Less glamorous than silver or gold, lead nevertheless carried great importance for the young United States. It was used to make paint, pewter, pipes, weights, and, importantly, ammunition, which helps explain why the federal government eagerly stimulated domestic lead production in the early nineteenth century. Ammunition was made in shot towers like this one. The lead was first melted in large vats, with arsenic added to make the metal more brittle. Then, using perforated ladles (different-sized perforations created different gauges of shot), workers dripped the molten metal down the tower shaft into a shallow basin of water at the bottom. The drops formed spheres as they fell, cooling and solidifying as they hit the water. The shot was removed through a tunnel and taken to another building for sorting, weighing, and packing.
Entrepreneur Daniel Whitney of Green Bay built this shot tower and began production in 1833. It continued in use until 1861, producing about 2.5 tons of shot per day at its peak. From the front-gabled melting house, perched at the edge of a cliff, the shaft plunges some 180 feet to the 3-foot-deep basin of water at the bottom. The shaft is framed in wood for the first 60 feet, and the last 120 feet are burrowed through sandstone. The present wood-framed and clapboard upper shaft and melting house are replicas of the originals. Both the shaft and the 90-foot tunnel leading away from it are 6 feet in diameter. The construction of this facility was an engineering feat, considering that the workers had no drawings or surveyors’ instruments. They dug the shaft and tunnel by hand, and using only a line of stakes, they managed to align the base of the shaft with the tunnel almost perfectly.