This weekend, I visited the Museum of the Rockies to see a Civil War-era cannon. The reason I went to see the cannon was because someone sent an e-mail to me at the paper wondering just where the cannon went. For years, it sat on the corner of College Street and South 8th Avenue, just outside the Johnstone residence hall. It was a fixture there until 1986, as it turns out, but the cannon, now 146 years old, had a much more exciting history before being literally nailed to the ground at that intersection.
The cannon was forged in 1861, during the Civil War. It spent a portion of its early life on the northern defenses of Washington, D.C., said David Swingle, the historian at the museum who did much of the research into the weapon’s history. After D.C., the cannon disappeared for about a decade, finally resurfacing in Fort Ellis, near Bozeman.
The gun was meant to be a psychological weapon against the Indians, but at more than 1,000 pounds, it was too heavy to tow around the marshy grasses of the Gallatin Valley, and the gun more less remained silent until it was abandoned when the fort shut down in the 1880s. There it remained until college students stole it in 1910.
Over the years it spent on campus, the cannon was a part of many of the hijinks that college students are wont to perform. Eventually, though, the university got sick of the noise and sick of the damage to the cannon. In the 1950s it was nailed down at the intersection. In the 1990s, it was restored for the university’s centennial.
From there, it went to the museum, where it still sits today in a seldom traveled corner of the Montana History Hall, an odd curiosity to woman passing by it to use the bathroom or for their companions waiting for them to emerge from the toilet, just one of those pieces of cultural history we don’t even recognize when we see it.
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