Cannon Beach and it’s cannons offer an amazing look into the past, not only of this town, but the nation. It is a past at the very heart of Westward expansion, international trade, the birth of Oregon as a state, and the definition of the USA and Canadian border. It is also a testament to the still uncontrolled power of the seas and mother nature.
As far as most people are concerned, experts included, the cannon that was found back in 1898 (The one that gave Cannon Beach it’s name), and the two cannons that were found in 2008, are all from the same ship, the USS Shark.
The schooner Shark had one of the most amazing naval careers ever recorded, especially in the pre-WWII world era. During her time at sea she fought pirates and the slave trade in Africa in the West Indies, spent five years in the Mediterranean Sea, protected North American fisheries in Newfoundland, and navigated the Straights of Magellan en route to Peru where Shark helped to quell problems in that nation with its presence.
Few know that John Audobon, namesake of the Audobon Society, sailed for several weeks on the Shark, from St. Augustine, Florida to New Orleans, observing wildlife, and even killing alligators on which to perform experiments.
Before coming to the Oregon Territory in 1846, Shark and her crew spent time in Honolulu, Hawaii for repairs. They were sent to the Columbia River to ascertain the loyalties of the locals because of an ongoing border dispute between England and the United States over the dividing line between British Columbia and the Oregon Territory.
President James Polk had been elected on promises of expansion and “Manifest Destiny”. America wanted to set it’s border at the southern boundary of Russian Alaska, their rallying cry “54-40 or Fight!”.
Unfortunately for the Shark, news traveled slow in those days, and by the time they reached Fort George (modern day Astoria), a treaty had already been signed between England and the U.S. putting the border at the 49th parallel – the same border we have today with Canada. A compromise for both sides .
The Shark and it’s crew sailed up the Columbia River spending time with Governor Abernethy in Oregon City, and at Fort Vancouver. They enjoyed the company of the Royal Navy and Hudson’s Bay Companies employees far more than that of the locals, considering their pioneer spirit and the iconoclastic way they lived somewhat barbaric.
With their perceived mission accomplished, they set sail toward the ocean in September of 1846. With no bar pilot, no reliable map, and after an exhaustive day of elk hunting, for which the ship’s captain Lt. Howison returned without a trophy, Shark set sail into the Columbia River Bar in high winds and seas, and as one might expect from this series of events, landed themselves on Clatsop Spit. The ship was soon taken by the sea, though the crew was saved.
Within weeks Lt. Howison received word that part of the ship had come ashore along the coast south of the river. Parts of the deck and three carronades were found, but could not be retrieved. It is believed those three cannons are the three that Cannon Beach has so proudly discovered.
The cannon that was discovered on the shores of Arch Cape back in 1898 still resides in Cannon Beach, at the Cannon Beach History Center along with the capstan from the Shark. The two cannons that were discovered by beach visitors in 2008 were sent to Texas A&M University where they are being restored to their original glory. One cannon has finished its restoration, and one is in the process. A process which includes months of soaking in electronically charged baths, and numerous coatings of tannic acid and microcrystalline wax.
The future homes of these cannons are yet undecided, but their story and the process of their restoration will soon be on display in a new exhibit at the Cannon Beach History Center. The museum is also planning to have the Cannon Beach cannon and capstan restored in the near future. Look for the exhibit’s opening celebration in the coming weeks.
By Amy Stocky
Originally published in the Cannon Beach Gazette