Quebec City bids adieu to 'cannonball tree' with help from Canadian military

·4 min read
The tree was pulled from the ground with the 'cannonball' still embedded in its roots as Canadian Armed Forces worked to minimize risks. (Radio-Canada - image credit)
The tree was pulled from the ground with the 'cannonball' still embedded in its roots as Canadian Armed Forces worked to minimize risks. (Radio-Canada - image credit)

It took three days of hard work, but the famous "cannonball" trapped in the roots of an American elm tree on the side of a historic street in Quebec City has been removed without any booming surprises.

"After carefully examining the cannonball, we determined that the probability is extremely low that there is energetic material inside," said Capt. Samuel Methot.

He leads the explosive ordnance disposal team out of Canadian Forces Base Valcartier. The military was called in to St-Louis Street to extract the dying tree and suspected artillery safely.

That's exactly what they did, while residents watched from a distance, some sad to see the tree and metal sphere extracted like a rotten tooth.

That "cannonball" has become a bit of a legend over the years, and can easily be found online as a tourist attraction.

Its Google listing, complete with 36 reviews and 4.7 stars as a historical landmark, already announces the tree is "permanently closed."

Not taking any chances

As horse-drawn carriages clopped by over the years, drivers would point out the round, black shape nestled in the tomb of bark and soil — a hint of rust on its ancient surface.

Some drivers would say it was fired from a British cannon in the 18th century, and that the tree was planted on top of it in defiance.

That tale has since been disputed, but the Canadian Armed Forces team wasn't taking any chances.

The lower portion of the tree was pulled from the ground on Thursday and, from there, the military personnel got to work, carefully removing the cannonball from the tree's cavity so it could be transported to the base for further inspection.

The 'cannonball tree' had its own Google listing and 36 reviews, garnering 4.7 stars as a historical landmark in Quebec City. The listing is now marked as permanently closed.
The 'cannonball tree' had its own Google listing and 36 reviews, garnering 4.7 stars as a historical landmark in Quebec City. The listing is now marked as permanently closed.(Carl Bovin/Radio-Canada)

"It is only once the object is deemed safe that it will be returned to Quebec City for possible display," said Methot.

While it might seem unusual to some that the military is called in to remove a cannonball, it's actually a regular thing.

"We answer between 60 and 70 calls per year, including three or four for cannonballs," said Methot.

Sometimes those cannonballs are still active, he said.

Farewell to an old friend

Danny Doyle has been driving horses by the artifact for some 40 years as he provides his clients tours of Old Quebec.

He says he would always stop to show his customers the ball. Some would even ask him to point it out.

"We told them it brought good luck," he said. "People were disembarking and going to touch it. I have spent my life with this ball."

Crews carefully exposed the roots around the tree before pulling it from the ground.
Crews carefully exposed the roots around the tree before pulling it from the ground.(Guillaume Croteau-Langevin/Radio-Canada)

Doyle said it was emotional to say goodbye to the old ball and tree.

But there was no other choice, city officials have said, as only about 27 per cent of the tree is still healthy.

A public work of art will be created with parts of the elm as well as the metal ball it grew around, but for now that ball's origin remains a mystery.

'Cannonball' was actually a bomb

Historian Jean-Marie Lebel did his own investigation into the unmarked ball and published his findings in the June 2015 article for Prestige magazine which can still be found online.

He determined the cannonball is not a cannonball at all as those tended to be smaller and made of lead.

The ball is actually a bomb, he wrote.

Bombs like this one were hollow, metallic projectiles which were charged with an incendiary material like a cloth rag and ignited with a fuse.

Many theories surround the alleged cannonball, including claims it fell there during the bombing raids of 1759, he wrote.

It was in examining a photo published by Frank Carrel in his tourist guide in the early 1900s that Lebel determined the ball was there before the tree, ruling out the theory that the tree came before the ball like the chicken before the egg.

A photo from 1908 shows bombs which have been transformed into wheel guards to protect the fronts of houses on Corps-de-Garde Street.
A photo from 1908 shows bombs which have been transformed into wheel guards to protect the fronts of houses on Corps-de-Garde Street.(Courtesty of the Collection Gino Gariépy)

The ball was likely there on purpose, installed as a wheel guard to protect homes from passing carriages, the article says.

These retrofitted bombs were affixed to a metal rod that was then inserted into the ground like the bollards of today that can stop trucks in their tracks.

In a photo of Old Quebec taken in 1908, these wheel guards can be seen lining the nearby Corps-de-Garde Street, which intersects St-Louis.

It's possible then that the tree simply grew around one of the ball over time, slowly turning it from a wheel guard into folklore.