What’s in the basement?

For more than 20 years, Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse has been restored to its 1910s glory. In that time numerous exhibits, galleries, and tours have been added to the experience, and, just last year, the second floor of the house was opened for the first time in its history. However, we still get one question more than the others: what’s in the basement? Chief Curator Craig Wilson takes us into the basement to show us what’s there:

Why are certain things banned on Mackinac Island?

There is so much to explore and enjoy during a visit to Mackinac Island State Park. When you visit the island make sure you bring sunscreen, comfortable shoes, and a camera! However, there are a few things you should leave on the mainland.

  • A site you won’t typically see on Mackinac Island. This was done for an ad.

    Your car – Ask someone what they know about Mackinac Island, and you’ll likely hear that there’s lots of fudge, bicycles, and horses, but no cars. Since 1901, cars have been banned in Mackinac Island State Park. There are numerous accounts of early automobiles causing problems with horses and carriages. The ban was incorporated into state law in 1960. There are few exceptions to the use of motor vehicles regulation, the biggest of which is emergency vehicles. There is one police car, two fire trucks, and an ambulance available on the island. So, when you come for a visit, the ferry services have plenty of parking available on the mainland. Lock up your car and hop on a shuttle to the dock. The lack of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is extremely important to keeping the historic character of this National Landmark alive, and one of the most enduring memories of your visit here.

  • Your e-bike – Speaking of vehicles, e-bikes are also banned within Mackinac Island State Park. The absence of motor vehicles in Mackinac Island State Park is uniquely effective in retaining the historic character of this National Historic Landmark. State law currently forbids the use of e-bikes within Mackinac Island State Park and the City of Mackinac Island without authorization from those respective entities. However, the Mackinac Island State Park Commission and City of Mackinac Island do have an exception for the use of Class 1 bicycles in certain situations.
  • Your drone – Yes, aerial pictures are awesome, and Mackinac Island State Park has numerous areas that are breathtaking at and above ground level. However, Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (Drones) are not allowed in the State Park. Let’s face it, most drones are noisy, can be dangerous around groups of people, and very distracting to horses. Their presence takes away from the natural and historical environments our visitors are coming to experience. Therefore, the commission reviews professional operator requests thoroughly, and, more often than not, does not approve these requests.
  • The old campground in Michilimackinac State Park in Mackinaw City. Camping is now banned throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks to allow for guests to enjoy as much of the natural environment as possible.

    Your tent – While Mackinac Island is a beautiful island with a lot of open spaces, there is no camping permitted in the state park. Great care is taken to balance the amount of land left undeveloped with areas that have amenities like carriage roads and trails. The threat of a wildfire is also a particular concern, so campfires are also not allowed in the park. And what’s camping without roasting a couple marshmallows. For those that want to spend the night under the stars, there is a plethora of campsites to choose from on the mainland.

However, we do have a couple recommendations of a few special things you can bring that can make your visit even more enjoyable.

  • Your bicycle – Since you can’t drive on Mackinac Island, almost everybody gets around by bicycle. There are many bike rental shops on the island, but if you are more comfortable riding your own – bring it along. Mackinac Island State Park has more than 70 miles of natural and paved trails around the perimeter and through the interior of the island. The island is small enough that you can pedal around it at a leisurely pace in an hour and a half. Along the way you’ll come across many incredible scenic spots for photos of the island and Lake Huron. Please be aware there are few requirements for e-bikes and you’ll need to pay for a temporary bicycle license before boarding the ferry.
  • Your pet – Have fun exploring the state park with your dog by your side.  Make sure you have what you need to keep your pet hydrated and don’t forget the doggy bags. While Mackinac’s sanitation department takes care of the horse droppings, you’ll need to pick up after your pooch. Leashed dogs are allowed on all state park trails and within Fort Mackinac. Remember to cover your pup’s ears during the cannon and rifle demonstrations.

The Mackinac Island State Park Commission and Mackinac State Historic Park staff work hard to protect, preserve, and present Mackinac’s rich historic and natural resources. We appreciate your help in keeping Mackinac Island State Park a wonderful place to visit.

