Emil Urban, 92, carpenter saved Shot Tower pellets

April 03, 1999|By Jacques Kelly | Jacques Kelly,SUN STAFF

Emil Urban, who preserved the Shot Tower's lead pellets when he worked on the restoration of the landmark 70 years ago, died Monday of pneumonia at Johns Hopkins Hospital. He was 92 and lived in East Baltimore.

About the time of the 1929 stock market crash, Mr. Urban was a carpenter who salted away some particles of Baltimore history in a ketchup bottle. Then a young laborer, he would get off work each afternoon and carry home a bucket of dirt on the streetcar to his East Monument Street home.

The dirt was from the ground floor of Baltimore's 1828 Shot Tower at Fayette and Front streets. Mixed in with soil, sand and pigeon droppings was lead shot used to make ammunition in the 1800s.

"I was working for the old Avon Construction Co. to repair the Shot Tower," he recalled several years ago. "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 [large] pellets I put them in a ketchup bottle. I've had it ever since."

A few years before Mr. Urban took home his souvenir, a retired Shot Tower employee recalled that the shot formula was a "jealously guarded secret." A student of Baltimore's history, Mr. Urban preserved newspaper articles that detailed how the shot was made.

The lead had to be pulled to the top of the tower on a 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.

When the city acquired the tower in 1924, it had outlived its usefulness as an industrial site, and by 1929 about $25,000 was appropriated for repairs. That fall, Mr. Urban and his fellow carpenters, bricklayers and riggers went to work. The renovation was complete by New Year's Day, 1930.

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

With dreams of becoming a doctor, he attended City College for several years but dropped out after realizing that his father, who had nine children, would never be able to afford to send him to medical school.

After the Shot Tower job, Mr. Urban went to work cleaning the limestone exterior of what is now the Clarence Mitchell Courthouse.

"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 in an interview.

In 1969, Mr. Urban retired from the post office. With time on his hands, he started going to Lexington Market to get large bones that he carved into handles for straight razors and canes.

In 1928, he married the former Barbara Silver, who survives him.

Funeral services were conducted Thursday at the Schimunek Funeral Home in Northeast Baltimore.

Also surviving are a daughter, Agnes Ziegler of Baltimore; four grandchildren; and two great-grandchildren.

Pub Date: 4/03/99

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