Shot Tower Lead-Melting Bowl | Wisconsin Historical Society

Historical Essay

Shot Tower Lead-Melting Bowl

Wisconsin Historical Museum Object – Feature Story

Shot Tower Lead-Melting Bowl | Wisconsin Historical Society
EnlargeLead-melting bowl

Lead-melting bowl, c. 1833

Source: Wisconsin Historical Museum object #1992.12

EnlargeAn 1836 sketch of Helena Shot Tower

Sketch of Helena Shot Tower, 1836

An 1836 sketch of the Helena Shot Tower done by John Wilson, depicting the original smelting house on top of the cliff, wooden portion of the drop shaft, and finishing house below. View the original source document: WHI 9004

EnlargeCanvas bag filled with lead shot

Canvas bag filled with lead shot, 1967

An example of a canvas bag filled with lead shot from the mid-nineteenth century. This bag was made by the Chicago Shot Company, recipient of some of the Helena equipment after that company closed. Source: Wisconsin Historical museum Object #1967.220

EnlargeSign marking the ground where the smelter stood

Sign marking the ground where the smelter stood, c. 1950

This c. 1950 photograph taken at Tower Hill State Park shows a sign that marks the spot where the smelter would have used the bowl to pour the lead down the shaft. View the original source document: WHI 38024

Lead-melting bowl used at the Wisconsin Shot Company Shot Tower, Helena, Wisconsin, c. 1833.
(Museum object #1992.12)

Prior to the nineteenth century, producing lead shot for muskets was not only a time-consuming process, the final product was often pock-marked or otherwise flawed, making it potentially hazardous. In 1783, British plumber William Watts applied his knowledge of the physical properties of water to patent a new technique for making lead shot. While droplets of falling water are typically thought of as tear-drop shaped, they are actually perfectly spherical. By applying this principle to molten lead droplets and letting them fall far enough for them to harden in their shape, flawless shot could be formed. A simple tool like this iron melting bowl for lead paired with sufficient height and a means to cool the droplets were some of the few requirements for this ingeniously simple means of production.

Producing shot in this manner was a logical choice for the area around Helena (near modern day Spring Green) in Southwestern Wisconsin. The area's high cliffs provided the necessary height, the nearby Wisconsin River allowed for convenient transportation, and an ample local lead supply helped Green Bay pioneer and entrepreneur Daniel Whitney develop his shot business in the area.

While the state of Missouri had already found success in the lead shot making business, Whitney was the first to try it in Wisconsin. In 1831, he had the good fortune of finding existing buildings near the small village of Helena that facilitated his new venture; a smelting house perched at the top of a cliff with a finishing house below it at the base. By digging a vertical shaft between the two, he found more than enough distance with which to drop the lead for ideal formation.

Whitney hired Thomas B. Shaunace to dig both vertical and horizontal shafts for the tower, a task completed largely with only simple mining picks, candles, a bucket, and a rope. Construction temporarily halted during the Black Hawk War of 1832, but Shaunace and his partner Malcolm Smith resumed construction shortly thereafter, completing the excavation in 1833. By fall of that year, the Wisconsin (Wiskonsin) Shot Company began production, finding great success from the start.

The total distance of the completed drop shaft was over 180 feet – 60 feet of wooden shaft attached off of the side of the smelting house connected to 120 feet dug through the rock. Lead, purchased from local miners, was melted at the top of the tower in the smelting house, then poured through a perforated ladle to form the droplets. A pool of water collected shot after its fall to the bottom of the shaft, completing the cooling process and appropriate shaping. From there, an additional 90 feet of tunnel ran horizontally from the pool to the finishing house, where horse-drawn carts coordinated to deliver the 5,000 pounds of shot made there each day. Once the shot was brought to the finishing house, it could be dried and polished. It was then easily shipped away for sale via boats on the adjacent Wisconsin River.

Bolstered by the success of the shot tower, the tiny town of Helena burgeoned during the mid-nineteenth century. The Wisconsin Shot Company's demise during the Civil War, however, led to a virtual overnight vanishing of the boomtown. In 1889, Unitarian minister Jenkin Lloyd Jones purchased the abandoned land for only $60.00. After Lloyd Jones's death, his wife gifted the property to the State of Wisconsin. Today, the shot tower and melting house sites have been restored as part of the Tower Hill State Park. The sites can be visited by those interested in seeing exhibits on how shot was made in the early-to-mid 1800s.

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[Sources: Libby, Orin Grant. "Chronicle of the Helena Shot-Tower" in Collections of the State Historical Society of Wisconsin, Volume XIII (Madison, WI: State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 1895); Hamilton, Richard. "History of the American Shot Tower" from the Trapshooting Hall of Fame and Museum.


Posted on March 27, 2008