The Shot Factory

The Shot Factory was locat­ed on a cliff high above the Kentucky River about three-tenths of a mile upstream from the mouth of Boone Creek.  The fac­to­ry was locat­ed on a cliff 110 yards east of a pic­turesque lit­tle stream called Berkley Spring Branch.  This small man­u­fac­to­ry pro­duced buck­shot for use in mus­kets and fowl­ing pieces. 

A British plumber by the name of William Watts devel­oped an inge­nious process for mak­ing buck­shot.  Watt added a two-sto­ry tow­er to his three-sto­ry house, cut holes through each floor, and placed a water tank in the base­ment.  From the top floor, he poured molten lead through a cop­per sieve.  As the lead fell, it formed tiny spheres which solid­i­fied when they hit the water.  He then col­lect­ed the shot from the bot­tom of the tank.  Watt patent­ed his process in 1782.  Previous meth­ods for mak­ing shot were dif­fi­cult and expen­sive.  His method for mak­ing what came to be called “drop shot” caught on quick­ly.  To pro­duce shot, spe­cial­ized struc­tures called “shot tow­ers” began to proliferate. 

The Kentucky Gazette first adver­tised drop shot for sale by Lexington mer­chants in 1788.  A num­ber of ear­ly shot tow­ers sur­vive today:  The Jackson Ferry Shot Tower in Wythe County, Virginia, dates from 1807; Sparks Shot Tower in Philadelphia from 1808; and Phoenix Shot Tower in Baltimore from 1828.  The shot fac­to­ry on the Kentucky River was con­tem­po­rary with these, but the exact date is impos­si­ble to fix.

The ear­li­est ref­er­ence to the shot fac­to­ry on the Kentucky River is John G. Stuart’s jour­nal of a trip to New Orleans in 1806.  Stuart hired on as a hand to work on a flat­boat laden with Kentucky pro­duce.  In late March his boat was tied up at Cleveland’s Landing, very near the present Clays Ferry bridge.  He was whiling away the time, as dry weath­er had forced about 100 boats to wait for the riv­er to rise.  Before con­struc­tion of the locks and dams, the Kentucky River was only reli­ably pass­able after the spring rains raised the water lev­el.  One day he and a com­pan­ion “went up to view the old shot man­u­fac­to­ry built on the edge of precipice 2 or 300 feet high.” 

It has been impos­si­ble so far to fig­ure out who start­ed the busi­ness.  The first own­er of the prop­er­ty, William Triplett, who obtained the Virginia patent, nev­er lived on the land.  The fac­to­ry site lies at a cor­ner of a sub­se­quent own­er Samuel Talbott, who died in 1833 leav­ing the farm to his son John. 

The shot fac­to­ry was men­tioned by name in an 1837 deed from John Talbott to John Berkley.  It was men­tioned again in 1853, when the estate of Daniel Berkley was divid­ed among his heirs:  one of the divi­sion lines was described as “cross­ing the River bot­tom and ascend­ing an inac­ces­si­ble clift” to “a red cedar on the point above the shot fac­to­ry.”  Plotting the lines on a topo map pin­point­ed the factory’s location. 

On this map of Daniel Berkley’s estate, point Q was identified as “a red cedar on the point above the shot factory.”
On this map of Daniel Berkley’s estate, point Q was iden­ti­fied as “a red cedar on the point above the shot factory.”

With the shot fac­to­ry now marked on a map, I went in search of the site with my wife Clare and archae­ol­o­gist friends Terry Tune and Bill Sharp.  We locat­ed the spot at the top of the cliff and found cedars still grow­ing there.  This is where the molten lead would have been dropped.  The cliff is not a per­fect­ly sheer precipice, so get­ting a clear ver­ti­cal path to the ket­tles at the bot­tom required a struc­ture can­tilevered out over the edge of the cliff.  An account from a retired river­boat pilot, Charles Johnson of Frankfort, described a “Shot Factory Cliff, 6 miles below Boonesboro, where the old timers made drop shot.”  He said he had “talked to old peo­ple who remem­ber when the big tim­bers were still at the top of the cliff, but no one could ever tell me where they mined the lead.”

The ques­tion Johnson raised about the source of lead is still a mys­tery.  There were small deposits of lead in the Boone Creek area in the form of gale­na (lead sul­fide), but it is not known if they were com­mer­cial­ly mined.  The major source of lead in ear­ly America was the mine near Fort Chiswell in west­ern Virginia.

It’s hard to say how long the shot fac­to­ry oper­at­ed.  We have ref­er­ences to it dat­ing from 1806 to 1853.  It could have been used on and off at times dur­ing that peri­od and pos­si­bly before—John G. Stuart called the shot man­u­fac­to­ry “old” in 1806.  Shot tow­ers were com­mer­cial­ly viable until after the Civil War.  By the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, the shot fac­to­ry on the Kentucky River was appar­ent­ly a dis­tant memory.

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