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Artillery pieces in city parks have a long history; Stoic sentinels stand in silent tribute to those who have served their country

Two artillery pieces have stood guard over at least a generation of children's games in the City of Lockport. One, a large, black sprawling gun sitting in Altro Park on Willow Street and the second, a shorter, stubby gun in Ida Fritz Park on West Avenue, have captured the imagination of countless youngsters.

To children, the actual provenance of the guns never really mattered, but a certain mystique surrounds the history of these silent sentinels. Where did they come from? How long have they been there? Have they actually been fired in battle?

Here is the story: In 1920, Maj. Gen. C.C. Williams, chief of ordnance, offered the City of Lockport, the two Tonawandas and the City of Buffalo a 7-inch mortar, Model 1892 from the arsenal at Watervliet. The gun, weighing 1,700 pounds, had been used as a coastal defense piece.

Operating through official channels, Williams contacted Rep. S. Wallace Dempsey, a native of Hartland, who sent a letter in February of that year to Lockport Mayor Ernest Crosby, offering the cannon from the Excess Ordnance Department of the U.S. Army. Williams stated that "this mortar was not considered safe for firing and is loaned with the understanding that, should future service demand, it is subject to return to the government." The cannon arrived in Lockport in April of 1920 and was placed in the West Avenue Park -- later Ida Fritz Park -- near Transit Road. Alderman Paul R. Schultz spearheaded a committee to dedicate the new memorial on June 12, 1920.

Shortly after the acquisition of the land for Outwater Park, aldermen decided that it, too, should have an artillery piece. In November of 1920, Dempsey again petitioned the chief of ordnance for an additional piece.

Williams offered to send a Gatling gun to Lockport. Unfortunately, the Common Council demurred on accepting this gun, feeling it was too small to fit in the broad expanse of Outwater Park. Perhaps in jest, Williams offered a 49,000-pound, 15-inch Rodman gun instead. The Rodman gun was one of the largest siege guns ever produced. Faced with paying freight from Watervliet on that gun, the Common Council politely declined and accepted a smaller, yet still impressive 4.72-inch, 40-caliber gun and carriage from the Coast Defenses of Southern New York.

This piece, with gun and carriage together, weighed more than 19,000 pounds. The gun alone was 16 feet long and weighed 4,650 pounds. Amid much fanfare, the artillery piece was placed in Outwater Park.

Although the Great War was termed the "war to end all wars," the United States and the world were soon embroiled in World War II. As part of the effort on the home front, scrap drives were organized to assist the government in building new ships, tanks and planes. On Sept. 3, 1942, the superintendent of parks was directed by the Common Council to "dispose of the two cannons in West Avenue and Outwater Parks" as scrap metal for the war effort. On Oct. 8, City Clerk Joseph Hillis reported that he had received $113.94 from Wm. Kugler & Bro., "covering scrap from the two iron cannons."

With the end of World War II, the country moved toward honoring another generation of soldiers, sailors and Marines. This afforded an opportunity to again place excess ordnance in public spaces around the United States.

Alderman Harold Altro introduced legislation to "obtain War Equipment for the Parks" in January 1946. A month later, the chief of ordnance responded with the offer of one light tank, one 155mm howitzer, and one 155mm gun. The Council accepted all three pieces and received the first, a 25-ton Sherman M-4 tank, on June 7, 1946. The city paid crating and shipping costs of $141.

This tank was intended for Outwater Park. When it arrived, its Curtiss-Wright airplane engine had been removed and it still bore the variegated striping of its original camouflage. Under the supervision of the parks superintendent, all loose parts and openings were welded shut to keep the memorial safe from the curiosity of children, but the tank was never placed in the park. In September of 1948, two years after its arrival, records show the City Clerk received a check for $250 from Wm. Kugler & Bro. for scrapping the tank.

Shortly after the arrival of the tank, the city also received the 155mm howitzer, which was originally destined for placement in Willow Street Park. However, the Common Council decided that the larger 155mm long gun, originally slated for West Avenue Park, would better fit in the vast space at Willow Street, and the howitzer was sent to West Avenue.

The howitzer is of French origin, model year 1917, produced in 1918, and sold to the United States. Officially it is known as "Canon de 155 C modele 1917 Schneider." The United States purchased many of these guns, sending along the French artillery pieces with the first U.S. regiments in France during World War I. U.S. armor manufacturers eventually produced their own version of the 155mm, although they were not introduced to the American troops until the war was over.

The American version of the French piece had a straight shield rather than the curved shield seen on the Lockport howitzer, and both versions of the weapon were used as the primary American howitzer until the advent of the M1 howitzer in 1942. The wheels of the Lockport piece were removed and the base set into concrete at the park. As with other memorials of this type, the gun was painted black and intended to be a memorial to those men lost during the war.

The 155mm long gun stands in Willow Street's Altro Park. It is a copy of the French 155mm and was manufactured in 1940. The U.S.-manufactured guns of this class were used for coastal defense and typically were mounted on a central pillar with a rail for the trailing arms behind it, allowing the guns to swivel across an arc. Most of these guns were phased out by 1942 when fixed batteries came into prominent use. They were replaced by the 155mm "Long Tom." Again upon arrival in Lockport and placement in the park, the rubber wheels were removed.

Another cannon sits in the front yard of the armory on Willow Street. Several artillery experts think this cannon is likely a display piece only. The carriage and barrel are a mismatch, and indications are that the barrel is not of military quality. The absence of a touch-hole would indicate that the cannon was never meant to be fired.

Additionally, the carriage, while similar to one from the Napoleonic period, is made of cast iron rather than wood. Very likely, the cannon was used as part of a display, possibly at the Pan-American Exposition. It came to Lockport from the Connecticut Street Armory in Buffalo after being displayed at the Niagara Falls Armory until its closure.

While these cannon and the ill-fated tank never saw combat action, they serve as silent reminders of those men and women who have laced up the boots, strapped on a weapon and served our country with distinction. Our Guns of Lockport have stood as mysterious beacons from the past. Perhaps knowing their history, we can once again honor them for what they are -- memorials to the men and women of the armed forces of the United States.

Craig E. Bacon is the deputyNiagara County historian.