The Volcano Hearse: Preserving a Civil War “Veteran”

The "Volcano hearse" before treatment.

Marc A. Williams
President, American Conservation Consortium, Ltd.

The “Volcano hearse” is one of the central artifacts remaining from an interesting footnote in American Civil War history – the only armed conflict that took place during the war in the state of California. The hearse, originally built in New Bedford, MA in the 1850’s, and currently owned by the State of California Department of Parks and Recreation, had been stored outdoors for many years. As a result, it had suffered both from vandalism and significant deterioration in the form of structural damage, water and light damage, and fungal decay. During a CA Parks Department project to assess its horse-drawn vehicle collection, the hearse’s age and historic value were recognized and the vehicle was treated in 2008-2009.

The hearse’s historic importance stems from its role in smuggling a canon into the Sierra foothills town of Volcano, CA. During the Civil War an armed band of renegade miners had been agitating for weeks in support of the Confederate cause. The town elders sent an emergency communication to San Francisco for assistance. The Union garrison there could not spare troops but sent a single canon, “Old Abe”, a model 1835 6-pounder bronze field gun, via rail to the nearest depot. The Volcano Blues, the local militia group, used the hearse to slip the 737 pound canon into town in secrecy.

Once there, an under-carriage was built, and the cannon was loaded with gunpowder, nails, and scrap iron in the absence of proper ammunition. Shortly thereafter, the Confederate sympathizers marched up the main street armed with rifles, pistols, and knives. A stand-off ensued when the cannon was initially revealed and, after a few tense moments, the Confederates retreated. Local lore contends that had the canon been fired, it most likely would have exploded, killing many standing behind it, so heavy was the load of makeshift ammunition.

Commercial restoration of horse-drawn vehicles usually consists of remanufacturing components and spray-painting with automotive lacquer to produce new-looking objects with smooth, even surfaces. Discussions between the Project Conservator and Parks & Recreation staff however, led to the decision to stabilize the hearse and preserve as much of its historic character and components as possible, while still producing an appearance that was sufficiently integrated to allow it to be exhibited. This balance meant that elements such as the tattered, original upholstery and areas of loss and damage that were stable were accepted as part of the historic nature of the vehicle.

The "Volcano hearse" after treatment.

The conservation treatment involved reassembly of collapsed parts, replacement of only structurally necessary missing elements, consolidation of decayed wood, cleaning and removal of dirt, cleaning and reattachment of the original upholstery, consolidation of historic paint, inpainting surrounding areas of paint loss, and the application of a protective surface coating.

The hearse is currently in storage while an appropriate exhibit space with adequate preservation conditions is sought. The cannon, which is not owned by CA Parks and was not part of this treatment project, is on exhibit in downtown Volcano, CA.

For more details on this project please contact Marc A. Williams. For additional information on the Volcano historic landmark visit California’s Department of Parks and Recreation Office of Historic Landmarks website.