Heinz History Center revisits all those cannonballs found buried in Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Heinz History Center revisits all those cannonballs found buried in Pittsburgh

click to enlarge Heinz History Center revisits all those cannonballs found buried in Pittsburgh
Photo: Courtesy of Heinz History Center
Allegheny Arsenal
In 2020, a construction crew working on a site in Lawrenceville made a shocking discovery: a buried cache of Civil War-era cannonballs. Even more shocking? This wasn’t the first time the city unearthed buried ammunition, produced more than 150 years ago at Allegheny Arsenal.

The Heinz History Center will make sense of these surprising artifacts, as well as a tragic part of the Arsenal's legacy, during an upcoming talk.

Allegheny Arsenal: Exploding Myths, taking place Fri., Oct. 28, will feature History Center President and CEO Andy Masich, as well as Tom Powers and James Wudarczyk of the Lawrenceville Historical Society. The talk marks the release of The Allegheny Arsenal Handbook penned by Powers and Wudarczyk.

At the event, Masich, Powers, and Wudarczyk promise to reveal new findings – including maps, photographs, and illustrations – that, according to a press release, “explore the legends, lore, and myths surrounding Pittsburgh’s famous Arsenal.” They will also commemorate the 160th anniversary of an overlooked, but devastating part of the site’s history – a “mysterious explosion” that claimed 78 lives, mainly women and girls employed by the Arsenal.

Masich says Allegheny Arsenal played a major role in domestic warfare dating back to 1814, producing small arms ammunition and field artillery ammunition, as well as saddles and leather equipment for the United States Army. During the War of 1812, it made cannonballs for naval fleets “duking it out with the British on Lake Erie.”

“And during the Civil War, it was known as the ‘Arsenal of the Union,’ because it cranked out so much war material,” he says.

That legacy is evident in the sheer number of materials left behind. In total, Masich estimates that more than 3,000 cannonballs have been dug up along Butler Street, between 39th and 40th Street, in Lawrenceville, including 715 found in 2017.

“And so it's not surprising that you would find cannonballs at Allegheny Arsenal, but it did kind of temporarily shock and amaze the Department of Public Safety in Pittsburgh, who called in the Army because they had never seen so many cannonballs before,” Masich says.

Initially, he says the Army, out of an abundance of caution, removed the cannonballs and went about “blowing the bejesus out of them, shattering them into many pieces.”

However, Masich says the Center was curious about the inside of an Allegheny Arsenal-produced cannonball.

“Each arsenal had their own distinctive way of making projectiles for artillery, and so we were eager to learn more about how Allegheny Arsenal did it,” says Masich. He adds that historians convinced Congressman Connor Lamb (PA-17) to involve the U.S. Marine Corps, which employs a team of technicians to determine the safety of ordnance, the official term used to describe military supplies. The Marines confiscated about 1,000 unearthed Arsenal cannonballs, some of which were saved for the Center, where they were sectioned or “sawn in half” to reveal their “inner workings.”

Masich says those attending Allegheny Arsenal: Exploding Myths will see Arsenal cannonballs on display in the Center. As for the talk, he says Powers and Wudarczyk will “help debunk or reveal the real story behind some of the myths and legends and lore that seem to surround Allegheny Arsenal,” including stories related to the “worst civilian accident of the Civil War,” which happened at the site on Sept. 17, 1862.

If that date looks familiar, it should – it was the same day as Antietam, regarded as the bloodiest battle of the Civil War. “That happens to be the very day Allegheny Arsenal blew up,” says Masich, who believes the coincidence is why the tragedy has remained so obscure.

As a result, he wants the talk to remember the women and girls who died that day, many of whom were burned so badly in the explosion that only the metal hoops of the skirts they were wearing at the time remained.

For those fearing a similar event could take place again because of the remaining underground cannonballs, Masich offers some reassurance, explaining how past workers made sure to remove all gunpowder and fuses from the unused projectiles They even put them on display in pyramids during parades and celebrations in the vicinity of “boys with firecrackers.”

“And so, I do believe that the cannonballs discovered in the caches at Allegheny Arsenal are quite safe and that people shouldn't panic when they see them,” he says.

He goes even further, adding, “But I do think, in the future, if more historical objects of this kind are found, that we need to take a close look at them. And before we blow them up, we should maybe try to assess them for their historical significance. Because there's still a lot for us to learn about Allegheny Arsenal, the Arsenal of the Union, and what was produced there.”

Allegheny Arsenal: Exploding Myths. 6:30-8 p.m. Fri., Oct. 28. Heinz History Center. 1212 Smallman St., Strip District. $5, free for members. heinzhistorycenter.org