AMSTERDAM — Amsterdam is full of rarities that we take for granted. We don’t really see them until someone or something invites us to take a closer look. Case in point: the very large cannon at the soldiers and sailors plot at Fairview Cemetery on Steadwell Road. It turns out that the cannon has a fascinating history.
Created as one type of gun, it ended its career as an entirely different one, as dissimilar as night and day. It was born in 1864 in the fires of the cast iron forges of Builders Foundry in Providence, Rhode Island. It was stamped with a mark identifying it as the 183rd XI inch Dahlgren shell gun manufactured for the U.S. Navy. It was named for Rear Adm. John Dahlgren. The XI-inch shell guns were the Union Navy’s heavy hitters, fighting in every major engagement of the Civil War. Firing the piece was an intricate choreography, which required several crewmen to perform a particular task at a particular moment. In fact, it was the XI-inch shell gun aboard the USS Kearsarge that sank the CSS Alabama in the Battle of Cherbourg, France in June of 1864.
Number 183 next appears in federal records at the Mare Island Naval Yard, just north of San Francisco, in 1866. In 1877, it was selected as one of about 50 XI-inch guns to be converted into eight-inch rifles, using any means to reuse, upgrade and improve capabilities of potential adversaries who were building new ships and weapons. Based on serial numbers, it appears the gun was then shipped to the West Point Foundry in Cold Springs, where it was bored out an additional inch to 8 inches, then inserted with a wrought iron sleeve.
The Fairview Cemetery gun has 11-inch spherical shells as the piece originally fired, not the eight-inch conical rifle shells it fired after conversion. And, in the idiot-proofing color code of the day, the balls were red, not black.
After conversion, the gun was shipped back to Mare Island where it was installed on the USS Monongahela in time for her to join Rear Adm. Shufeldt’s notable mission to open up trade with Asian nations.
In 1879, while the Monongahela was laid up for repairs, the gun was transferred to the USS Pensacola, flagship of the US Pacific Station. After she returned to the Eastern Coast of the U.S. via the Suez Canal in 1885, the gun was shipped aboard the USS Essex for a three-year tour on the Asiatic Station.
On her return to New York in 1889, the Essex was decommissioned and the gun was offloaded. The following year the ship was recommissioned to become a training ship for the U.S. Naval Academy Midshipmen and later the rifle was remounted. In 1898 the gun was removed and consigned to the Norfolk Navy Yard before being stored at the Washington Navy Yard as obsolete.
Fairview Cemetery was established in 1899; soon afterwards the members of the E. S. Young Post 33 of the Grand Army of the Republic decided to create a veteran’s plot there. Through the assistance of the former New York governor, now President, Theodore Roosevelt, the XI-inch gun was donated and in early 1906, after many fundraisers to cover shipping and mounting, the gun was dedicated on Oct.16, 1906.
To see the gun up close, take the main cemetery road off Steadwell Avenue and continue bearing right until you are along Section 9. The cannon is in the middle of the section and visible from the road.