|Monday, April 24, 2000||
Volume 65, Issue 139
||The Twin Sisters
By Tom Carpenter
Texas history is a blazing saga of legends and myths that transcend time. The fiery spirit that hurled the shackles of an oppressive tyrant into the fires of revolution and forged a republic on the anvil of the Alamo has never died.
Gary Touchton and Martin Boehm, 1982 graduates of the University of Houston College of Technology, were working at a directional drilling company in Houston in 1985 as Texas approached the sesquicentennial anniversary of its war for independence against Mexico.
Gary Touchton and Martin Boehm, center, pose with the "Twin Sisters" as the cannons are prepared for firing in an on-campus ceremony circa 1986. The cannons were donated to the San Jacinto Monument.
"Martin and some of the other guys got the idea of doing something special to celebrate the sesquicentennial. They kicked around a lot of ideas and finally came up with the idea of making replicas of the Twin Sisters," Touchton said.
The Twin Sisters were cannons forged in Cincinnati, Ohio and donated by the city to assist the Texas revolutionaries in their war against General Santa Anna and the Mexican Army. The Twin Sisters were the backbone of General Sam Houston's Artillery at the Battle of San Jacinto when Santa Anna was surprised and defeated in a battle that lasted only 18 minutes.
Legend has it that the Twin Sisters were hidden in a pond to avoid their capture by Union troops during the Civil War. When the Texas veterans returned to retrieve the cannons, the Twin Sisters were gone.
"There's two lines of thought about the Twin Sisters," Touchton said. "One, they forgot which pond they hid the cannons in. Two, some rich guy's got them in his private collection and doesn't want to share them with the people that's got a right to see them."
Boehm and Touchton agreed to split the work of building the cannons. "Martin was willing to do the carriages and a lot of the organization , but he needed someone familiar with metals to do the actual barrels," Touchton said.
The two project managers formed a committee composed of alumni and College of Technology students. They were also able to convince Texas Army General Carroll Lewis, Jr. to provide one of the Texas Army's cannoneers to assist with the project.
"Lloyd Hoffman was the cannoneer. He did the research. He was the one that decided what the cannons possibly looked like because we didn't have any drawings of the Twin Sisters," Touchton said.
Hoffman contacted the foundry in Cincinnati that forged the barrels of the original Twin Sisters. Remarkably, the company was still in business. But whatever drawings they had of the cannons had been lost or destroyed in the 150 year interval.
"Hoffman went back into history and simply researched what cannons of that era looked like. Specifically, what cannons from that era and that forge would have looked like. He came up with a basic outline, took the outline and made a drawing," Touchton said.
Touchton contacted a company called Production Tool and Supply, Inc., owned by Frank, Mike, and Rick Clark. "They were gracious enough to provide the materials, and a lot of the labor, to build these (barrels)," Touchton said.
The barrels were made of 4340 material. The round stock was placed in a lathe at the Production Tool Supply shop and the barrel was turned (shaped) on the outside and bored on the inside.
Touchton said the barrels were a snap to build compared to the carriages. "None of us knew how to build a wheel. How do you build a wheel?"
S.L. Pecht, a master craftsman and woodworker employed by the Clarks, became critical to the project. "He built awesome things out of wood, grandfather clocks, things like that. He helped to build and supervise construction of the carriages. A lot of people devoted a lot of time and energy to make those carriages," Touchton said.
When the barrels were completed, Touchton took them to an inspection company and had them checked for flaws with ultrasound. "Even though they might never be fired, I couldn't let them out if they were unsafe," Touchton said.
When the barrels proved to be fully functional, they were hauled to a black powder range north of Ellington Field. "We test fired them with black powder. No rounds, just some cotton and newspapers stuffed in the barrels to give some resistance," Touchton said.
The gun crew secured the barrels by laying them on top of three rubber tires. Three stakes were driven into the ground on each side of the barrels. "We tied one end of high strength rope to a stake, took two wraps around the barrel, then secured the rope to a stake on the other side. We had three ropes on each barrel," Touchton said.
