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History of the District

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Schoharie's Cannon

Printed in the Schoharie County Historical Review in 1983
By: Louis TremanteIronsides Cannon

There is a cannon on the front lawn of Schoharie Central School. People in the town pass by it every day, but few know where it came from or why it is in Schoharie. The local legend is that this gun is an original cannon from the U.S.S. Constitution. Some people say that the gun was given to the people of the Town of Schoharie after they competed in a national campaign to raise money for the reconditioning of the old ship in 1928. Some people believe that this was the only gun allowed out of the Boston Naval Yard, and still others believe that this was one of two guns allowed out of Boston. There are three or more stories around town, and no real proof that the gun is an original, or that it even came off the constitution. In 1980, the school decided to place a plaque by the cannon telling all who stopped of its history. A student was asked to look into the matter, and sort out the true story from the rumors. This student didn’t get very far, and when he graduated in the spring, the idea of researching the cannon went with him. In the fall of 1981, I was looking through an old file in the school library and found a newspaper article, written in 1957, celebrating the twenty-fifth year of centralization for Schoharie Central School. In this article, reference was made to the cannon on the front lawn. This aroused my curiosity about the cannon so I began to research it myself. The following report is the result of fourteen months of research.

The U.S.S. Constitution was built in 1797. It was the pride of the United States Navy. When the nation went to war in 1812, the Constitution was responsible for capturing and sinking many British ships. It was in this war that she received the affectionate name “Old Ironsides” because the cannon balls from the enemy ships bounced off her sides. In 1830, the Federal Government, feeling that the ship was not seaworthy, ordered her to be broken up. At this time, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote his famous poem “Old Ironsides” and as a result of strong public opinion, the ship was saved. She was partially rebuilt and re-commissioned in 1833. In the year 1855, she was docked at the Portsmouth Navy Yard to be used for training beginning sea captains. She was again rebuilt in 1877, and served until 1897 when she was roofed at the Boston Naval Yard. It was unlikely that any of the original guns were aboard in 1897, for by this time they would have been a century old! In 1906, the Constitution was again partially restored, and replica 1812 cannons were put on board, according to a letter from Rear Admiral Gherardi, Commandant of the Boston Naval Yard in the year 1937. The Constitution sat alone, except for a few public tours, until 1926 when a major restoration was attempted. To help raise money, a penny campaign was started in schools and communities all across the nation. In addition to the penny campaign, cannons on board were privately being “disposed of at and around the year 1928 to raise the necessary funds.” Today the U.S.S. Constitution sits in Boston Harbor as a tourist attraction.

The following pages of this report are a chronological trace of the history of the cannon on the school lawn. Information was gathered from letters, newspaper articles, and physical examination of the cannon.

In July, 1928, Mrs. Gertrude Leinenger (formerly Miss Gertrude Spawn of Schoharie), wrote to Mr. Charles Deitz, President of the Schoharie school board. Her letter enclosed pictures of the cannon and she wrote: “If the School Board will accept one of these guns, Mr. Leinenger will make the school a present of same as per pictures as old town is historical, same as gun.” According to Mrs. Leinenger, the gun was at the Boston Naval Yard. Mr. Deitz accepted the generous offer and over the next few weeks several letters were sent back and forth discussing the transportation of the gun. It was first suggested to ship the cannon via railroad into Schoharie Junction. Then, because the freight trains at that time were not dependable, it was decided to have someone from Schoharie truck it from Boston to Schoharie. For some reason this could not be arranged, so the gun was shipped by freight car and arrived at the depot in late August,, 1928. There were slight problems in unloading the gun from the car to the ground, and a suggestion was made by Rear Admiral Andrews (Boston Naval Yard) to remove the gun from its carriage while unloading it. In his letter Admiral Andrews warned against moving the gun on its wheels because of its great weight. The cannon was moved by stone boat to Its present position on the front lawn of Schoharie Central School.

There the gun sat, seemingly forgotten, until September, 1932, when an article appeared in a newspaper about it. The article mentioned that the Schoharie cannon was the only cannon allowed off the ship during the period of restoration in 1928. According to this article, Mr. Leinenger's gun was already on its way to Schoharie when the United States Government decided that they didn't want to sell t\le guns. Boston decided, however, not to bother to take our gun back. No proof has been found to support the information In this article.

By early 1931, questions began to arise as to the authenticity of the gun. Local historian and Schoharie high school principal from 1911 to 1913, Arthur B. Gregg decided to set the facts straight by getting proof that the cannon was an authentic war relic. He wrote to Mrs. Leinenger, then of Long Island City, New York. and asked her for any documents that might prove without question that the cannon was indeed authentic. He received no reply, and proceeded to write to the Boston Naval Yard. He received. his reply in June of 1937 and it was very disappointing. Commandant Gherardi of the Boston Naval Yard stated that many guns located in the Navy Yard around the year 1928 were being sold to raise money for the much needed restoration of Old Ironsides. He went on to say that the guns aboard the ship during its 1928 restoration were probably 1812 replicas. cast in 1906 during a previous restoration. Later, in the late twenties, cannons were cast that were much closer in detail to the original 1812 guns. These newer guns took the place of the 1906 guns on the Constitution. "To sum it up," Commandant Gherardi wrote, "I believe that the gun in question has sentimental value, only, of having been actually installed on the historic ship in her later, inactive days. It was intended for exhibition purposes only. Outwardly it may have been a fair reproduction of the guns around the period of 1812, but in actual services It would have been worthless due to the thinness of the. casting in places." In October, 1937, Mr. Gregg contacted Mr. W. K. Murray of Nashua, New Hampshire. Apparently, Mr. Gregg, Mr. Murray, and Mr. Horace Tennant (a local lawyer), together aided with the unloading of the gun at the depot, and with its transportation by stone boat to the school grounds. Mr. Gregg asked Mr. Murray to watch the Boston newspapers for any mention of the cannon. It is not known why Mr. Gregg wanted the Boston newspapers checked, because no related documents were found in a file given to the Old Stone Fort by Mr.Gregg at a later date. The letter from Rear Admiral Gherardi was never published and the origin of the cannon remained unknown.

