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Tower Hill State Park History

Tower Hill is in the part of southwest Wisconsin that never was covered by the glaciers that swept across the northern United States. Consequently, the region's dramatic topography was formed by 400 million years of natural erosion by wind and water. The Wisconsin River and its tributaries have carved their way through hundreds of feet of sandstone and limestone, forming ridges and valleys.

The area now known as Tower Hill State Park was already ancient when the first white explorers saw it in 1673. They were Pere Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet who passed this way as they explored the Wisconsin River.

The lead mining era

It was better known but still only lightly populated in 1830 when Daniel Whitney of Green Bay noticed the sharply rising bluff as he traveled the river. He was a businessman and saw potential here for construction of a tower for making the lead pellets used in shotguns. There were many mines in the region that could provide the lead for the operation.

Whitney hired Thomas Bolton Shaunce, a lead miner from Galena, Illinois to dig a shaft from the top of the bluff to the level of the river below. Shaunce arrived in 1831 and spent 187 days over the next two years digging the 120-foot-deep shaft and the 90-foot tunnel between the shaft and the riverbank so that the shot tower could be built. Shaunce worked mostly alone, but had some assistance from a fellow miner named Malcom Smith. Their work was interrupted by the Black Hawk War [exit DNR] (1832) as Shaunce and Smith went to fight.

A wooden shaft 60 feet high was built alongside the cliff above the stone shaft, making the total height of the tower 180 feet. A smelting house was built at the top of the tower and a finishing house at the bottom to complete the buildings.

How the tower worked

Shot tower diagramThe method used was the “Watts Method” named after an English plumber who, watching raindrops fall, envisioned droplets of melted lead falling in the same manner and becoming round as they fell. The process was simple. Lead, brought from Mineral Point or Galena in 75-pound bars called “pigs,” was melted in large kettles at the smelting house. Arsenic was added to make it brittle and to help it form into droplets. The melted lead was poured through a ladle with holes in the lid and dropped into a pool of water. The droplets cooled and became round as they fell. The size of the holes in the ladle determined the size of the shot and the larger the shot, the farther they had to fall.

When the pool was full, the lead was hauled to the finishing house to be dried, polished, graded and sorted to be bagged for shipment to Eastern markets.

When in full operation, a crew of six operated the shot tower, dropping up to 5,000 pounds of lead per day. Of this, only about 600 to 800 pounds was usable shot. The rest was hauled back to the top of the tower, melted and dropped again.

Boom times

This was the beginning of a flurry of growth and prosperity that lasted for about 30 years as the shot making business flourished. In1836 nearly half of Wisconsin's people were living in the lead mining region, leading to the establishment of the territorial capitol near Belmont. By the 1840s, southwest Wisconsin mines were producing more than half of the nation's lead.

The shot-making process continued until 1860 when the poor economy just before the Civil War made it no longer profitable. The equipment was sold, the buildings torn down or moved away and the shot tower was abandoned.

The village of Helena

The village of Helena was built on the river's edge near the shot tower, but was torn down during the Black Hawk War, when the U.S. Army needed materials to raft its men and supplies across the river in pursuit of Black Hawk. Undaunted, the villagers rebuilt Helena and persisted until 1860 when the shot tower closed. The community's final chapter came when the railroad passed Helena by and it simply ceased to exist.

The Unitarian retreat and state park years

The next stage in the history of the area began in 1889. The Reverend Jenkin Lloyd Jones, a Unitarian Minister from Chicago purchased the site as a retreat for his fellow ministers. Upon his death, his widow donated the land to the State of Wisconsin and in 1922 it became Tower Hill State Park. The shelter and the foundation of Jones' stone barn still stand as remnants of his time here.

Last revised: Tuesday July 18 2017