Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Runge talks about that "old cannon and shell..."

Mike Runge traces the history of "the cannon."
More than 40 people turned out last weekend (10/21/12) to hear Deadwood City Archivist Mike Runge share not one – but three -- fascinating stories from Deadwood’s colorful past.  It was the fall meeting of the Lawrence County Historical Society at the Homestake Adams Research and Cultural Center.  And it certainly was an “explosive” presentation.  Stay with us here for a few details!

THE CANNON - Billed as a presentation about the historic cannon that greets folks near the entry of what is now the Lead-Deadwood Elementary School, Runge recounted discovering a couple of letters in a box of documents he was examining back in 2004.

The first letter was from June 21, 1899, written by the Mayor of the City of Deadwood, Sol Star.  The second letter was dated February 3, 1900 from the U.S. Navy Department.” 

The letters stemmed from a May 2, 1899 meeting of businessmen in Deadwood, trying to find a creative way of celebrating the Fourth of July, while also welcoming home the First Regiment of South Dakota Volunteers for the Spanish-American War.  County Judge John H. Burns told about cannons that were being given to various cities by the U.S. government, and it was determined that Deadwood should try to obtain one.  Mayor Sol Star was to head the effort. 

"Guarding" the Lead-Deadwood Elementary School
Their venture succeeded in securing a cannon, but – unfortunately – the armament didn’t arrive until the Sixth of July.  Nonetheless, enthusiastic citizens simply celebrated again!  The local Hook and Ladder Company hauled the cannon up Main Street and Mayor Star  joined a citizen dressed as Uncle Sam in accepting the cannon on behalf of the City of Deadwood.

According to Runge, a Deadwood foundry created a carriage for the 2,000-pound cannon, and since there was no city park in those days, it was decided that the cannon should be displayed in front of the Deadwood School, where it remains today.

Thanks to the royal seal and a serial number engraved on the cannon, Runge was able to track its history back to 1861, when Queen Isabella of Spain ordered its manufacture.   After it was completed in May of 1862 at the Royal Foundry in Seville, the re-cast bronze cannon with serial number 9220 was part of the cargo on a ship that negotiated the Horn of Africa and the Cape of Good Hope en route to Manila in the Philippines.

USS Maine enters the harbor at Havana, Cuba
THE WAR - On a winter evening in February 1898, the Battleship USS Maine sank in the harbor at Havana, Cuba, following an enormous explosion in her bow – an explosion for which many Americans blamed the Spanish.  The sinking of the Maine would be a key event leading to the short-lived Spanish American War, which the United States won handily, helping establish it as a world power.

Soldiers and sailors returning home from the war were greeted with adulation, and it was no different in Deadwood, where Company L of the First South Dakota Volunteers were welcomed as returning heroes.  And while the cannon requested by Deadwood for the event arrived a bit late – it did arrive and has been something of a landmark and curiosity ever since. 

About 10 years after the Spanish American War, the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers received enough money to raise the Maine from Havana harbor, securing the remains of the men onboard and perhaps determine exactly what caused the blast.

That’s the subject of a whole different presentation,” said Runge.

THE SHELL - By March of 1912, the USS Maine had been taken out of Havana Harbor and sunk farther out at sea.  Many of the furnishings and artifacts from the vessel were sent to Key West, Florida.

During this same period, fire burned several structures in Deadwood, and the city purchased land with the intention of building an auditorium.  Land adjacent to that tract would become the first Deadwood city park – Gordon Park.

Mayor W. E. Adams petitioned the U.S. government to obtain an artifact that might be placed in the new park as part of a beautification project. 

That’s where it gets a bit sketchy and interesting,” said Runge, who cited a May 5, 1912 newspaper article confirming the arrival of a 10-inch shell in Deadwood.  But rather than being placed in the new city park, the device ended up being placed next to the old Spanish cannon adjacent to the schoolhouse door at the top of Main Street in Deadwood.

All I can figure is…when they got this shell…they said ‘you’ve got to be kidding…” and ended up putting the shell next to the cannon – a seemingly appropriate placement.  Never mind that the Spanish gun is only a 4-inch cannon, and the shell is a 10-inch armor-piercing U.S. explosive.   Go figure!

For about a century, the cannon and shell have adorned the entry to the school.  Then while Runge was working on an exhibit at the new Deadwood Recreation Center, he started researching the 10” shell.  His research confirmed that the shall had come from the USS Maine, and Deadwood was one of 19 cities that received projectiles of that size.

Fitted with a Navy percussion detonator, the 498-pound shell became a topic of great curiosity.  Runge told many folks about its interesting history.

A 10" armor-piercing shell from the USS Maine
similar to the one received by the City of Deadwood.
“There were several people in this room who inspected the shell.  They said ‘Hey, Mike,  it’s really cool, but you probably should get that thing looked at’  to confirm that the device wasn’t dangerous, said Runge.

Perhaps the most vociferous advocate for getting the shell examined was Runge’s own father, an ex-Navy man who expressed his concern to his son in no uncertain terms.

Taking his advice, and the advice of some people in this room, I decided to have the shell looked at.  And guess what?

On March 20, 2012, ordnance specialists from Ellsworth Air Force Base came to town.

Yep, it looks like a live one,” Runge quoted one of the Airmen as saying.  The shell was taken to the Lead-Deadwood dump and detonated.  And a video recording was made of the event.

The 30-inch long projectile has a cavity that is capable of holding up to 40 pounds of black powder explosives.  Just how much remained in the shell when it was detonated, we don’t know, but the explosion clearly rendered the shell inert.

We have received notification from the military that the shell is inert, and that means it can be put on public display," Runge noted.

And that’s what we plan to do in Gordon Park on November 10th, 2012 at 11 o’clock in the morning."   For more information about the event, visit this story on the Black Hills Knowledge Network.  We’ll dedicate a USS Maine Memorial as part of the Veteran’s Day ceremony.”

For a few more photos and additional narratives, check our our Historical Marker Gallery!