SHOT TOWER HISTORICAL STATE PARK AND JACKSON'S FERRY
Division of Parks and Recreation
Claytor Lake State Park
Jackson's Ferry and the Shot Tower are located along the New River in the eastern section of Wythe County. Although the Ferry only lives on in the memories of those who used it, a State Historical Marker was placed along Route 52 in 1932 near the Ferry's original location. All tangible evidence of the Ferry's existence has been removed or has returned to the Earth. The Shot Tower, on the other hand, still stands overlooking the New River. As part of a Virginia State Park, the Tower will be preserved for future generations. Its history will be passed on to the thousands of people who visit it each year.
The information presented in this paper includes the events prior to the time the Tower was built. These events not only had a great impact on the Tower, but also had an important influence on the western development of this Country.
I would like to thank those persons associated with this New River Symposium for the opportunity to present this information.
In the mid eighteenth century around 1756 Colonal John Chiswell discovered lead along the New River. This discovery played a major role in the settlement of the area and the future events that took place in and around this area. The discovery was made near the present town of Austinville in Wythe County. Colonel Chiswell's son-in-law, John Robinson, who was also Speaker of the Virginia House of Burges and Colonel William Byrd III of Westover became partners with Chiswell. Mining operations began soon after 1756. In the years prior to Colonel Chiswell's death in 1766, the mining property known as Chiswell's Mine and Lead Mines grew in importance. At that time lead was used for water pipe, printing type, pewter and in bullets. A supply of this valuable metal was very important to this new and growing country. Even more importantly was the fact that this supply of lead was further west and consequently not in the direct control of the British government. After Chiswell's death, the Lead Mine Company continued operation for the benefit of the estates of Chiswell, Robinson, and Byrd even though the land had never been granted to anyone. When the Revolutionary War began, the mines were operated by the Colony of Virginia which had taken over all interests. The lead was distributed as needed in support of the Colonies. After the American Revolution the Lead Mine Company was managed by Colonel Charles Lynch of Lynch Law fame. In 1791 he secured a patent for 1400 acres in the name of the Lead Nine Company.
Meanwhile, a short distance to the east, other important events had been taking place. William Herbert (original spelling Harbert) purchased land from Thomas Stanton Jr. of Culpepper in 1766. This particular parcel of land was known as the Poplar Camp Tract. This area still bears the same name and is located in eastern Wythe County. To his holdings at Poplar Camp he established land on both sides of the river for several miles up.  He also established a ferry over the river at Poplar Camp. I could not find the date that the ferry was started and it indeed may have been established at an earlier date.
In 1751, the name Poplar Camp was mentioned in surveys containing 86 acres below Poplar Camp and 63 acres above.  From another source I found that the name Poplar Camp was derived from a large poplar tree which stood near the place where travelers stayed before crossing the New River. If this is true, this particular river crossing was established at least by 1751 and quite possibly sometime before. Also, according to family records belonging to Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Jackson, descendant of Thomas Jackson who built the Shot Tower, a log house was built in 1756 along the old road just below the river crossing. This seems to also suggest that a ferry may already have been established here. In 1773 William Herbert received a license to allow this house to become a stopping place near the ferry.  This log house is still standing today and in fact is occupied by the tenants who operate the Jackson's farm. As you approach Shot Tower State Park and pass by the old log house, you will be driving over the same road used by the early settlers of the 1700's.
