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Nicaragua Cannon

In the winter of 1930, H. Jermain Slocum acting as an agent for Fort Ticonderoga visited the Caribbean to acquire historic cannon for the museum. Departing Miami, he flew to British Honduras, now known as Belize, and  then to Panama and Nicaragua, before taking a ship to Curaçao, Trinidad, St. Kitts, St. Eustatius, St. Thomas, Puerto Rico, Haiti, and finally Cuba before returning to the United States.

Nicaraguan cannon loaded onto a heavy cart
One of the Nicaraguan cannon loaded onto a heavy cart. Note the cannon gin at left, which Pell described using in his correspondence with Major Sultan of the US Engineers. Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, 1999.1110

In February of 1930, Slocum secured the donation of four 24-pounder cannon from President José María Moncada of Nicaragua. There was just one problem–they were located at Fort San Carlos in a remote part of the country on the southeastern side of Lake Nicaragua, with no easy way to transport them halfway across the Western hemisphere to Ticonderoga.

What followed was a journey as epic as any undertaken during the Revolutionary War. A Civil War in the 1920s and the continuing interest in a possible canal across Nicaragua meant large numbers of US military forces were present in the country in the early 1930s. By May 1930, Stephen Pell, the co-founder of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum and Slocum were corresponding with Major Dan Sultan of the US Engineers who offered to assist the project.

Unlike Henry Knox in 1775, there were neither draft animals, nor any ship’s tackle heavy enough to move the cannon at San Carlos. Major Sultan estimated each as weighing 3-4 tons, far larger than anyone had anticipated. The guns would have to be moved entirely by hand from the backside of a hill where the fort stood to the shore of Lake Nicaragua “along the narrow causeway leading to the dock.” From there, they could be loaded onto the lake steamer Victoria. Hoping to find a solution Stephen Pell wrote to Major Sultan in June, saying, “I hate to suggest to a military engineer how to handle cannon but we found in some of the old 18th century books on engineering just how they did it 150 years ago. They used a scissors or triangle of three logs with a pulley in the middle, put a chain around the center of the guns and were able to hoist them high enough to load on a gun carriage.

Cannon from Nicaragua are unloaded at the train station near Fort Ticonderoga
The cannon from Nicaragua are unloaded at the train station near Fort Ticonderoga in the winter of 1930-31, the last leg of their nearly 2,500 mile voyage. Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, 1999.1030.

The Master of the Victoria was concerned the heavy cannon would puncture the hull of his ship and sink it in the middle of the lake. He was finally convinced to ship one cannon at a time. Moving each cannon individually, it took nearly a month for all the guns to cross Lake Nicaragua and arrive at Grenada on the opposite shore. Once there, the guns were laboriously lifted, by hand again, onto dock cars and rolled to the railroad where they were lifted onto full-sized railway cars to ship them to the Pacific coast at Corinto. Sultan informed Pell that, “In looking over the file I find that it has taken some 30 letters, a dozen telegrams and numerous interviews to get the cannon to Corinto.”

By the early 20th century automobiles had replaced draft animals as the sources of horsepower. Other than that the methods might have been familiar to Henry Knox. Collection of the Fort Ticonderoga Museum, 1999.1043.

By November, the cannon had traveled nearly 200 miles across Nicaragua. Major Sultan had to write to Pell to ensure he was willing to cover the cost to ship them all the way on to Ticonderoga, an expense of nearly $500, at a time when $50 was an average weekly income for an American worker. Pell wired money to Sultan and by late November of 1930, the cannon would embark on the Panama Mail Steamship Company’s ship Guatemala for New York where they were expected to arrive by December 15.

Arriving in New York, the cannon were shipped by freight train to Ticonderoga. In the middle of winter, the guns were loaded onto heavy carts at Ticonderoga using the 18th-century style gun gins that Pell had described to Sultan that summer. Unlike Knox, Pell used automobiles to haul the carts carrying the guns up the hill to the reconstructed fort, each cannon requiring two trucks. By January 14, 1931 Stephen Pell wrote to the Nicaraguan Legation in the US that the cannon had arrived in Ticonderoga and encouraged a visit to the museum to see the cannon that would be mounted by the summer.

Fort Ticonderoga mobile appThe cannon are still here as reminders of an epic journey halfway across the hemisphere. You can learn more about these and the other cannon in Fort Ticonderoga’s museum collection any time of year through the Fort Ticonderoga mobile app: