Ask McGehee

What is the history of the cannon at Government and Houston streets?

The cannon has called the intersection of Government and Houston streets home since 1953. Photo by Breck Pappas

According to information within the files of the Mobile Public Library, that cannon, which weighs in excess of 16,000 pounds, has moved around over the years. It already had some age to it, and had reportedly seen use during the Civil War, when it arrived at Fort Morgan in 1879.

By the start of the 20th century, such cannons were obsolete. In 1905, it was hauled to downtown Mobile as a part of a beautification project for lower Government Street. William Butler Duncan, a New Yorker and chairman of the board of the Mobile and Ohio Railroad, donated money to create a grass median east of Royal Street.

At the time, both the L&N and M&O railroads were sharing a union terminal at the foot of Government Street, and Duncan wanted passengers to have a better impression of the city upon their arrival. The median was planted with trees and named Duncan Place to honor its benefactor.

City Hall

More than three decades later, construction of the Bankhead Tunnel led to the unceremonious removal of Duncan Place. The old cannon was relocated to the courtyard of City Hall (now the History Museum of Mobile).

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By the time the tunnel was completed, it seems no one had given a thought to restoring Duncan Place. Cars were rapidly replacing passenger trains, and Duncan had been dead for decades. The cannon sat in City Hall until May 1953 when longtime mayor Charlie Baumhauer had it moved to the triangular piece of land at The Loop where it has been positioned ever since.


Today, the city maintains the cannon and the seasonal plantings around it, but this was not the always the case. Everyone from Boy Scouts to members of the Alabama National Guard took a turn sprucing up the cannon and its floral border in the beginning. Annual repainting of the cannon had become a necessity.

Local high school football victories have been celebrated by painting slogans and scores on the cannon since its arrival. In 1971, a local American Legion post offered a $100 reward “for information leading to the arrest and conviction of any vandal disfiguring the cannon.” It’s not clear if anyone ever tried to collect that reward.

The main culprit over the years has become the victor of the annual matchup between Murphy High and McGill-Toolen. The game has even been given the moniker of “The Battle for the Cannon.”

In 1981, the cannon was stripped of dozens of coats of paint. The process revealed paint colors ranging from basic black to candy apple red. With high school football season upon us once more, it will be soon be ready for another coat.

Meanwhile, Duncan Place, where Admiral Semmes’ statue now stands, has been restored and another cannon decorates that median today.

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