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NPS restores Civil War era cannon at Fort Jefferson in Dry Tortugas

“A Rodman cannon mounted on an iron carriage hasn’t been seen at Fort Jefferson in over 100 years.” Museum Curator Nancy Russell


December 2010 – Conservators, engineers, boat builders, metal workers, archeologists, park maintenance staff, and retired and active duty reservists from the 482nd Civil Engineers Squadron of the Homestead Air Reserve Base were just some members of the team of over 50 NPS employees, cooperators, contractors and volunteers assembled by Museum Curator Nancy Russell to mount a 25-ton Rodman gun at Fort Jefferson on a reproduction carriage.

The project, which started two years ago, was completed in November 2010, to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the park as a unit of the National Park Service.

An Historic Undertaking

Fort Jefferson, a key feature of Dry Tortugas National Park, includes a nationally significant collection of 19th century seacoast artillery. Six of the surviving twenty-five 15-inch smoothbore Rodmans and 4 of the thirteen surviving 10-inch rifled Parrott guns are part of the park’s museum collection. In 1900, prior to the fort becoming part of the National Park Service, the fort’s armament—including these 10 large guns—were sold as scrap. Fortunately, the 25-ton Rodmans and 13-ton Parrotts were too heavy to be removed from the fort and were left behind. The gun carriages, however, were scrapped and for over 100 years the cannon lay directly in the salty sand on the fort’s terreplein. In addition to leading to corrosion and deterioration of the guns, the haphazard display of cannon on top of the fort did not contribute to visitor understanding of the park’s history or significance.

“A Rodman cannon mounted on an iron carriage hasn’t been seen at Fort Jefferson in over 100 years” Curator Russell said. “Most members of the team understood the historic significance of what we were accomplishing. With this one project, we restored part of the historic profile of the fort, which would have included mounted guns as a visible deterrent.”  The cannon mounting project was funded by park Recreational Fee Demonstration funds.

Location, Location, Location

 “The biggest challenge of this project was logistics” said Russell. Dry Tortugas is location 70 miles west of Key West, FL in the Straits of Florida. Without road access, everything has to be brought in by boat. “Detailed planning and flexibility is important because you can’t just run out to the hardware store if you forget something. Safety was always first and foremost when working with such a heavy object, 45-feet up on top of the fort because medical care is also a long way away.”

The fort’s location also prevented use of the most obvious tool for accomplishing the job: a crane. The gun’s weight and other concerns eliminated the use of a helicopter. Instead, Russell resorted to researching historic military manuals, using the historic methods and equipment as inspiration for modern versions which could safely do the same tasks. Conservators Ron Harvey and Jonathan Taggart, of Tuckerbrook Conservation, worked with boat builders and metal fabricators in Maine to create these modern cannon moving and lifting tools. (To see images of this equipment in use and documentation of the entire project, visit “South Florida Collections Management Center” on Facebook.)

Visitors, who watched the project unfold on site from October 26-November 17, 2010, were treated to the sight of a 25-ton cannon lifted c. 7.5 feet in the air so that the carriage could be built underneath it. The cannon was suspended in the air with a gun lift, inspired by a c. 1876 15-inch Rodman lift designed by Theordore T.S. Laidley and a later modification created by Gulf Islands National Seashore in the 1980s. Using the modernized moving and lifting tools, it took 3 men only six days to move and lift the 25-ton gun into position, including assembling the tools and equipment on top of the fort. The carriage was assembled underneath the gun by 4 men in six days, including bringing all of the carriage pieces, some of which weighed almost 1,000 pounds each, to the top of the fort.

Many Hands Make Light Work

“This project, in this remote location, couldn’t have been completed without a lot of amazing individuals working together” said Russell. NPS staff working on the mounting project included: Curator Russell who envisioned the project, conducted the historical research, and managed the various aspects of the project; archeologists from the Southeast Archeological Center who excavated and documented the remains of an original in situ Rodman gun platform; the captain and crew of the MV Fort Jefferson who transported all the materials and equipment to the park; and park maintenance staff who willingly facilitated all aspects of the project; as well as a wide variety of other staff at Dry Tortugas and Everglades National Parks. Conservation of the cannon, as well as moving and lifting the 25-ton gun was completed by conservators and technicians from Tuckerbrook Conservation. The carriage itself was built in Maryland and assembled by contractors on site.

The reproduction gun platform, a necessary prerequisite to mounting the gun on its carriage, was made by the 482nd Civil Engineers Squadron of the Homestead Air Reserve Base. The 482nd has been conducting training at the park since the 1970s but due to other commitments had not worked in the park since 2005. Russell worked with Colonel (ret.) Jerry Cheeseman to bring the 482nd C.E.S. back to assist with the project. Due to the physical and technical challenges of the project, Colonel Cheeseman assembled a team of 17 active duty and retired reservists, with the retired reservists serving as trainers and mentors to the active duty personnel, a first in the squadron’s history. The project’s success led to a renewed commitment from commanders at the Homestead Air Reserve Base to continue training exercises at the park which assist the NPS with maintenance and preservation projects.

“All of these individuals working together have left something behind which dramatically improves the fort” Russell said. “Visitors, for generations to come, will have a better understanding of the park’s significance. It’s a wonderful present to the American people for the park’s 75th anniversary.”

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