The Museum of the American Revolution sports five 18th century cannons in front of the museum at 3rd and Chestnut Streets. Installed in 2016, the guns were actually used in the Revolutionary War and are quite striking. The museum hopes that they will become a city landmark for tourists and locals alike.
Philadelphia has the singular history of being a city founded with pacific Quaker principles, yet it is also intimately steeped in military history. So it is simultaneously both surprising and natural that many retired military cannon were once displayed throughout Center City for their historical association or for other purposes. The museum seems to have brought back this bit of tradition after it seemingly fell out of favor during the past few decades.
Probably the best example of Philadelphia’s earlier fascination with big guns was the cannon once located in the courtyard of City Hall. For much of the early 20th century, countless Philadelphians would stroll by four guns with carriages dating back to the Civil War, and one from the Spanish-American War, all placed at the seat of local government. These guns had been brought to City Hall from the Philadelphia Naval Shipyard in 1899 and were removed in the 1930s during the Broad Street Subway’s construction.
A naval cannon from the Revolutionary War was also exhibited outside of the former Philadelphia Main Post Office for decades. The relic was uncovered 40 feet below the surface west of the Schuylkill River during the excavation of the Market Street Subway tunnel extension in 1932. It had a three inch bore and was spiked like other American field guns that were discarded when the British occupied Philadelphia in 1777-78. The piece was moved to Fort Mifflin in 1970, where it remains on display today.
But the most interesting use of old artillery pieces was their employment as roadside posts to protect sidewalks and buildings as far back as the 1820s. Such cannons were placed by curbs to prevent horse-drawn wagons and carriages from riding up onto narrow sidewalks in the oldest part of the city.
Artillery pieces had been placed nearly vertical along both Delaware Avenue and Water Street, the narrow riverfront street that used to pass from Callowhill to Pine Streets, parallel and in between Delaware Avenue and Front Street. The guns were set at the curb-line of many intersections between Water Street and major east-west streets, as well as tiny alleys that connected to Delaware Avenue. The breaches were usually imbedded in the ground. The guns usually stuck up about two feet and were typically 12 inches in diameter at the exposed muzzle.
Back in 1897, The Philadelphia Inquirer published an article about these guns, as they had become familiar landmarks along the waterfront by that time. Their purpose—to serve as guard posts for the riverside area’s sidewalks—was mentioned in the article, which posited that the guns would be dug up and consigned to the nearest junk shop as soon as Delaware Avenue was widened, which happened in the late 1890s, for the third and final time. A retired merchant was interviewed and recalled that the cannon were positioned in the 1820s at the direction of Stephen Girard.
This makes sense, as Girard lived for decades on North Water Street near Market Street and had worked to improve the waterfront district during his life. Girard left the City half a million dollars for enhancing the Delaware’s western edge, requesting, among other things, that water pipes and hydrants be installed along Water Street to flush the roadways and nearby alleyways. This appears to have occurred. Since the cannons were positioned in the 1820s, Girard would have been alive to have seen the artillery installed.
The interviewee in the Inquirer article mentioned that most of the guns were carronades—short cast iron pieces of artillery that defended merchant ships of olden times against pirates. He stated that hundreds of worn out guns were piled up inside and outside wharves, so there was no shortage of carronades around Philadelphia’s central waterfront in the early 19th century. Girard likely had them on his ships, which traveled all around the world bringing exotic goods to Philadelphia. The five cannons installed at the Museum of the American Revolution are on long-term loan from the Girard Estate, so those carronades were most certainly once Girard’s.
The 1897 Inquirer article also noted that Mayor Edwin Stuart approved the following ordinance on June 18, 1894: “That the cannon along Water Street and Delaware Avenue… are hereby donated to the Pennsylvania Society [of the] Sons of the Revolution for the purpose of placing the same from time to time around the monuments erected and to be erected by the society marking the sites of the battles of the Revolution around and about Philadelphia.” The Pennsylvania Sons were to have identified and preserved the guns, and the city was to have substituted them with posts made of granite or some other stone. This did not happen.
There was talk in 1904 of moving the old artillery pieces from the waterfront to a more fitting environment in the city and away from “the unclean gutters of Delaware Avenue,” but this proposal did not get far. “With her wealth of genuine and priceless historical relics,” declared an Inquirer editorial from 1904, “Philadelphia has surely no need of meretricious nondescript ornaments.”
A half-century later, all this historical information had been forgotten. While Philadelphia’s central waterfront became decrepit through the years, the many cannons remained as rusty street furniture and practically ignored. But in 1954, three vintage artillery pieces were brought to light by William Krauth, who discovered them on his occasional jaunts through pre-revival Society Hill. They were in plain site, sticking up through an alley’s belgian blocks just north of Pine Street at Water Street.
Krauth had remembered that the federal government was looking for genuine Revolutionary War artifacts to display in Independence National Historical Park that was then being planned. So he notified the National Park Service in Washington, DC, which dispatched Harold L. Peterson, an expert on Revolutionary War weapons, to Philadelphia.
Peterson must have realized that he had stumbled upon a treasure-trove of historic artillery, for his investigation produced an inventory of 13 such cannons/carronades along the Delaware, as well as at least two dozen in other parts of the city. Peterson determined that the riverfront pieces dated from the late 18th century and that most were five or six feet long and about 18 inches in diameter at the breech. They generally had bores of three to five inches that were typically filled with concrete.
Water Street and vicinity was demolished by the early 1970s and is now covered by I-95. There is not a single cannon in the ground anywhere along the Delaware. They had served their secondary purpose for a century and a half before being dug up and moved to an unknown location. Like any salvageable pieces, the cannons likely wound up at military parks along the East Coast.
Special thanks to Joe Godonis for bringing this story to light and providing photographs.