In 1756 the war ministry of Great Britain resolved to do something about protecting the Pennsylvania frontier from marauding Indians and guard against a French invasion. The juncture of the two branches of the Susquehanna at Sunbury was selected as the site for the construction of a mighty fortress which came to be known as Fort Augusta. A cast iron cannon was forged in England and sent to the New World to Philadelphia, destined for the new fort on the Susquehanna. It was hauled, overland, probably following the route through Reading and Berks along the Shamokin Trail across the Blue Mountains from present day Bethel to Pinegrove. One version has it that it was hauled to Harris Ferry and taken up the river on a bateau.
The cannon was mounted on the ramparts of Fort Augusta and served during the French and Indian and the Revolutionary wars. In 1788, the weapon was taken to augment the battery at Fort Muncy. One year later, the northern fort was abandoned. The fleeing soldiers loaded the cannon on a boat and started down the river, but found that the heavy encumbrance was too much for the small boat. At the lower end of Shamokin Island, the soldiers spiked the cannon and dumped it into the Susquehanna.
Ten years later, the rusty cannon was discovered at the bottom of the muddy river. Two brothers named Mantz, salvaged the relic and brought it back to Sunbury. By applying heat to the metal they succeeded in drilling out the spike.
Now begins a tale of strife, many towns along the Susquehanna vying for possession of the ancient weapon, and in these contests all bars were down. It was buried in an archway of a tavern in Sunbury; it was hidden in cellars in Selinsgrove; it was carried on lusty shoulders to an attic and hidden under a bed; it was concealed in the cellar of a hotel in New Berlin; in a fire house in Selinsgrove. Each time it changed hands it was the result of a daring plot to steal the antique from its erstwhile owners often at the expense of broken bones and broken laws.
Why did each town try to own the cannon? In order that they could celebrate Independence Day in proper fashion. Each Fourth of July from 1824 until 1836 the cannon was called upon to announce liberty and independence to the residents of the Susquehanna valley. In 1838, the muzzle of the cannon was broken off with a sledge hammer by a Negro named “Cudgo” in a drunken show of strength.
The full account of the peripatetic tracels of this remarkable relic is furnished by Heber G. Gearhart in Volume VIII of the “Proceedings of the Northumberland County Historical Society.”
One of the accounts of the thefts will serve here as a sample of many repeated escapades. In 1834, Selinsgrove patriots held temporary possession of the coveted relic. Sunbury conspirators located it in the fire house of Selinsgrove, stole it, and ferried it across the river to Sunbury. On Independence Day they startled the residents of Sunbury by firing the ancient weapon at dawn. Excitedly, Capt. Daniels Levy commander of the local militia, rushed from his home to the scene of the disturbance and brandishing his sword, offered to command the defense of the town in the case of an attack.
The checkered career of the cannon did not end until 1893 whenit came into the possession of the Sunbury Fire Company No. 1. Since that date it has had but two public appearances, once when the fire company moved to a new home, and again in 1922, when the fire company carried the cannon on one of its fire trucks as a part of the Sesquicentennial celebration of the founding of Sunbury.
Far be it from our purpose to tell the people of Sunbury what to do with their treasure, but we cannot help sensing a fitting climax to the history of that cannon. How appropriate it would be today if that ancient tongue of freedom could be sent to bark its message once again, recast into a modern piece of artillery, against the foes of liberty and independence of this century.