In the October 1949 issue of the Schoharie, County Historical Review, reference was again made, to the cannon. This time a photograph of the cannon was placed next to the story. The article tells the complete tale concerning how the gun was purchased by Mr. and Mrs. Leinenger and donated to the school. The article also mentions that our gun was the only gun allowed out of the Boston Naval Yard during the 1926-1931 restoration. This article is very similar to the newspaper story of 1932, which was probably used as a major source for information.

In April of 1957, the Knickerbocker News did an article on the twenty-fifth anniversary Of centralization for Schoharie Central School, and retold the 1932 and 1949 stories of how the gun was given to the, school by Mr. Leinenger. The article contained no new information.

At this point, the documents and stories that I had were conflicting and I still had no real proof that the cannon was authentic. In August I contacted the Boston Naval Yard in hope that they might have some old records that would explain the gun’s true origin. I spoke to Robert Badminton, Curator of the Constitution and he told me that the documents pertaining to any of the restorations before 1931 had not been presented over the years. He did say, however, that probably none of the Constitution's original guns had survived the 168 Years since the War of 1812, and that at best; our gun was an 1812 reproduction cast in the year 1906.

After this talk with Mr. Badminton, my research seemed to be at a dead end. I decided to begin examining the cannon itself and contacted two local firearms experts, Phillip Shannon, and Gar Weber. Mr. Shannon and I went to the Old Stone Fort and the school. At the museum, we found an old axle from a carriage that had been under the cannon in the 1940's. At the school we compared several old photographs of the gun and noted the changes that it has gone through over the years. Mr. Weber and I took photographs from several different angles of the cannon:, and sent them, along with copies of my documents and cannon measurements to cannon expert Joseph Thatcher. Mr. Thatcher works at the Historical Preservations Division of the Department of Parks and Wildlife. He is a Fellow of the Company of Military Historians which is a Society of Gun Collectors and firearm experts. Mr. Thatcher's reply, came in early December and it confirmed my growing suspicions concerning the authenticity of the cannon.

In his letter, Mr. Thatcher said that he saw "no reason to doubt the accuracy of Admiral Gherardi in 1937, describing the gun as one of the 1906 replicas." He went on to give his own reasons why the cannon is not an original, and concluded; "Your cannon, while not 1812 in date, is interesting historically as one of the early restorations of the vessel". Based on physical examination of the gun, and the combined knowledge of the experts I consulted, it is my conclusion for the following reasons that the gun on the front lawn of Schoharie Central School is a reproduction.

1. From the muzzle to the breech knob, the gun measures 129 inches in length, but it can be probed 124 inches. This means that the cannon is hollow for at least six inches into the breech (11 in. long) knob. In early American cannon, the breech knob was completely solid so that it could withstand the shock that was created when the gun was fired. If our cannon was fired, the breech, would probably shatter into a million pieces.

2. If you look at the cannon from the front, it appears to be heavily armored around the bore (mouth), which is six inches in diameter. One would naturally assume that the walls would remain as heavily armored right through to the breech of the cannon. The walls of the cannon, however. do not stay as thick as the area surrounding the bore. Approximately fifteen inches down the barrel there is a solid ring. Behind the ring, the interior of the cannon opens up to nearly ten inches in diameter. Since the circumference of the cannon at this point does not change significantly, the thickness of the walls of the cannon decreases from 3 ˝ inches (which is already quite thin) to less than two inches! A cannon with such walls could not be successfully fired, Also, the ring seems to, act as a divider between the two halves of the cannon. The front fifteen inches were apparently cast to make the cannon appear to be a vintage 1812 cannon, While the remaining 114 inches are just a shell."

3. Since the cannon barrel consists of two different diameters another structural problem exists. A cannon that has a bore of two different diameters simply cannot be fired. In our cannon there is no way that a ball could leave without taking the whole front fifteen inches with it.

4. Casting marks are numbers and letters in a code that will tell the age, Identity, and manufacturer of a cannon. They can usually be found in several different places on a large gun. According to a school official, no casting marks were found on the gun when it was sandblasted several years ago. The most probable reason for this is that the gun was cast at the Boston Naval Yard as a reproduction, not at one of the few armories in business at the time of the War of 1812 as a functional weapon. The manufacturers never thought that the cannon would leave the shipyard much less the Constitution, so no one ever bothered to put on casting marks.

As one reads the newspaper articles and letters written about the cannon over the past 55 years, you can clearly see that the people of Schoharie believed that the gun on the front lawn of the school Was an authentic relic. Mr. and Mrs. Leinenger gave no indication that the gun, was a replica. Whether they knew or not will probably never be known.

What matters, is that the gun has sat on the lawn through a depression; three major wars, one flood, and 55 New York State winters. As a result of this, the sentimental value of this gun to the town and county is immeasurable. It is interesting to note that it was common to melt down a cannon after it had been fired a certain number of times. This was done because the iron grew weak from the stress' created when the cannon was fired. It is therefore possible that the iron in our cannon was once the iron in one of the original cannons on "Old Ironsides".

I would like to express my thanks to the following groups and people, who helped me prepare this report. Gar Weber, Phillip Shannon, The Old Stone Fort, Schoharie Central School, Edward Scribner, Mom and Dad.

 

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