Disappearance of the Historic Ship Tijger

Part of New York’s heritage vanished when bulldozers dug the foundation for the World Trade Center

POSTSCRIPT (excerpted from “Journey of a Seventeenth-Century Cannon,” by Christopher L. Hallowell, Natural History, April 1976)

A decade after the completion of the cellar hole excavation, another artifact has turned up, which, although not substantiating the site of the World Trade Center as the final resting place of the Tijger, strongly points in that direction.

The discovery also reveals the fate of many of the bits and pieces of the past that are dug up in construction sites. The finding of artifacts in such places is as much a reward to workmen as it is a curse to their employers. As workers waste thousands of dollars of company time sifting through debris in search of coins, bottles, and unusual bric-a-brac, their superiors see costs rising and construction schedules falling behind. But if artifacts are present, the workmen usually find them; regulations to prevent searching are almost impossible to enforce.

A market always exists for well-preserved artifacts and a number of workmen at the World Trade Center boosted their salaries by several hundred dollars a week by selling their finds to collectors. This is true for other construction sites as well, and those artifacts that are not sold often end up decorating workmen’s homes. Whether sold or used for decoration, such artifacts are rarely publicly displayed or subjected to scientific analysis. They merely disappear, and as far as enhancing our knowledge of history is concerned, they might as well have never been found.

But occasionally, such artifacts reappear. Their emergence from homes and private collections, where they can be appreciated by only a few people, is usually due to the concern of individuals well grounded in a knowledge of antiquities and with a desire to see artifacts made more accessible to the public.

During the excavations, work crews were always on the lookout for ancient cannons. Ships of that time usually carried some weapons, and the Tijger was reported to have carried six or eight large cannons. She may have also carried some smaller ones, which were not mentioned in the ship’s records. The workmen were frequently inspired in their search by the discovery of cannonballs. But no cannons appeared at the World Trade Center site until the summer of 1967, when backhoes and bulldozers working in different areas of the cellar hole dug up three. Two were in perfect condition, except for ancient marine incrustations and some corrosion; the third had a chipped muzzle. All of them were small, about four feet in length, and weighed several hundred pounds apiece, according to Jim Hastie, a superintendent on the site when the cannons were unearthed.

The first two found were taken to the field office of West Street Associates, the consortium of five construction firms responsible for building the World Trade Center. They remained there for a time, then quietly disappeared. No one knows what happened to them, although several workmen remember seeing them in the midst of equipment that accumulated in the office.

Hastie clearly remembers the last cannon found because of its unusual design and well-preserved state. Its barrel was not one solid piece; instead, the top half of the breech had an opening into which a cylinder with a handle locked in place. Several workmen carried the weapon away from the immediate excavation area and laid it next to one wall of the cellar hole. Hattie recalls the piece was to be taken to the field office when the workers had a spare moment.

When the construction crews returned to work the next morning, however, the cannon was gone. And according to Hastie, one of the workers who had carried it to the cellar hole wall the day before did not report for work that day or ever again. Hastie believes that this person, a temporary employee, was responsible for the theft, but it was not of sufficient concern to anyone to have the man traced. The excavations proceeded and the matter was forgotten.

If the cannon had not turned up in the barn of an antique arms dealer eight years after it disappeared, only a handful of people would ever have been aware of its existence. Since being stolen, it had passed through the hands of three people, all of whom collect various kinds of antiques for personal pleasure and profit. Had it not been for the trained eye of an antique arms expert, the weapon might easily have continued along this route, known only to a select group of people.

One of the responsibilities of Harold L. Peterson, a curator for the National Park Service, is to locate antique arms and weapons suitable for historic monuments administered by his agency. The job entails sporadic visits to antique arms dealers to look over their collections. Last fall, Peterson, while driving through Connecticut on business, decided to stop in the small village of New Milford to view the collection of Norman Flayderman, an antique arms dealer with one of the largest collections in the country. Stored in a renovated barn, Flayderman’s collection includes cannons, rifles, and pistols, as well as halberds, swords, crossbows, and other martial paraphernalia, strewn about the floors and hanging from the walls of the building.

Amid this awesome collection of weaponry gathering dust on the floor of one of Flayderman’s back rooms, a small bronze cannon with a handled cylinder that fit into the breech caught Peterson’s eye. Although this type of cannon is now rare, Peterson realized the uniqueness of the piece by the insignia of the Dutch East India Company etched into the breech chamber.

Known as a sling piece or a port piece or sometimes as a murderer, this type of cannon was common in Europe on both land and sea from the fifteenth to the seventeenth centuries. In this country also, settlers used such cannons at Plymouth and Jamestown. Mounted on a fulcrum and easily rotated by one person, they were valued for rapid firing and close-range effectiveness.

Their partially hollow cylinders—called breech chambers—could be filled with gunpowder and used in any cannon of appropriate size and design. A number of these chambers could be loaded and stored in readiness. The process of firing these weapons was simple and quick: a ball placed in the breech was followed by a chamber that was locked into place; when the powder was ignited and the cannon fired, the used chamber was removed, and replaced with another ball and another loaded chamber.

Peterson was not interested in buying the cannon for the park service, but mentioned his find to Joseph Noble, director of the Museum of the City of New York. In October 1975, the museum purchased the weapon for $4,500; it is now being prepared for public display.

Flayderman deals in antique weapons as much for his interest in their history as to make a profit on their sale. Having established a reputation for his extensive collection in the early 1950s, Flayderman, a fast-talking and sharp businessman, can afford to pay high prices for unusual artifacts. And because he carries a large inventory and is in the antique arms business partly for pleasure, he can also afford to wait until the price is right before selling a piece.

In 1973, Flayderman bought the cannon from Stanley Lambert, a Long Island antiques dealer. Flayderman will not say how much he paid for it, only that he “turned quite a profit on it” when he sold it to the museum. Stanley Lambert, who owns Lambert Antiques and Collectables in Huntington, Long Island, does not have a reputation to match Flayderman’s. He deals mostly in antique furniture and sculpture, but when two of his friends in the Long Island Antique Gun Club offered to sell him the cannon early in 1973, he bought it on a gamble, hoping that he could turn it around and make a large profit. It was the Dutch East India Company insignia that encouraged him to take the chance.

Lambert’s clientele, however, was not primarily interested in antique arms and apparently did not respond to the new acquisition displayed in his small store. Only a month after he purchased the piece, Lambert loaded it into the back of his car and drove to New Milford, where he sold it to Flayderman. Despite the quick turnover, he says he made several hundred dollars on the sale.

Obeying an informal agreement among antiques dealers that the immediate origins of some merchandise remain confidential, Lambert will not divulge the names of his Long Island Antique Gun Club friends from whom he bought the cannon. He did say, however, that these two people had purchased the weapon through a classified advertisement in the New York Times that offered the cannon for sale. According to what Lambert’s friends told him, the advertisement had been placed, and the cannon sold, by a man who said he had found it in the cellar hole of the World Trade Center.

Although the cannon does not confirm the existence of the Tijger’s remains, its insignia marks it as being one of the earliest signs of European activity in this country. For this reason alone, it should be highly valued. Yet, had it not been for the discerning eye of Harold L. Peterson, the cannon might still be in the hands of collectors or dealers, where its value and significance would be lost to the public. Unfortunately, until archeologists are able to watch closely over construction sites that might yield historical evidence, this will be the fate of most artifacts unearthed in the debris of cellar hole excavations.

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