A new look at Grass Valley’s artillery | TheUnion.com

A new look at Grass Valley’s artillery

From time to time, a story about Grass Valley’s historic artillery: a field piece said to date to 1886, located in Memorial Park near the New Memorial Wall along Race Street and an 8-inch Columbiad cannon mounted in Dow Alexander Park, at Bennett and Bank streets, surfaces in the press. Let’s take another look and add some previously unpublished, confidential information. The Columbiad was originally installed at Fort Point on San Francisco Bay in the mid-1850s. Periodic attempts to wrest it from Grass Valley have all met with failure.

The Columbiad story begins in 1911, when the Women’s Improvement Club of Grass Valley decided to turn a ‘plat’ of land at Bennett and Bank streets into a small park.

In those days – as fashion dictated – a cannon was thought to be the ultimate display for a city’s park. It was a symbol of strength, stability and civic pride. So in February, Mrs. Nellie Mitchell, secretary of the Improvement Club, wrote to United States Senator George C. Perkins, chairman of the Committee on Naval Affairs, asking for his help in obtaining a suitable piece for display in the soon-to-be-constructed town square.

Perkins forwarded Mitchell’s request to the War Department, Office of the Chief of Ordnance and a reply was soon forthcoming. Brigadier General William Crozier, Chief of Ordnance, U.S.A., sent Perkins the following reply:

I take pleasure in informing you that the Commanding Officer of the Benicia Arsenal, Benicia, California, has this day (May 24, 1911) been instructed to turn over to the Mayor of Grass Valley, or on his order, for that town, one 8-inch Columbiad gun and 40 8-inch cast-iron shells, and to communicate with Mrs. Conaway (Improvement Club president), in regard to route of shipping…

The general added that “the gun was not considered safe for firing.” The Army does not say what it thought the Women’s Improvement Club might do with the cannon other than place it in the park, but the warning as to its condition must have been important. The general also offered to “spike” (make it impossible to fire) the gun and place a plug in the bore. The officer also suggested that the women paint the piece annually.

The cannon was duly landed on the Nevada County Narrow Gauge freight dock in Colfax; from there to the Grass Valley yard, then carted to the square. Total weight: with 40 balls, 11,000 lbs.

The Narrow Gauge Railroad’s President Sarah A. Kidder graciously paid the freight expense since a government stipulation was that the shipment be paid for by the recipient. Mrs. Kidder also donated for the project an ornate, cast iron drinking fountain topped by a winged victory holding a laurel wreath.

The park was landscaped, a 50-foot pole erected, officially named “City Square,” Mayor Conaway accepted the cannon and fountain, the square was dedicated and soon became a favorite resting place for railroad passengers due to its proximity to the Grass Valley depot. Today, the square is named Dow Alexander Memorial Park, to honor the man who worked tirelessly in behalf of the Grass Valley Jaycees. Alexander died in 1967 at age 57.

Time and vandalism have taken their toll; the 40 cannon balls and Sarah Kidder’s ornate fountain are gone as is the flag pole, but the Columbiad still stands guard pointing westerly as it has for some 93 years. Now to the attempts to remove the venerable cannon.

In November 1968, Grass Valley Mayor John Hodge received from the Fort Point Museum Association, a request to have Grass Valley donate the Columbiad to the museum. The museum people wanted the gun to install in a reproduction of one of the fort’s gun ports of the mid-19th century. Mayor Hodge turned the letter over to the Jaycees since they had been maintaining the park as one of their civic projects. The group turned thumbs down on the request and that was that; Grass Valley said “no!”

Now, to July 1977, and to a never before discussed, confidential letter to this writer from a vice president of the now named Fort Point and Army Museum Association, seeking help in getting the Columbiad. The sender, a friend, is now deceased but I will not use his name. The letter in part says:

“We have a problem. There is no other known cannon of its type, the rest were melted down during World War I. We tried to make a trade (a WWII howitzer!) and failed. Now we would pay…for it. We are told Grass Valley City Council will not sell…the (money we can offer) might be pretty handy for some…project and the cannon has no local meaning (!). Any ideas you have…would be appreciated.” I answered that I had none.

Now to a story in The Union on June 26, 2001, in which it is stated that the Grass Valley Parks and Recreation Commission wants to move the gun to Memorial Park in order to install a sidewalk. The area now contains a disabled persons’ parking space.

Additionally, according to the story, they reasoned that the cannon “was inappropriate” where a children’s playground was scheduled to be built. There had been children’s playground equipment (see 1981 photo) on the site for more than 20 years prior to the commission’s proposal! Anyway, the Columbiad is still guarding the little park; and I hope it does so for at least another 93 years.


Bob Wyckoff is a retired newspaper editor, author of local and California history and a longtime Nevada County resident. You can reach him by e-mail at: bobwyckoff@infostations.com or by U. S. mail at P.O. Box 216, Nevada City.

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