Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Search for Secrets of A Sunken Cannon - 80

Bob Alcumbrack in his search for the lost Cannonsburg cannon was right when he told his crew that none of the seven young men firing it had any artillery training. The possibility existed that the men never saw the original tools and town elders were negligent for not replacing them. It should have gone missing earlier.

The men were 17-41 years old and they weren't teenagers just fooling around as a dentist in the Cannonsburg area suggests. He uses Walter Tompsett's death as an excuse to peddle his Cannon coin treasure hunt in the first decade of the 21st century. It was disrespectful to dishonor the real memory of Tompsett by saying 'the seven men were just teenagers goofing off with a loaded cannon and they got hurt.' This wasn't a fictional story. It was real living and dying history in 1885.

These young men couldn't wait for their turn to fire the ancient cannon like their fathers and grandfathers who fought in wars and who had the regimental artillery training. You could say that without training it was inevitable that someone would be injured or killed in the distant future. Strict attention to details wasn't followed. This is what town elders feared and the tragedy came to pass sooner than expected because they couldn't bury it and stop talking.

Federal government statistics released in 1893 reported that between 1874-1884 more than 247 men were killed by prematurely discharging old iron cannons and more than 1000 men were severely injured, burned or maimed for life by accidental cannong discharges. Town elders always kept in the back of their minds how Albert Pickett, friend and Justice of the Peace in Rockford was severely injured when the town cannon burst prematurely on July 4th, 1884. The accident made them fearful and they dreaded what might happen in their village. It could happen tomorrow!

Too many accidental deaths by old post Civil War cannons came too close to home and they rightfully believed their ancient cannon needed to disappear, but they waited too long to address the problem. The cannon belonged to everyone and not just town elders. They only accepted partial responsibility for the cannon's demise and probably thought that if they buried it they could retrieve it after the Fourth and decide later what to do with the ancient historical cannon. Failure to bury it secretly resulted in death. They shouldered the biggest blame for not keeping the disposal site secret and the sons and grandsons made it their business not to be denied their rights to fire the ancient cannon on the Fourth of July.

Newspaper accounts after each cannon accident reported that surviving family members were suing town governments for wrongful death were increasing and getting more costly. Liability insurance premiums were skyrocketing beyond the means of town and village officials to pay and because of this the Federal government was encouraging all to get rid of them. Those who planned to keep on firing them were told to get liability and disability insurance before celebrations commenced. All those who intended to fire the cannons were to sign liability waivers or don't participate in cannon firings.

Today its sign the liability waiver or don't fire cannons or Class "B" fireworks with flares or torches at arm's length. Electric and electronic firing of fireworks using squibbs takes all the fun out of lighting fireworks. All are dangerous ways to touch off fireworks, but the ancient way is the best and I've still got all my fingers, hands, arms and body parts with the exception of melted hair after thirty-five years. I'm a pyrotechnician, but after 911 the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives licensing center refers to us as Explosive Possessers. We must pass strict background criminal checks. ATF and FBI inspection officials cringe when they watch us load shells or dissect live shells to find out why they didn't explode. If afraid don't watch or handle explosives. Signing on the dotted lines protect firework makers from liability issues. Since then approximately 55,ooo are registered and licensed for dark and dangerous pursuits of "Ooo's and Ahh's" at colorful and thunderous firework shows at Freedom Festivals and other celebrations of life. Oops, at least you now know where the issue of liability insurance originated. Old cannons.

Whether it was James, John or Fred Thomas that put the small cannonballs in the floor for safe keeping or mementos of happier times doesn't matter. They provided Bob Alcumbrack and his crew proof positive of the ancient cannon's existence. It helped narrow our search for the real Cannonsburg cannon and Bob fine tuned his dowsing skills since the size gave us an approximate age and style of cannon. James Thomas' secret cannonballs had been hidden for more than 102 years and were found in 1987 by Bob's destiny. Before we finished digging the second excavation hole the piece had shrunk from 108 inches long to 44-65 inches long prior to 1643, but up to 72" inches long for special ceremonial bronze cannons made in the 1700's.

The Cannonburg cannon was called an "ancient cannon" in 1848 by the dockworkers who transported it around the rapids in Grand Rapids, Michigan to the steamboat Hummingbird that was cut in two pieces and then slipped back into the Grand River above the Sixth Street dam. The men couldn't fathom why Cannon Township officials would so willingly accept such an antiquated weapon. Someone firing it might get injured of killed.

James Thomas' and Bob Alcumbrack's cannonballs were not the smallest at 1.87 inches in diameter that weighed 1.41 pounds to be cast. These were fired from a 2 pound cannon with a 2.01 inch bore. The one and a half pound cannon and one-half pound cannons were pea shooters, but they could do immense damage when fired with glass, broken pottery, nails, etc., but it was the 1.87 inch diameter cannonball fired from a 2 pound cannon. Cannonball diameters were usually thirteen to twenty-three hundreths of an inch smaller than bore size. This is done so that when cannonballs are fired out they don't get stuck inside irregular or core cast iron cannons, get lodged causing the muzzle to explode upward inside the cannon muzzle.