Dive into the past at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and learn why ‘shipwrecks don’t just happen’

You may know the story of the Titanic, the luxury ocean liner that struck an iceberg on its maiden voyage and quickly sank to the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. But did you know that another large ship met a similar fate off Michigan’s coastline just three years earlier?

“We got around to the men struggling in the water as quickly as possible,” the surviving Capt. Timese Lemay reported in the days following the Eber Ward’s sinking. “Some had grabbed the wreckage. Others were holding fast to pieces of the ice floe. We pulled six into our boat. Then I looked for the others. They were gone. Nothing but pieces of wreckage, some ice and a few bubbles showed where they had been.” (Photo credit: Cliff Roberts, Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Preserve)

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse tells the story:

It was April 1909 when the Eber Ward departed Chicago on its first trip of the spring. The wooden freighter picked up a load of corn in Milwaukee and then charted a course up and around Michigan’s Lower Peninsula toward Port Huron.

The day was calm and sunny as the ship neared the present-day location of the Mackinac Bridge. But as is often the case in early spring on the Straits of Mackinac, the thawing water still was quite slushy. And unfortunately, there were large chunks of solid ice, too.

Going too fast for the conditions, the Eber Ward slammed into an ice floe that ripped a hole in the ship’s bow, filling the peaceful morning with a surge of panic among the 16 crewmen. Within 10 minutes, the 213-foot-long freighter had disappeared.

One of two lifeboats safely launched, while the other was capsized by the sinking ship. Eleven men went into the water. Five were never found.

Shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are ‘usually someone’s fault’

  The Eber Ward is one of more than 100 wrecks that remain on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac, the narrow passage from Lake Michigan to Lake Huron between Michigan’s Lower and Upper peninsulas. Each one has its own incredible story of human tragedy, from the “Sandusky,” an 1850s sailing vessel that was overwhelmed by waves and is the oldest-known shipwreck in the Straits of Mackinac, to the “Cedarville,” a 600-foot modern freighter that went down after a collision in heavy fog in 1965.

  Each of those three wrecks occurred for different reasons. Yet, they illustrate the museum’s overriding theme: “Shipwrecks don’t just happen,” says Craig P. Wilson, chief curator for Mackinac State Historic Parks. “It’s usually someone’s fault.”

  Museum visitors get to see exactly what caused the various shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac. And there are artifacts from the ships on display, including the original figurehead from the Sandusky, kitchenware from the galley of the Eber Ward and, ironically, a paper safety placard from the Cedarville. There’s even a revolver that was recovered from a wooden freighter that was cut by ice and sank in 1894.

  The Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum also features dive footage from the wrecks. You can see the Eber Ward’s damaged hull, which sits upright and intact about 140 feet below the surface, as well as the damaged lifeboat that went down with the ship. And there are three sets of models that show the Sandusky, Eber Ward and Cedarville as they appeared while in service, and how they look now on the bottom of the Straits of Mackinac.

RELATED: See underwater footage of the Sandusky

Plan a visit to the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum at Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse

  The “Titanic” movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio still ranks among the highest-grossing Hollywood features ever. And just like the Titanic, the shipwrecks in the Straits of Mackinac are fascinating, too.

  Yet, they’re also sobering. In many cases, people lost their lives. As Wilson notes, “there is a real human cost to these events” as people suffered the consequences of their own or other people’s decisions.

  Old Mackinac Point Lighthouse and the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum are open daily through Oct. 10 this year. In addition to the museum, the historic site at the southern end of the Mackinac Bridge in Mackinaw City features a “Shipwrecks of the Straits” movie, daily demonstrations of a fog signal whistle and a lighthouse keeper’s quarters with period settings and exhibits about the science of lighthouses and what life was like for the people who lived there.

  The lighthouse tower itself is currently closed.

