By Dan O’Connell
The year 1961 begins a nationwide centenary observance of the War Between the States, and Bay Ridge has its reminder in “Old Big Mouth,” a 20-inch cannon that still stands menacingly outside the walls of Fort Hamilton.
Once considered the most destructive weapon of its day, the monster cannon now serves as a plaything for neighborhood children.
Before being covered by a protective plate, the 20-inch bore of Old Big Mouth was a place to crawl into, but also a place from which once thundered a half-ton iron ball propelled by one hundred pounds of powder. Its back is now worn smooth by the trouser pants of generations of Bay Ridge boys.
It has been fired only a few times and a report to the War Department by ordnance officers after firing trials in 1867 said that the results were inconclusive. And Old Big Mouth was stilled thereafter.
Construction of the cannon is credited to Brig. Gen. Thomas Jefferson Rodman of the Ordnance Dept. In 1844 he began a series of tests on the metal of cannon and developed a theory of casting a gun with a hollow case and cooling it with a stream of water or cold air passed through it.
Then a lieutenant, Rodman supervised construction of the weapon in 1864 at Fort Pitt, Pittsburgh, where it was hailed as the biggest gun in the world. Up to that time, a 15-inch gun was considered supreme. Old Big Mouth was mounted soon after its construction at Fort Hamilton to protect New York harbor.
On Oct. 26, 1864, at its first firing trial, an excursion steamer, the “Bronx,” sailed from the Battery to Fort Hamilton with more than 1,000 persons aboard. They cheered – and jeered.
The great gun’s first discharge was a blank cartridge propelled by 100 pounds of powder. The gun boomed, recoiled two feet, and disappointed watchers, who had expected a bigger noise.
An hour later – the time it took to reload – Big Mouth was crammed with 50 pounds of powder and a solid iron ball weighing 1,800 lbs. The gun was aimed straight at Staten Island and touched off.
The shot traveled one-quarter of a mile, bounced a few times on the water, and sank. The crowd aboard the “Bronx” was unimpressed.
For the next trial, the cannon was stuffed with 100 pounds of powder and a ball weighing 1,080 lbs. Its barrel was elevated 25 degrees, and once again the gun boomed, this time with astounding force.
Listeners clapped their hands to their ears. The shot traveled about four miles, and landed 27 seconds later in the lower bay. The gun recoiled four and one-half feet.
These were the only times Old Big Mouth was fired during the Civil War, mainly due to difficulty in finding targets which would stand up enough after being hit to be inspected. In March 1867, it was fired four times, reaching a maximum range of 8,000 yards, but the ordnance condemned Big Mouth as a weapon of war.
Old Big Mouth was fired, for the last time, on the arrival of the Statue of Liberty in the hold of the French ship “Isere.” It was then moved into the park, where it now stands, overlooking construction of the new Narrows Bridge.
As a defensive weapon, Old Big Mouth may have been a flop, but to the kids of Bay Ridge it is still the “biggest gun in the whole world.”