William Herbert Sr. was a notable man during this period. In 1773 he was on the first court held in the newly formed Fincastle County. Five years later Fincastle County was divided into Kentucky, Montgomery and Washington Counties. William Herbert Sr. also had the unusual distinction of being the only man to serve as Justice in the three counties of Augusta, Botetourt and Fincastle at the same time.  This was between the years 1772 and 1778. The Poplar Camp Tract, Ferry, and Ferry Tract on the north side of the river remained in the Herbert family nearly forty years. Not much was written specifically about Herbert's Ferry during these years. In 1778 the price for a man and horse to cross on the ferry was two shillings. In 1779 the amount rose to four shillings and increased again in 1781 to six shillings. Herberts Ferry provided an important service since settlement of Kentucky and land further west was taking place at a tremendous rate. It is estimated that over 200,000 settlers had traveled the Wilderness Trail into Kentucky. This famous trail was referred to as the Great Road in The History of Wythe County by W.R. Chitwood and it ran only several miles north of Herberts Ferry. Thus, Herberts Ferry was responsible for transporting a number of these settlers who were coming up from North Carolina on the Carolina Road. In 1776 William Herbert's will provided a house on the ferry tract on the north side of New River for his father and mother. The will also left the ferry and the Poplar Camp tract to his son William Herbert Jr.. Herbert Jr. in turn sold the Poplar Camp tract to his brother Thomas Herbert in 1794. According to the Virginia Code of 1792, Herberts Ferry had been recognized as legally established. William Carter obtained the tract on the north side of the river in 1793.
It was also during this period that William Watts, a plumber from Bristol, England had a dream. In 1782 he dreamed that he was out in the rain, and every drop of that rain was a round pellet of lead. Inspired by this dream, he was determined to try the experiment. He accordingly ascended the tower of Saint Mary Redcliffe Church and poured melted lead into some water below. The plan was successful and he sold his invention for a large sum of money.  This statement was originally taken from a book written by Horace Greeley, founder and first editor of the New York Tribune, and published in 1872. In another publication it says that William Watts went on to improvise a shot tower by cutting the floors away in the tower of a mansion, to allow clear space down through the wine cellars to a well below. This article confirms the date to be 1782. However, according to a statement made by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers in a 1981 dedication at the Shot Tower and on a plaque mounted inside the Shot Tower, this drop process for making shot was patented in England in 1769. I could not prove either date, but one piece of evidence leans toward the 1782 date. The original Bristol shot tower, built in 1790, was still in use in 1940 as recorded in the British magazine "The Field", in it's issue of June 22, 1940.  In my opinion, if the drop process was patented as early as 1769, a shot tower would have been constructed before 1790, 21 years later.
While Colonel Charles Lynch had secured 1400 acres at the Lead Mines, Moses and Stephen Austin of Philadelphia bought out the interests of the Lead Mine Company and made an arrangement with the state to work it's share. This was in 1790.  This is also another area of discrepancy. Other sources say that the Austins came to the Lead Mines sometime between 1780 and 1790. Although this is vague, in my opinion, the Austins came to the Lead Mines sometime before 1790. I feel as though before buying into an operation such as this, they would have worked with it extensively. The Austins brought in technical workers from Philadelphia and changed the operations of the mines. One of these men, Thomas Jackson, was destined to leave his mark in this area. Thomas Jackson probably arrived here between 1785 and 1790. In the latter year he was certainly carrying on a blacksmiths shop at the village of the mines at the river. The late Mr. James Bell often spoke of his first employment by the Austins... "I would carry worn tools all the way to Mr. Jackson's shop at the river". This information was taken from an old manuscript in the Division of Parks and Recreation files. The manuscript did not show an author or date. By 1798 Moses and his brother Stephen Austin had left the Lead Mines for the richer lead mines in Missouri. Moses Austin's son, Stephen, born in Lead Mines in 1793, would be instrumental in the settlement of Texas some years later. Before leaving, the Austin's leased the property to James Newell who managed the mines until 1805.
Earlier, in 1796 Thomas Jackson purchased 660 acres from Robert Sayers. This tract of land was up river from the Lead Mines. Then in 1798, Jackson obtained the deed for 240 acres from Moses Austin. This tract was also on the New River, but it was closer to the Lead Mine tract.