SS Minneapolis Revolver

On April 4, 1894, the bulk steam freighter Minneapolis sank in the Straits of Mackinac after taking on water due to ice damage. On board the ship was a Smith and Wesson Model No. 1, Second Issue revolver manufactured in 1864. It is a bottom-break revolver that holds seven brass .22 caliber short rimfire cartridges. It was one of the first handguns produced by Smith and Wesson and one of the first to use self-contained brass cartridges. The revolver belonged to one of the 14 crewmembers aboard the ship who may have carried it for numerous reasons.

Firearms were not uncommon amongst Great Lakes sailors. Revolvers provided a form of protection against unwelcome guests aboard a ship and assisted in protection of valuable cargo. Pursers aboard passenger ships were known to carry weapons to protect items entrusted to them by their guests. Officers carried them to protect monies carried on board for payroll and other business. In an emergency, firearms could be used to keep order and act as a signaling device to attract the attention of other vessels and searchers.

The crew of the Minneapolis survived the wreck, being picked up by the San Diego, a consort barge the ship was towing along with the Red Wing. The wreck was located in 1963 and today is approximately 500 feet from the South Tower of the Mackinac Bridge. The revolver was recovered from the shipwreck prior to the 1983 creation of the Straits of Mackinac Underwater Preserve, which makes it illegal to remove items from shipwrecks today. Along with several other objects, the revolver was donated to the Mackinac Island State Park Commission in 2013.

Conservation work was done in the winter of 2014 by Inland Seas Institute (ISI) for inclusion of the revolver in the new Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The revolver was placed into electrolysis, which is the process of using electricity, an electrolyte, and anodes to remove corrosion from metal objects. After just a few hours of treatment, it was noticed that the gun still contained cartridges. Treatment of the revolver continued with the awareness that the gun could still contain black powder and lead bullets.

The revolver is composed of a silver-plated brass frame with a steel barrel, cylinder, cylinder rotating mechanisms, screws, springs and pins and brass cartridges with lead bullets which over time interact with one another causing deterioration via bi-metallic corrosion. Even though the revolver was treated, contact between these metals would continue to cause corrosion over time especially during environmental changes. During a cleaning of the exhibits in 2020, recent corrosion was noticed on the revolver. It was removed from display, examined, and photographed. ISI was contacted and a new proposal was developed to treat the corrosion and attempt to disarm the revolver by removing the cartridges and their bullets.

Electrolysis was performed again to halt the corrosion and once stabilized, the revolver was taken to a gunsmith. The cylinder was removed revealing that the gun had 6 loaded cartridges and an empty cartridge under the hammer possibly to act as a safety. Corrosion in the cylinder prevented the gun from being unloaded once the cylinder was removed, so a plan was developed to melt out the lead bullets, remove the powder, and have safe access to the cartridges for their removal. The cylinder was positioned in a way to safely do this in case the powder was still active after 60+ years underwater.

The lead bullets were melted using a propane torch, which upon contact caused three of the cartridges to go off in a controlled manner for safety. The cartridges were then removed using a specially made brass punch. The screws and pins holding the revolver together were removed so complete treatment of each piece could be performed. Upon completion of conservation the revolver parts will be coated with microcrystalline wax prior to reassembly to prevent future corrosion of the barrel, cylinder and cylinder works. The revolver will be reassembled using carbon fiber screws and Delrin (polymer) pins to minimize future bi-metallic corrosion. The cartridges, screws, and pins will be returned and the revolver will be placed back on display inside the shipwreck museum. We hope you’ll join us at Old Mackinac Point in the near future to see the Minneapolis revolver on display once again.

John Askin’s Garden: Lettuce

 As we know, from 1774 to 1775 John Askin used his journal to record activities in his garden. Another of his frequently-mentioned vegetables remains a staple of meals everywhere today: lettuce.

Growing food of any sort at Mackinac was not always easy. Jonathan Carver wrote in 1766 that “The land about Michilimackina for some miles has a sandy, dry barren soil, so that the troops and the traders here can scarsly find sufficient for gardens to raise greens on.” The sand meant that the soil was rather poor at the fort, and that made growing many plants very difficult. We know that the people here who chose to garden had to add soil amendments to succeed, and most people relied heavily on whatever foodstuffs they could import. However, certain foods, like lettuce, did not transport well and had to be grown near where they were to be eaten.

