Early Accounts of Arch Rock

On an island known for awe-inspiring natural wonders, Arch Rock is Mackinac’s most iconic. This seemingly delicate natural bridge “excites the wonder of all beholders” as it defies gravity, rising more than 140 feet above the waters of Lake Huron. Whether you gaze up from the lakeshore or peer down from the adjacent cliffside, the views that your breath away have been enjoyed by visitors for centuries.

  The first known description of Mackinac Island’s geological formations was penned by Dr. Francis LeBaron on October 30, 1802. The doctor recently arrived at Fort Mackinac to assume the duties of post surgeon. In a letter to the editor of Boston’s Columbian Centinel & Massachusetts Federalist, he wrote:

A black and white photo of Dr. Francis LeBaron

Dr. Francis LeBaron

 “The island of Michilimackinac is about three miles long and two wide, situated in the straights that join lake Huron to lake Michigan
The curiosities of this place consist of two natural caves, one of them is formed in the side of a hill, the other in a pyramidical rock of eighty feet in height, and thirty-five feet in diameter at its base, which is situated on a plain and totally detached from any rock or precipice… There are also two natural arches of the Gothic order which appear to have been formed by some convulsions in nature, one is eighty feet in height, the other is forty.”

  Arch Rock received even broader attention in 1812, when a short description appeared in the sixth edition of Reverend Jedidah Morse’s American Universal Geography. Known as the “father of American geography” (also father of Samuel Morse, inventor of the telegraph) his books influenced the educational system of the United States, being widely used in classrooms for decades. In part, his description of Michigan Territory reads:

A color image of Rev. Jedidah Morse

Rev. Jedidiah Morse

An issue of The American Universal Geography from 1812

The American Universal Geography, 1812

 “Islands. The island Michilimackinac lies between Michigan and Huron, and is 7 miles in circumference….The fort is neatly built, and exhibits a beautiful appearance from the water… On the N.E. side of the island, near the shore, and 80 feet above the lake, is an arched rock. The arch is 20 feet in diameter, at the top, and 30 at the base… The island is one mass of limestone, and the soil is very rich. The climate is cold but healthy. The winter lasts for 5 months with unabated rigor.”

A map of the island of Michilimackinac from 1817

Map of the Island of Michilimackinac [Arch Rock Detail], W.S. Eveleth, 1817

  After the War of 1812, American military surveys and inspections produced a flurry of descriptions, sketches, and maps of Mackinac Island. During an 1817 survey, Lieutenant William Sanford Eveleth, U.S. Corps of Engineers, composed a highly detailed map, including miniature drawings of Arch Rock, Sugar Loaf and Skull Cave. One can imagine curious visitors strolling each dotted pathway through the woods, in search of geological wonders.

  While sharing his reflections on the arch, Captain David Bates Douglass later revealed, “Several officers have walked over it, among which are Lieutenant Curtis and Pierce and my lamented friend Evelyth, at the dizzy height of 147 feet. However, I should think it a rash enterprise.” [In October 1818, Lieut. Evelyth tragically drowned in a violent Lake Michigan gale during the wreck of the schooner Hercules with all hands lost.]

The Arched rock, Michillimackina, F.S. Belton, Sep. 1817

  Major Francis Smith Belton completed the first known artistic rendering of Arch Rock in September 1817. Also on a military inspection tour, his view is shown from a boat offshore, rendered wild, exaggerated and fantastical.

Detail of The Arched rock, Michilimackina by F.S. Belton, Sep. 1817

  One of the two tiny figures drawn at the top of Belton’s image may be Judge Advocate Samuel A. Storrow, who was also on the Island that September. His written description of Mackinac Island and Arch Rock was published as a pamphlet entitled, The North-West in 1817: A Contemporary Letter. In part, it reads:

 “On the eastern side, I found one of the most interesting natural curiosities I have ever witnessed. On the edge of the island, where as elsewhere, the banks are perpendicular, you creep cautiously toward the margin, expecting to overlook a precipice; instead of which you find a cavity of about 75 degrees descent, hollowed from the direct line of the banks; and across it on the edge of the precipice… an immense and perfect arch. Its height is 140 feet from the water, which is seen through it… Looking from the interior, the excavation resembles a crater; but, instead of an opposite side, presents an opening, which is surmounted by this magnificent arch… When on the beach below, you see this mighty arch 140 feet above you, half hid in trees, and seemingly suspended in the air… From the Lake it appears like a work of art, and might give birth to a thousand wild and fanciful conjectures.”

  From these early, enthusiastic descriptions it’s clear that Arch Rock has cast a spell upon Mackinac Island visitors for centuries. To learn more about Arch Rock and the Island’s other natural wonders, watch for future blog posts, exhibits and publications and visit mackinacparks.com.

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.