AKA: Selby Smelting Company, Factory and Shot Tower, San Francisco, CA

Structure Type: built works - industrial buildings - factories

Designers: Williams, Stephen H., Architect (firm); Stephen Hedden Williams Sr. (architect)

Dates: constructed 1864-1865, demolished 1906

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1st Street and Howard Street
South of Market, San Francisco, CA 94105

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Thomas Selby, who arrived in San Francisco during the Gold Rush in 1849, became a merchant in metal and hardware. Seeing a need for lead buckshot, he erected a lead smelter in North Beach and later this lead pipe and shot works at 1st and Howard Streets, in an industrial neighborhood that was then known as "Tar Flat." This plant's 200-foot shot tower used gravity to create spherical lead pellets used for ammunition in the 19th century.

Building History

Thomas Henry Selby (1820-1875) opened this large-scale lead smelting facility at 1st and Howard Streets in 1865. A main feature of the three-story factory was a 200-foot shot tower, in which lead balls for rifles were produced. Selby operated at least three facilities in San Francisco: the shot tower facility at 1st and Howard; a main office/factory at 116-118 California Street where he stored and sold bar and plate iron, cast steel, sheet copper, zinc and plumbing goods; and a smelter and foundry in North Beach on Jefferson Street. (This was interesting as Thomas Jefferson also manufactured lead shot on land he owned in VA. See Richard Hamilton, Minnesota Trapshooting Association.com, "History of the American Shot Tower," accessed 06/20/2023.)

The architectural historian Harold Kirker indicated that Stephen Hedden Williams (1816-1880) designed the Selby Shot Tower. He wrote in 1959: "In addition to Parrott's Granite Block, Stephen Williams designed the Merchants' Exchange, First Calvary Church, Selby Shot Tower, and many San Francisco houses." Kirker then footnoted the California Architect and Building News, June 1880, vol. I, no. 6, p. 63, although this obituary did not mention Williams's role in designing the landmark Tower. (See Harold Kirker, "The Parrott Building, San Francisco, 1852," Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians, vol. XVII, no. 4, December 1959, p. 161.)

It is likely that Selby became acquainted with Williams by the early 1850s as both men were iinitially mporters and dealers in metal hardware. In 1850, Stephen H. Williams sold locks and other hardware at a store on Montgomery Street, between Pine and Bush Streets. (See "Locks! Locks!!" [classfied ad], Daily Alta California, vol. 1, no. 282, 11/10/1850.) Williams obtained the commission to design the John Parrott's Granite Block in either 1851 or 1852. The success of the sturdy and highly prestigious Parrott Block, the city's first great business building, likely enabled other commissions to come to S.H. Williams.

In his historical analysis of the South of Market neighborhood of San Francisco, Alvin Auerbach noted the prominence of the Selby Shot Tower: "By one account, the move by the newly rich away from Happy Valley and the core of the city to South Park and Rincon Hill preceded the mushrooming of the foundry industry in the older section. By 1860, in any case, Happy Valley had become highly industrial, with the houses and shelters of its laborers growing up around it. Sandhills surrounding the valley had been levelled and carted off to fill Yerba Buena Cove in the early 1850's, and the last known squatters had been driven from the area in 1854. As industry spread toward dock facilities near the foot of Mission and Folsom, the area became known as "Tar Flat," after the gas works on Howard between First and Beale. This factory regularly disposed of its wastes in the tidewaters a block away, and the accumulated wastes formed a tarry surface at low tide. Tar Flat's equally renowned landmark was the 200-feet-high Selby Shot Tower, a factory which stood at First and Howard from 1864 to 1904." (It actually stood until 1906. See Alvin Auerbach, "San Francisco's South of Market District, 1850-1950; The Emergence of a Skid Row," California Historical Quarterly, vol. LII, no. 3, Fall 1973, p. 200.)

Building Notes

An article in the Russian River Flag newspaper, discussed the supply chain bringing lead to the Selby Shot Tower in 1869: "Much of the lead which is received at the San Francisco shot tower, by Thomas H. Selby & Co., arrives in the form of metal from San Pedro, to which point it is brought by teams across the country from Owens River, in Inyo county. Argentiferous galena is mined in the Inyo and Lone Pine District by two parties who have reducing works near by. The ore carries a good deal of silver--from $20 to $30 to the ton. So abundant is the lead ore of Owen's River that one party expects to reduce from one to two tons per day during the coming winter. Lead ore is towed down in barges from the upper Colorado River to a shipping point in the Gulf of California, the greater part coming from the silver and copper district of Castle Dome. A shot tower ought to be profitable, when working the lead ore yielding such a percentage of silver as above." (See "Lead from Inyo and the Colorado River," Russian River Flag, vol 1, no. 8, 01/07/1869, p. 3.)

Selby became San Francisco's 10th Mayor, serving from 07/1869 until 07/1871.


The Selby Shot Tower and Factory was destroyed in the San Francisco Earthquake of 04/18/1906. The tower was subsequently razed and the factory rebuilt for use as a warehouse.

PCAD id: 20474