What the Brunswick Town Cannon Means For Us

by Jan 26, 2017Across the Cape Fear, Brunswick County, North Brunswick

It may be a bit heavy to drag from school to school, but the Colonial-era cannon recently discovered at the bottom of the River, now located at Brunswick Town, will be a valuable teaching aid nonetheless. As it undergoes conservation, its history and science will be offered to students and teachers across the county and perhaps the region.

“We will use this as a teaching tool,” said Jim McKee, Brunswick Town site manager. “We will do STEM and STEAM programming with the schools.” (The acronyms emphasize a focus on science, technology, engineering, arts and math.) “It is the perfect teaching tool.” He said students will come to the site to study the conservation process as well as the history of the Cape Fear River, Brunswick Town and how this cannon may have come to the area.

Brunswick Town Cannon in Brunswick County, NC

The cannon loaded on the trailer for transport from Sunny Point to Brunswick.

A major piece of that lesson is the significance of the River. “The Cape Fear is the only river that begins and ends in North Carolina and the only one in North Carolina that flows directly into the ocean.”

McKee also expects the cannon’s presence to boost visits from history and heritage tourism buffs. That, in turn, aids the local economy and carries the message of our historic sites and towns well beyond North Carolina.

“For years it’s been a toss-up between eco-tourism and heritage tourism as to what bring in the most money” he said. “We’re working on that.”

The area has state historic sites, museums, Southport’s Old Jail and much more that visitors seek out, he said. These sites have a specific draw, but the visitors also shop, dine, stay in accommodations in town and on the beaches, possibly buy a book and a tee-shirt, he said. They go home wearing the tee-shirt and people ask “Where is Brunswick Town?” This tourism and visibility can only be good for Brunswick County.

The cannon’s conservation has given rise to an increase in the social media marketing being done through Brunswick Town’s staff. They’re posting the 1500-1800 pound artifact on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube with regular photos and process updates.

The conservation effort is slow – like watching paint drying, McKee says.  Just last week the cannon was loaded into a specially built tank of water treated with sodium hydroxide to begin the four to six year conservation process. Underwater archaeologists Billy Ray Morris and Nathan Henry are leading the effort which is being done at Brunswick Town rather than the Underwater Archaeology Lab at Fort Fisher. “It will take a couple of years to get the concretion off, then another two years to get the chlorides out.” It’s a slow electrolysis process, each step of which is being recorded in a field log that documents pH levels, water changes, and so forth.

runswick Town Cannon in Brunswick County, NC

One of the major questions that needs to be answered is how and when did the piece of the muzzle get broken?

McKee explained electrolysis. “It’s very slow. We’re putting a small electrical charge into the water. A wire is hooked to the artifact then another wire is hooked to a sacrificial piece of steel. The artifact robs the steel and basically re-plates itself. At the same time, using the electrolysis will create a hydrogen reaction where concretion and marine growth that has cemented itself to the artifact is going to be removed slowly. The absolute most important aspect of it is that it will remove any salt or chlorides still in the metal. If you don’t get it all out, it doesn’t matter what you’ve done, eventually it will deteriorate. You’ll end of up with a pile of rust,” McKee said.

“We’re working very closely with the underwater unit; those are the guys that have the experience.” Because Brunswick Town has the space, and because the gun will ultimately be on display there, the work is being done in Brunswick County. “Why risk having something happen to it while moving it back and forth?” The Fort Fisher lab currently has several guns undergoing conservation, including some taken from Blackbeard’s ship, Queen Anne’s Revenge.

The cost of conservation, about $2,000, is coming from Brunswick Town’s budget.

Brunswick Town Cannon in Brunswick County, NC (3)

The cannon in its new tank, where the electrolysis will take place for 3-6 years

While there’s a strong feeling that the cannon could be from the Spanish flagship Fortuna, which exploded in the Cape Fear in 1748, McKee says there are many other possibilities. “Think about it. How many ships went through the Cape Fear River between 1524 and 1800?  Thousands.”

He is hopeful that successful restoration of the artifact will reveal markings such as dates, inspector’s stamp, maybe even the country of origin, all of which will be critical to identifying the cannon’s place in history. They already know that the shape is similar to ones pulled from Queen Ann’s Revenge, but they also know there are many other possibilities. Even if it is from the Fortuna, it could be of English manufacture because the ship originally belonged to England. It’s all part of a larger mystery of the many ships, including the Fortuna, that disappeared in the Cape Fear never to be seen again.

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Winnabow, North Carolina
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