The famous cannonball in the tree is actually a bomb!

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Photo: Shirley Nadeau

As this stately elm tree grew in height and girth over the past century, it entrapped the large cannonball in its roots. According to local lore, the cannonball was placed near the corner of the house to protect it from being damaged by the wheels of wagons passing too closely. 

Everyone familiar with Old Quebec is familiar with the tall old elm tree on Rue Saint-Louis at the corner of Rue du Corps-de-Garde, and what appears to be a large cannonball trapped in its gnarly roots. Calèche drivers slow their horse's gait to point it out to their passengers. Curious passers-by invariably stop and try to figure out how the cannonball could have gotten there, and when. 

In an article in the June 2015 issue of Prestige magazine, historian Jean-Marie Lebel offers the intriguing story and the probable reason for the large metal orb held fast in the tree's roots. The following information was based on Lebel's text:

At last, says the historian, we have the elements to solve the mystery. This large tree is an American elm. There were a good many of these trees on the hill when Champlain founded Quebec City in 1608.

Our famous tree with the cannonball lodged in its roots has not had an easy life. It grew so close to a large stone house, known as the ‘Maison de Madame Péan,' that it could not spread its branches. The mistress of Intendant Bigot lived in this house during the last years of New France. After a fire in 1791, the house was restored and has belonged to the military [the Department of National Defence] since 1811. It is now divided into large apartments and serves as housing for the families of officers of the Canadian Armed Forces. 

Louis Parrot, for many years a professor of Forestry at Université Laval, finds it admirable, but not astonishing, that our elm tree has survived. Elms, he says, are very resistant trees which can adjust to tough urban conditions. It is probably because of its isolation that this particular tree has managed to escape Dutch elm disease, a fungal infection spread by the elm bark beetle that has killed many other elm trees in Quebec City.

The metal ball is in fact a bomb! Lead cannonballs are much smaller than the large metal ball caught in the roots of this mighty elm. This is a hollow projectile which would be loaded with incendiary material and ignited with a wick. In 1759, the British artillery fired great numbers of these large balls into the city. However, although we know ours is a [no longer dangerous] bomb, we continue to call it a cannonball.

There are many theories that might explain the cannonball in the roots of the tree. During the bombardments of 1759, it might have landed there, at the foot of the young tree, and as it grew, little by little the roots surrounded it. Some people say that the cannonball was placed there by the military personnel living in Maison Péan, and others say the taxi drivers of near-by Place d'Armes put it there. But we can all agree on one point: the tree was there before the cannonball.

According to historian Jean-François Caron of Parks Canada, the cannonball was soldered to a metal post and pushed into the earth, so that no one could move the heavy object. The large ball acted as a chasse-roue or wheel guard, protecting the corner of the house from damage by wagons turning the corner into the side street. 

We don't know when this cannonball became a wheel guard, but we know it was at the beginning of the 1900s. One day, the seed of an elm tree, probably from one of the trees in the Parc du Cavalier-du-Moulin, at the end of the Rue du Corps-de-Garde, took root near the corner of the house. As the young tree grew, it enveloped the cannonball resting near its base, and gradually entrapped it.