Santa Cruz County History - Making a Living

The Cannons
by Barry Brown

Photograph of Cannons at the California Powder Works
The Cannons at the California Powder Works
Photograph Courtesy of the Museum of Art &
History @ The McPherson Center, Santa Cruz, CA

In this photograph you will see four rifles or cannons. They were delivered between 1892 and 1897 to the California Powder Works by the U.S. Inspector of Ordinance, Omaha, Nebraska, for the purpose of testing the powder made in Santa Cruz for the United States Army and Navy. Starting from left to right, the first gun was a 6in. 45-caliber Quick-Fire Rifle, Model 1897. The next gun is too small to identify, but the larger one to its right is a standard 57mm 6lb. Hotchkiss Rapid-Fire Rifle. The last and largest gun, on the far right, is an 8in. 32-caliber Breach-Loading Rifle Model 1888 and fired the shell seen just to its right which measures 29in. tall and weighs about 300lbs.

These guns were used to "proof" or test the gunpowder for the government before shipment. To do this, the shells were fired through separate 6x6ft. wire screens placed at differing specified distances down-range. Using an electromechanical device, the operators were able to calculate the velocity of the shells and thereby determine the quality of the powder. In warfare, the quality of the gunpowder is critical in assuring accuracy and consistency from one shot to the next.

Before the cannons were fired, a large bell was rung to warn the workers to expect a loud report. As you can imagine, unexpected explosions in a powder-making area were unnerving. The cannons' roar always got the attention of those in Santa Cruz and sometimes could be heard all the way to Monterey.

Photograph of Cannons at the California Powder Works
Cannons at the California Powder Works
Photograph Courtesy of The Museum of Art & History @
The McPherson Center, Santa Cruz, CA

The 8in. gun was used as a coastal weapon but was disliked because its large shell required special heavy machinery to lift and load it. This slowed the rate of fire to only one round per minute or possibly two rounds if the crew was well trained. The 6in. gun, on the other hand, could be loaded by two men, had a rate of fire of 10-12 rounds per minute, and so was very useful in firing at high speed targets.

As can be seen in the picture below, the 6in. gun could be elevated, but it was normally left in a horizontal position for testing. However, on an August day in 1899, for whatever reason, the crew elevated the gun to it’s fullest height and fired...twice. The results were reported in the Mountain Echo of August 26, 1899:

Two more cannon balls, weighing nearly 100lbs. each which had been fired for testing the powder at the Powder Works, struck near Felton Friday of last week. In some way they had missed the target and came flying up the gulch a distance of two and one half miles, one striking near the Toll House and the other near Hihn’s Mill.

Fortunately no one was killed! Examples of the 2", 6", and 8" shells can be seen in the Paradise Park Office.

Photograph of Cannons at the California Powder Works
The Cannons at the California Powder Works
Photograph from the John Carney Family Collection

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View similarly tagged articles:

dynamite, powder works, San Lorenzo River


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