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:

The Project Goes On…

In 2004, Mackinac State Historic Parks began a long-term project to restore the original buildings at the Old Mackinac Point Light Station and reconstruct the missing elements. The station is well documented, but archaeology has played a role, too.

 The lighthouse in 1918. The privy can be seen to the right.

   The most recent archaeological effort involved the free-standing privy, originally located about six feet west of the warehouse which now houses the Straits of Mackinac Shipwreck Museum. The privy was demolished after the light station was connected to the Mackinaw City sewer system in 1929. The remains of the brick privy foundation were found through test excavations in 2013. At that time, the focus was on locating the privy ruins so they could be avoided during the reconstruction of the warehouse.

   A privy incorporated into the original “barn” was located during test excavations in 2004 prior to the structure being returned to its original location. Those excavations revealed that the privy had been cleaned out and filled with sand after it was abandoned.

Dr. Lynn Evans on site.

   Recent test excavation at the site of the free-standing privy was designed to determine if it had also been cleaned out after it was no longer in use. A 1’ x 1’ square was excavated in the interior of the privy area. The different soils encountered were removed and screened separately. The top three layers (a total of 13.5” deep) were deposited as part of MSHP’s restoration work and dated to the 2014 construction of the warehouse, the 2013 test excavation and landscaping carried out in 2006-07 respectively. Below that were two layers (a total of 6.5” thick) from mid- to late twentieth century parking lots and driveways. Below that was a thick (17”) layer of mottled clay. It has been seen in previous excavations at the light station capping pre-1929 features. Only a few artifacts were found during this test excavation, but most of them, three nails and some coal, came from this layer.

This image shows the soil layers in the testpit. From the top: rocky fill from 2014; gold sand from 2013; brown fill from 2006-07; rocky roadbed from mid-twentieth century; mottled pink and gray sand from 1929.

   What was below the clay layer would answer the question of if the privy had been cleaned out. We expected to find beach sand if it had been cleaned and rich, artifact-bearing soil if it had not. What we found was black sandy loam containing only one fragment of window glass. After only two inches, something very solid was encountered and the testpit was complete. Because the testpit was over three feet deep at this point, it was being excavated with posthole diggers and it was difficult to get a good look at the bottom of the pit.

   We still don’t know for sure that the privy was not cleaned out, but the results of this test indicate that it would be worthwhile to carry out a larger scale excavation. In the meantime, we know that the original foundation and privy deposit are deep enough that the privy can be reconstructed without damaging them. Check our website for further updates, but also consider making a donation to Mackinac Associates, which helps fund our ongoing archaeological programs.