Conservators restoring a cannon raised from the USS Maine
NORTH CHARLESTON, South Carolina — Conservators with Clemson University’s Warren Lasch Conservation Center are just weeks away from finishing their restoration of a century-old, six-inch, .30-caliber gun from the U.S. Navy battleship Maine. The gun, which weighs more than 16 tons, arrived in North Charleston from Washington, D.C., in August 2016.
“The fact that it’s even here in the first place is a bit of a miracle,” said Justin Schwebler, a historic preservation specialist for Clemson at the Lasch center. “The blast that sunk the Maine struck just forward of midship, basically about where the gun was.”
When conservators from Clemson arrived at the Navy Yard to secure the gun from the U.S. Navy, the gun was being stored in a giant planter box covered in mulch.
“Until we lifted it we didn’t really know what we were going to find as far as the base of the gun is concerned,” said Stéphanie Cretté, director of the Lasch center.
Once it was transported to the 45,000-square-foot facility at the former Charleston Naval Base, Cretté and her team learned just what sort of work they had cut out for them.
“We were dealing with a lot of corrosion, especially at the base,” said Schwebler.
Adding to the nuance of the task was that the gun was made out of several different materials. “We’re usually just working with cast iron cannons,” said Christopher McKenzie, assistant conservator at the center. “This gun had bronze and copper alloys in several places, as well as steel and cast iron. Trying to get into all the nooks and crannies was really challenging.”
The USS Maine was commissioned in 1888. While docked in Havana, Cuba, in 1898, a mine ripped through the hull of the ship and caused it to sink, killing 266 men. Media at the time speculated that the Spanish government was the culprit, in no small part leading the United States to declare war on Spain on April 21, 1898, starting the Spanish-American War. The gun was recovered in 1912.
The Clemson team treated the gun using the same protocol they have developed and successfully applied for the past five years. They are the only preservationists in the United States utilizing this technique. The process itself uses a super-heated, pressurized water system called ThermaTech, which gently and controllably eases off old failing and corroded layers.
In the coming weeks, the restoration process will be finished and the Navy will take back possession of the gun, which eventually may be put on display in Richmond, Virginia.
“We’re pretty pleased with the results,” said Schwebler. “The best part,” added Cretté, “is that we’re able to bring such a historically important object back to life for the next generation.”