From Musket Balls to Basketballs- The Sparks Shot Tower


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Perhaps it is still standing because it would cost too much to demolish. The Sparks Shot Tower – for many years the tallest structure in Philadelphia – is now part of a city recreation center. Instead of making tons of musket balls, birdshot and bullets, the 142-foot tower looms above an indoor basketball court.

The Sparks Shot Tower has been a South Philadelphia landmark since 1808. Located at Front and Carpenter Streets, it’s easily seen by passing motorists on I-95. Most people probably assume it’s a tall smoke stack from some long-defunct factory. It is, indeed, a 200-year-old industrial artifact. When the brick tower was first built, it represented a revolutionary new technology in the manufacture of lead ammunition. The technology was born in Great Britain where it was discovered that dropping molten lead from a high place caused it to form perfectly round balls as it fell. The lead was poured through a mesh that gave the balls the proper sizes. The hot balls fell into a large vat of water.

Until this discovery, musket balls were fashioned by pouring the lead into wooden molds. The new technique made it many times quicker and cheaper to make ammunition. Tons of shot was imported to America until President Thomas Jefferson imposed the Embargo Act in 1807. During the Napoleonic Wars, both France and Great Britain began seizing ships from neutral nations headed toward enemy ports. Jefferson’s answer was to ban trading with both nations.

According to a long-told story, Thomas Sparks and John Bishop were out hunting water fowl in the swamps in South Philly when they began discussing the high price of lead shot caused by the embargo and hit on the idea of building their own shot tower. Another partner in the project was James Clement.  All three were experienced in working with lead. The partners found someone who had worked in a British shot tower to advise them. The tower is said to be a sterling example of Philadelphia brickwork. Topped by a cone-shaped roof, the tower is 30 feet in diameter at the base and tapers to 15 feet. “Members of the United States Lighthouse Board have frequently repaired to its site to copy the model and afterward re-embody it in a lighthouse,” according to an 1875 book on Philadelphia industry.


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There is some debate over the claim that the Queen Village landmark was the first American shot tower. A stone shot tower in Wythe County, Va., along the New River, was built about the same time. It still stands along with Sparks and three other American shot towers. Within a year of the opening of the Sparks Shot Tower, Philadelphian Paul Beck built an even larger tower along the Schuylkill River, but it is long gone.

During the War of 1812, the Sparks Shot Tower was in full operation selling ammunition to the federal government. Bishop left the enterprise because he was devout Quaker who felt he could not support war in any form. The third partner also eventually left. At some point machinery was installed in a nearby building to make the conical bullets that replaced most lead shot. Four generations of the Sparks family continued operations until 1903 when the business was sold.

In 1913, the city purchased the shot tower and surrounding grounds to create a playground for a neighborhood teeming with immigrants and the poor. The entrance to the tower is sealed off and few have entered it in decades.

Sources

Avery, Ron. Beyond the Liberty Bell. Philadelphia: Broad Street Books, 1991.

Workshop of the World. Oliver Evans Press, 1990. http://www.workshopoftheworld.com/index.html

There is also a large amount of research on shot towers available on various websites.   

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