The Cannons of Stage Fort

Photo by Marty Luster

By Jude Seminara

With the return of the Parrott Rifle from its restoration to its emplacement at Stage Fort Park, I thought I would share some information from my research on the guns Of Stage Fort Park for the Gloucester Historical Commission from a few years ago. I have to give credit to artillery historians Jim Bender and Jack Melton; and to Bernie Paulson of Paulson Brothers Ordinance for assisting me in my research. 
There are four artillery pieces located at the fort. Throughout the history of the park the number and style of guns varied. In its early history as a defensive position up to the American Revolution, there may have only been one or two hard-to-find guns. During the War of 1812, two heavy guns were mounted there. In the Civil War, there were three, as indicated in period photos, and in the Spanish American War there were several rapid-fire guns and 3” muzzleloading field guns. Artillery pieces had been placed and removed at times. Sometimes they were stored in the “gun house” at the junction of Prospect and Pleasant Streets, and some sources say that cannons were even melted down and recycled into anchors. 
Few relics of the martial use of the park are still extant. The turf and masonry ramparts and parapets seen in 19th century photographs are long gone. Immediately behind the fort, what was probably the powder magazine, visible in those same photographs, is filled in and blocked off. The 1812 barracks burned shortly after that war’s end, and any remains of the 1898 barracks near where the playground is have vanished long ago. 
When the fort itself was restored, four pieces of artillery, two authentic and two replica (though significant nonetheless) guns were placed on concrete bases overlooking the harbor. Historically, large artillery pieces would be mounted on some sort of carriage or mount that managed the recoil that resulted from firing, and period photos indicate a few types that were used. 
As one enters the fort area of the park, the first gun one encounters is a naval gun, which was typically mounted aboard warships rather than in fortifications. Coastal defenses were manned by the Army and not the Navy. On the cannon’s trunnions (cylindrical projections from the body of the gun that mount it to a carriage and allow for elevation adjustments when aiming), the markings indicate that it is a 32-pounder — that is, it fires a shot weighing 32 lbs — of 6.4 inch caliber or bore diameter, manufactured in 1848, and that it was proofed by Navy Ordinance Inspector Levin M. Powell (P for proofed above LMP inscribed in the left trunnion face). Powell inspected artillery for the Navy from 1844 to 1848. 
Additional markings on the gun, which are barely legible, are W.P.F No 325 57.0.17. indicating that this particular piece of artillery was made at the West Point Foundry and weighs 57 hundredweight or about 6400 lbs. This gun, serial number 325, is one of 105 surviving Navy 57cwt 32-pdr guns. 
The next two cannons are replica pre-1818 French patterned guns cast in 1906 for the USS Constitution. Fifty-four were cast but as they were not historically accurate (though sometimes mid described as original) for the armament carried aboard Old Ironsides in 1812, they were discarded in the late 1920s and early 1930s, sold for $150 apiece to fund the restoration of the warship. Thirty-three are still around, fourteen of which are in Massachusetts. Three of these ended up on Cape Ann. Two of the three are at Stage Fort Park and one is in Rockport on Broadway. 
All of the above described guns are smoothbore guns. That is, the inside of their barrels are smooth. As these particular guns are not breechloaders and instead are loaded by ramming power and shot down the barrel from the muzzle, smoothbore guns are often faster to load because the shot does not make contact with the barrel walls. Since there is a small amount of windage smoothbore guns are inherently less accurate than what is known as a rifled gun. In a rifled gun, spiral grooves are cut into the inside of the barrel and the ammunition is snug into these grooves. The result is a more accurate projectile; much like the spiraling football follows a more precise trajectory. 
The last piece or ordinance that a visitor to the fort will encounter, and the subject of the restoration project is the Parrott Rifle. This particular piece of artillery is marked on the muzzle face, indicating that it is an Army, rather than a Navy Parrott Rifle, which were marked elsewhere. The markings on the right trunnion (RPP) stands for Robert Parker Parrott, the inventor of this style of gun. On the muzzle, starting at about the ten o’clock position and going clockwise are the markings “No 391 1865 WPF RMH 4.2 4286” which identify this gun as serial number 391, manufactured in 1865 at the West Point Foundry, inspected by Richard M. Hill, of 4.2 inch caliber (firing a 30 lb projectile), and weighing 4286 lbs. This particular piece or ordinance is one of 206 surviving 30-pdr, 4.2” Army Parrott Rifles. 
I’m excited to see the Parrot Rifle being fired for the first time in over 150 years!

2 thoughts on “The Cannons of Stage Fort

  1. Thank-you very much for that information, Marty! I haven’t lived in Gloucester for over 60 years but when I did, on what was then Stage Fort Avenue, my friends and I played on and around the cannons at the fort a lot. It’s a kind of unique childhood memory. I know from recent photos that things have changed since I was last there – like no more wood bases – and now I know how and why. Thank-you!

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  2. Loved the article as I am over on the point quite regularly and will enjoy my next visit by looking at the inscriptions on the gun. You said that the last army cannon will be shot soon?

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