The Alamo and Texas A&M University’s Conservation Research Lab swapped cannons last week.

Officials at the Alamo sent three historic cannons to the A&M lab to be cleaned and preserved for future display at the mission. The conservation lab, meanwhile, sent the Alamo two restored cannons owned by the City of San Antonio, previously displayed at La Villita Historic Arts Village. 

Alamo Conservator Pam Rosser said the La Villita cannons will be installed in the Alamo’s Arcade – the walkway flanked by stone arches just south of the Alamo Chapel – probably within the coming month. They will occupy the two remaining empty arches next to the six cannons already on display.

Alamo Curator Ernesto Rodriguez said two of the cannons sent to the lab last week, one on loan from the San Jacinto Battleground Association and one from the McCombs Foundation, probably were used in the 1836 Battle of the Alamo. The third cannon, part of the Phil Collins Texana Collection, which the British rock star donated to the Alamo in 2014, probably was not used at the Alamo.

The cleaning and preservation of each cannon can cost thousands of dollars, Rosser said, paid for using Texas Historical Foundation funds specifically allocated for cannon restoration.

The Alamo has been working with the conservation lab since 2017 on restoring all of the Alamo’s cannons. Each time, the lab’s staff has uncovered new information on the artifacts and even found a couple of unfired cannonballs in one of them.

“The importance of the restoration is that they give us more insight into the history of the gun,” Rodriguez said. “They’re still giving up answers. Every time one goes out a little bit more of its history is revealed.”

Alamo Curator Ernesto Rodriguez. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Rodriguez said some of these cannons had never had any restoration work done before. Researchers believe that after the battle the Mexican army intentionally disabled most of the guns and then buried them, which in combination with weather and time has caused significant deterioration to the cannons, Rodriguez said.

To clean the rust, dirt and debris off the metal, Rosser said the lab soaks each cannon in a sodium hydroxide bath, and then an electric current is sent through the water in a process called electrolytic reduction. After some manual cleaning and rinsing, the cannons are either painted with an industrial paint, if they are being displayed outside, or sometimes coated with wax for indoor display. 

Researchers believe there probably were 18 cannons in the Alamo during the battle of 1836, and although these three new cannons will bring the total current number in the Alamo to 13, Rosser said not all of the cannons were used in the famous battle.

Rosser said she would love to see any privately held Alamo cannons donated back so they can be displayed inside the mission along with the others. But some of the cannons will never be returned; researchers believe a few of them might have been melted down for various reasons.

“Unfortunately, the people that found them did not donate them all, and several of the other guns we don’t know what happened to them,” Rodriguez said. “These are cannons that have a long history prior to the Alamo, at the Alamo, and then they have a history after the Alamo once they are found and dug up.”

The restoration process can take as long as three months, depending on how damaged the cannons are, Rosser said. When the three newly restored cannons do return, there are no immediate plans for where or when they will be put on display. Rodriguez said the cannons would be stored in the Alamo’s vault until a decision is made.

Plans for expanding and improving the Alamo grounds have been in the works since at least 2017 when the Texas Legislature approved $75 million for the project as part of a $450 million public-private partnership. 

One feature of the new Alamo Plaza will be a large museum space to house the many artifacts that have been donated or discovered. Rosser said the new museum will be important for the Alamo because display space currently is so limited that staff is forced to switch out exhibits frequently.

The Alamo has been closed to the public since March 16 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Alamo spokesman Kevin Femmel said any updates about reopening the historic site would be posted to the Alamo’s website and social media pages.

Jennifer Norris has been working in journalism since 2005. She's a native Texan, but a new San Antonian who is excited to get to know the city.