A Long, Strange Trip
Before it sat for many years at a gas station near Baltimore ... Before it stood guard in front of an American Legion hall ... Before it was a yard ornament for the inventor of Bromo-Seltzer ... And before it battled 19th century pirates in the Chesapeake, the Dahlgren 12-pound Light Boat Howitzer was born in the heart of Confederacy at the Tredegar Iron Works in Richmond, Virginia.
After a circuitous journey lasting 143 years, the cannon came home this year to the Department of Natural Resources in Annapolis.
The homecoming was the culmination of a three-year effort by Maryland Natural Resources Police officer and historian Lt. Gregory Bartles, who became committed to claiming the cannon for the state and its nautical archives. “It was the Holy Grail of Department of Natural Resources history,” he said.
A Cannon for Maryland’s Oyster Navy
The Maryland Oyster Police Force, the predecessor of today’s DNR, formed in 1868 to preserve and protect oysters in Maryland waters, as they became more valuable than any other regional seafood.
As early as 1830, the state enacted a law that restricted oyster harvesting to Maryland residents only, a move intended to keep increasing numbers of New England watermen out of the Bay. Licenses were required starting in 1865. These rules were largely ignored amid the frenzy of the underwater Gold Rush and the lack of an enforcement agency.
Renegade watermen were referred to as pirates. Violence regularly erupted between watermen and the law and among watermen themselves. Oyster dredging boats that were eradicating entire beds by dragging metal baskets along the bottom were the enemy of the simple tongers who caught fewer using rakepoles. Dredgers fought among themselves for territory. Tongers battled other dredgers, as well as other tongers. Virginian watermen fought with Maryland watermen. Blacks fought with whites. The Bay became a lawless and dangerous place, where violence and murder were commonplace.
The fledging Oyster Police brought a new sheriff to town. Commander Hunter Davidson, a Confederate Naval hero, was born in Washington, D.C., and graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy in 1847. Aware that the escalating violence required more firepower than rifles and revolvers, he procured the Dahlgren cannon from Richmond, where production on the 12-pound cannon, so called for the weight of its projectile, began in 1861. Its inventor and namesake, Admiral John A. Dahlgren, envisioned it as an artillery piece that could be mounted on a field carriage and on a boat.
It was installed on the Leila, the state’s first Oyster Police boat.
Davidson’s efforts made a difference. But, believing local politicians were too lenient with Bay pirates, he eventually resigned. He left for Argentina, where he lived to be 86, exploring rivers in Uruguay and Paraguay and creating the Torpedo Division of the Argentine navy.
The Oyster Police added more ships and manpower as the Oyster Wars gained national attention. A New York Times headline on February 15, 1884, read: “Piratical Oyster Crews. The Desperadoes Very Free in the Use of Their Fire-Arms. The Police Boat and a Magistrate’s Residence Showered with Bullets — Bloody Deeds Anticipated.”
The seas became peaceful again in the 1890s. The Leila was retired in 1884, and the Dahlgren cannon was installed on her replacement, the Governor R.M. McLane. The cannon was removed from the McLane in 1891.
The Long Strange Trip
On a winter day in 1938, Clifford Sullivan was clearing snow near Baltimore for the state roads commission when he spotted a gray cannon barrel in a snowdrift on the lawn of a large 18th century estate called Brooklandwood. It was marked State Oyster Police Force, 1868. A foundry mark read Tredegar Co. 1868.
Sullivan asked the homeowner, Anne Preston McCormack Emerson, how a cannon came to be on her front lawn. It had, she explained, been collected by her late husband, chemist Isaac Emerson, whose invention of Bromo-Seltzer in Baltimore in 1888 was rewarded with the odd gift of a cannon.
From Mrs. Emerson, the cannon came to Sullivan.
Having no space for it, Sullivan took it to a relative’s Esso gas station, where it remained for about 15 years. In the early 1950s, Sullivan donated it to American Legion Post 116 in Reisterstown to display in front of its new building. The Legion had a carriage and wheels made for the cannon.
After 70 years of silence, the cannon was heard again in 1959 when fired by reenactors of the 2nd Maryland Light Infantry in a North-South Skirmish Association event. It was fired again in subsequent demonstrations and competitions but always returned to the American Legion.
There, something of its history was discovered. Post 116 learned the cannon had once fortified a boat called the Leila, a Civil War tugboat that in 1868 became the first vessel for the Maryland Oyster Police Force.
The Tredegar foundry name meant it had been made by the Confederacy’s largest artillery manufacturer, but after the war. The Tredegar Iron Works was not destroyed, as was much of Richmond, and it was back in business in late 1865, serving a new customer, the Union Army. The foundry remained active until 1952. Today it’s a battlefield visitor’s center.
A few years back, Tim Clark, a Navy veteran and commander of Post 116, asked DNR if photos of the Leila existed. None did, but the inquiry got Bartles’ attention. Concerned the cannon might be sold to a private collector, Bartles embarked upon a mission to save it. With Clark’s support, three years and $40,000 later, his goal was accomplished with public and private funding.
The 288-foot Bromo-Seltzer Tower that Emerson built in 1911 still stands in downtown Baltimore.
Remains of the Leila are gone. The deteriorating hull of the Governor R.M. McClane lies in Baltimore harbor.
The cannon is spending the summer at the Delmarva Discovery Center in Pocomoke City. This fall, Lt. Bartles plans to display it at the Chesapeake Maritime Museum in St. Michaels.
“The ultimate destination,” Bartles said, “is Annapolis City Dock at the yet-to-be-built National Sailing Hall of Fame.”