In February 1903, Baltimore topographical engineer Capt. Joseph W. Shirley issued a confident proclamation:
"I think that the old Shot Tower will be standing long after a great many of the brick structures now going up in Baltimore have fallen," he wrote, disputing concerns of a city building inspector that the structure was cracking.
His statement proved prophetic.
Not only is the 167-year-old tower at Front and Fayette streets still standing, it reopens to the public today with improved museum exhibits and a new nighttime light display. In shot towers, molten lead was poured in drops from the top; it solidified into shot when it fell into cold water at the bottom.
Over the years, the Shot Tower has survived a serious fire in 1888, the demise in the 1890s of the shot-making business it served, repeated efforts in the early 1920s to raze it in favor of newer buildings, and (after a successful civic effort in 1924 to save it) decades of neglect during which it was a roosting place for pigeons and doves.
Last July, the landmark Shot Tower, whose cornerstone was laid in 1828 by Charles Carroll of Carrollton, became part of the Baltimore City Life Museums -- which also include the nearby Carroll Mansion, family home of the signer of the Declaration of Independence.
Access to the facility was improved last month when a Shot Tower Metro stop opened as part of the Mass Transit Administration's extension to Johns Hopkins Hospital.
The Shot Tower improvements represent the latest expansion of Museum Row, which has been developing since 1984 in the old Jonestown section of Baltimore. In addition to the Carroll Mansion, the area includes the 1840 House, a living history exhibit; the Center for Urban Archaeology; the Courtyard Gallery, a temporary exhibit depicting career choices in three eras; and Brewer's Park, a partial re-creation of Baltimore's largest brewery of the Revolutionary War era.
Scheduled to open next April along Front Street is the Morton K. Blaustein City Life Exhibition Center. The 30,000-square-foot building will include four floors of exhibits about Baltimore and will include a display about the 1800s waterfront, a mock streetcar ride of the 1930s and a White Tower restaurant from the 1950s.
"I think there is an emerging appreciation that this portion of this old neighborhood is evolving into an area of enjoyable and educational attractions," says Nancy Brennan, executive director of Baltimore City Life Museums.
The improvements to the Shot Tower are aimed at making it "the northern gateway" to the Museum Row area, she says.
About 88,000 visitors pay admission annually to visit the museums. Because admission to the Shot Tower is free, Ms. Brennan says, "the sky's the limit" on projecting the number of visitors expected.
Several other organizations' projects will add attractions within walking distance in the next few years, she says: a Civil War museum at the old President Street Station along the Fallsway south of Pratt Street; the Port Discovery Children's Museum scheduled to open in 1997 in the Market Square area; and a proposed state museum on African history and culture on Pratt Street at the Fallsway.
One improvement to the Shot Tower will be visible from afar. In a design by Fred Florian, of Baltimore Gas & Electric Co., its windows will glow at night with white lights. Spotlights, also white, will shine on an American flag that'll fly from the roof.
Plans also call for installation of red lighting at the parapet, to simulate the glow of the tower when it was in operation. A smoke generator will produce the illusion of steam.
One of the interior Shot Tower exhibits -- a light display that simulates molten lead falling down the shaft of the tower -- has been retained from exhibits previously maintained by the Department of Recreation and Parks.
New panels of photographs and other displays trace the history of the tower, and there's a hands-on display designed for the sight-impaired. As water is poured into a box through a series of sieves, visitors can extend their hands to feel the distinct droplets -- just as lead fell as drops that hardened into round shot pellets.
"Among other things, [the tower] was said to be the finest piece of brickmanship in the world at the time it was built," says Dale Jones, director of interpretation for the City Life Museums. Approximately 1.1 million bricks were used to build the structure only six months.
The exhibits were designed to highlight the tower's architectural structure and the shot-making process, as well as to show its changing place in the city skyline over the years, Mr. Jones says.
A pair of mannequins, representing Edgar Allan Poe and a legendary figure named Jim Horney, will also "speak" to visitors about two incidents of tower lore.
The famous author reputedly teased the city on April Fool's Day in 1829 by predicting that a man would fly from the top of the tower to the Lazaretto Lighthouse on the Canton waterfront to the east. In 1880, Horney reportedly attempted a version of the feat, floating safely down from the tower while supported by a large wagon umbrella.
Reports don't make clear if it were a free descent or whether he was tethered to a rope. Regardless, official dedication ceremonies at the tower yesterday afternoon included a duplication of the stunt, with a Jim Horney mannequin sliding down a cable.
"A structure of extraordinary archeologic interest . . . the very last of its kind in existence," contended a Feb. 13, 1921, article in The Sun, which urged preservation of the tower during a period when successive efforts were made to bring the structure down.
Well, not quite, says Mr. Jones. A similar structure survives in Philadelphia, although it is not an exhibit open to the public. And, Shot Tower Historical State Park in Austinville, Va., has been developed around the Jackson Ferry Shot Tower, built in 1807. That structure stands only 75 feet tall from ground level, but it extends 75 feet underground to achieve the necessary vertical drop zone.
Baltimore once had four shot towers, but all but the surviving structure -- originally called the Phoenix Shot Tower -- had been taken down by the early 20th century.
Most of the pellets formed in the tower were sold for shotgun use by waterfowl hunters. Legends that Shot Tower lead flew at the battle of Gettysburg, says Mr. Jones, are unlikely. By then, soldiers were using rifled bullet slugs.