In 1775 Askin mentioned planting lettuce on May 2. Shortly after that, on May 10, he “sowed some more lettice.” This sort of staggered planting meant that his household had a steady supply of good lettuce, and did not have had to deal with a surplus at any one time. It was, and quite often is, the common way of growing these sorts of foods. Practicing succession planting ensures that the plants mature one after the other, rather than all at once. It makes it much easier to manage the amounts of produce and avoids any sort of gluts.

Askin never specified the type of lettuce he was growing but there were generally two types: those that would form heads, and those that modern gardeners call “cut and come again.” The “cut and come again” varieties were valued for a steady production of leaves that could be harvested two or three times from the same plant.

Some of the tougher and more bitter lettuces were often blanched in the garden. Blanching is a technique that makes them sweeter by tying the leaves together or covering them with an upturned bucket or flowerpot, or even burying the plants completely to exclude the light. Keeping the light away from them causes them to stop producing chlorophyll and improves the taste, generally making them whiter, sweeter and more tender.

Garden writers from the time recommended that all types of lettuce be planted in a sheltered location to protect them from the wind. At Michilimackinac we certainly get a lot of wind, so we are careful to protect lettuce by placing the plants strategically. Removing the dead leaves and keeping them free from weeds were also common recommendations for a successful crop.

Lettuces were among the most popular vegetables of 18th century English and French gardens. When Pehr Kalm visited Canada and described the food on the table, he mentioned meat, certainly, but also noted that it was eaten “together with different sorts of salads.” He also observed that “carrots, lettice, Turkish beans, cucumbers, and currant shrubs” were “planted in every farmer’s little kitchen garden.” It sounds charming, to be sure, but it was also perennially practical. Easy access to fresh produce is every cook’s dream. Besides salads, some lettuces would be used in soups or sautéed as a tasty side dish.

John Askin’s journal is used as a valuable source of information that can help us understand what it was like to have a garden at Michilimackinac. Be sure to visit Colonial Michilimackinac to see how our plants are growing. Please also consider joining Mackinac Associates, a friends group which supports our gardening activities and programs and exhibits throughout Mackinac State Historic Parks’ sites.

John Askin’s Garden: Potatoes

Potato Flower

Although most food was purchased and shipped to Michilimackinac, local gardens provided an important source of fresh produce for the community’s 18th century residents. We currently maintain over 5,000 square feet of gardens at Colonial Michilimackinac, guided by a variety of historic sources. One of the most interesting 18th century documents at our disposal is the journal of the Michilimackinac merchant John Askin, who recorded his garden activities in 1774 and 1775. In this semi-regular series, we’ll examine some of the plants Askin (or more likely the free and enslaved employees working for him) was cultivating at Michilimackinac in the 1770s.

Askin really liked growing potatoes. They are the most-mentioned vegetable in his journal. If he wrote about his farm or garden, it was highly likely that he was writing about potatoes.

They are first mentioned on April 27, 1774 when he “Sett potatoes at the farm” and once more the next day “sett potatoes at the farm.”  The next month he planted more potatoes on four different occasions. It appears they grew well over the summer, and he was able to dig most of them on the 8th of November just a couple of days after a 4-inch snowfall. We finally see the last mention of in 1774 on November 14 when he “dug the last of my potatoes.”

With one season of cultivation under his belt, Askin decided that he could perhaps get a better potato crop if he changed the ways in which he was planting them. In 1775 he decided to try some experiments. Experimenting in the garden or on the farm is something that growers love, no matter the time period. In the 18th century there was a huge interest in how things grew and the various ways of improving crops. Gardeners around the world were developing new methods for growing plants and it is no surprise that it was happening at Michilimackinac as well.

On August 29, 1775, Askin wrote that the potatoes were put into the ground “with a little dung in the holes.” This is different from his previous entries where he does not mention planting with any sort of manure at all. Gardeners like Philip Miller wrote pages and pages about the worth of various sorts of animal and vegetable manure in the 18th century. Even George Washington experimented with various types of muck to see which would grow the best beans, etc. While Askin does not tell us the sort that he used, he did have a small number of cows and horses. Both animals produce excellent dung with superb growing qualities.

