1700s canon found on the venetian islands

July 26, 2007 § Leave a comment

Article in the Miami Herald, July 26, 2007

BY CHARLES RABIN

Workers -- who initially thought they had hit a pipe -- unearth a ship's cannon outside the Lido Spa Hotel on Tuesday.

photo taken FOR THE MIAMI HERALD

Workers — who initially thought they had hit a pipe — unearth a ship’s cannon outside the Lido Spa Hotel on Tuesday.

The cannon dug up near the Venetian Causeway on Tuesday might indeed be from a British brig or Spanish galleon that roamed the seas centuries ago.

But in keeping with South Florida’s zany history, it turns out the cannon spent a good deal of the mid-1900s as a simple decorative piece guarding the entryway of the old Monterrey Motel on Miami Beach.

”They had it out front,” Historic Museum of South Florida curator Jorge Zamanillo said, a day after its discovery under a sidewalk. “It was probably abandoned and used for fill.”

As word spread of Tuesday’s find, a flood of phone calls shed new light on the cannon’s origins: Prior to it standing sentry at the Monterrey, the cannon was pointed toward Biscayne Bay behind a scary old abandoned home — perhaps in wait of an unfriendly armada.

At least, that’s longtime Miami Beach resident Natalie Segal’s recollection.

”There was this old abandoned house like you’d see in scary movies,” said Segal, 69, who remembers the cannon dating back to the late 1940s.

“It had overgrown grass. It was like plodding through somewhere no one had ever walked. We came across this cannon at the waterfront. We just looked at it and thought we ought to get out of there.”

Still, the caretakers of the county’s artifacts weren’t taking any chances Wednesday. By mid-afternoon, county archaeologist Jeff Ransom — who said the cannon was an artifact whether it was above ground or not more than a half-century ago — had workers dig a trench to store the cannon for the time being.

PRESERVATION

He said the state has offered to pay transportation costs to Tallahassee, where it would be preserved. But first Miami Beach officials have to agree to pay to have an electrolysis machine peel away all the elements that have compounded on the cannon over the years.

”Then it will be just iron, and hopefully we’ll find a marking,” Ransom said.

Ten feet in length and perhaps weighing several tons, the cannon was uncovered Tuesday by construction workers installing new pipes outside the Standard hotel, formerly known as the Di Lido Hotel, and before that the Monterrey Motel.

At first, workers believed they hit a pipe under the sidewalk. But as the digging continued for 30 minutes, the cannon began to take shape. Then two cranes carefully lifted it and placed it in a park on Belle Isle across the road.

Almost immediately, historians claimed the residue inside it could be gunpowder; that it once fired 12-pound cannon balls; that because of its weight, it had to be carried across the ocean in a rather large ship; and that it probably broke free from a wrecked ship in the 1700s, lodged on the island, and buried itself over the years.

Most of that may be true, though it’s unlikely any substance inside the cannon’s barrel is anything more menacing than dirt. What isn’t true, however, is that it remained hidden until Tuesday. Samuel Smith said he first spotted it sometime after 1955, when his grandparents would escape Tennessee’s frigid winters at the Monterrey Motel.

Smith, 59, who owned a rare-coin dealership on the beach with his father, said he and his buddies would play weekend baseball games on Belle Isle, across the street from the cannon.

”It was part of the lore of there being a Spanish fort out there,” Smith said. “It disappeared when they built the Di Lido.”

Not many remember the motel. It was so ”nondescript” that local historians can’t recall it — or never learned of it.

LONG FORGOTTEN

Some continued their search Wednesday, and were empty-handed until searching eBay, where for $12 you can buy a 1958 postcard showing the Monterrey Resort Motel and Yacht Club, a single-story structure with a peaked roof.

One of the reasons Tuesday’s theories seemed believable is because the cannon was discovered on Belle Isle. Part of Miami Beach’s mainland today, it was an island years ago, said local historian Paul George. All the other islands in the bay were man-made in the 1920s, well past the time any Spanish armada would dare cross the ocean.

In fact, the first bridge connected to Miami’s mainland from the beach was built in 1913, and it ran from behind where The Miami Herald is now, all the way to Belle Isle.

”Belle Isle was the only island there 200 years ago,” George said.

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