal a physical description of carriage or cannon. This was an ultimate secret.

What Bob did know was that it took seven men to dig up the cannon, wrestle it from the burial spot and return it to its hilltop location. The group was comprised of Jake Eaton, Truman Hutchins, George Inwood, John Murray, Henry Schoomaker, Fred Thomas and Walter Tompsett. These young men had watched their father fire the ancient cannon and they were going to defy the town elders and didn't want to be robbed of their heritage of firing a peacetime celebratory cannon. Bob, when digging never knew who found the first burial site nor did he care. He was obsessed with the cannon.

The most probable suspect was Fred Thomas, since his grandfather was James Thomas, the highway commissioner and one of the men who buried the cannon. Fred led his friends to the exact burial site. I believed this to be true, yet it is circumstancial evidence. I couldn't find solid proof, but he is the second man of the original seven who didn't help his five friends rebury the cannon. I believe he was injured or in shock. Only Thomas was kin and the proof of his involvement in finding the cannon comes later when 'walls talk' that lead Bob and crew to the true identity of the cannon.

The cannon was ready for firing by mid-morning. The first celebratory shot woke up the Saturday morning folks from a sound sleep. The cannon's first salute announced Independence Day celebrations at the picnic site. Township elders shuddered and winched when the awesome cannon roared. They were shocked that someone had found the cannon's burial spot and were immediately saddened by the sight of seven young men firing it who had no formal artillery training. It is time to stop for tonight. The next segment describes the tragedy.

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