Museum evacuated after live cannonballs found

Both of them were set live so that they would detonate. ... Being a time fuse, what they do is they’re ignited when the powder bag is detonated in the cannon barrel. And the fuse is then ignited on the shell, it then burns the time of flight, and then the ball would explode. - Frank Ofeldt, Fort Clinch State Park ranger and Civil War expert

The Amelia Island Museum of History was evacuated midday Tuesday after staff discovered that two donated cannonballs could potentially be live ammunition.

After careful preparation, members of the Jacksonville Sheriff’s Office Bomb Squad, called in by local officials, entered the museum at about 4 p.m.

Jayne Nasrallah, an archivist with the museum, “had a couple of cannonballs that were donated to us, and she decided to call Frank Ofeldt,” said Phyllis Davis, the museum’s executive director. “… When he was looking at them, trying to date them for us and that kind of stuff, he discovered that they’re live.”

Nasrallah said one cannonball was found in the backyard of a home near South Fifth and Date streets in downtown Fernandina Beach. The other arrived before she started working with the museum, so Nasrallah said she was not sure where it came from.

Ofeldt said one cannonball had a Bormann Fuze, which was commonly used in the Civil War, and other was a metal fuse with a paper center, which he said could date to any time between the 1820s and the Civil War.

“Both of them were set live so that they would detonate,” he said. “Being a time fuse, what they do is they’re ignited when the powder bag is detonated in the cannon barrel. And the fuse is then ignited on the shell, it then burns the time of flight, and then the ball would explode.”

Ofeldt said that both cannonballs showed telltale signs of still being live as he examined them.

“The first thing I noticed when I rolled it around was that the fuse was there,” he said. “And when I looked at the fuse under the magnifying glass, you could see the indentures where the tool device would go to screw the fuse into the cannonball. You could the threads, and you could see the center of the fuse where the powder residue was still available for viewing. And on the other one, it was the same thing. I noticed that there was no other external holes.

“Generally when they de-mill them, they will drill a hole in them, flood them with water, flush out the powder residue,” he added. “So they were perfectly intact, the fuses plugged into them, and set for detonation.”

Davis said she wanted members of the public to be aware that if they come across a cannonball or other ordnance, they should be careful.

“Yes, (these cannonballs have) been around for a long time, and obviously they haven’t gone off, but they could have,” she said. “… They are around here. This was a contested area. These cannonballs were found in people’s backyards. It’s important that if you find something, you don’t just put it in your house and leave around as a cool piece. Let somebody know, let them look at it.”

Ofeldt added that Amelia island “ has a rich history of conflict, going all the way back to Spanish and French.”

“These munitions are out there, and you should take caution if you come across them,” he said. “I think it’s a good learning curve. And it tells a rich history of the island.”

The JSO bomb squad left the building with the cannonballs in buckets shortly after 4 p.m. and took them to the city’s public safety firing range off Lime Street where they planned to detonate them.

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