The men started firing the cannons with an eighth of a pound of black powder per shot and worked their way up to two pounds. The system worked fine until two pounds of black powder was used.
"The barrels launched themselves backward out of the ropes and went about 20 feet. We thought it was great. We were having a ball," Touchton said.
Larry Wolfe, dean of the College of Technology in 1986, sets off a black-powder charge to the delight of nearby participants and spectators.
While the group was milling around congratulating themselves and commenting on their handiwork, three Pasadena squad cars came roaring down the shell road leading to the black powder range.
"I looked up and all I could see was this swirling cloud of dust roaring down the road toward us. One of the cops was about 6'6", weighed at least 300 pounds and was mad as a wet hornet," Touchton said.
People had been calling the police department saying they heard explosions in the area and wanted to know if the ship channel Petro-chemical plants were blowing up in succession.
The group explained to the police who they were and what they were doing. "We managed to soothe the cops down and get them to let us go, but I thought we were going to jail for the longest time. We promised not to fire them again and they let us go," Touchton said. "Apparently there was no law on the books about possessing a cannon."
Touchton took the barrels to be "picked" while Boehm's crew began assembling the carriages. "Basically you put the barrels in an acid type solution and it makes the metal look old. It doesn't look like modern metal, but something turned out in the past," Touchton said.
When the cannons were fully assembled, the sesquicentennial crew was sitting around talking, lamenting the fact that such fine looking cannons would never be able to perform their sole function, their raison d'être.
Texas Army cannoneer Hoffman spoke up. "My mother has some land in East Texas where we can do anything we want," he said.
The men loaded the cannons into a pickup truck that had a shell covering the bed to hide the cannons, and took off for the Big Thicket in East Texas. When they arrived on the property deep in the Piney Woods, the men unloaded the cannons, selected a pine tree that Mrs. Hoffman wanted removed and prepared the cannons for firing.
"We made our ammunition by taking a 3 1/2 inch plastic pipe and cutting it into five inch lengths. We filled each one with concrete, and even though they weren't round, they worked beautifully," Touchton said.
Hoffman proved his worth as a cannoneer in the Texas Army by using the old "line of sight" aiming technique to line up the cannon on the trees.
"The trees were about eight inches in diameter and a good 70 yards away. At zero elevation, we put in two pounds of black powder and a projectile, then torched them off," Touchton said.
The concrete cannon ball sheared the tree clean, leaving about a two-foot stump in the ground. While the gun battery cheered, Hoffman lined up the cannons for another shot. "I forget how many trees we took out. It was more than he had planned on because we were all so excited," Touchton said.
The cannons were made to handle an eight-pound black powder charge, which Hoffman estimated would have sent a cannon ball approximately four miles. "I had no idea black powder had that much pressure and power behind it," Touchton said. "It was really something to behold."
After clearing all the trees they could, and more than they should have cleared according to Touchton, the men loaded the cannons back into the truck and began their return to Houston.
"What's really funny is that on the way back traffic was bumper to bumper along Highway 59. A truck behind us was blowing his horn and getting right up on our tail. One of the guys riding in the back flipped open the camper door and stuck one of the barrels out of the back end of the truck," Touchton said.
"You should have seen the guy, he almost drove off road. He stopped and waited for us to drive away before he continued down the highway. We laughed so hard we cried."
The fully functional cannons were returned to UH and presented to the College of Technology during a ceremony in which Larry Wolfe, the Dean of Technology at the time, fired off a black powder charge. A plaque hanging outside the Office of the Dean of the College of Technology commemorates the event.
Two weeks later the replica Twin Sisters were presented to the San Jacinto Monument as a gift, where they remain to this day.
You seldom see a gift of this caliber created to celebrate a birthday.
"We just wanted to do something special for the sesquicentennial," Touchton said.