Tuesday, March 02, 2010

Ft. Sumter Cannons, Lownsdale Square

Downtown Portland's Lownsdale Square is often overlooked, and the war memorial at its center is even more obscure. The main feature of the memorial is a pillar topped with a statue of a soldier, commemorating the Spanish-American War (which itself is a bit obscure). At its base sit two very small cannons, one facing north and the other south. They don't look like much, and practically nobody notices them, but it turns out they're one of Portland's two obscure Civil War memorials, the other being a monument in the middle of Lone Fir Cemetery.

A plaque on one states "HOWITZERS USED IN DEFENSE OF FORT SUMPTER 1861". In case you played hooky that day in history class, Fort Sumter (no 'P' ) is a fortified island in the harbor of Charleston, South Carolina. The Civil War started there, with Confederate forces laying siege to the Union-held fort. Later in the war the roles were reversed for a second siege.

The Parks Bureau page for the square (link up above) explains:

At the base of this monument are two small cannons from Fort Sumter (misspelled on the plaque) brought here by Colonel Henry E. Dosch. Because the cannons were used by both Union and Confederate troops, it was Dosch's idea to face one north and one south.

If I cared to look for it, I'm sure there's all manner of trivia available about these cannons: Who made them and when, what sort of ammunition they used, maximum range, that sort of thing. But I'm really not very interested at all in the military history angle. I'm not a huge war fan, much less one of those historical reenactor guys who like to put on costumes and pretend to shoot each other. That stuff kind of creeps me out, to be honest. It's more that a.) the cannons are uncommonly old by Portland standards regardless of what they are, and b.) it's a rare opportunity for me to plug Charleston, which is an amazingly beautiful and historic city.

But don't take my word for it about Charleston; go see for yourself, or at least fire up Google Street View and have a virtual wander around the city. You can even go visit Fort Sumter in person if you want to. We did, years ago, but you really have to use your imagination to picture what happened there. Really there are far more interesting things to see and do in Charleston, although the boat trip cross the harbor is pretty scenic. So there's that.

Ft. Sumter Howitzers, Lownsdale Square

I'm more interested in why and how the cannons came to Portland. I'd really like to be able to point at a news story or book excerpt explaining this, but I haven't found anything like that on the net. We can, however, look at the gentleman who brought the cannons here, and make some educated guesses from there.

RootsWeb has a couple of period bios of Col. Dosch: Charles Henry Carey's History of Oregon (1922) and a 1903 book titled "Portrait and Biographical Record of Portland and Vicinity, Oregon". It's your basic "German bookkeeper immigrates to US just in time for the Civil War, joins up, has adventures, gets wounded, leaves the Army, heads west, has adventures, does a stint as a Pony Express rider, ends up in Portland, goes into business, eventually retires, spends later years as an amateur horticulturalist, when not managing exhibits at World's Fairs around the globe." type story. Although you have to admit that's kind of an unusual story.

The University of Washington library has two photos of Dosch in 1909, and he looks exactly the way you (or at least I) would imagine a World's Fair bigwig would look.

Among other things, Dosch organized the Oregon exhibit at the 1901-1902 South Carolina Inter-State and West Indian Exposition in Charleston, which just might be when and where he obtained these cannons. One goal of the fair was to publicize our newly conquered colonies the US picked up in the Spanish-American War (The Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Guam, etc.) So it may have seemed less peculiar at the time to situate Civil War cannons around a Spanish-American War monument.

A few other tidbits about Col. Dosch, from across the interwebs:

Ft. Sumter Howitzers, Lownsdale Square

One other loose end to sort out is the plaque's misspelling of "Sumter" as "Sumpter". As it turns out, there's an old mining ghost town in Eastern Oregon also named (and spelled) Sumpter. That's the only other case I've seen of "Sumter" being spelled with a 'p', so I suspect there's a connection. I'd guess people in Portland were so used to spelling it with a 'p' that they just did it without thinking. The classic "Oregon: End of the Trail" (from the Depression-era Federal Writers Program) describes the town in poetic and alarming terms:

Right on this road along the north bank of Powder River to SUMPTER, 19.6 m. (4,424 alt.), an almost deserted town of the "hard-rock" mining era. In 1902 an editorial in the local paper asked- "Sumpter, golden Sumpter, what glorious future awaits thee?" The answer today is a U. S.Forest station, one store with a pool hall, and the crumbled remnants of a business section that once stretched seven blocks up the steep hill. The town was so named because three North Carolinians, who chose a farmsite at this point in 1862, called their log cabin Fort Sumpter a misspelling of "Sumter." For many years the camp existed by grace of the few white miners who explored the district and hundreds of Chinese who followed them. With the coming of the railroad in 1896 and the opening of ore veins on the Blue Mountains, Sumpter became a city of 3,000 inhabitants. The total yield of the Sumpter quadrangle from both placer and deep mines has been nearly sixteen million dollars Names of the most productive mines were Mammoth, Goldbug-Gnzzly, Bald Mountain, Golden Eagle, May Queen, Ibex, Baby McKee, Belle of Baker, Quebec, White Star, Gold Ridge, and Bonanza. Twelve miles of mine tunnels were in operation at one time The town even had an opera house where fancy dress balls were held, but the sheepmen of the region were not welcome at them. The vigilante committee warned sheepmen away from the gold country on the threat of fixing them up "until the Angels could pan lead out of their souls." The story of Sumpter after 1916 is almost a blank. The few people who remained became accustomed to the sound of crumbling walls and to using doors and window frames for firewood. The smelter erected during the last days of the boom still stands. Pack rats live in the vaults of two former banks.

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