Although the skyline is now dominated by contemporary buildings, this 215-foot tower was once the tallest building in the United States.
The Phoenix Shot Tower in downtown Baltimore soared beyond any other structure for almost two decades, its supreme height not due to an architect’s vanity but rather vital to its purpose.
The name implies a connection with ammunition, and indeed it was here where hunting shot was made. Molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top of the tower. As the lead pieces fell, they would spin, forming balls. A vat of water at the bottom of the tower caught these balls, where they would cool and solidify in shape.
The Shot Tower churned out more than 150 million pounds of shot over the nineteenth century. But, like all technologies, this way of making shot eventually became obsolete, and the factory shut down in 1892.
Today, it is one of three surviving shot towers in the US. Visiting in person, one imagines how impressive this structure must have been upon its completion in 1828. No other building in America would top its sheer size for another eighteen years.
But, inevitably, its height would be topped, and its relevancy would fade. Like the C&O Canal in western Maryland, the Phoenix Shot Tower now serves both as a historical relic and as a testament to the continuous forward push of technology.
If You Go
The Phoenix Shot Tower is located at 801 East Fayette Street in downtown Baltimore. It is open for tours on Saturdays and Sundays, with tours departing from the nearby Carroll Mansion at 4 PM. Adult admission is $5. There is street parking (free on Sundays); the closest subway stop is Shot Tower Station.