The view from the last shot tower in Manhattan

Nineteenth century New York was a very low-rise city.

At 281 feet, Trinity Church’s spire dominated the skies above Manhattan, with other church steeples and fire watchtowers aiming toward the heavens as well.

Shot towers were part of the skyline too. These were built to manufacture shot balls; lead was heated and then dropped through a sieve down a thin tower, and as it cooled, round pieces of ammunition formed.

In the mid-1800s, manufacturers put up shot towers on Centre Street, Water Street, Beekman Street, East 15th Street, and East 53rd Street beside the East River.

But the East 53rd Street tower held out the longest and became an early 20th century icon.

Originally built in the early 1820s as Youle’s shot tower, it was “partially destroyed by an explosion and fire,” in 1857, explains stuffnobodycaresabout.com. “It was rebuilt with imported Holland brick with walls that were seven feet thick.”

Perhaps because of its bucolic location miles from the center of the city, or maybe due to its lighthouse-like design, the 53rd Street shot tower was a frequent subject for painters and illustrators.

Landscape painter Jasper Cropsey painted it in 1845, at the top left, showing the small inlet where boats ferried people to the institutions of Blackwell’s Island.

The second illustration was done in 1831 and included this caption: “It is about four miles and a quarter from the city, and rises to the height of one hundred and fifty feet in one of the pleasantest spots on the island.”

Landscape painter Frederic Edwin Church took a stab at it in this 1846 oil painting, showing the shot tower peeking through thick trees. (And look, cows!)

The last two photos show the shot tower in 1905 and 1906, long after the cows and trees had been cleared and manufacturing took over East 53rd Street.

In 1920, Youle’s tower—almost a century old—met the wrecking ball. The New York Herald published a fitting elegy.

“What sights of municipal history it has viewed. What scenes of lovemaking it has witnessed on the nearby Kissing Bridge. What changes it has seen on Blackwell’s Island and on the island of Manhattan in its vicinity.”

“The fields which once comprised the Spring Valley Farm are now a wilderness of gas works, breweries, stone yards, and tenement houses….How these bluffs would be tended and beautified if they existed in the heart of certain European capitals is a thought that accentuates the present ugliness.”

These days we don’t have shot towers or manufacturing in the East 50s. Apartment towers loom on 53rd Street down to the river, and on the Queens side too.

[Fourth photo: MCNY x2010.11.5519; fifth photo: x2010.11.5523]

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8 Responses to “The view from the last shot tower in Manhattan”

  1. Zoé Says:

    Lol – I think “lovemaking” meant something else then. (Courting & perhaps kissing). Remember the parlour scene in ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’? (“He’s making violent love to me mother!”). And that was made in the 1940s.

    These shot towers are so amazing. I wonder how shot is made now. (We used it in tumblers in my jewellery school. I should know this. Lol). The concept of building tall towers solely for this is sort of Rube Goldberg like…

    …Imagine a landscape full of purpose built architectural wonders whose chief existence was to make tiny metal shapes of various sorts. There’s something almost cartoonish about it. ‘We need an octagonal building w/ an enclosed courtyard which shoots stamped metal stars from one end to the other’… etc.

    The entire concept of these towers is exquisitely beautiful. Like shiny silver raindrops *sprinkling* down to earth.

  2. mateodepoose Says:

    I did a post a few years ago on the shot tower on Beekman Street, which was designed by the noted cast-iron architect James Bogardus. That tower came down around 1907. http://dreamersrise.blogspot.com/2011/12/lost-tower.html

  3. David H Lippman Says:

    This is something I actually did not know. Fascinating.

    • Zoé Says:

      Dropping molten lead in water used to be done on New Year’s Eve – in Germany I think (?) – for telling the future.

      I used to do it with silver at my torch (I’m a goldsmith) just for fun – not for fortunetelling – as it makes really interesting shapes. Though how people can see anything practical & illuminating in them I don’t know.

      Having done that I can see how it would take a tall tower to get round shot. For the cooling necessary prior to hitting the water. Vs the popped corn like shapes one achieves otherwise.

      • Zoé Says:

        *This may still be done by people for fun at the New Year. My German immigrant mother & grandmother did not tell me about this; I read it somewhere else. I’ve never known any young Germans to do it either – but everyone I knew well was a Berliner. So not exactly in the habit of keeping medieval traditions alive.

      • David H Lippman Says:

        This is all fascinating stuff. Thanks for sharing it.

  4. Alex Says:

    Melbourne has two still existing shot towers, one of which was incorporated into a shopping centre…
    https://www.melbournecentral.com.au/our-heritage

    • Zoé Says:

      Very interesting Alex. Thanks. No mention of ‘shot’ used in tumblers for Jewellery (polishing when sharp edges don’t need to be preserved). Either because we use steel shot & this only described lead shot; or jewellery tumblers / tumbling was not in use yet at the time of this description.

      Lol. I wonder if every preserved structure will eventually become part of some shops and/or an apartment complex.

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