That Big Gun: The Rogue River Cannon

By Laurel Gerkman

(Published in Oregon Coast Magazine, Mar/April 2005)

Celebrations halted abruptly! Onlookers gasped! Horrified screams and smoke filled the air! The jubilant atmosphere of picnic frolic and fun suddenly turned to alarm. Afterward, the July 8, 1903, issue of the Port Orford Tribune, reported: One of the saddest accidents that will mark the 4th of July just past, occurred at [Gold Beach, Oregon]

The cannon fascinated me. From the moment I first saw the imposing, rusted hulk, questions stirred in my mind. Who brought it to the remote south coast? How? Why? When? An explanation lurked somewhere behind the 1,300 pounds of weathered, cast iron. My query began, and a story unfolded like the plot of an intriguing novel.

In 1882, the large artillery gun arrived by ship at the mouth of Rogue River. Its owner, Robert D. Hume, brought the weapon ashore to impress local townsfolk. The so-called "Salmon King of Oregon" was a handsome and exceptionally successful entrepreneur. He owned several merchant vessels, over 90,000 acres, and a monopoly of businesses in Gold Beach. His cannery employed most of the local citizenry.

An account in the Port Orford Post, dated May 25th, 1882, befittingly describes their mixed reaction: We have got a new cannon in [Gold Beach]. The Chinamen think it is a good gun, and feel safe, but the fishermen say it is spiked. Well, if it cannot be heard on the 4th of July, we will not call it even a son of a --- cannon.

A Herculean effort was necessary to haul the massive firearm onto its prominent location, selected by Hume, overlooking the Rogue. In due time, the three-quarter ton ferrous bulk was pushed, pulled, and positioned atop its throne of jagged, serpentine rock high above the north shore.

Gloriously, the intimidating Civil War era weapon stood, pointed southwest towards the Pacific. Folks soon accepted the implement of battle as a noble addition to their isolated, small town. Pioneers claimed that big gun was fired every year thereafter, as highlight of festivities on the Fourth of July.

For over two decades, the cannon blasted a tribute to the nations birthday, surrounded by a flurry of waving flags colored red, white, and blue. Word of the unusual fanfare spread. Visitors increased annually, trekking great distances over rough territory--intent on witnessing the revered spectacle.

Baking contests, baseball games, and races of all sorts filled the daylight hours. Famished travelers gobbled lip-smacking lunches packed with fried chicken, sourdough biscuits, and blackberry pie. At sunset, crowds gathered for the grand finale. "BOOM!" A thunderous roar echoed repeatedly for miles into the coastal wilderness, amidst a rouse of cheers and applause. Everyone delighted in the annual tradition.

Until, an unexpected tragedy occurred, as described in the Port Orford Tribune, July 8, 1903: George Cook was frightfully and fatally mangled and passed away at 4 p.m. of July 5th. The previous day, with patriotic order, he and some other young men all inexperienced were firing the cannon, which they had done for two previous shots. It is alleged that after the second shot the cannon was not properly swabbed

Spirits sobered. Hearts grew heavy. Public response to the mishap was unanimous. The gun was immediately dismounted and never fired again. It lay discarded and abandoned for more than 30 years.

In 1935, young Howard Newhouse was visiting his fathers employer who lived in a rickety, cedar-shingled house. While adults talked, the boy went outside to explore. On that drizzly fall afternoon, the curious seven-year-old was drawn to a large, reddish brown mass in the front yard. He discovered the cannon partially cloaked in prickly underbrush; the rear half lay on a large slate rock, the muzzle submerged in dirt.

Howard was thrilled and quickly returned home to declare his prize. But, his mother implied, what was a mere lad to do with it? Any dream of retrieving the hidden treasure would have to wait. Eventually, the old house burned down and its property condemned. The firearm remained undisturbed.

Meanwhile, no attention was given the relic. At the onset of World War II, quotas for scrap metal triggered local supporter spirit. Several ambitious teenagers decided to capitalize on the cannon. Combined efforts of four husky, high school students and a Model A pickup truck were soon thwarted; the attempt being no match for such an awkward weight. The gun escaped peril and was again ignored. Time passed.

Howard Newhouse grew up to be a surveyor and avid historian. Although busy with work and raising a family, he never forgot about the neglected booty. In 1960, Howard acquired rights to it. With the aide of several reluctant friends, the notably heavy collectors item was transported several miles upriver--no small task--to his residence. At its new location, the gun was mounted and aimed, jokingly, at a neighbors house, unloaded of course.

For over 40 years, the cannon adorned Howards lawn and made a great conversation piece for the secluded, myrtle-treed neighborhood. All the while, his research of the firearms history continued. Bit by bit, a file accumulated. A series of letters, interviews and tattered newspaper clippings eventually solved most of the puzzle.

Not yet fully satisfied, Howard decided to contact an expert on collectible guns. In 1994, he documented all the necessary measurements, took photographs, and sent the data off to an office in Baden, Pennsylvania.

Wayne S. Stark promptly sent this reply: Your rifle is unique among known surviving artillery tubes. I believe it is a 4.62 iron insurance rifle purchased for use on a private merchant ship sometime in the late 1850s or very early 1860s. During many periods in U.S. history, merchant ships had to carry a certain amount of artillery in order to obtain insurance for each voyage. While this gun is evidently unmarked, I suspect it was made by Cyrus Alger & Company of Boston.

This significant piece of information brought the tale of Rogue Rivers cannon to near completion. In all likelihood, Robert D. Hume purchased the gun at some distant port to protect his wares from roving pirates. His merchant ships often sailed between Seattle, Portland, and San Francisco as well as destinations farther, north and south.

At some point, he must have determined ocean transport was secure and opted to bring the weapon ashore. Since its arrival, the gun had been highly regarded, repulsively thrown-away, and almost completely destroyed. Fortunately, the rarity was then tucked safely away from harm.

In June of 2002, the Curry Historical Society was the fortunate recipient of this exceptional and important artifact. Jane Newhouse donated the cannon on behalf of her late husband, Howard, so once again it could be publicly seen and appreciated. Undaunted by its density, a volunteer force of construction workers set out to make the retrieval aptly equipped with a huge flat bed truck and high-tech fork lift--makes one wonder how the pioneers got the job done.

Today, the cannon stands--a vigilant sentinel--in front of the Curry Historical Society Museum in Gold Beach; thus this final chapter comes to a close. My questions were answered thanks to the foresight and relentless curiosity of Howard Newhouse. This altruistic historian redeemed the invaluable curio and revealed its secrets. Hence, he salvaged a remarkable piece of our history that, as of 2005, remains part of Oregons coast for 123 years and counting.

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