Bomb squad called to Falmouth to destroy Civil War cannon ball

FALMOUTH — A routine visit to the Police Department Monday quickly morphed into an episode that could rival some action films – with a plot line that Stephen Ryder and his wife, Helga, of Edgewater Road, will never forget.

While Ryder, 79, was at the police station that morning to pick up some paperwork, he asked the officer for the phone number of the Portland Police Department bomb squad because he had a Civil War-era cannon ball he thought he’d like them to check out.

Ryder said he’d read about the bomb squad’s involvement in a scare at the Portland International Jetport last week, when a suspicious device was detected in a suitcase. The device was later determined to be harmless.

But the airport incident got Ryder to thinking about the 16-pound cannon ball that had been passed down from his great-great grandfather, as the story goes, who had it on his ship during the Civil War.

“I handled it growing up, but I don’t think I ever used it as a shot put,” Ryder said laughing. “It never appeared to me that it could be dangerous.”

When he moved his mother to Rhode Island, he brought the cannon ball to his Falmouth home, where it has remained for about 20 years.

After talking to Ryder at the station, Lt. John Kilbride and Officer Tim Libby arrived at Ryder’s house almost before he did.

“We determined it was a Civil War cannon ball packed with black powder,” Kilbride said. “We evacuated the house and called Portland (bomb squad).”

Falmouth Public Works brought in a dump truck loaded with two feet of sand, Kilbride said. The bomb squad grabbed the cannon ball with special prongs, placed it in the sand and put a bomb blanket over it.

A portion of Route 1 north of the Falmouth Shopping Center was shut down for a short time while the bomb was transported to a rock quarry near the Cumberland town line, where the bomb was detonated.

According to the bomb technician, the black powder was “very volatile,” Kilbride said.

“With a spark, it very easily could have detonated,” Kilbride said. “It could have killed everyone in the house.”

For years, the Ryders kept the cannon ball on the first floor next to their wood stove. But “there was too much junk on the hearth,” Ryder said, and for the past 20 years they stored it “down cellar.”

Once he’d decided to take the bomb to the police, Ryder asked his wife to bring it upstairs. It was on the kitchen counter when Kilbride and Libby arrived.

“I joked with Officer Libby, if my granddaughter saw that on the counter, she would have wanted to take it into school for show and tell,” he said.

Ryder appeared to be surprised at the level and gravity of response his family heirloom attracted. Calling it “quite a production,” Ryder said “half the city of Portland” converged on the neighborhood, taking over his house to secure the cannon ball.

“I was a little perturbed there were so many people in here,” he said. “I would have put this thing in an LL Bean bag and taken it to the bomb squad and let them deal with it.”

Peggy Roberts can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or [email protected]

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