Adventure Us: Shot Tower State Park
Where I-77 crosses the New River, there lies a picturesque and unique bit of early Virginia history: the Shot Tower State Park. Built over 200 years ago, the Shot Tower is an interesting testament to pioneer-era resourcefulness and enterprise. The tower stands 75 feet tall, and was constructed around 1807 by the entrepreneur Thomas Jackson. Its purpose was to produce ammunition from local lead mines, using a fascinating and secretive process. Beneath the tower was dug a 75 foot deep shaft whose bottom lay just even with the river nearby. Lead was hoisted to the top of the tower using pulleys and draft animals. There it was heated until molten, poured through sieves of various sizes, and allowed to fall the full height of the tower and the shaft into a kettle of water. This 150 foot free fall was intended to form the liquid lead droplets into a perfectly round shape; the water was used to cushion their landing. Workers then retrieved the shot from the shaft bottom using an access tunnel connected to the riverbank. Once cooled and polished, the shot was taken away to be sold.
The Shot Tower was in operation for about 30 years. Researchers believe it was the first facility used to mass produce ammunition in America, and it is one of a very few still standing today. Interestingly enough, in an era fraught with conflict, the ammunition produced by the Shot Tower was never used in a war. Instead, the shot – the equivalent of birdshot – was used by the local settlers for hunting. For its purpose, the Shot Tower was built in a perfect location. The lead mines were 4 miles away near Austinville, the river bank created the perfect elevation drop, and just beyond the tower lay the main ferry across the New River. Named Jackson’s Ferry, it was operated for generations by the descendants of Thomas Jackson, the builder of the Shot Tower. It was finally superseded by the Route 52 bridge in 1931.
Today, looking over the rolling New River and around at the beautiful southwest Virginia mountains and countryside, the scene is one of calm beauty.
Until recently, the tower was open to be climbed by visitors. It is currently closed due to Covid, but it is still worth a stop! Walk the short loop, study the impressive structure up close, and enjoy the view across the river. The park also connects to the 57-mile New River Trail – more on that in a future post!
One note: admission to this state park is $7 per vehicle, but that same ticket can be used to enter the neighboring New River Trail State Park as well.
Name: Shot Tower Historical State Park, 176 Orphanage Dr, Austinville, VA 24312
Time from Roanoke: 1.5 hours
Activity Options: Trails, history, picnicking
Nearby Food: None that we know of – pack a picnic!
Nearby Attractions: New River Trail, Foster Falls Campground