This column is about the Parrott naval rifles that once stood guard at Buffalo’s parks, circles and squares. I thought it would be easier — who knew cannons could be so complicated?
Parrott rifles are so named because of the rifling of the cannon barrel. The spiral cuts in the interior of the barrel added spin to the projectiles, which made them more accurate than smooth bore cannons. The projectile itself was the pointed shape of modern artillery shells, spelling the eventual end of cannonballs as ammunition. So these can accurately be called either rifles or cannons.
The rifles and ammunition were both perfected by Robert Parrott, a former U.S. Army officer and, from 1836 to 1876, superintendent of the West Point Foundry, where the cannons were cast. By 1860, his design of the rifle was set. Its long barrel of cast iron had a tendency to blow up, so to help stabilize it, a wrought iron band was forged around the bottom, giving the rifle its distinct profile. It was still a dangerous piece to fire, but its accuracy made it the cannon preferred by the army and the navies of both sides in the Civil War.
Buffalo’s Parrott rifles are 100-pound naval versions. Various sizes were cast but the 100-pounders could fire projectiles weighing up to 100 pounds as far as 7,800 yards and needed a crew of 17 sailors to load and fire them. By the 1870s, this cannon model was already obsolete since it was made for wooden warships and would not fit the new iron fleet.
In the 1880s the Philadelphia Naval Yard offered cities its supply of surplus 100-pound Parrotts which had never been used in combat. Buffalo acquired 20 to 25 of them and probably put them in storage until suitable sites could be selected.
In 1889 the foundation of Soldiers and Sailors Monument in Lafayette Square was rebuilt. As part of the work the square was redesigned and 10 of the Parrotts were placed in the space, two each on the four paths and two in front of the main steps. By 1897, in time for the huge Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) convention of Union Army veterans and their families, eight more were placed in Front Park where a large tent city reminiscent of their wartime bivouacs was set up.
The cannons were mounted on what were called GAR carriages, elaborate cast iron frames that were not useful as firing bases but were strictly decorative. They soon became popular for people sit on for pictures, the selfies of the time.
In 1908 four more cannons were situated at Soldiers Place, defending the four approaches to the circle. A pyramid of cannonballs was placed next to each rifle. Although inaccurate as ammunition, they proved irresistible to junk dealers and were rolled up and down the parkways as pranks and as part of initiation rites.
Another alteration of Lafayette Square in 1912-13 changed the square to a circle to accommodate an extension of Broadway to Main Street, and the cannons were removed. Four of them were placed on Colonial Circle and two were placed in the Great Meadow in Delaware Park, on either side of the memorial to Buffalo’s unknown soldiers of the War of 1812. The rest were probably sold for salvage.
Unlike today, Soldiers Place and Colonial Circle had a flatter street level profile. As automobiles proliferated, folks who, for whatever reason, couldn’t maneuver around the circles, would jump the curbs and crash into the cannons.
By the 1930s, the city could no longer afford to repair the damaged GAR carriages. Frank Coon, the parks commissioner at the time, declared the cannons a traffic hazard. They were removed from Colonial Circle in 1936 and, along with the cannonballs, from Soldiers Place in 1937. Everything was sold for scrap at $7 a ton for the cannons and $9 a ton for the cannonballs.
The next round of elimination of the Parrotts occurred in 1942. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, citing a serious shortage of scrap metal for steel production, asked the cities and towns to consider donating their obsolete cannons and even metal statues for the war effort. The eight cannons in Front Park were removed for this early metal drive.
That left only the two rifles in Delaware Park’s meadow. These disappeared in the 1970s and it was rumored that thieves stole them for salvage. I believe, however, that the Parks Department removed them for some unknown safety reason and put them out of the way in the corner of a storage yard. Of the 450 or so 100-pound naval Parrotts cast, only 32 still exist; that these two remain was a lucky accident of neglect. I’m speculating that these were the two 1864-65 cannons found in a city storage yard in 2013. Carefully restored and seated on new GAR carriages, they were placed at Front Park on July 3, 2014, echoing those many cannons of years ago.
The sequence and locations of this column may be open to revision, so I’d welcome any comments that could add new information that I might have missed.
The two surviving cannons are 150 years old and our amazing Olmsted Parks will also turn 150 next year. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy is planning gala celebrations and events. To receive the latest updates and members-only invitations, join up at bfloparks.org. You’ll help keep our parks the great meeting spaces of our rising city.
Next Olmsted article: A desperate time