Drivers passing along Rt. I-77 in Austinville, VA can’t help but notice a lone limestone structure standing out among the trees along the banks of the New River. Initially, they might believe it to be remains of an old watchtower guarding a long-forgotten fortress, especially when they see the signs directing people to Shot Tower State Park. However, upon closer inspection, visitors will discover that this mysterious building was actually once an ammunition factory providing lead shot for muskets and muzzle-loaders from the early 1800’s.
The Shot Tower is a mere 20 feet wide at its widest point, small compared to today’s standards where factories can span several blocks. The building stands 75 feet above ground but its best-kept secret is the fact that it actually extends an additional 75 feet below ground. This 150 foot drop was perfect for making lead shot. The process was actually fairly simple. Gravity was the main instrument used. Hot lead, produced from local mines, was poured from a large kettle located at the top of the tower. As the lead fell, various sizes of shot were formed where it was then caught cooled in another large water-filled kettle located at the base. The shot was then sorted and then shipped to market via an access tunnel that ran from the bottom of the shaft to the river’s edge.
This low-tech, yet effective, version of production ran until the end of the Civil War when changes in technology forced the Shot Tower’s closure. Today, the tower is believed to be the only one of this particular design in the world. For this reason it has been designated both a National Historic Landmark and a National Historic Engineering Landmark.
To enhance your visit, a side-trip to another Virginia State Park located nearby is highly recommended. The Foster Falls entrance to The New River Trail State Park is located approximately two miles away on Rt. 52N. The New River Trail State Park covers 57 miles of trails. This park, created from the abandoned Norfolk and Western Railroad right-of-way offers the perfect location for horseback riding, bicycling and hiking. Over 39 miles of its length run parallel to the New River offering great access to canoeing, kayaking and fishing. Several areas along the way, including the Foster Falls area, also offer camping and picnicking.
In addition, Fosters Falls includes a bit of local history. This section of the park contains the remnants of a once bustling mining and railroad town that in the mid-1800’s was the home to over 100 families. The park service is in the process of preserving many of the buildings as they once existed such as a sawmill, a gristmill, general store and an old iron furnace, that in its heyday produced over 12 tons of pig iron per day.
Shot Tower Historic State Park and New River Trail State Park both offer an opportunity to gain a historical perspective, as well as visit some of Virginia’s wonderful State Parks. The convenient location, just a short distance from I-77, allows you to take advantage of a relaxing and scenic setting without having to wander too far off the beaten path. If you are looking for the perfect way to spend an afternoon, or even a few days, Wythe County is definitely worth a shot.
Hours: Daily 8:00 AM until dusk (Closed November – March) NOTE: Shot Tower Historic State Park is currently undergoing renovations. Only self-guided tours are available.
Admission: Nominal Parking Fee
Directions: I-77 to Exit 24 (Rt 52N)
For Reservations at New River State Park call: 1-800-933-PARK
For more information on Shot Tower State Park visit: http://www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/shottowr.htm
For more information on New River State Park visit: http://www.dcr.state.va.us/parks/newriver.htm