By Neil B. Yetwin
One of the most enduring and intriguing of Schenectady’s many antiquities is the mounted cannon at the end of North Ferry Street in the Stockade’s Riverside Park. For nearly a century this imposing piece of ordnance has stood watch eastward over the Mohawk River as if expecting to defend the city against any who threatened the peace and security of its inhabitants. Schenectady historian John J. Birch suggested in 1961 that the cannon’s history “is a mystery which undoubtedly will never be solved.” Yet physical clues and scattered anecdotal evidence might shed light upon those mysteries that have shrouded the cannon for more than two centuries and perhaps help restore it to its proper place in Schenectady’s history.
It was once assumed that the cannon was cast in bronze, but it is in fact iron, weighing in excess of 2300 pounds and measuring 7’9” from breech to muzzle. It had been mounted on an oak carriage twice its length (for balance) and fired a solid iron softball-size “round” shot weighing 9.1 pounds – thus its designation as a “nine-pounder”. The cannon had two “trunnions”, cylindrical projections near the barrel’s center allowing it to be easily raised or lowered. Vestiges of those trunnions remain visible, as does the “vent” or “touch-hole” above the breech.
“Cascabel”, two handles on which to attach ropes to reduce recoil, once graced its barrel. The cannon is of French manufacture; an embossed “fleur-de-lis”, symbol of the French monarchy, is still clearly visible above the muzzle despite the layers of protective paint.
The cannon may have been placed in Schenectady’s “Old Fort” just prior to the French and Indian War; Schenectady’s leaders reported to Governor James De Lancey on August 31, 1754 that the fort had “one Nine Pounder …” E.Z. Carpenter speculated in 1872 that the cannon “had belonged to Gen. Bradstreet’s army during the French war” and was left “on the Glenville flats not far from the Mohawk bridge” where it lay “partly buried” but visible for 20 years. There is some evidence that appears to substantiate Carpenter’s claim. In July 1758, Bradstreet’s army travelled 430 miles from Schenectady to Fort Frontenac (Kingston, Ontario), forced its surrender and confiscated its cannon. Bradstreet destroyed most of the ordnance, kept several of the best, and returned to Albany with stops at Oswego and Schenectady, where he may have left one “nine-pounder.” But it may also have come from the French surrender of Fort Carillon (Ticonderoga, July 19, 1759); Schenectady soldier George Staley was then engaged in “bringing ammunition and cannon from Ticonderoga to Albany”. Wherever it may have been used in active service, it was probably cast at Montreal’s Forges Du Saint Marie, which produced and tested iron cannon and delivered them to various forts, including Fort Frontenac.
In October 1763 Sir William Johnson was informed that “the cannon upon the Albany Hill were unfit for service.” The “Albany Hill”, located at the corner of State Street and Nott Terrace, was the highest accessible spot overlooking the city until the 1860’s.The Taste of China Restaurant and adjoining lot now occupy the site. John Birch believed that one of those cannons was “unearthed at that corner” and was, according to Susan Staffa, the same cannon that “can be seen in Riverside Park.”
Nicholas Veeder (1761-1862), New York State’s last surviving soldier of the American Revolution, recalled that Schenectady had two cannons set up in the streets to guard “the main stockade gates leading to open country.” Locals named them “Lady Washington” and the “Long Nine Pounder”; the latter may well be the restored Glenville flats (later Riverside Park) cannon. It was hauled back up to the Albany Hill “by some patriot on the occasion of the surrender of Burgoyne (October 17, 1777)” after which is “it was probably discarded” and “abandoned.” According to E.Z. Carpenter, that same cannon was dug up in 1778 for Schenectady’s initial celebration of the Declaration of Independence. It was then dragged on a “stone boat” (sledge) to the corner of State and Washington streets, “and mounted on a pile of logs. A soldier named Lindsey was assigned the duty of firing it off, and the gun being loaded just before sundown for a final salute and a cartridge box placed over the muzzle to increase the noise, the explosion blew it to pieces and Lindsey was killed.”
When news reached Schenectady that the Revolution had ended in an American victory, schoolteacher and former soldier John Baptiste Clute and “a band patriots….retrieved an old French cannon and dragged it through the streets of the town to an easterly summit (Albany Hill)… Clute and some others filled the cannon with powder, applied a spark and the ancient field piece roared its salute to peace.” Larry Hart suggested that the cannon in Riverside Park was the “one fired by Clute and his fellow celebrants.” The hill became known thereafter as “Victory Hill”, the name partially preserved today in “Victory Avenue.” The “Victory Hill” cannon was then used for Independence Day celebrations. On July 4, 1832 the Schenectady Cabinet reported that it was fired at 9:00 PM, followed by “a display of Rockets on the river with music.”
Severe injuries and fatalities involving the firing of old cannon by patriotic but unskilled enthusiasts had become increasingly common in American cities, towns and villages throughout the 19th century. Schenectady, too, had its share of would-be artillerists. In October, 1852 Whig Presidential candidate General Winfield Scott made a brief whistle stop here, as reported in the Schenectady Cabinet of October 26, 1852:
“ACCIDENT – John Smith, and a young man named John Featherstone, were badly injured by the premature discharge of a cannon on Saturday afternoon last, while engaged in firing a salute on the occasion of Gen. Scott’s passing through this city. – Smith’s left arm below the elbow was badly burned, and the hand lacerated by splinters from the rammer; one of Featherstone’s arms was broken and otherwise much injured, but not so badly that amputation will be necessary.” Yet the cannon continued to be used. Union College Professor Jonathan Pearson noted in his diary for July 4, 1855: “The usual bell-ringing and cannon-firing at sunrise.”
The cannon made its most dramatic impact six years later when President-elect Abraham Lincoln stopped in Schenectady on February 18, 1861 on his inaugural journey from Springfield, Illinois to Washington, D.C. “While crossing Union street,” reported the Schenectady Weekly Republican of February 22nd, “the glass of the car windows was very much shattered by the discharge of a cannon which was being fired in honor of the arrival.” One source reported that the concussion had broken three of the car windows “to atoms” and tore off the lock of the door; another stated that “an over-elated gunner fired his cannon point blank at the first car…but no one was hurt.” The incident was quickly forgotten, however, and on July 5, 1861 the Schenectady Evening Star and Times proudly reported that on the previous morning , “the big gun hailed the dawn.”
In 1961, Schenectady’s oldest citizen remembered that the cannon was subsequently used as a hitching post at the corner of State and Centre Streets (now Broadway), today just a short distance from the entrance to Mexican Radio. The muzzle part was in the air, he said, and the other half buried in the ground. The Riverside Park cannon does appear slightly more corroded and pitted from where the trunions had been back to the breech than up to the muzzle, indicating that it may well have been buried in just that manner. In November 1919 the cannon was mounted, with well-deserved ceremony, in Riverside Park at the request of Stockade residents, probably to commemorate Armistice Day.
The Riverside Park cannon, a long-silent witness to history, has more than earned Schenectady’s respect as one of the city’s most esteemed historical artifacts.
Note: Readers interested in referencing the works used in the research for “Schenectady’s Silent Witness to History” can email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. A complete bibliography of the extensive primary and secondary sources will be provided upon request.
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