Cannon Fodder: The mystery of the Spanish gun in Forest Park

Spanish galleon

Fred Ruhrwien calls his curiosity downright inane, but still, the 79-year-old can't shake his obsession with an old cannon located in Forest Park. An inscription in Spanish reveals the gun was forged in 1783 during the reign of King Charles III of Spain. The word "Examinador" emblazoned at the end of the turret suggests the cannon may have once sailed the seas on a Spanish galleon of the same name.

Beyond that, little is known about the aging hulk of metal that measures eleven feet long by two feet wide and could have once hurled a cannonball several miles. Ruhrwien, a volunteer who gives walking tours of the park, says he's asked Forest Park Forever and the city's parks department for additional information about the ordnance. Neither agency could provide him an answer. So intrigued is Ruhrwien about the gun's provenance that he's now begun making buttons with the words, "Cannon: When? Why?"

"It's the Forest Park mystery," says the six-foot-three-inch Ruhrwien, known to his fellow park volunteers as "Big Fred." "We've got all kinds of information about every other statue and monument in the park. But nobody can say when, why or how this cannon arrived."

The tarnished green cannon lies in front of the Confederate Memorial near Lindell Boulevard and Cricket Drive, about 300 yards east of the Forest Park visitors' center. Earlier this year, Ruhrwien says he asked archivists with the Missouri History Museum for information about the cannon. All they could come up with was a 1969 "Special Report on Public Art" commissioned by St. Louis' then-mayor, Alfonso Cervantes. The document leaves blank the spaces where researchers were supposed to list the cannon's donor and date it arrived at the park.

Ruhrwien has his own theories. He speculates the ordnance landed in Forest Park the same year the report was commissioned when Mayor Cervantes brought a replica of Christopher Columbus' Santa Maria to St. Louis. The boat was anchored downtown for a few short months before a storm blew it from its mooring and it sank in the Mississippi River.

"Bringing a Spanish cannon to St. Louis sounds like something Cervantes would do," confirms Mary Frechette, manager of the fine arts collection for the St. Louis Public Library. "He claimed he was the descendent of the Cervantes who wrote Don Quixote. He was big into his Spanish heritage."

But the theory that the cannon came aboard the Santa Maria doesn't hold water, says Frechette. If it did, she notes, then the authors of the mayor's report would surely have known when the cannon arrived at the park. Frechette can also produce newspaper clippings of the Santa Maria when it arrived by barge to St. Louis in 1969. Photos from those papers show no such cannon on the ship.

Perhaps surprisingly, the Forest Park gun isn't the only Spanish cannon of questionable origin in St. Louis. At Jefferson Barracks Park in South St. Louis County, a cannon that dates back to the Spanish-American War sits atop a hill overlooking the Mississippi.

Marc Kollbaum, a curator at Jefferson Barracks, says the ordnance is rumored to have been taken from a Spanish gunboat following the battle of Santiago de Cuba in 1898. Whether that's actually where the gun came from, he says, is unclear. However, his records do indicate that the gun arrived at Jefferson Barracks the August after the battle.

"At the time Jefferson Barracks was one of the biggest Army posts in the nation," says Kollbaum. "It was something of a war treasurer."

Could it be, then, that the Forest Park cannon also arrived in St. Louis as spoils of the Spanish-American War?

Not likely, says Michael Brueckmann, curator of the Mid-America Ordnance Museum in St. Louis. Brueckmann says the Forest Park gun would have been a relic even back at the time of the Spanish-American War. "It's essentially a muzzle-loader," explains Brueckmann. "By the late 1800s, most cannons used a shell that you loaded from the back of the gun."

Brueckmann suggests the cannon may have been used in the U.S. Civil War. "You have to wonder why that gun is located right in front of the memorial to Confederate soldiers and sailors," says Brueckmann. "It could be that troops from the South captured the cannon in the Mexican-American War [1846-48] and later used it in the Civil War."

Regardless of its origin, Brueckmann says he can place the cannon in Forest Park back to at least 1935. "I have a picture of my parents playing around and doing handstands on the cannon that year," he says.

Last week presented one more possible clue when Molly Kodner, an associate archivist with the Missouri History Museum, unearthed a newspaper story from the January 5, 1900, edition of the St. Louis Republic. The article reports that Missouri Congressman Charles Edward Pearce called on St. Louis Mayor Henry Ziegenhein to inform him that a bronze Spanish cannon was due to arrive in St. Louis within the week. But a microfilm search of the Republic and the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in the following days turns up no further stories.

Kate Shea, director of the city's Cultural Resources Office, says she's not at all surprised that the cannon remains a mystery. "Forest Park used to be like someone's attic," she says. "In the late 1800s and early 1900s, all kinds of civic-minded people were donating things to the park they considered precious. It could be that someone thought the cannon would be a great addition to the 1904 World's Fair."

"Big" Fred Ruhrwien, meanwhile, remains optimistic that all the recent conversation about the cannon will someday yield answers. "It's great that we got so many people talking," he says. "We'll figure this out — eventually."

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