Monday, March 03, 2008


Navy still owns cannons found on beach from 1846 wreck

By Joseph B. Frazier
March 03, 2008

When beachcombers found two small cannons that likely came from the 1846 wreck of the Navy's USS Shark on the north Oregon coast, the state assumed it had some priceless artifacts. And for now, it does.

But the Navy reminded Oregon that if the cannons were Navy property back then, they're Navy property now — 162 years notwithstanding.

There is no immediate sign the Navy will come get its guns, which are fairly rare. The shipwreck itself closed out a little-known chapter of naval history.

The Shark, an 86-foot-long schooner, sank outbound from the Columbia River, one of the world's riskier river crossings.

One of its cannons was found in 1898. It is the namesake for Cannon Beach and is in the town's history museum.

Chris Havel of the Oregon Parks and Recreation Department acknowledged that the Navy owns the guns.

"Federal law says part of a warship, no matter how old, belongs to the federal government," Havel said. "There is no conflict (of ownership)."

Nehalem Bay State Park interpretive ranger Shelley Parker said she is unaware of any attempt by the Navy to get the first one back. The other two are at the park undergoing early steps in preservation and restoration.

Robert Neyland, who heads the Navy's Underwater Archaeological Branch at the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C., says the wreck of the Shark ended a brief but fascinating era in naval history.

The Shark and a few fast-sailing schooners like her were built in the 1820s to suppress slave traders and pirates. Most had short lives, and the Shark was the last of the lot.

"If the cannon turn out to be from the USS Shark, I foresee that the Navy and the State of Oregon would work together to preserve these guns and see that they are properly displayed and interpreted," he said.

He said his office has considered looking for the Shark and ships of its class.

"It is an interesting period of naval history of which not much is known," he said.

"The guns are pretty rare. If either one still has a firing mechanism, that would be extremely rare."

The Navy's interest now, he said, is seeing that the guns are properly handled and conserved.

"Any such guns are in high demand by museums," he said.

The Shark had spent a month in the Fort Vancouver area near today's Vancouver, Wash., with orders to "obtain correct information of that country and to cheer our citizens in that region by the presence of the American flag."

Ownership of the region was still unresolved with Great Britain.

The crew survived after the Shark hit a sandbar.

Parker said the ship carried ten of the small but punchy "carronade" cannons like the three found so far, and two larger "Long Tom" guns.

The Shark was built in 1821, the first of seven Navy vessels to carry the name. One was a captured Confederate blockade runner, later renamed.

There were frequent shipwrecks along that part of the coast, but the guns found were of the type carried by the Shark and archaeologists are assuming, absent other evidence, that that's where these came from.

Parker said the guns were discovered on exposed beach bedrock Feb. 16 and Feb. 19 after winter storms and low tides had removed sand.

She said it was remarkable they were recognized, since they had become heavily encrusted and resembled the surrounding rock.

Neyland said Oregon is correctly keeping the concretions, or encrustations, intact until an expert can remove them, and keeping the cannons covered in changing baths of water. He said the concretions can contain valuable archaeological matter.

He said they ultimately must be kept indoors and that the Navy would have a say about whether they went on loan to other museums.

Mike Petrone of Tualatin and his daughter, Miranda, found the first cannon. Sharisse Repp, also of Tualatin found the second one.

State agencies are working with the Navy to determine the guns' futures.

Not many people are in the cannon restoration trade.

But the Conversation Research Lab at Texas A&M has restored 22 over the past 10 years.

Lab manager Jim Jobling said the two new Arch Cape finds could undergo an 18-month stretch in an electrified bath of sodium hydroxide to leach out the salts.

They then would be boiled in de-ionized water, coated with tannic acid to give them their original black color, then coated to protect the finish.


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