Log Cabin Chronicles

The Glen Road Cannon


NEWPORT, VT | Some 50 years ago, when we were boys growing up in Vermont's Northeast Kingdom, we had the typical Huckleberry Finn attitudes that gave each day new meaning.

When we'd had enough of sports, fishing, hunting, and swimming, it was always a challenge to find other adventuresome endeavors to occupy our active minds and bodies. We hadn't yet discovered girls and beer so we were always up for new and exciting macho games.

Near our lakeside neighborhood, railroad train tracks carried many a freight train and a few passenger lines through our town on the way from Montreal to Boston and back again. As in most small towns, there were train support facilities and staff spotted along the train routes.

One such support near us was a small shack used to store various and sundry railroad tools and supplies. One such supply that came in a keg was the chemical, calcium carbide.

These stone-chip size nuggets were used by the railroad signalmen to fire up their lanterns. A few of the nuggets in the lantern, sprinkled with water, created methane gas which, when lighted, caused the lanterns to glow sun-bright, making them visible for great distances.

Exactly how we fell on another, more exciting use for this chemical, none of us can recall, but herein lies the story…

It was never too difficult to find a way to enter the locked supply shack after hours, and one night we pilfered a small bag of the chemical to see if there might be a more playful use for it. One inventive guy, who had been experimenting with his chemistry set, began to get some ideas. One trial led to another until we hit the jackpot when we put a small amount in a can, spit on it, and closed the lid.


Fortunately, no one was hurt when the gas expanded and blew the lid off the can with a loud explosion. Can you imagine the grinning faces of this motley group as exciting thoughts raced through their juvenile minds?

Naturally, all our future experiments were conducted under the cloak of secrecy and out of adult earshot. There happened to be a not-often-used sand pit, off the beaten path and not too far from our homes, and this became the site for all future tests.

It soon became obvious that when we used larger containers with more of the chemical, the louder the explosion and the greater the distance for the flying lid.

Since we lived in a rural community with a dairy within town limits, it was occasionally possible to obtain a discarded steel 10-gallon milk can. These came with a pressure-sealed cap -- the perfect receptacle for our continually expanding experiments.

After finding one of these, rusty but with no holes, we hauled it to our hide-a-way in the sand pit. It seemed the proper thing to build a holding rack for our container, so we modified a sawhorse and rigged it at a forty-five degree angle to fit the milk can. Next, we drilled a hole in the bottom of the can, big enough so that a cork could be plugged in and easily popped out at the proper time.

Now, for the pièce de résistance: Just picture this group of young teenagers looking at each other with puffed out chests as it came time to test the monster, all racked and ready to fire.

Timing was crucial. Positions had been assigned.

The drill included four pairs of hands:

First, a measured amount of calcium carbide had to be put in the can; second, some water had to be poured onto the chemicals; third, the lid had to be put on the can; and lastly, after a guesstimate of time for the methane gas to build up, the guy on the cork had to knock it off and hold a lighted match to the hole.

The drill was practiced several times until all were confident that each job would be perfectly executed.

It was sunny with patchy clouds on a late summer afternoon and this was to be our day for the big bang.

Little did we know…

All positions were manned and the firing sequence began -- chemicals, water, lid, wait, cork off, match to the hole, hands to ears and everyone hit the deck.

The explosion was heard across town as the can lid was blasted about seventy-five feet up into the hill of the sand pit. The gang laughed and slapped each other and couldn't wait to do it again.

And thus was born the Glen Road Cannon.

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Copyright © 2004 Raymond Goyette/Log Cabin Chronicles/01.04