The Lehigh football team suffered a blowout loss against Rutgers on Oct. 25, 1947, where they were outscored 46-13. Adding to the chilling loss, the Rutgers football team had just adopted a new tradition where they fired a cannon blast after every touchdown they scored.
The Lehigh players who lost to Rutgers that day heard that cannon blast seven times over the course of the game. According to The Brown and White archives, after the loss, a Lehigh player named James Hildebrand, ‘50, asked his father to donate a cannon to Lehigh so they could adopt the tradition.
The cannon his father owned was previously used to signify when whaling ships had returned to port in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and was given to him as a gift. Hildebrand was not getting much use of the nearly 75-year-old cannon, so he agreed to donate it to Lehigh for use at pep rallies and home games.
Jason Schiffer, the chief of Lehigh police said the cannon was passed around between the Arcadia (what is now the Student Senate), the Lehigh cheerleaders and the Kappa Alpha fraternity for years, which as of 2018 is no longer recognized by the university.
On May 4, 1979, an advertisement was put in The Brown and White with the title “Help needed in search for lost cannon.” The now century-old relic had been stolen from the Kappa Alpha house.
Eventually, the cannon was returned to the house, with new security measures in place to protect it.
After the cannon was stolen the first time, the members of Kappa Alpha who were responsible for the cannon, known as the “Cannon Crew,” decided to lock it away during the offseason and deliberately kept its location a secret when it wasn’t in use.
Sometime in the 1980s, the cannon was stolen once again, but this time the Marching 97 stepped in and bought a smaller, newer replacement cannon. That cannon is still in use by the Marching 97 and has been used in place of the Hildebrand’s cannon since its last disappearance.
For nearly 40 years, the cannon had been lost to the world, until 2018 when Lehigh hired Schiffer.
During Schiffer’s first year as chief, Allen Biddinger, the assistant athletic director, reached out to Schiffer, asking him to take a cannon off his hands.
Schiffer was confused but followed Biddinger to an outbuilding around Goodman Campus where he showed him the Hildebrands’ weathered, beaten-up cannon. Biddinger explained the cannon was found by a landlord in the corner of an off-campus basement, who then returned the cannon to Lehigh once again.
Biddinger asked Schiffer if he would be willing to take responsibility for the cannon.
“(Biddinger was) like ‘I don’t want this cannon and no one else wants this cannon,’” Schiffer said. “So I contacted the Marching 97 to see if they wanted it, and they’re like, ‘No, that’s cool, we already have a cannon.’”
Schiffer decided he and Chris Houtz, the assistant chief of police, would undertake the job of restoring the now 150-year-old cannon.
Houtz, who does woodworking in his spare time, was in charge of renewing the carriage and wheels as well as getting the Lehigh crest lasered onto each side of the cannon.
“As soon as (Schiffer) showed me the cannon, I was all in,” Houtz said.
The two officers dismantled the cannon and started to research what it would take to make the necessary repairs.
Schiffer restored and polished the solid brass barrel and reworked the firing mechanism with a brown and white power cord and a fire extinguisher pin. He added a plaque to the back of the cannon that reads: “THE LEHIGH CANNON – Presented to the students of Lehigh University 18 November 1948 by James E. Hildenbrand ‘50.”
The finished version of the cannon was used last Friday at the Lehigh ROTC’s annual Veterans Day flag-raising ceremony where first-year ROTC member Daniel Neubecker had the honor of firing it.
“Honestly, when I first got to the quad, I was struggling to find it,” Neubecker said. “I was expecting a big cannon, but it was still cool to fire it.”
The cannon is a little over a foot tall, no more than two feet in length and only weighs about 80 pounds. It’s so small that some viewers didn’t even know there was a cannon at the event until it was fired. Needless to say, some were surprised once they heard the powerful blast.
Neubecker said Schiffer showed him the shotgun blank he was to fire and he did not expect it to be as loud as it was.
The cannon now resides in Schiffer’s office at the Lehigh police station, where it sits on the carpet in the corner near the door like his own 80-pound, brass guard dog.
The cannon will be used during this year’s Lehigh-Lafayette game, exactly 75 years since the nearly 200-year-old cannon made its debut in The Rivalry.
“I just think it’s a really cool part of a Lehigh tradition, and I’m pretty happy that I could play a small part of bringing it back into existence,” Schiffer said.