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Saturday, April 13, 2024

The legend of the Sidewalk Baton Rouge cannon is nobody’s business today | Entertainment / Lifestyle


Ann Munson’s reaction was probably representative of that of most people who noticed that the cannon first appeared on the downtown corner of Third and Laurel Streets.

“I looked down as I walked the sidewalk and I said, ‘What the hell is this?'” said Monson, a reference librarian at the River Center branch of the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. “It was metal and I wondered if it was some kind of riser. So, I did some research on it.”

Sam Sharon Cannon 1

On the sidewalk at the corner of Third and Laurel Streets in downtown Baton Rouge, a cannon once stood in front of the Sumter House (also known as the Fort Sumter Saloon).

To be fair, the cannon is located next to a fire hydrant and trash can on the 400 block of Third Street, which sometimes makes it invisible to passers-by. Still, if someone happens to notice the cannon while looking down at their smartphone, all they have to do is raise their eyes for a quick explanation.

A historical marker tells the story behind this cannon. Or rather, it tells a story.

Sam Sharon Cannon 2

This 1950s photo shows the former Sumter Tavern building (left), after conversion to a retail shirt store. The cannon can be seen in the lower right corner. When the photo was taken, the overall structure of the hall was still intact.

The marker is one of many iconic historic sites and events surrounding downtown Baton Rouge. It provides a summary of the cannon’s CliffsNotes: “According to local tradition, Charles Wick named his new saloon the day after Fort Sumter was fired upon in 1861 and placed the cannon in front for ambience. This One of the most popular saloons in the city until the ban.”

Wieck’s name is misspelled in the markup, with the “i” and “e” reversed, and although the markup is partly correct, there are some discrepancies.

Sam Sharon Cannon 3

The cannon that once stood in front of Fort Sumter Sharon (also known as Sumter House) is commemorated by a historic marker. Here, the cannon appears against the background of the parking lot that was once the salon.

Munson’s research led her to Hilda S. Krousel’s 2012 book, “Landmarks and Monuments of Baton Rouge,” which highlights the cannon.

“Some claim it is an antebellum cannon, while others assert that it is a Spanish cannon captured in 1810 when Fort Baton Rouge was captured by General Philemon Thomas,” Crussel wrote.

Based on John Sykes’ research, Krousel was right about Spanish artillery. Sykes, executive director of BREC’s Magnolia Mound, is writing a book about landmarks in downtown Baton Rouge. He also organizes downtown walking tours that highlight the city’s historic attractions. Sykes cites a 1918 article by State-Times Colonel John McGrath, who says the story provides the most comprehensive history of the saloon and cannon.

Sam Sharon Cannon 5

An entrenched cannon on the sidewalk at the corner of Third and Laurel Streets, with a shell next to it. This cannon once faced Fort Sumter Salon, also known as Sumter House.

First, McGrath calls it the Sumter House when other writers refer to Wieck’s bar as the Fort Sumter Saloon. The salon at Third and Laurel is actually the second location of the bar.

“He opened the first bar in 1859 in a two-story building on the corner of Third and Main,” Sykes said.

Wieck started calling his place the Union Saloon. That was before the start of the Civil War, and Vick’s choice of name may contradict the conventional story that he was a Confederate sympathizer.

Regardless of his political beliefs, the truth is that his first pub was called Union.

“Baton Rouge was 50-50 in the receivership at the time,” Sykes said. “Wick moved his pub to Third and Laurel when the city decided to demolish the building he was in to make way for Wales and Levy.”

Sam Sharon Cannon 7

A historic marker accompanying the cannon stands on the sidewalk at the corner of Third and Laurel Streets. This cannon once faced Fort Sumter Salon, also known as Sumter House.

After the Confederates opened fire on Fort Sumter, Wick renamed his bar Fort Sumter Sharon or Sumter House. Despite speculation, the cannon had nothing to do with Sumter or the Civil War.

“According to the colonel, this cannon was one of those captured from the Spanish fort in Baton Rouge in 1810,” Sykes said.

This is Fort Baton Rouge, which was captured from the British by Spanish forces under Bernardo de Galvez in 1779 during the Revolutionary War. Known as Fort San Carlos, the fort was armed with 16 cannons.

Summer Salon Cannon 8

Another view of the cannon and its historic markers at the corner of Third and Laurel Streets. This cannon once faced Fort Sumter Salon, also known as Sumter House.

In September 1810, local British and American settlers briefly occupied it and became part of the West Florida Republic. The US Army captured the fort in December 1810.

“Colonel McGrath writes that in the 1850s, cannon from the fort was sent to the John Hill Foundry on Third Street, where it was melted down into sugar mill machinery,” Sykes said. “But the foundry sent the cannons back to the city, embedded in street corners to keep vehicles from driving into sidewalks. If you look at other old photos of downtown Baton Rouge, you’ll see some of these cannons.”

But only the cannon at the Sumter Bar seems to have survived, remaining there long after Prohibition closed the bar in 1918. The building was later divided into several sections, which housed retail shops.

The building was remodeled over the years and was eventually demolished to make way for a car park.

Sykes also took the time to debunk the historical error that Wieck opened his first bar in a building once occupied by another popular pre-Civil War Baton Rouge bar called the Rainbow Saloon. The bar is on Lafayette and Main streets, just a few blocks from Wieck’s two stores.

Sam Sharon Cannon 4

This 1969 photo shows street work to rebuild Third Street, with cannons embedded in the sidewalk at the corner of Third and Laurel Streets. The cannon faces Fort Sumter Sharon, also known as Sumter House. The Department of Public Works’ excavation of the cannon caused an uproar among Baton Rougeans, who demanded that the cannon be returned.

Still, the story doesn’t stop there. More than 50 years after the pub faded into obscurity, the cannon is causing a sensation all over town.

Krouse tells the story of how the Baton Rougeans banded together to keep the cannon in place when the city began rebuilding the Third-Laurel intersection on January 15, 1969.

“The Ministry of Public Works unearthed old cannons,” she wrote. “Department chief Ray Burgess immediately regretted the action as he had to spend the next day ‘quelling’ the outrage of people demanding the cannon be put back.”

Baton Rouge Mayor and President Woody Dumas was also mobbed by angry callers.

Sam Sharon Cannon 6

The view from the corner of Third and Laurel Streets. A parking lot on the left marks Fort Sumter Saloon, also known as the site of the Sumter House. The cannon on the sidewalk in front of the tavern is still there with a historical marker on it.

“Not only did the civic groups he contacted condemn the cannon’s removal, but private concerns also dogged his offer to buy it,” she wrote.

In the end, The Advocate polled readers on the fate of the cannon, and it was overwhelmingly voted to keep the cannon.

For the most part, however, the old gun is now largely untouched, with only the occasional passer-by stopping by and asking, “What the hell is that?”


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