From the Saratogian News:
South Glens Falls >> When explosions from a local quarry vibrated across the village Tuesday, residents in Warren, Washington and Saratoga counties also heard the booms and felt the trembling. Neither thunderstorms nor earthquakes, the detonations proved to be the explosive demise of 180 Civil War-era cannonballs, detonated by the U.S. military and the state police to keep the public safe.
“These were eight-pound cannonballs, each with a hole drilled into it where black-powder residue could have remained,” said John Snyder, public affairs officer at the Watervliet Arsenal. The cannonballs had been stored there before their detonation.
Although earlier media reports said this cache of antique shot had washed up on the banks of the Hudson River in Watervliet – no mean feat for 180 eight-pound iron missiles – both Snyder and U.S. Army First Sgt. Kieran Dollard of Fort Drum said the cannonballs had long been kept in the arsenal.
“These artifacts belonged to the U.S. Army Center of Military History,” Snyder said. “The cannonballs had been stored in the Watervliet Arsenal Museum. When the army closed the museum in October 2013, all the artifacts were catalogued and moved. The removal was completed last week.”
Cannonballs aren’t generally thought of as dangerous detonating devices. But these missiles’ cavities would have been packed with a high-explosive bursting powder charge, used to destroy enemy wagons, breastworks or opposing artillery.
“The burster charges were missing, but we couldn’t certify the cannonballs as residue-free,” Dollard said. “The chance of any injury occurring outweighed any historical value.”
The 725th Explosive Ordinance Disposal Unit, to which Dollard belongs, joined the New York State Police in transporting and detonating the cannonballs in a Ferry Boulevard quarry in South Glens Falls. He said this was the safest, closest location.
The New York State Police Bomb Disposal Unit assisted with planning and escorting military personnel throughout the operation, said Darcy Wells, spokesperson for the state police. She said the 911 centers in Saratoga and Warren counties had been notified, so residents would know there wasn’t any danger from the explosions.
I could quibble, with justification, to point out these were not cannonballs. Technically speaking cannonballs are solid shot. These were shells or empty case shot. But for the general public, raised on Bugs Bunny and Roadrunner, I guess “cannonball” will do. With the rough weight given, I suspect these were 12-pounder caliber.
The historian in me regrets these could not be cleared and saved for display. But, I would say that one class of wartime artifacts we are not lacking would be artillery shells – Particularly 12-pounders. Watervliet Arsenal played an important role during the Civil War. But that was somewhat overshadowed in later decades when the arsenal became the “big gun shop” producing weapons up to 16-inch caliber. Unfortunately, last fall the arsenal museum closed due to security reasons.
What this does underscore is that lingering danger from weapons that have remained silent for 150 years. Civil War ordnance was designed to kill or maim. That capability still remains. Unless properly cleared by professionals, any ordnance must be treated with extreme caution. You do not want to be the last casualty of the Civil War.