To us its so much more than just a maritime story, said Dave Pearson, deputy director of the Columbia River Maritime Museum. This was the dawn of the Oregon territory. This is something that I think has a bigger story to tell.
After five years of painstaking restoration work, two cannons from a 19th century American ship that surveyed the region are now ready to be displayed at the museum.
Museum staff used a forklift recently to hoist the 1,300-pound iron cannons and carefully place them in replica wooden carriages and original mounting pieces.
Although the ship was broken apart on the Columbia River bar 168 years ago, the cannons still technically belong to the U.S. Navy. The museum partnered with the Navy and the state of Oregon to restore and display them.
The two cannons, known more specifically as carronades, were discovered in 2008 during Presidents Day weekend. Mike Petrone of Tualatin and his daughter Miranda, who was 12 years old at the time, discovered the first cannon while walking along the beach in Arch Cape. Two days later the second one was found by Sharisse Repp of Tualatin.
Staff with the Nehalem Bay State Park and others had to use a backhoe for the first cannon and dig trenches alongside it before pulling it out. Both were displayed in tubs at the park as officials tried to determine their origin.
When they were first extracted, many thought the cannons could be from the USS Shark, a schooner that navigated the Columbia River in 1846. After closer examination, it turned out to be true.
The ship was deployed to settle territorial disputes with the British along the river, but was never used in combat. When the crew tried to cross the Columbia River bar to leave, the ship was ripped apart on a sandbar near Fort Stevens State Park. A chunk of the ship was sucked out into the ocean and drifted south along the coast. The first cannon from the ship was found in 1898 and gave Cannon Beach its name.
Survivors of the shipwreck made it to Astoria and set up cabins while they waited for two months for passage to San Francisco. On a stone slab, which was placed in the museum in 1965, survivors carved Here the Shark was lost. September 10, 1846.
Carronades were short-range naval weapons and commonly used in the early 19th century. Jeff Smith, CRMM curator, said the British navy used them for close combat naval battles with France during the Napoleonic wars. During the War of 1812, the British were outmatched by American ships with longer-range cannons.
The carronades that were dug up in Arch Cape were among 12 total cannons on board the Shark, which was built in a Washington, D.C., shipyard in 1821. Because of a makers mark on the bottom, officials were able to determine that one was American-made and the other was made in Great Britain.
The cannons have been at the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University since April 2009. The process of restoring them has been laborious. A thick layer of sand and rock that had formed around the cannons had to be delicately chipped away.
Experts found pieces of wood, leather and rope inside. They were all soaked in their own separate chemical bath.
Smith said they had to slowly change the chemistry to reduce the chloride-level that accumulated from so many years of saltwater exposure.
The iron pieces were even given a jolt of electric current to remove buildup. It allowed the rust to turn back into iron. That was the stabilization process and that took years, Smith said. Each object underwent its own particular chemistry and treatment.
The iron rings and guards that were part of the original mounting were too unstable to be used in the display, but will be in a separate case for visitors to view.
The museum already has other artifacts from the Shark, including an officers sword that washed up. Pearson said the cannons help complete the story of the naval ship and are a reminder of the dangers crews faced when crossing the river bar.
The cannons will be in climate-controlled cases to keep down the relative humidity. Thats part of their care to keep them from rusting and to keep any moisture out of that, said Pearson.
The exhibit will be officially unveiled May 24 for all visitors to see.