Monday, July 18, 2011
The Shot Tower -- An American Curiosity
The Shot Tower, along the New River Trail in Wythe County captured my imagination years ago. It would have been in the late 80's or early 90's when I discovered the trail as a place to ride my mountain bike. (They had just become widely available at bike shops.)
We did family outings on the trail. First with my now college-aged boys riding on the seat on the back of my bike. Later they rode their own bikes on the hard-packed surface enjoying a ride that offered nothing in the way of hills, and plenty of excitement with trestles and old railroad tunnels to ride over and through.
And there above the trail just off Interstate 77, was (and is) the Shot Tower.
In the TV story we showed how liquid (melted) lead was dumped through a sieve creating droplets that fell 150 feet. Along the way they would harden into perfectly round musket balls, or smaller, bird shot. At the bottom, the lead's fall was cushioned by a cauldron of water. Conveniently, the bottom was at river level, and boatmen could transport the product down the New River.
Though it was only used for actual shot making for a brief portion of its 200+ year history, from approximately 1804 - 1839, it stands today as a marvel and a curiosity.
On the outside, the part that sticks up into the air is a graceful structure, and unlike anything else you've ever seen. From the entrance looking down, is a shaft that drops 75 feet through solid limestone bedrock. I asked how they made that hole back then.
"With picks and shovels," said Park Interpreter Patrick McFall.
One of the many tourists who showed up while we were shooting the story asked, how they knew that 150 feet was the proper distance.
It goes back to England and a man named William Watts, who built a tower on the side of his house and kept adding on until he got the distance right. Thomas Jackson brought that information with him to Southwestern Virginia.
Somebody in the group remarked that Watts must have had a very understanding wife, to allow him to build a tower on the side of the house and play with molten lead.
Whether its carving a 75-foot hole into the landscape, making musket balls or figuring out how to make musket balls, it's cool to have the chance to marvel at how we arrived where we are today.
If you would like to see the Shot Tower, you need to plan to be there on a major summer holiday. (Labor Day is the next one on the schedule) or contact the New River Trail State Park headquarters at Foster Falls. The Rangers that I worked with on this story said they typically try to accommodate as many requests as they can -- but it's impossible to handle everything.
You might also be interested in volunteering to lead tours through the relatively new Americore program, which provides tour guides and or interpreters at all 35 of Virginia's State Parks.