Civil War iron cannons killed more artillerymen than bronze cannons, but iron cannons were prone to prematurely discharging because of heat and metal fatigue. After one shot iron metal temperatures rise to 575 degrees F., the barrel too hot to touch, while a stick of butter on bronze metal wouldn't melt. The bronze barrel was cool to the touch. Another secret we kept silent on was that cannons were core-cast until 1713 when John Fuller of Sussex, England, began using a new invention called a 'boring wheel' invented by Maritz, a Swiss inventor, who revolutionized the way a cannon was bored after being cast.

His new bore wheel drill used water wheel power to parallel drill cores straight and smooth, not rough and irregular. Thomas' cannonballs didn't look fired, but two experts checked the balls and didn't agree whether fired or unfired. Both appeared to be smooth, but all had a strange circular pattern and they couldn't assure they were or weren't fired. It had the configurations of being fired, but showed no pitting or striations one might expect to find. It had the ghost image as being fired, but the evidence seen wasn't conclusive and we weren't 100% positive either was or wasn't it fired before of after 1713. It would have made early identification of the Cannonsburg cannon easier to find.

When cannonballs are fired, the heat shock elongates a lead ball as it leave the cannon muzzle, but sometimes the balls elongation is more pronounced the longer the distance of rifling. Iron balls don't change shape when fired and don't melt like lead, but they do show grooves or long straight striations before 1713. Circular and gouged striations indicate before 1713. The balls showed a strange circular apostrophe like spots without indentations and it was premature to date the cannon. It was the balls diameter that fixed the cannon date as being prior to 1643.

Cannonballs fired after 1713 made straight-line striations, but since the balls diameter predated 1643 it could only be fired from a 2-pound bronze cannon with a 2.01 inch bore. These were either Falcons or Falconets and each weighed approximately 800 pounds and most were 44-64 inches long. These cannons were only made between the late 1500's to 1643, because after the later date the bore sizes of these cannons changed to 2.25 inches. It take too much wadding to surround the ball. Often times waddings were oily ropes and this explain how gunpowder charges nest in cannons can remain live firing in bottom shipwrecks or buried soil for upwards of 500 years. The lost colony cannon was live for about 375 years off the coast of Virginia when dragged from the bottom in a commercial fishing net. If you find a cannon consider it live and dial 911 for an emergency. Don't try to unearth the old weapon, because it might explode with the slighest jostling or spark.

The Cannonsburg cannonballs indicated it was fired from an English or French cannon called a 'Falconet or Fawconnett'. All were specialty cannons with ornate carriages made in the presence of heads of state (kings, queens, princes and princesses). The value of finding any of these on American soil is remote or rare and the cannons value increases dramatically due to the amount of engravings, cannonballs, brass plaques and documented carriage architecture. Any or all of these attributed to the cannon could triple treasure values and up until the perceived Lost Colony cannon was found none had been found on American soil. Fact of the matter is that these cannons are quite rare finds anywhere in the world only because they were made prior to 1643 and few afterwards.

We kept silent about the Cannonsburg cannons perceived heritage (date) because its value was more than 1.5 million dollars to collectors. We couldn't chance tipping off other cannon hunters to such a high valued historical treasure. That 1.5 million is a booty reward to other treasure hunters, but to Bob it was worthless. We knew we weren't the only crew hoping to find the cannon in 1986. Bob and crew didn't want to tip off someone else to steal our thunder from under our noses.

Bob was digging enough holes in Cannonsburg. Probably more than all the meteorites that have struck Michigan in over a thousand years. We couldn't chance duplicate digging where others had already dug. Our secret was we wouldn't jeopardize the cannon if information got out just how rare the cannon or an ornate carriage was, because it no longer was a local dig, but state, national and international treasure expedition. Bob tried to keep his first big dig secret, but secrets of such magnitude were tipped off to news medias like CNN that turned Bob's quest into a state and national historical cannon hunt. Our expedition was being pitted against the search for secrets of Texas' Twin Sisters expedition.

Our mission was to keep the Cannonsburg cannon's rarity secret. We simply shunned other would be cannon hunters and we didn't want other groups descending on Cannonsburg like summer flies on flattened road kill. Many community residents didn't like it when weird strangers with fancy metal detectors asked permission to explore private property. This in no way means Bob didn't find the cannon.

The smaller size cannon is why it took five men and a few horses to drag the cannon on the squeaking ornate carriage past Estella Ward's parent home and return in an hour or less. She saw them pass, but she could have been wrong how long they were gone. They couldn't have dug in a watery grave and buried the 800 pound cannon with carriage in such a short time span. They hid the cannon fast before folks arrived that morning for church and made preparations for Tompsett's funeral. Cannonsburg became the ultimate secret society July 5, 1885. It was a silent community four years and the depression of the people was so severe it forced the town's only physician to flee for his sanity.

Sitting at the restaurant table in the Honey Creek Inn for evening meals we would always discuss what the men did with the brass plaque on the carriage. Was the cannon dismounted , smashed, broken, buried or recycled or did they burn the carriage and plaque? They couldn't burn the carriage if made of metal - remember it was ornate, but most carriages were standard, with the exception of a few finely engraved wood ones. We felt they didn't burn it because the fire and smoke seen would attract attention from an early morning rising farmer. Next time I'll discuss the Birds of Prey 1643.

No comments:

Post a Comment