It was learned that the Austins had not paid the full amount due under this contract and the state took back the mines. In 1806 the Lead Mines were put up for public sale. James Newell who had been working the mines wanted to purchase them. He was in Richmond along with Thomas Jackson who was also interested in the mines. Newell's last bid was 5,550 pounds, but Jackson's bid was 5,555 pounds or 18,517 dollars, and he was awarded the Lead Mines. Daniel Sheffey and David Pierce entered into an arrangement with Jackson to go on under the conditions to be equally interested with him in the purchase. Several lawsuits followed, and ultimately, Thomas Jackson and David Pierce became the official owners. According to the Wythe County Court records, Sheffey's share in the mines was finally released to Jackson in 1821. From the beginning, Jackson and Pierce were in disagreement of how the mines should be run. They apparently had an unwritten agreement that each man ran his own mining operation, and each was successful. As a result of later court battles, Jackson's heirs were awarded 11/24 shares of the Lead Mine Company and Pierce 13/24.
Around this time, those involved with what was once Herberts Ferry were having their problems also. As I said earlier, William Carter purchased the ferry tract in 1793 and Thomas Herbert bought the Poplar Camp tract in 1794 from William Herbert Jr. At this point, there are further discrepancies in the history of both the ferry and Shot Tower. The following dates were taken from the deed books at Wythe County Court House.
In 1808 Jesse Evans purchased 1/4 acre from William Carter. This was the ferry landing on the north side of the river. Also, in this year Carter sold the remaining 366-3/4 acres to Stenhan Saunders. In this deed it is stated that 1/4 acre is not included across from the Evans Ferry. Notice that the ferry was referred to as Evans Ferry as late as 1808. Then in 1811, Jesse Evans received the deed for 1000 acres on the south side of the New River and also that land including the Poplar Camp tract and ferry. However, it seems the ferry was running under his name earlier (1808) as I have previously stated. When Carter sold his land to Stenhan Saunders, Saunders obtained from the County Court a ferry right from his land on the north side to Evans land on the opposite shore. This led to litigation and an injunction proceeding. The outcome resulted in Saunders favor. The two parties entered into an agreement where each withdrew the trespass suit he had instituted. Evans agreed to pay Saunders three hundred dollars for his ferry, with the provision that Saunders claim no other ferry right and that Evans furnish free transportation over the ferry to Saunder's family.  According to the ruling, the three hundred dollars was to be paid "in horses not old or broken down, one to be paid immediately of the price between sixty and one hundred dollars, the balance to be paid in one year from this date, the valuation to be made by two disinterested men, mutually chosen, who on disagreement are to choose an empire, the price to be paid in proportion to him at six dollars for one hundred pounds weight". Signed and witnessed October 15, 1813. Evans then sold his ferry and the 1000 acre Poplar Camp tract for $11,000 to Thomas Jackson. This also included the 1/4 acre tract on the north side of New River. The deeds were signed over to Thomas Jackson in 1815 as recorded in Deed Book #6, page 294. It was on this tract of land, by the river near the ferry crossing, that Jackson built the Shot Tower. Also, it is here that there is a desagreement in the historical records. This disagreement concerns the Shot Tower, the date construction was started, and the date it was completed. Here again I will restate the information I found, and I am unable to honestly verify any one of these dates.
Many sources claim the Shot Tower was started in 1807 and completed in 1812. Other sources say that the construction of the tower began in 1815 and ended in 1820. It seems that in view of such great discrepancy, one date or the other could be proven. I feel that the proof does exist. It could be in the form of an old letter, a sales receipt or newspaper clipping from that era. However, I could not find it. The theory that the tower was started in 1815 stems from the fact that Jackson did not have the deed to the land until 1815, as I stated earlier. In further support of this theory, the suits between Jesse Evans and Stephan Saunders are recorded at the Wythe County Court House as taking place in 1813. This implies at least that Jackson did not have control over the ferry at this date. Therefore, in support of this theory we could conclude that Thomas Jackson would certainly not spend five years building a structure, with such a great economic potential on someone elses land.
