Tualatin, Ore., residents Mike and Miranda Petrone and Sharisse Repp have surely earned places in the beachcombing hall of fame with discovery of two cannons south of the entrance to the Columbia River at Arch Cape. Imagine their excitement at finding these incredible artifacts, likely long-lost guns from the famous 1846 shipwreck of the USS Shark.
Although it's distinctly possible these rare cannons were exposed by this winter's riot of storms, it's also possible they were waiting in plain sight for somebody observant enough to recognize them for what they are. You never know what fresh eyes will see. Maybe we should recruit out-of-town people for all our local treasure-hunting chores.
There can be few historic images more iconic than a sailing ship, canvas cracking in the wind, being driven to its doom on a pitiless shoal. Narrowly missing out on the U.S.-British Columbia boundary squabble that nearly brought America and Britain to blows, the marvelously named Shark went on to a different kind of glory by foundering on the notorious sandbars at the mouth of the Columbia while on a surveying expedition.
According to James Gibbs' great shipwreck book, "Pacific Graveyard," the 300-ton Shark was plagued by troubles in her time here on the river. After a 25-day passage from Honolulu, Capt. Schenck hired an inexperienced bar pilot that grounded the ship on the bar near Ilwaco after only 20 minutes at the helm. But it drifted free and managed to get to work.
But much of the crew deserted in Astoria and on Sept. 10 the under-manned ship drove hard onto Clatsop Spit. As the ship began to break apart, the captain successfully got his crew safely into the lifeboats. A portion of the Shark worked its way loose and was carried by the currents south to the wild shore near present-day Cannon Beach, where the first of its cannons was found in 1898.
As conveniently explained in Archaeology's current article about the salvage of Black Beard's pirate ship Queen Anne's Revenge, the conservation of long-submerged iron cannons is a delicate, interesting but ultimately tedious process. Sea salts penetrate the surface of the iron and have to be chemically lured back out of the metal, which is then coated with a preservative finish. It must all be done with great care and expertise.
Considering these objects' prime historical importance to our coastline, where one of their sisters gave Cannon Beach its name, experts must be brought to the guns or the guns must be brought to the experts.
But they must end up here on the coast, where the Shark died while helping open the Columbia to commercial navigation. Assuming it is confirmed they were found on state property, Oregon should ensure that the Columbia River Maritime Museum plays a leading role in restoring and interpreting them. We have no doubt the public will be generous in supporting this process, financially and politically.
While there is nowhere better than our fine maritime museum to display such fabulous symbols of a bygone age, we also urge that at least one be kept in Arch Cape, the Shark's final resting place.
This discovery is a concrete reminder of the Lower Columbia's surfeit of nautical history, its powerful and heroic heritage of shipwrecks, adventure and the meeting of cultures. These cannons can still have loud voices to tell us of a long-ago disaster. By their spectral flashes we may hope to glimpse our past.