Shipwrecked. Decades submerged in the cold salt water of the East River. Salvaged by divers looking for lost gold. This is the story of the two Central Park cannon,* which received international attention this month when Conservancy conservation staff discovered that one of them contained a Revolutionary War cannonball and gunpowder.
This episode was only the latest in the 230-year lives of two pieces of sunken treasure. In 1780, the HMS Hussar sank in Hell Gate, a narrow tidal strait in the East River. Rumors circulated that the ship was carrying gold to pay British troops, and treasure hunters dove into the river to salvage the sunken gold. Over the next decades, adventurous divers brought up various artifacts from the shipwreck (though never any gold), including the salvaged cannon.
Both were anonymously donated to Central Park on October 10, 1865. Central Park's annual report from 1865 notes that the cannon were donated along with "one 18lb Ball and Grape Shot," and identified the HMS Hussar as the ship of origin. The smaller of the two cannon, called a carronade, was manufactured specially for the British Royal Navy, featuring a shorter barrel to provide power at close range. The cannon were displayed at the Arsenal, the Park's first museum, along with other donated works of art, artifacts and animals. In 1867, the cannon and carronade were moved to a new museum at the former chapel of the Mount Saint Vincent convent, near what is now the Conservatory Garden. Just 14 years later, the museum was destroyed by a fire, and for the next 20 years the whereabouts of the cannon is a mystery.
The cannon reemerged in 1905 and, at the urging of the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society, the New York City Department of Parks installed them at site of Central Park's Fort Clinton, built during the Revolutionary War on the bluffs overlooking Central Park’s Harlem Meer. Fort Clinton was rebuilt during the War of 1812, and a plaque on the cannon's granite base incorrectly suggested that they were also from that war. They remained at Fort Clinton until the Parks Department moved them to a storage facility on Randall's Island around the 1970s.
In 1996, the Central Park Conservancy retrieved the cannon, with the promise to return them to the Fort Clinton site after conservation work is complete. Our conservation crew, responsible for the Park's stonework, statues and monuments, began conservation of the artillery on the week of January 7, 2013. Deep in the carronade’s bore, Conservancy conservation crew members Matthew Reiley and John Harrigan found two centuries worth of rust. On January 11, as they cleaned the rust away, they discovered a cannonball lodged inside and fused to the walls of the carronade. They carefully removed the ammunition using a fine-pointed chisel and found, hidden below for centuries, a mass of fine black powder and woolen fibers. The powder was removed from Central Park by the New York City Police Department, who later confirmed that it was centuries-old gunpowder.
This is just the beginning of conservation work on the cannon and carronade—they were heavily disfigured after roughly 80 years in the East River. The larger cannon was additionally damaged by a cement plug, poured in the 1960s, probably to prevent its use as a trash can. They will be cleaned using fine stainless steel brushes and picks, followed by immersion in desalination baths to remove remaining salt. After drying, the cannon will be submerged in wax to remove all residual moisture and to seal and protect them from the elements. Finally, the cannon's bores will be filled with wax to prevent anything from getting inside. After conservation work on the cannon is complete, they will be reinstalled for the public to view at Fort Clinton.
Want to know more about the cannon and carronade? In spring 2004, research by Central Park Conservancy historian Sara Cedar Miller revealed the HMS Hussar as their place of origin in an article published in Volume 3 of The New-York Journal of American History, a publication of the New-York Historical Society. Read the full text here (PDF).
*"Cannon," like "sheep," can be both plural and singular.