Sparks Shot Tower: 1st of its Type in the U.S.

Frank H. Taylor’s print of the Shot Tower shows it still dominated the area then called Southwark around the turn of the century. He created his photo-lithographed prints of “Old Philadelphia” in the 1910s and 1920s. Photo courtesy of Bryn Mawr College and the Free Library of Philadelphia. 

The giant brick Shot Tower that looms over Queen Village homes at Carpenter and Front Streets is unique in several ways.

  • Founded to make shot just for hunting, it later produced ammunition for the U.S. in both the War of 1812 and Civil War. That decision caused Quaker co-owner John Bishop, whose religion was against war and violence, to sell his part of the business to partner John Sparks, for whom the tower is named.
  • Originally about 150-feet high, it’s the first “smoke stack” type shot tower in the country … and a highly visible reminder of U.S. clashes with Great Britain.
  • Ironically, after supplying deadly ammunition for two wars, Shot Tower is now a peaceful playground run by Philadelphia Parks and Recreation. Instead of workers producing musket balls or bullets, youngsters today run beneath the tower – playing and making only childhood memories.

The brick Shot Tower, 30 feet in diameter at the bottom and 13 feet at the top, was built at Carpenter and Front Streets in 1808, because the cost of shot here was rising. And it was much harder to get.

Why? Britain, our major supplier of shot – and owner of a marvelous new technology for producing shot without “dimples, scratches and imperfections,” was embroiled in “the Napoleonic Wars” with France.

To try to keep us neutral, and help prevent our ships and sailors from being seized by both combatants, the U.S.’s Embargo Act of 1807 prohibited trade with both nations.

Fortunately, the three partners at Sparks Shot Tower – who were all experienced at working with lead – found someone who had experience at a British shot tower to help them.

The new technology included dropping molten lead from great heights into water. As it drops through a sieve into the water, the lead forms perfect spheres. For larger shot, you needed a drop of 150 feet, about the original height of Sparks Shot Tower.

Interesting Oddities

  • About 10 feet of the tower was cut off in the 19th I still don’t know why.
  • A number of short buildings surrounded the Shot Tower, which employed six men and one boy. The raw stock for the shot was pig lead and arsenic – which helped the molten lead flow more smoothly.
  • For safety, the Shot Tower had 13 wooden and 2 iron fire buckets that were kept in the tower and engine room.
  • In 1822, a New York architect wrote: “The Storms drive through the Brick work– It is a slight Building–and rocks very much in a gale of wind.” But PlanPhilly says, “The brick design, built to withstand gale force winds, served as a model for   early lighthouses in the region.”
  • The Department of Recreation modified the building. It removed the spiral staircase, changed the roof and its pitch, added windows to the first story and bricked up four vertical set of windows

The one question I have is this: Did anyone then see the danger of calling the Shot Tower after Mr. Sparks. To me, that was tempting fate. Fortunately, the building has remained safe for many years.


Name: Sparks Shot Tower

Original Dimensions: 150 ft. high, 30 ft. in diameter at the bottom, 13 ft. at the top

Address: 101-131 Carpenter Street

Claim to Fame: The first “smoke stack” shot tower in the U.S.

Marker Dedication Date: 4/19/97