Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John Return

LEXINGTON, Va., Jan. 13, 2017 -- Some things are not built to last.  The often recreated wooden carriages that once supported Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John – the cannons of the cadet battery – were among them.

Even in 1848, when the cannons were first made for VMI by Cyrus Alger and Co. in Boston, Massachusetts, the wooden carriages were not expected to last more than a few years. 

While those cannons served cadets as artillery training pieces, went to war with the Rockbridge Artillery in 1861, and were fired ceremonially until the 1970s, they have been supported by many, many sets of wooden carriages. 

“We could only expect to get about seven or eight years out of a wooden carriage.  That was a constant maintenance problem,” explained Col. Keith Gibson ’77, executive director of VMI’s museum system.

It’s a problem that battlefields around the country are dealing with as well.  That’s why many of them are switching to aluminum carriages.  About a year ago, VMI decided to make the switch as well. 

“The decision to go to the aluminum instead of the wood, really reflects [the cannons] current status as monuments here on the Parade Ground,” explained Gibson.

VMI chose to use a company that is known for making Civil War era aluminum carriage replacements, Steen Cannons.  Based in Ashland, Kentucky, the company has replaced cannon carriages at Vicksburg, Manassas, Petersburg, and many other sites.

“Anywhere there are Civil War cannons, you’ll find our carriages,” said Will Steen, a craftsman with Steen Cannons.

The company produces about four to six carriages a month, and their proficiency is clear. The company is able to replicate the original carriages in every detail, including finishing the surfaces with a wood-grain pattern.

As Steen explained, “they are painted to look like wood so most people aren’t going to be able to tell they’re aluminum until you go up and bang on them.” The wood grain look is due to a painting technique they use. Underneath the paint the aluminum is smooth.

But the cadet battery presented a new challenge for Steen. The carriages are not the standard size for a Civil War era cannon.  A standard cannon tube weighs around 800 pounds, which would have been nearly impossible for cadets to pull up VMI’s steep hill to the Parade Ground.  The VMI tubes were specially made to be a comparatively light 562 pounds, with smaller carriages to fit accordingly.

“These smaller carriages… created a challenge in manufacturing.  There aren’t any molds for them.  Everything had to start from scratch,” said Gibson.

For that reason, the process took longer than normal.  The carriages were removed in June 2016, and finally returned Jan. 10. 

Steen enjoyed the challenge, “this was a unique once-in-a-lifetime job, and it was really fun to be able to do it.”

-Kelly Nye



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