The Humble Beauty of the Resilient Cannonball Park

John Paul Jones Cannonball Park Rodman Gun
The Rodman gun that gives John Paul Jones Park its better-known nickname. Photo by Hey Ridge.

A giant cannon and a granite obelisk fill your view as you cross Fourth Avenue at 101st Street, right at the southern tip of Bay Ridge. You’re stepping into an oddly serene park named after a Revolutionary War patriot—not the Led Zeppelin bassist, as it turns out.

The five-acre site was earmarked by Park Commissioner Elijah R. Kennedy in 1890 and dubbed Fort Hamilton Park, for the army base it neighbored. Then, it was a larger waterfront park predating the Belt Parkway—it’s now segmented by the Verrazano Bridge and related highways. In 1969, shortly after the Verrazano opened, the name was deemed “undistinguished” and it was renamed John Paul Jones Park by the City Council, as the space was by then synonymous with United States military history.

How Cannonball Park's ended up with its signature artillery piece, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1900.
How Cannonball Park ended up with its signature artillery piece, according to the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in 1900.

You wouldn’t expect one of our beautiful local greenspaces to border an exit ramp from the Belt Parkway and an anchorage for the mighty Verrazano Bridge, yet that’s exactly where John Paul Jones Park is situated. Nicknamed “Cannonball Park” for the 58-ton Civil War cannon—called a Rodman Gun—on display, this park is a hidden gem with picturesque views of the Narrows, the 693-foot-tall Verrazano Bridge towers and easy access to Shore Road Park and the Shore Promenade. It’s a strangely shaped piece of land, triangular and sloping sharply toward the Belt, but once you’re in the center of it, the surroundings fade away.

It’s dog-friendly but not overrun with dogs; it’s a popular location for photo shoots (guilty!) and provides some of the best shade so close to the water. It doesn’t have playground equipment, which is a selling point or a demerit, depending on who you ask, but the imaginative child has grassy open spaces to run on without the risk of running into traffic or out of sight. I have always appreciated the smaller-scale parks that are designed to maximize their tiny footprint more than the large parks that have more to work with. This park could easily just be a dog run, but instead we have cobblestone paths, benches, a gazebo and untrampled grass.

On August 27, 1776, the Battle of Brooklyn was fought, and our little corner of Long Island played an important role in that unfortunately losing effort to turn back the British from entering New York. Cannonball Park is near Denyse Wharf, where the British launched their campaign to take the city. There are several military monuments in the park, commemorating the rich history of the site, including the Dover Patrol Monument, a 75-foot-tall, Washington Monument-esque structure set in granite and dedicated in 1931, which commemorates U. S. Navy service in World War I. It casts a long, sundial like shadow across the northern edge of the park. Then there’s the Rodman Gun from the Civil War, an unwieldy beast with a 20-bore diameter and capable of an 8,000-yard range with a solid shot weighing 1,080 pounds. The Rodman situated in John Paul Jones Park, Old “Number 1,” is the largest of its kind; it was tested here but proved too large to be an effective weapon.

Both of these men are John Paul Jones, take a guess which one has a local parked named after him.
Both of these men are John Paul Jones, take a guess which one has a local parked named after him.

The Rodman gun and its cannonballs cast a striking form and earn the park its nickname. If asked, many Bay Ridgites wouldn’t even know that the actual name is John Paul Jones Park, and you might get labelled an outsider if you call it that. I had no idea who that was or why any park would be named after him. Turns out John Paul Jones was a Scottish-American sailor and famous naval fighter, although he didn’t fight in the Battle of Brooklyn. He does have a strange connection to Brooklyn: his remains were escorted back to America aboard the U.S.S. Brooklyn in 1906.

Even with the military history, the monuments, the proximity to the our enormous bridge, this park feels small and intimate, a fine respite from the city on the bleeding edge of the neighborhood. It’s worth a visit—just don’t call it John Paul Jones Park.

Photo by Hey Ridge
Photo by Hey Ridge