Digging up potatoes at Colonial Michilimackinac.

He also “Set three hills of potatoes near the pease” on October 28. In each of these hills he employed a different method of planting. In the first hill he put “one potatoe cut in 3,” and in the second and third hills he put “3 whole potatoes” about “4 inches deep.” Modern gardeners still debate over the necessity and results of planting potatoes whole versus cutting them into pieces. It seems like cutting the potatoes can potentially leave the pieces more vulnerable to disease. However, if you have a small amount available to plant you will get more by dividing the tubers that you do have. Unfortunately, John himself did not tell us which side of the debate he stood on after his experiments.

No matter how you plant them, potatoes are a welcome addition to any garden. They are an easy and reliable vegetable to grow whether it is 1774, 1775 or 2020. The next time you come to Colonial Michilimackinac see if you can spot the potatoes growing in our gardens in the same way they were being grown nearly 250 years ago. Check back for future entries about other parts of John Askin’s garden, and consider contributing to Mackinac Associates, which makes our gardens and many other activities possible.

2020 Archaeology Wrap-Up

Lead seal stamed with the mark of the Compagnie des Indes.

The second half of the archaeological field season had similar themes to the first half (see the first half recap here). Again, the most interesting artifact came from the central root cellar. It was a lead seal stamped with the mark of the Compagnie des Indes. The CDI was a French colonial enterprise chartered by the king. The seal would have been attached to a bolt of cloth or other textile imported by the company. It dates to between 1717 and 1769. This, combined with the stratigraphy (layers of soil) surrounding it, indicates that this cellar was in use during the French occupation of the house (mid-1730s to early 1760s) as well as during the later British occupation.

Possible French wall trench.

During the final week of the field season, we saw the first possible evidence of the north wall of the house. It is a strip of gray sand cutting through gold sand. In other units of the southeast rowhouse, the French house is a few feet narrower along the north wall than the British house, but has a porch, which the British house does not. The square the possible trench appeared in is the deepest in its east-west row (the row 210 feet south of the water gate), so it remains to be seen if it extends to the east and west. We do not expect to find the British wall trench and French porch joists until we open the row of squares to the north (the row 205 feet south of the water gate). After the excitement of removing the deep post in the first half of the season, we did not find the bottom of any more squares this summer. We opened the final two squares in the 210 row in the second half of the season. The easternmost is currently at the modern/colonial interface. The westernmost is in the layer of rubble created during the 1781 demolition of the fort. As was the case elsewhere in the house, there were a variety of ceramic sherds present. These included a fragment of a creamware handle, possibly from a pitcher, and a fragment of a polychrome tin-glazed earthenware teacup, similar to one found late last season.

Site packed for the winter.

We have now packed the site for winter and returned to the lab. Watch for a blog post in late winter to see what we learn as we clean and research this season’s finds.  

Michilimackinac’s Artillery

Over the past few years the staff at Mackinac State Historic Parks has diligently been adding reproductions of Michilimackinac’s artillery throughout the site to provide visitors an accurate representation of what the site looked like in the 1770s. Join Curator of History Craig Wilson as he takes us for a tour of Michilimackinac and its artillery.
 

Archaeology Update

Trade ring with what can be interpreted as a “V.”

Halfway through the archaeology season we have found some interesting artifacts, the end of some features, and more questions.

Cufflink, or sleeve button, with an image that could be a classical or religious figure. 

The root cellar in the southeast corner of the house has yielded exciting artifacts for several seasons. This summer began the same way, with a button and part of the bone handle from a knife. Now some horizontal planks are appearing, possibly evidence of a wood floor. We tentatively identified a second root cellar in the center of the house late last season. This still seems to be the case. Several interesting artifacts have come from this area. The first was an intact engraved brass “Jesuit” trade ring.

Iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. 

