Dubuque Shot Tower – Dubuque, Iowa - Atlas Obscura

Dubuque Shot Tower

This long unused shot tower on the Mississippi remains a point of pride for a small city in Iowa. 


This 120-foot structure that stretches to the sky is one of the country’s last remaining shot towers. However it never fully got the chance to do its job.

Built in 1856 in Dubuque, Iowa as a shot tower to provide lead shot for the military, it allowed for the efficient and reliable manufacturing of nearly perfectly spherical lead to use in muskets. When in full operation, it could produce up to 8 tons of lead balls daily.

The square-cut masonry tapers as it moves upwards to the top of the 120-foot structure, the bottom part of which is made from Galena Dolomite stone, and the top half of which is made from red brick.

Shot towers were the de facto method of ammunition production from the late 18th century until the 1960s. They used simple physics to make the ideal shot ball: from the very top of the tower workers would pour molten lead through a sieve. While free falling through the empty tower, the lead would cool and form into perfectly round balls. These would land in a basin of water to be cooled further. 

The Dubuque shot tower was intended to produce shot for the military, but after the Great Panic of 1857 it experienced economic hardship. It was purchased during the Civil War by a St. Louis company called Chadbourne & Co. but not used again until after the war when the Standard Lumber Company used it as a fire watchtower.

Ironically, a series of fires in 1911, suspected to be the result of arson, damaged the wooden structures within the tower, which had to be abandoned. The shot tower was restored in 1976 and placed on the National Register of Historic Places as Asset #9a37b9fd-f65f-48f9-84ae-bc48ae9068ca. It started undergoing renovations in 2004, and remains a Dubuque landmark.



Know Before You Go

Can be seen from the River Front Walk. Coordinates: 42degrees30'00.17"N 90degrees39'14.44"W

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July 25, 2016

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