Old Fort Madison opens the season with a bang

·4 min read

Old Fort Madison started its tourist season with a bang. Or two.

The second firing of the ceremonial cannon in the fort museum's courtyard added an exclamation point to the opening event Sunday on the Fort Madison riverfront.

Fort Madison Councilwoman Rebecca Bowker had the honor of lighting the fuse.

“I thought it would be fun and symbolic,” Bowker said. “This stop is one of the top attractions for Fort Madison.”

The original fort operated as a trading post between the U.S. Army and Native Americans from 1808-13.

It survived a four-day siege during a War of 1812 battle, just long enough to operate for another year.

Soldiers burned the fort as they withdrew to St. Louis due to a food shortage and the brutal onset of winter in 1813.

The site was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1973 after Iowa state archaeologists excavated the original fort location. In 1983, volunteer inmates from nearby Iowa State Penitentiary built the replica fort a few blocks away in Riverview Park.

Like the original fort, the replica museum is close to the Mississippi River.

“The people who get off the boat, those people are just amazed,” said Shelly Dowling, a volunteer at the fort, about tourists who visit the site from riverboats traveling up and down the river.

The cannon fired Sunday is a 6-pound iron field piece on a 9-pound siege carriage. Its thunderous blast thrilled spectators.

“It’s a bit big,” said Eugene Watkins, the fort museum's site manager, of the cannon's carriage. “They had one (cannon) stationed at the fort along with other smaller ones.”

During its day, the cannon, built to be squared off against mass infantry, used 2½ to 3 pounds of powder to fire a 6-pound ball.

Once fired, the cannonball could travel 800-900 yards and wipe out about 25 soldiers.

At Sunday's ceremonial firing, no cannonball was used and no one was hurt. It was simply a blast for those who gathered to watch and hear.

“It was fun. It was exciting,” Bowker said. “You know it’s coming, but it’s still invigorating.”

“Very cool,” said Yan Elder of Madison, Wisconsin.

“You know it’s coming and I still jumped back a foot,” said Dennis Lee.

The two had traveled south from Wisconsin to find sun and warmth. But they didn't find it in Fort Madison on Sunday, as the weather was cold and windy.

Sunny days and more tourists are on the horizon for the fort museum.

About 30 boats are scheduled to dock in Fort Madison during this season, and more visitors will travel south from Viking Cruise ships that will dock in Burlington.

“I did a Viking Cruise staff tour the other day and they hope to have as many as 40 people travel down from the Burlington docking for a tour,” Watkins said.

At the fort, tourists are greeted by a staff of five or more, depending on the event, and they get a first-hand look at a soldier’s life on the edge of the American frontier from inside the garrison.

People can walk around the reconstructed outpost, see the stark sleeping barracks and walk through the primitive kitchen.

Interpreters in period attire demonstrate how to load and fire a flintlock musket, and tourists also learn about life at a government trading post 200 years ago.

Hands-on activities allow visitors to feel the softness of an otter's fur, experience the weight of a broad axe and witness the back-breaking labor of maintaining the fort.

On Sunday, Francisco Trejo of Burlington and William Watkins, son of Eugene, were dressed as soldiers from the Starks Co. 1st Infantry Regiment.

“I learn a lot doing this. It helps further my education,” Trejo said.

The first big event planned at the fort museum, Muster on the Mississippi, will be May 28-30, Memorial Day weekend.

There also will be uniforms on display from the Revolutionary War to the present, and a group of Roman Legionnaires enactors plan to attend.

Then, the cannons will fire to celebrate the Fourth of July. The annual Siege at the Fort, a re-enactment of the War of 1812 battle, will be in September.

The Old Fort Madison is at 716 Riverview Drive in Riverview Park. To learn more, visit https://www.google.com/maps/place/Old+Fort+Madison/@40.6287203,-91.

This article originally appeared on The Hawk Eye: Spectators gather for Old Fort Madison opening and cannon fire