Oregon Cannons Come Home
Rich Mulcahy likes to say, “When the tide goes out, my treasure table is set.”
There’s something about treasure hunting that’s irresistible and compelling; especially when it touches Oregon history and offers unique outdoor adventures too. “I think it’s that I am going after something that’s been lost and I am digging in the sand to find it. I love to dig stuff.”
Rich walks long, lonely stretches of the Oregon Coast each day accompanied only by the excited sounds of his handheld detector; the device is his constant companion. He sweeps the sand with the detector and marks each spot where something’s hidden just below the surface.
Most days, Rich said he discovers common everyday objects on his adventures but he is intrigued by re-discovering history in the beach’s sandy layers. Many of his so called ‘targets’ are easy to recognize once he has them in hand – they range from silver coins to gold wedding rings and other metallic jewelry.
But every now and then he finds real “head scratchers,” like his exotic Chinese copper coins and even a Roman coin that dates back nearly two thousand years. “Well, I shouldn’t be surprised given the number of shipwrecks that we’ve had off the Oregon Coast,” said Mulcahy. “I’m sure that there’s material from those old wrecks that have come in with the tide.”
As long as mariners have traveled the ocean, ships have wandered too close to shore and been caught by powerful storms. They’ve sometimes been guided by a captain’s poor judgment, leading the ship and crew to disaster on the beach. Every now and then the tides and time reveal something unexpected – not measured by the value of gold or silver – but the chance to connect with rich Oregon history, like the two small cannons or carronades that were found at Arch Cape beach in 2008.
A dad and daughter, Miranda Petrone and Michael Petrone, were strolling the shoreline when she saw something inside a thick coating of sand and rock; it was something nearly impossible to discern but it was Oregon history! Experts believed they were two guns that came from the USS Shark, a navy schooner that shipwrecked on the Columbia River Bar in 1846.
The two cannons and a chunk of the deck floated south and then washed ashore, only to be buried on the beach for 162 years. Staff from the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department recovered the two cannons and then shipped them to Texas A&M University’s Marine Conservation Lab in 2009, before OPRD paid to restore them.
Five years later, the Oregon cannons have come home and the restoration is remarkable. The cannons are exceptional and Astoria’s Columbia River Maritime Museum is their new, permanent home. “They look new, essentially,” said Dave Pearson, the Museum’s Administrator. “You would never believe that these were the carronades that were buried in the sand for 162 years.”
Behind the scenes, the Maritime Museum’s curator, Jeff Smith, showed off scores of other pieces from the cannons, including an original oak platform, plus wrought iron fasteners, pins, rings and leather coverings that secured one of the 18 pound guns.
And then there’s one particularly puzzling, large ball of twine. “This was down inside the gun with this hanging out,” said Smith. Then a wooden plug was shoved in the end of the barrel. The purpose was to keep the gun dry and always ready for fire. In fact, when we first found the cannon and saw that, we wondered: could the cannon be loaded?”
Fortunately, it wasn’t! But what was found is an amazing chapter of Oregon history that connects with a time when the US Navy “waved the American flag” to the British who had long staked a claim to the northwest region.
Smith said the restored guns link us to an important moment for Oregonians. “If these elements had not survived, we probably wouldn’t care that much about the USS Shark. But in 1846, Oregon was still an area that was disputed – was Oregon to be British or American? I think the Oregon question was answered with the mission of the USS Shark.”
About the Author: Grant McOmie
Grant McOmie is a Pacific Northwest broadcast journalist, teacher and author who writes and produces stories and special programs about the people, places, outdoor activities and environmental issues of the Pacific Northwest. A fifth generation Oregon native, Grant’s roots run deepest in the central Oregon region near Prineville and Redmond where his family continues to live.
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