The evidence supporting the 1807-1812 theory is somewhat less substantial although equally persuasive. I spoke to Mr. Thomas M. Jackson, son of Michael H. Jackson, and nephew five times removed of the first Thomas Jackson. According to Mr. Jackson, all family stories concerning the tower, confirm 1807 as the date it was started. He was aware that 1815 is also used as a beginning date, but he was not concerned. As a boy, he listened to stories about the old Shot Tower. 1807 was the date used, and that is the date Mr. Jackson will stick to. There is another point in support of this theory. Mr. F. B. Kegley, writer and historian, particularly interested in the Wythe County area, spent much time with Mr. T. M. Jackson researching the towers history. The Jacksons and Mr. Kegley were always in disagreement on the construction date of the tower. Mr. Kegley had written a book and other articles using the 1815 date. Mr. Jackson told me that one day, late in Mr. Kegley's life, he was in Jackson's attic going through an old trunk. He shouted down to Mr. Jackson that he believed he could now go with the 1807 date. Mr. Kegley died a short time later and Mr. Jackson never knew what Mr. Kegley had found. Presently, information in the State Park brochure and plaque mounted inside the tower use the 1807 date. The State Historical Road Marker located along route 52 near the tower states that it was built in 1820. These conflicting dates will continue to draw questions from curious visitors, but until tangible evidence is presented, both dates should be considered ligitimate.
The Shot Tower was built from grey limestone quarried a short distance up river. It was constructed twenty feet square at the bottom, tapered to about 15 feet square at the top and rose 75 feet from ground level. The walls vary from 2 to 2-1/2 feet thick. The thick walls were required for such a structure for several reasons. A building of this size and these materials needed a strong foundation. The thick walls helped to maintain a constant temperature inside the tower. A constant temperature is necessary so that the lead droplets are properly shaped in their fall. Also, the thick walls lessen the vibrations and currents caused by strong winds outside. Much of the labor was done by slaves and according to Mr. T. M. Jackson, during the period of construction, seven lost their lives. An old slave graveyard, barely distinguishable upstream from the tower and immediately across Route 77, was the burial place for those seven. The roof is supported by wooden log rafters, and the top room floor by large wooden timbers. One of these timbers measured 14"x10", and I estimate the weight to be over 500 pounds. These floor joists and a timber above the entrance door are the original timbers. In addition to the tower Thomas Jackson dug a shaft in the middle of the floor six feet by six feet to a depth of approximately 75 feet. Therefore the total fall for lead droplets would be 150 feet. From the bottom of this vertical shaft, a horizontal shaft was cut to the riverbank. In later years the vertical shaft was used to dispose of farm garbage, however, it is still close to sixty feet deep. The horizontal tunnel was blocked in 1887 when the railroad laid a line below the tower and parallel to the river. The entrance door is located on the north side of the tower. Originally this was a large wooden door. Steps leading to the top of the tower were built around the inside walls. At the top of the tower there are three openings. A window was placed on the south and west sides and a door opens up to an outside balcony on the south side. Lead was carried on the steps to the top floor or was lifted up using a pulley system connected to the sturdy beams under the porch. It was melted in a built-in furnace on that floor. This liquid metal was then poured into a colander with small holes in the bottom. As the molten lead dripped from the colander, it passed through a hole in the middle of the floor and 150 feet to the bottom of the shaft, into a large kettle of water. As the droplets fell through the air, the upward force of the air against the droplets caused them to spin. The surface tension of the droplet kept it in a spherical shape, and the fall lasting nearly four seconds was long enough to allow this sphere to solidify enough not to lose it's shape when it hit the water. The hardened pellets were removed via the tunnel to the river and later sized, graded, and polished. They were then bagged and sold near the road or hauled to outside markets. $100 would take a load to Richmond.
