Cannons in 1846 wreck spent 162 years under Oregon beach

2014 discovery of Cannons Excites Town of Cannon  Beach

The two half-ton cannons found on the Oregon coast have returned after a six-year restoration at the Center for Marine Archeology and Conservation at Texas A & M university. They were finally put on display at the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria on May 24—and their secrets revealed to the public. Remarkably, one of them bears markings showing it was cast at the London foundry of Wiggin & Graham in 1807, fired an 18 pound cannon ball, and weighed 10-0-4 (10 hundredweight, 0 stone, 4 pounds) or about half a ton.

All the evidence points to the guns being from the American naval vessel USS Shark, an 86′ fast topsail schooner wrecked at the notorious mouth of the Columbia River on September 10, 1846. All the crew of 70 survived and were able to row ashore at low tide. While the crew began building shelters, a section of the ship’s deck broke away from the wreck and drifted south. It washed ashore 30 miles south near Arch Cape, where one of the seamen found it in the breakers with three cannons and a windlass still attached. However, the wreckage quickly disappeared under the shifting sands.

The crew camped at the remote settlement of Astoria for the next three months until a Hudson Bay ship could be chartered to take them back to the east coast. The wreck was forgotten until 1898, when one of the cannons was recovered from the beach, and the resort town that grew up nearby was later re-named Cannon Beach. Another 110 years passed before the guns re-appeared in February 2008, after powerful winter storms had eroded the Arch Cape beach.

Miranda Petrone, a 12-year-old from the Portland area, was walking on a beach with her father Michael; the tide was out and they were exploring the “ghost forests”-the remains of ancient trees drowned by the encroaching sea centuries ago– exposed for the first time in 50 years. Amongst the tangle of roots and stumps, she noticed a rocky mass with a patch of rust. Looking closer, the two beachcombers realized this was something man-made, covered with a thick crust of hardened sand, pebbles and shells.

They dug around the object with their hands then walked back to their beach house and called the nearest state park campground to report the find. They reached a park ranger who appreciated the potential significance of their discovery and within hours, state officials were on the scene. Plans were made to excavate the object the next day before the shifting sand re-claimed it. Incredibly, as a crowd gathered to watch, another visitor, Sharisse Repp, looked seaward and spotted something unusual that proved to be the second cannon. The local police made sure nothing was disturbed overnight.

The next day, a team from Oregon State Parks dug under the objects so a back hoe could hoist them out of the sand and carry them back to a safe location. It was only then that the Petrones and everyone else could see the outline of the cannons’ shape and the heavy wooden mounts they sat on. The guns spent the next year in tanks of brine in the Nehalem Bay state park. They were identified as carronades—close-range weapons favored for small warships that were about a quarter the size and weight of long-range cannons.

In 2009, when an agreement was reached with Texas A & M University, the cannons were trucked to Texas still in their tanks and began a full conservation that lasted several years. Once the hardened sand and rock were carefully chipped away, the cannons were sent to an electronic reduction vat for nine months to pull out the chlorides that leached into the metal from the salt. That was followed by more baths to prevent any further corrosion.

Five years later in May 2014, they were both returned to the Columbia River Maritime Museum in Astoria in amazingly good condition, considering they had been underwater for so long. “We’re honored, and very excited,” said Dave Pearson, deputy director of the museum. ” This is at the dawn of the Oregon territory. These artifacts never before displayed are a key component of Astoria’s history.” The guns sit on new wooden carriages in a climate-controlled cases. The new exhibit also features an officer’s sword found in the 1970s and Shark rock, a large boulder into which survivors of the shipwreck carved their name.

POLITICAL BACKGROUND

The Shark’s visit was intended to show the US flag in the Oregon Country, which was jointly administered by the US and Great Britain. The crew had sailed 100 miles upriver to Fort Vancouver, run by the Hudson Bay Company where they found HMS Modeste–a British 120′ sloop of war launched at Woolwich Dockyard in 1837, which bristled with eighteen powerful guns.

However, the British officers were intent on maintaining good relations with the American pioneers, organizing excursions, balls, picnics, and horse races. They performed almost a dozen plays, the first recorded in the Pacific Northwest, which were the most popular of these entertainments. Local American women were enlisted to perform the female roles in works by Henry Fielding and other playwrights popular in London.

In late October, the shipwrecked crew of the Shark learned that the boundary dispute had already been settled at the forty-ninth parallel in the Oregon Treaty, signed on June 15. By 1860, the Hudson’s Bay Company had abandoned Fort Vancouver and moved its operations across the border into Canada.

Contact for P.Marsh seatosummitpm@gmail.com

 

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