Old New York In Photos #46 – The History of New York’s Shot Towers

Birds-eye View  Of The City From The Shot Tower At Centre Street

And A Brief History Of New York’s Shot Towers

Birdseye View From shot tower Centre StreetThis view of lower Manhattan looking north is from the top of the Centre Street shot tower and was taken in approximately 1870 by E & H.T. Anthony, providers of some of the best 19th century stereoviews of New York.

The view confirms that New York was a low profile city in the 1870’s. The tallest structures in the metropolis were generally churches and their steeples. This view is dominated primarily by three and four story dwellings (some with laundry on clotheslines drying on the roof) as far as the eye can see.

print shot tower Centre Street 1905 Samuel HollyerThe shot tower was 175 feet tall and was built in 1855 by James Bogardus, a pioneer of cast iron building for James McCullough.

Located at 63 Centre Street and bounded by Pearl Street, Worth Street, New Elm Street and Centre Street, the shot tower was operated for many years by the Colwell Lead Company who acquired it from McCullough after the Civil War.

The Centre Street shot tower was octagonal in shape and constructed of brick with 10 iron pillars reaching from the foundation to the top. The base of the tower was 25 feet in diameter, tapering off to 11 feet in diameter at the summit.

Shot towers were among the tallest structures in 19th century New York. They served a necessity in the manufacture of shot ammunition. Molten pig lead would be mixed with arsenic and dropped from the top of the tower through a sieve. The semi-liquid cooled as it fell through the air into a globular shape, and it was caught in a basin of water below. The process would form perfect spherical shot. It was estimated that the tower could produce 15 tons of shot in a day.

As you approached the shot tower the cacophony of sound was described by a contemporary reporter “as if 1,000 sewing machines were at full play.”  If you stood just outside the room where the shot was produced the noise level jumped incrementally to the sound of “100,000 sewing machines now put in full motion.” And if you entered the production room, it was as if  “1,000,000 sewing machines were at work for all they were worth.”

In a strong gale of wind workers described how the tower would sway, not backward or forward but “like a man full of liquor desirous of taking in all the points of the compass at one and the same time.”

According to the superintendent of the lead company, considering the view which could be obtained from the top of the tower there were few requests from visitors to ascend it.

The Centre Street shot tower was razed in 1908. On its site is Thomas Paine Park.

Shot Towers In Manhattan

All the other shot towers that existed in New York are now gone as well.

They included:

A shot tower was located at 261 & 263 Water Street operated by T.O. Leroy. Almost no other information could be found on this tower.

Weber’s shot tower constructed in 1846 by Adam Weber, was located on 15th Street between avenues B and C. The shot tower was 180 feet high. Demolished in 1910.

Youle's shot tower East River 53rd Street painting by Jasper Cropsey

Youle’s shot tower East River 53rd Street painting by Jasper Cropsey

At 82 Beekman Street near Cliff Street stood a 217 foot dull red brick shot tower completed in 1857 for the Tatham Brothers. The Brooklyn Bridge was later built nearby and the tower became more conspicuous when it was painted  to a bright yellow cream color in 1892. In written accounts it was often confused with the Centre Street shot tower. The Tatham Brothers shot tower was torn down in 1907.

George Youle’s 175 foot shot tower (some sources say 110 feet) was originally built in 1821 at the foot of the East River between 53rd and 54th Street. James McCullough later ran this shot tower for about ten years before relocating his business to the aforementioned Centre Street shot tower which he had built. On September 30, 1857 the tower was partially destroyed by an explosion and fire. It was rebuilt with imported Holland brick with walls that were seven feet thick. This, the final shot tower in Manhattan was demolished in 1920.

6 thoughts on “Old New York In Photos #46 – The History of New York’s Shot Towers

  1. terri Grieme

    Thank you for the history! Would you know of the address of McCulloughs Shot tower in Staten Island? I found a picture but am having a issue identifying the location as it was gone by the time I was born and able to explore by myself.

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      Hi Terri
      I don’t know exactly. Did the Staten Island shot tower exist only until 1863 or was it rebuilt and exist until 1898? I read an article from 1881 saying a factory was to be built in Stapleton near the old government shot tower site which was located near the ferry. Another article says it was located near Stapleton landing. So that narrows down the location a bit.

      According to newspaper reports in the Baltimore Sun, Chicago Tribune and Cincinnati Daily Enquirer, Mcullough’s (spelled McCollock’s in 2 papers) shot tower in Stapleton, Staten Island was destroyed by fire December 5, 1863.
      However a study published by New York City entitled The Reconstruction of Foley Square, Monitoring and Testing, 1994 to 2003 states:

      Prior to subleasing part of the 63-65 Centre Street property, McCullough had run into financial trouble that led to a State Supreme Court trial in 1851, four years before building the Centre street tower (Barbour 1853:103-107). His continuing difficulties apparently caused him to move his operation out of the city, but it did not daunt him. He built another shot factory and tower in 1860 on land he leased in Stapleton on Staten Island. Construction of this 200-ft. brick tower was well documented in local newspapers and treated as quite a wonder; this Staten Island tower stood until 1898 (Geismar 1991:52-55).

      The definitive answer to the exact location you could research by checking at the library or online a pre-1863 Atlas of Richmond County if one exists, I do not know. Or better yet, through the NYPL’s St. George Library Center and at Historic Richmond Town you can get your hands on a quarterly journal called The Staten Island Historian July- September 1955. An article was published in that issue by Henry G. Steinmeyer called “The Stapleton Shot Tower” That is the sort of article that sounds like it would describe the exact location.

      Reply
  2. Peter

    I heard that the foundation of Youle’s tower can still be seen in the basement of a building on or near 53rd Street. Any awareness of this?

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      No I did not come across that in any research. Did you read that or was it told to you? I’d be interested to know if that can be verified. That would be very cool.

      Reply
  3. Charles D. Warren

    Fascinating post. You could add that Youle’s tower was designed by John McComb Jr. and add that James McCullough had another tower on Staten Island. If you can tell me where you found information on the other Manhattan shot towers, I will be very grateful.

    Reply
    1. B.P. Post author

      Thank you, Charles. This could have been a full magazine article. Lots of interesting stories that I could not use in this story. I came across McCullough’s Staten Island tower, but stuck to the towers in Manhattan.

      I did not realize that McComb designed Youle’s tower because there were various hazy accounts of its construction, some stating that there had been a shot tower in that location during the Revolution. It was not clear how many times Youle’s tower was damaged or destroyed, that is why there seems to be conflicts in the descriptions of the height.

      The sources for my article were:

        newspapers:

      The New York Times; New York Tribune; The Evening World; The New York Sun; (many articles confused the Centre Street shot tower with the Franklin Street shot tower). The contemporary accounts of the newspapers were the most numerous and reliable sources for researching.

        books:

      Historical Building Construction by Daniel Friedman; Cast Iron Architecture in America by Margot Gayle & Carole Gayle; The Wonders of the World: A Complete Museum, Descriptive and Pictorial by John Loraine Abbot

        reports:

      The Reconstruction of Foley Square by Joan H Geismar & Joseph Schuldenrein for New York Landmarks Committee (excellent report with some mistakes however)

        periodicals:

      Domestic Engineering Vol 47; Engineering Record, Building Record and Sanitary Engineer, Volume 4 edited by Edward J. Mehren;

        websites:

      New York – History – Geschichte: Tower Mystery 1899; Colwell Lead Co. http://www.waltergrutchfield.net/colwell.htm

        libraries:

      for image research- New York Historical Society; New York Public Library; Museum of the City of New York; George Eastman House

      Reply

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