During this era, other shot towers were being built. If indeed the Shot Tower in Wythe County was actually started in 1807 then it may have been the first attempt in this country to construct such a structure. However, in descriptions found in the diary of John G. Stuart, a riverman whose flatboat was delayed in Kentucky on it's journey to New Orleans, he wrote in March 29, 1806, that they went to see the old shot manufactory built on the edge of a precipice two or three hundred feet high.  In this long fall the pellets solidified enough that they weren't deformed when they landed in the soft earth at the base of the cliff. The early settlement, Fort Boonesborough, was only eight miles from this place and it was probably the main market for the lead shot. In 1808 two towers were started in Philadelphia, Pa. One was built by Paul Beck and stands 166 feet high, and the other, built by John Bishop and Thomas Sparks, was 142 feet high. In another diary, written by Gotthold Reichel on September 15, 1815, it states that there was a shot foundry built on Natural Bridge in Virginia. He wrote that it was built by a couple of gentlemen from Richmond and Lexington. On one side of the bridge there is a little house in which the casting of the shot was done, and whence it is allowed to fall . . . through a long cylinder into a reservoir arranged beneath.  In 1829 a tower that still stands today was built in Baltimore and another tower in Dubuque, Iowa built in 1856 also is standing today. By mid-1800 other processes were invented for making shot. However, shot towers were still built and used until the early 1900's.
The Jackson Shot Tower had a relatively short productive life. When Thomas Jackson died on September 16, 1824 his estate was administrated by his nephews John Jackson and Robert Raper. At this point and probably before, I believe Robert Raper had become involved with the Lead Mines and Shot Tower. It was said that Raper traveled to the Baltimore Shot Tower to observe their operation, and in fact, persuaded one of the Baltimore men to return to Wythe County to help in shot production there.  If this is true, the trip to Baltimore was made after 1829 since that tower was not built until 1829. Also, in my opinion, this trip implies that the Jackson Shot Tower was in such a condition that outside help was necessary to improve it. In a memorandum of an agreement dated January 1835 between Michael and Robert Jackson and Robert Raper, Raper wanted to rent the shot tower for six years and agreed to build a factory house for manufacturing shot, paint the shot tower with lime, and put the tower in order for making shot. Though this agreement was never carried out, it does imply that at that time the tower was not producing shot. Therefore, I would say that shot production stopped sometime between 1830 and 1834.
After Thomas Jackson's death, his estate was divided equally between his sister Mrs. Richard Walton and her children and sons of his brother Michael. It was Michael's granson, honorable Mihael Hastwell Jackson, who presented the Shot Tower along with a piece of land to the Daughters of the American Revolution.
The ferry also stayed on this side of the Jackson family until 1932 when the bridge over the New River at Route 52 opened. Up until that time the ferry was just a way of life for travelers wishing to cross the New River.
At one time, the nearest shipping point was Max Meadows. Merchants as far away as Surry County, N.C. had goods shipped by rail to Max Meadows, and animal drawn wagons hauled the merchandise over im proved roads to the purchasers.  Goods produced south of the New River and into North Carolina traveled this road to the more populated areas of Austinville, Wytheville and Fort Chiswell. Mr. Thomas M. Jackson recalled an incident from the early 1900's in which a North Carolina man crossed the river at the ferry. His wagon was loaded with watermelons which he hoped to sell further north. He did this, and on his homeward trip, he carried vegetables, supplies and spirits. According to Mr. Jackson he had already dipped significantly into the spirits and when he boarded the ferry he continued to drive his mules and wagon off the other side of the ferry and into the river. It had to have been an amusing sight as the man continued to sing and carry on while he and his wagon floated downstream. Cattle, it seems were also not particualrly fond of staying on the ferry. Quite often they would bolt in the middle of the stream and jump into the water.  In the early 1900's the fare for cattle was .03 per head. Sheep, which made better ferry passengers, were .01 per head. Trucks were .50 and cars, which were not exempt from ferry accidents, were .25. Mr. Jackson stated that in the early 1920's a car also went off the end of the ferry. He recalls this incident well, because he was the one who dove into 15 feet of water to tie a rope to the car. Jackson was twelve years old at the time. A team of horses pulled the car along the river bottom to the other side where it was dried out and was driven away. As automobile traffic became heavier, the ferry became more and more congested. In the later years, there would sometimes be 50 to 75 cars waiting to cross on the ferry three at a time. Also in later years automobiles equipped with lights created a problem. It was an opportunity however for Thomas Jackson. His father built a small building just big enough to sleep in. He spent many nights in that shack ferring late night travelers at double the ferry rate. He said he was the richest boy in the country and always had change jingling in his pockets.
