Shot Tower history in a ketchup bottle

JACQUES KELLY

September 17, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

About the time the stock market crashed in October 1929, a Baltimore carpenter was salting away some small pieces of city history in a ketchup bottle.

Each afternoon after his daily work's quitting time, Emil Urban carried home a bucket of dirt on the streetcar to his Monument Street home a few blocks east of the Johns Hopkins Hospital.

The dirt was from the ground floor of Baltimore's 1828 Shot Tower at Fayette and Front streets, just across from today's main city post office. Mixed in with ordinary soil, sand and pigeon-droppings were about five pounds of lead shot used in 19th Century firearms.

Urban has kept the shot souvenir for 64 years.

"I was working for the old Avon Construction Co. to repair the Shot Tower," he recalled. "One day I happened to drop something on the ground. The floor was dirt, but I could see it was full of shot pellets. So I got the idea to take home a bucket of this sandy dirt one night.

"I must have carried home about 10 or 12 buckets and washed the stuff off. Then I separated the sand from the shot on a large piece of paper. When I had the shot separated into fine, medium and largest pellets I put them in a ketchup bottle. I've had it ever since."

Urban is 87 years old and lives quietly with his wife, Barbara, surrounded by pictures of grandchildren and great-grandchildren. He also has a detail-studded memory of local history, neighborhood lore and stories about his Bohemian-descent family in Baltimore.

Charles Carroll of Carrollton, the Declaration of Independence signer, presided at the laying of the cornerstone for the Phoenix Co.'s Shot Tower on June 2, 1828. Its massive brick walls (234 feet tall) were completed the following November.

(By the way, Baltimore once had two other shot towers, one at today's Oriole Park at Camden Yards -- on South Eutaw Street between Conway and Barre, and another on North Gay Street. Both had been demolished by 1900.)

Actual shot production at the Fayette and Front streets tower lasted until about 1892. Molten lead was mixed at the top of the tower, then dropped in a free-fall down the interior cavity. When the lead hit bottom in a cold-water tank, it had formed into pellets that would be bagged in 25-pound sacks for ammunition often used by hunters.

In the 1920s, a few years before Urban took home his souvenir, a retired Shot Tower employee recalled that the shot formula was a "jealously guarded secret." The lead had to be pulled to the top of the tower on a type of hand-operated elevator and was then melted in a small furnace. When bubbling, the molten lead was mixed with antimony and arsenic to make it separate into drops so that when it was dropped, it would form pellets instead of massing into a solid stream.

By the 1890s, shot was being made elsewhere using a different process, and the tower had outlived its usefulness as an industrial site.

In retrospect, the tower was increasingly being appreciated as a piece of city history -- a public sentiment expressed loudly enough to stop a petroleum company from knocking it down for a gas station. Fayette Street had developed into an important east-west artery. The station was eventually built close by, but the tower survived.

The city acquired the tower in 1924. By 1929, some $25,000 was appropriated for repairs. That fall, Urban and his fellow carpenters, brick layers and riggers went to work. The renovation was complete by Jan. 1, 1930.

"We rebuilt the steps and window frames. All the bricks were repointed using a special circular scaffold that was rigged to be pulled up the tower," Urban recalled.

He had not always wanted to be a carpenter, but had aspirations of becoming a physician. He attended City College for several years, but dropped out when he realized his father lacked the money to send him to medical school.

"My father had nine children," he said.

After the Shot Tower renovation job, he went to work cleaning the limestone exterior of what is today the Mitchell Court House.

"But back then, construction work was seasonal. You might have worked in the summer, but you sat home in the winter. So I applied for a job at the Post Office and wound up with the route in the business district along Calvert Street," he said.

With retirement came more time for hobbies, including making stained-glass windows and woodworking . . . and occasionally ++ dusting off that old ketchup bottle full of lead.

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