The design can be interpreted as the letter “V,” the Roman numeral “V,” or something more abstract. The second part was part of a cufflink, which would have been called a sleeve button by its eighteenth-century owner. It has a glass or rock crystal set with an intaglio bust. The bearded man could be a classical or religious figure. More research will be done on this piece over the winter. The final artifact, so far, was an iron breech plug from a flintlock muzzleloader. It blocked the end of the barrel where it connected to the wood stock. It was discarded because the tang broke off. It is only the fifth gun part found in the house. We are eager to see what else this area has in store for us.

Interior post, located about five feet below the colonial surface. 

For six seasons, we have been excavating around a post in the interior of the house. We have finally reached the bottom, six and a half feet below our datum, probably about five feet below the colonial surface. It is sitting on a flat rock. Located near the southeast root cellar, it could have been a structural support for the rowhouse unit. Given its depth, it could also be a remnant of the first (1715) fort. We are exploring both possibilities. What will the second half of the season hold? Stay tuned to this blog and the MSHP social media channels to find out. If visiting Mackinac is in your plans for the summer, come out and visit the site in person. We are excavating in the middle of Colonial Michilimackinac, and work will continue daily (weather permitting) through August 22.

The Wall Gun

If you’ve visited Colonial Michilimackinac, there’s a good chance that you’ve seen the interpreters demonstrating a cannon or musket during our daily programs. There is another 18th century weapon that gets fired occasionally, and it’s an interesting cross between a cannon and a musket. Let’s take a look at our wall gun.  

Wall Gun vs. Musket


A wall gun is essentially just a supersized musket. As the name implies, wall guns were intended to be fired resting on a wall or the railing of a ship, and many original weapons were fitted with a yoke or swivel similar to an oarlock to facilitate easy mounting. Such a rest was necessary given the weight and size of the weapon. Wall pieces were typically .91 caliber, had four and a half foot-long barrel (although some were as long as six feet), measured over six feet long in total, and weighed between 35 and 40 pounds. Constructed in only limited quantities, primarily in the 1740s and again in the 1770s, wall pieces were intended to function as artillery pieces in situations were even the smallest and lightest of cannons were impractical. Although unwieldy, a wall gun could be positioned and fired by just one soldier. Firing a 2¼-ounce ball, they could apparently hit targets 500 to 600 yards away, and were ideal for use during sieges, when they could be moved around to fire on enemy engineers and sappers. During the American Revolution, Captain William Congreve of the Royal Regiment of Artillery, a noted artillery innovator, suggested employing wall guns as a secondary weapon alongside field guns. Under Congreve’s plan, wall guns mounted on two-wheeled carts accompanied artillery detachments and were deployed alongside the cannons. A vertical wooden mantlet, or shield, attached to the cart protected the two soldiers serving the guns. Despite their size, wall guns remained a muzzle-loading flintlock weapon, and as such were loaded and fired in much the same way as a normal sized musket.


Although the British military only produced wall guns in limited numbers, two of them found their way to Michilimackinac in the 1770s. Classified as ordnance along with the garrison’s cannons and mortar, the walls guns were apparently intended to serve in detached positions outside the main palisade wall. In 1768, Captain-lieutenant Frederick Spiesmacher of the 60th Regiment requested permission to build a blockhouse on a sandy hill outside the fort. He wanted a blockhouse large enough for six men and two wall guns. Spiesmacher probably never built the blockhouse, as a decade later Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair ordered a blockhouse built overlook and command hollow ground behind a sand hill which the troops could not reduce,” which would also flank the trader’s houses in the suburbs outside the palisade. When the blockhouse was finished in early 1780, Sinclair noted that it contained positions for three artillery pieces, but the wall guns could also have been used there. The guns were moved to Mackinac Island with the rest of the fort by 1781, but disappear from the Fort Mackinac ordnance returns soon after. Whether they were sent away or merely no longer recorded with the larger artillery pieces is unclear.

Today, our reproduction wall gun is occasionally fired for demonstrations, sometimes taking the place of the cannon or mortar for an artillery firing. An original wall gun is also on display in the underground powder magazine and Firearms on the Frontier exhibit. Be sure to see the original piece next time you visit Colonial Michilimackinac, and you might be lucky enough to see the reproduction fired on the parade ground!