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Restored cannons retake place guarding Baltimore atop Patterson Park hill

The seven cannons installed in Patterson Park in 1914 were recently refurbished and placed on new pedestals. (Algerina Perna/Baltimore Sun)

Cannons along the hills of what is now Patterson Park repelled a British invasion of Baltimore more than 200 years ago, and they are once again mounted as if ready for a fight.

After an absence of more than a year, cannons have returned to Hampstead Hill, cleaned and coated with a protective sealant. Six of the iron artillery pieces were installed on new stands constructed with modern museum-quality materials, designed to look like a seventh erected as a monument in 1914.

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The cannons' restoration is a final piece of the city's War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations. Paid for by a state grant, the refurbishment work revealed that each is at least 200 years old. And one of them dates to 1660.

And it will preserve them as a monument to Baltimore's pivotal role in the war for at least another century, organizers said.

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"They are a remarkable example of the various artillery that was used here in the Americas, not only in its conquest but also in its defense," said Forrest Taylor, a Carroll County cannon expert who oversaw the restoration. "They were brought here at some point in time through the maritimers and they would end up being used to defend the city, while in the past they were used to defend other nation-states."

For at least a century, the cannons marked the position from which Baltimore militiamen fended off a British land attack in September 1814 as Fort McHenry was being unsuccessfully bombarded by sea. That failed attack inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem that became the national anthem.

At a banquet at the Belvedere Hotel in 1907, the Society of the War of 1812 presented the city with 10 cannons, dug up from city streets after having served as curbs for years, according to Baltimore Sun archives. The cannons were mounted in Patterson and Riverside parks, according to the article.

In 1914, as the city celebrated the centennial of the Battle of Baltimore, the Patterson Park cannons were designated as a monument to history, according to Sun archives. Wilbur Jackson Preston, son of then-Mayor James Harry Preston, unveiled the plaque on one cannon that marks the site of "Rodgers' Bastion," the heart of a line of defenses. It was named for Commodore John Rodgers, who commanded some of the 12,000 troops and 100 guns that fought in the battle.

But over the decades, the cannons' conditions deteriorated. They sat directly on bases of brick and concrete, materials that did not protect them from moisture, Taylor said. The untreated iron began to rust and chip after years of exposure to rain and salty air, he said.

The Friends of Patterson Park sought to restore and preserve them as part of the War of 1812 bicentennial commemorations, which also included an archaeological dig for traces of militia defenses and structures at the time of the battle. The Star-Spangled 200 Grant Program, funded through corporate sponsorships, state money and proceeds from sales of a Star-Spangled Banner commemorative coin, paid for the $75,000 cannon project.

Jennifer Arndt Robinson, executive director of the Friends of Patterson Park, said she wasn't quite sure what significance the cannons held when she initiated the project last spring. But Taylor found they had quite a story.

"I was so taken aback by the quality and what was obviously an incredible history to these guns," he said.

He learned more about the ordnance by examining the thicker bands spaced periodically along their length — placed deliberately based on the vibration patterns of each weapon — and the bore openings that showed what size cannonball was used. Small vents at the base of the cannons showed how heavily they were used — one had nearly doubled in width after being subjected to repeated explosions, he said.

Those clues helped him determine that one was made in America around 1750. Another came all the way from Sweden, while several are of British origin, including one cast under King George I, whose great-grandson, King George III, was monarch during the War of 1812.

"Somehow it came from being made and a weapon of King George the First to being a weapon that would fight against his children," Taylor said.

The smallest of the cannons, added to the end of the row that flanks the pagoda, was long overlooked, having been turned upright and half buried at some point to be used as a hitching post on the hill nearby.

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Taylor coated the cannons in sealant that will protect them from the elements and placed them on stands made of aluminum, designed to match the stand holding the lone cannon just south of the pagoda that was dedicated in the 1914 ceremony.

The other six cannons are mounted to the stands using a plastic known as polypenco, a substance that will separate them from the natural electric currents running through the ground. The mounts are designed to drain away any water that might pool against the cannons, Taylor said.

They are all placed atop new concrete pedestals built around the original mounts.

"I'm just thrilled with the way they look," Robinson said.

Plaques are being made for each pedestal and a formal dedication is being planned for September, she said. By that time, the Friends of Patterson Park also expects to install a display case inside the pagoda showing off artifacts found in the archaeological dig.

But the cannons are nonetheless ready for children to climb and dog walkers and joggers to admire, she said.

"You always have to anticipate kids are going to climb on them," she said. "They're going to become part of the landscape that people use in different ways."

Nearby residents are glad to have them back. Butcher's Hill resident MaryKate Willhelm noticed with excitement when someone posted a photo of the reinstalled cannons on a neighborhood Facebook page.

"They look shiny and beautiful," she said while walking two dogs through the park Monday. "I think a lot of people will want to see them."

Baltimore Sun librarian Paul McCardell contributed to this article.

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