Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Rolling Thunder

Fred Mead has been kind enough to share some of the history of the famed Texas cannon, Rolling Thunder, with the Texas History Page. He writes:

The historic Texas cannon, Rolling Thunder, has changed handlers recently. Rolling Thunder is a 3/4 scale firing replica of an 1841 Mississippi or Tennessee field cannon. There is some argument as to which state claims the design. But no matter, it is more often referred to as a "field piece" and was usually towed by horses way back then together with a following "limber box" with its own axle. Today, the "limber box" is much smaller and contains all the supplies that the multiple members of the gun crew use: large gloves, friction primers, and all the multitude of miscellaneous items that it takes to make the gun charges as well as the special effects often used and safety items.

Rolling Thunder was made about 20+ years ago, machined from a solid piece of oilfield steel by a local machinist working at home in his off-hours. Some friends from San Jacinto Chapter #1 of the historic organization, The Sons of the Republic of Texas, formed a partnership among the 3 or 4 of them: Richard (Dick) Reese, Jr., Sam Clark, Tom Houston, and Leonard Cloud. They purchased the gun barrel, then had the wooden carriage built to fit the barrel and found some antique wagon wheels, which were at the time, about 130 years old and that had been used on overland wagons carrying settlers West to explore America.

These gentlemen put all this together and had themselves a great field piece and began carrying it around Texas to help celebrate the anniversaries of Texas holidays and other important historic dates and events in Texas history. Rolling Thunder was also used to help teach Texas history which is one of the cornerstones of the mission of the Sons of the Republic of Texas. While the SRT does not sponsor Rolling Thunder, all these men are members of the SRT and have displayed and fired Rolling Thunder to celebrate Texas history as individual members of Texas Volunteers or Texas Army. They took Rolling Thunder all over the state for various purposes, parades, displays, and firing demonstrations for more than 18 years.

The individual owners of Rolling Thunder decided that based upon their personal activities and the demands on their time from family, professions and age that they would look around for a new generation of men to step forward and take on the tasks and traditions they began. The Conroe area Chapter of the Sons of the Republic of Texas, Lone Star Chapter #58, had three members who stepped forward and took on the ownership and responsibility of carrying on these important traditions already begun for Rolling Thunder.

Charlie Fogarty from the Steamboat House Restaurant, Mike Wilson from a local energy company, and Fred Mead from his own construction related business, stepped up to the plate and took on the task. They called upon additional friends from their Chapter and the San Jacinto Chapter of the SRT to become members of their Rolling Thunder gun crew and have begun displaying and firing the cannon. They had their first chance to learn to fire Rolling Thunder three weeks ago when Dick Reese and Sam Clark took them out to some vacant land and ran through some safety drills and the proper handling of the cannon. They also learned how to make the charges that are the ammunition for the cannon. This past weekend, a special cannon school was held at the George Ranch to get the gun crew certified as "Cannoneers." This is a State and Federal requirement to display and fire the cannon on the lands belonging to State and Federal parks.

In its career, Rolling Thunder, has been in parades all over Texas in many communities. It has fired at ceremonial activities at Washington on the Brazos, the Alamo, the Presidio La Bahia at Goliad, the San Jacinto Battleground, and many other historic and civic locations around Houston and other areas too numerous to list here. Rolling Thunder is a true Texas native and part of our history. It might be relatively young but it represents over 150 years of Texas history and spirit. Look for Rolling Thunder when you next go to a historic place or event in Texas.

Rolling Thunder is a 3/4 scale cannon. It was built from specifications of what is called a 6 pounder cannon, so Rolling Thunder is actually a 4 pounder with a 2.25" bore. It is about 4' long, 4' tall, has 4' tall wheels, and 6' trail piece. It has its own trailer it rides on from place to place. When it is not being displayed or fired somewhere, Rolling Thunder is on display at the Steamboat House Restaurant in Houston, Texas along with other beautiful and historic items and artifacts of Texas history for visitors to view and enjoy. It is referred to as a "black powder" cannon. It is fired using a "friction primer" so it can be fired with a lanyard rather than lighting it with a fuse which is much safer for all. It has been used to fire projectiles 3/4 of a mile or further. Rolling Thunder has fired many different types of loads, including some for fun (such as colored smoke) and some for special tasks. These types of cannons are very powerful, quite loud and produce a lot of smoke.

In the photo above, left to right, Fred Mead and Mike Wilson stand with Rolling Thunder. Photo courtesy of K. K. Searle. In the video above, Rolling Thunder is fired by a cannon crew composed of Charlie Fogarty, Fred Mead, Mike Wilson, John Homman and K. K. Searle. Instructor, Jerry Tubbs has placed a steak over the fuse hole to show the dangers of being near the fuse hole when the cannon is fired. Video courtesy of Linley Johnson.

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