My Fascination With the Dubuque Shot Tower

It was the perfect time of day for a shot

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The Dubuque shot tower is a staple of the Dubuque skyline. It’s been standing for over 100 years and has seen plenty of changes in that time. Once shot towers were used to make shotshells and were often near lead mines to supply them, but today they are mainly decorative structures. I had never really heard of them before and have since been enlightened.

My fascination with the Dubuque Shot Tower

Have you ever had a person that was beyond excited to show you something and when you got there, you were totally stumped as to the WHY that they thought this was so important you to see? The gleam in their eyes, the proud-as-a-peacock body language, and the anticipation from them that you both admire and understand their enthusiasm for this gift that they are bestowing upon you?

Well, it happened to me.

While on a tour in the historic first city of Iowa, Dubuque, we stopped to check out a shot tower.

Our animated guide was the complete package that I had described as notable facts were rapidly fired out of her mouth and she pointed to different aspects of their local shot tower.  She quickly mentioned different historical timestamps it had progressed through its life, down to the restoration to what we were currently looking at.

Honestly, I had never heard about these before and was standing in front of this brick and stone vintage tower, tipping my head back to see the top, and scrambling to create an appropriate gesture of “wow” for my face.

I raced around for the best possible angles to take photos and snapped away with my little camera, to capture different light angles, the vast difference in building materials, the historical plaque – wait, something to read with a little more information?

I walked closer to read that historical placard and learned that this was basically a bullet making assembly line of the time –

The plaque of the Dubuque Shot Tower
The Dubuque Shot Tower plaque tells a brief history and how drop shot was made

Then my brain engaged, and I had soooo many questions!

  • Why was it made of stone AND brick?
  • Did the height matter to the size of the shot?
  • Why did they stop using it?
  • Why did they start back again?
  • How was it helpful when the forestry company bought it?
  • Who decided it needed to be refurbished and saved?
  • Who even created the CONCEPT of a shot tower and how it would work to make shot?

My brain was going so fast with questions that I knew I just had to learn more…and realized instantly that I was going to travel down a rabbit hole on shot towers, how they were used, their importance in our history, and who even thought of the actual concept.

I understood her enthusiasm on this not-so-hidden gem: I was hooked.

120 feet is higher than you may think
120 feet is higher than you may think – this is 120’5″ tall!

The plaque with it gave a brief snippet of the history and how they work.

If you have to constantly keep making your own bullets by melting down small amounts of lead, it would take a long time to fully furnish a militia. This is where shot towers would come in – they were a way to bulk produce small-diameter shot balls by a free fall of molten lead, which is then caught in a water basin to help instantly cool and maintain their round shape.

I literally fell down the black hole of research that night when I got back to my hotel room.

The process was invented by William Watts who was a plumber of Bristol, England and patented in 1782. He soldered a lot and dreamed that he was in a field where it was raining and drops of lead were falling instead of water – lead was falling.

He dug a hole in his basement to test his theory and it wasn’t a long enough distance to drop- so he built a few stories onto his house until he got the right distance figured out and could patten his “Drop Shot”.

How does Drop Shot form?

There are a few fun things to know like the distance the lead has to fall makes up the size of the shot. If any shot was found not “round” enough it could be added to the pile to be melted for making the shot, basically recycling it to make sure they ha a good end product.

The higher you went up to drop the shot, the smaller the shot would get.

This was a revolutionary concept as it was a HUGE timesaver and much more cost-efficient than doing the former hand-cast method.

How does drop shot form?

Speaking of revolutionary – the shot tower concept crossed the pond in the early 1800s – just in time to have a few help arm our militia for the War of 1812 against Brittian.

Two shot towers supplied our new American forces, but others started appearing across the country as Westward Expansion created the demand for shot.

After the war, the shot was used for hunting and self-defense from various perceived enemies on their westward travels.

Enter the economic Panic of 1857.

There is a lot that goes into that but it kind of boils down to the California Gold Rush winding down the use of the Telegraph to spread the news across the country quickly, and people in the east trying to hold onto their money instead of loaning or buying. There were no customers to ship supplies to so with a dwindling market, the existing shot towers were competition.

Entire books have been written on the Panic of 1857 – but those of us that have lived through the housing crash of 2008 – understand the concept of recession. This particular one hit the Great Lakes region the hardest and Dubuque was no exception.

Basically, the economic rollback meant there weren’t buyers. If the shot was sent back East to be sold – and no one was buying it – the business couldn’t survive.

A company was buying up shot towers to control the prices and corner the market that was left. The Dubuque location was purchased and closed down. So, the Dubuque Shot Tower only produced lead shot from 1856-58, and then was closed.

It would only take a year or so for the Northern economy to recover, but it was too late for the Dubuque Shot Tower.

How long do you think it took to make lead bullets using one of these? Mass Production looks pretty good with up to 8 tons a day!

The Dubuque Shot Tower and the Civil War

When the Civil War came about, it was put back into production for a short time – to help the Union Soldiers. At least, that is my assumption from the research I found as the state was one of the Nothern partners. I can’t see them supplying the Confederates.

That was roughly 1861 – 1862.

Financially things wouldn’t get back to normal until after the Civil War.

Life after the Civil War

The Dubuque Shot Tower was sold to the Standard Lumber Company who used it as a fire watchtower, after a few modifications.

It caught fire in 1911 and was left as is until attempts to restore it in 1960. Sadly, they didn’t do the job correctly – we are all so much smarter as we look back.

That is why it is so fantastic that many people came together to help preserve this history, restore it, and get it on the National Register of Historic Places and correctly restored during their riverfront renovations in 2004.

It was the perfect time of day for a shot
It was the perfect time of day for a Dubuque shot tower visit!

How was the Dubuque Shot Tower Built?

So, the dual building materials fascinated me and I have no answers for you.

The bottom part of the Dubuque Shot Tower is made from Galena Dolomite stone and the top half is made from red brick.

I can’t find an answer for this – my only guess is that the Dolomite was no longer available and they had to go with the red brick. It seems that the dual construction was original – but unique to the Dubuque style. Many others are all red brick.

That is just my guess – I will dig deeper into this later to find out if maybe the red brick was better for the higher heat that the top of a shot tower would have from melting the lead.

Was it the only Shot Tower of Dubuque?

Well, yes. They didn’t really need more than one in an area and we already know the competition was fierce.

That is why it was so fantastic that it was saved – it is from a moment in our history where bulk manufacturing was a newer concept and our country was going through so many growing pains.

The fact that they saved a moment of history so people like me could come by and be fascinated? That is just the coolest!

2 kinds of building material
You can clearly see the difference between the stone and brick layers

Things to do in Dubuque today

Don’t take my word for it – go check it out yourself. It is where you would expect it to be – in the middle of a business park or manufacturing area. Being 120 feet tall – it is fairly easy to spot. As the only shot tower west of the Mississippi River, it is one of only a few remaining historic shot towers in the United States.

Places To Stay Nearby

It won’t take long to look over and see for yourself – but it is certainly worth checking out.

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