In 1930, the Route 52 bridge was opened without celebration and Jackson's Ferry became history. A state historical marker was erected in 1932 by the state commission on Conservation and Development and stands as the only reminder of the ferry. I would say few people missed the ferry, it's long waits, and required fee. Few people probably stopped to reflect on the significance and impact the ferry had in this part of the country and the people in it.
The future did not look so dim for the old Shot Tower. Although it was abandoned for nearly eighty years, it still stood overlooking the New River, as a monument to the old days and a symbol of an era gone by. For this reason, the tower and 3/4 acre of land was donated in 1929 to the Wytheville Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution. Their plans of renovation were greatly hindered by the high cost of such repairs. Some work was done repairing the exterior walls, inside steps and top floor before the deed was turned over to the Lead Mines Ruritan Club in 1952.
Prior to this period the Shot Tower gained another deserving but short-lived reputation. Mr. Thomas M. Jackson recalls that it was not unusual to hear some of the local ladies tell about their first kiss taking place at the Shot Tower. The Lead Mines Ruritan Club made a great effort to restore the tower with hopes of developing a county park and picnic ares. They poured a concrete floor inside the tower with the shaft opening corresponding to the original, replaced the wooden beam above the entrance with concrete, added retaining walls at the exterior sides of the tower and constructed a concrete walk for the entrance. Prior to 1964, the Ruritan Club and local people raised $5,000 to buy the land, and $15,000 was later appropriated by the Virginia Assembly to establish a state park. In 1964 the deed for the Shot Tower and several acres of land surrounding the tower was turned over to the state under the care of the Division of Parks for the preservation and development for future generations. Shot Tower Historical State Park first opened in 1968. The Virginia Division of State Parks continued to make improvements to the site. Wall joints were pointed with morter, interior stairs were replaced, safety fencing was put up, the roof was repaired, the porch flooring and railings were replaced, the furnace room floor was replaced, and other work was done that was necessary to meet the minimum standards of the Virginia Division of State Parks.
The Shot Tower was honored in 1981 when it was recorded as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Mechanical Engineers. The objective of this designation is to promote an awareness of technical heritage among engineers and the general public.
The Virginia Division of Parks and Recreation is continuing to improve this facility to the benefit of it's visitors. An adequate picnic area and restrooms are located near the tower with parking space close by. There is a short hiking trail and overlook on the park and of course, the Shot Tower itself. At this time, work is being done on improving the interpretive programs and displays at the Shot Tower. Much work is needed in this area and improvements are being made continually.
Jackson's Ferry and the old Shot Tower are an important part of the history of the New River and of Wythe County, Virginia. Their presence also had a great influence on a much wider scale. Settlement further west, trade, and transportation all were influenced in a positive way. A summarizing statement made by F.B. Kegley also applies to Jackson's Ferry. "They represent nothing but the vision and enterprize of an alert businessman. They stand as a monument to the industry of a by gone day, and a relic that should be preserved to embellish the history of the country".
Chitwood, W. R. History of Wythe County, Virginia.
Hicks, John D, Mowry, George E. and Burke, Robert E. 1970. The Federal Union. Fifth Ed. Boston: Houghton Miffin Co.
Hommel, R. Manufacture of Shot. Hobbies. March 1949. 147.
Jackson, Thomas M. 1984. Personal Interview. March 19. Austinville, Virginia.
Kegley, F. B. 1927. A Sentinel of the Southwest.
Kegley, Mary R. 1982. Early Adventures On the Western Waters. Volume 2. Green Publishers.
Kentucky Shot Tower. Hobbies. January 1959. 112.
An Old Virginia Landmark. Norfolk and Western Magazine. January 1930. 17.
Padgett, Ottie. March 3, 1966. The Carroll News. Hillsville, Virginia.
Wandrus, H. How Shot Was Made in 1872. Hobbies. July 1958. 114.
Last Updated: 08-Jul-2009