Lighthouses shine for archaeologists

By Lauren Gibbons

Fort Gratiot Lighthouse could be the home of an archaeological excavation. Photo: Pure Michigan

The grounds surrounding Michigan’s oldest surviving lighthouse could see an archaeological excavation as experts work to learn more about the past while preserving it.

The Fort Gratiot Light Station in Port Huron was built in the 1820s and was transferred to St. Clair County from the U.S. Coast Guard as a historic site in 2010. It was built just north of the site that formerly held Fort Gratiot, a post built in 1814 and occupied by soldiers intermittently until 1879.

Now the local recreation department is searching for appropriate spots to dig for artifacts.

“We’ve always had the intention of doing an archaeological survey on the site,” said Dennis Delor, special events, marketing and volunteer coordinator for the St. Clair County Parks and Recreation Department. “We’re hoping that maybe in 2013, we’ll be able to do so.”

Delor said the county is working with colleges and universities in the hopes of coordinating an archaeological project at Fort Gratiot Light Station.

The location is largely undisturbed by development and other outside influences, so Delor said the area is ripe for further investigation.

“I have been involved in lighthouse archaeology projects before, and I’ve seen the benefits that are reaped from harvesting items related to the past keepers and their families,” he said.

Historic lighthouses and the surrounding grounds often prove fruitful locations for archaeological studies, and the number of lighthouses excavated for archaeological purposes has grown as the interest in them has grown, said Dean Anderson, the state’s archaeologist.

“Lighthouses are getting a little more attention archaeologically because they’re getting more attention from everyone,” Anderson said. “There’s a lot of interest in lighthouses these days, and I hope that people pay attention to the fact that studying them archaeologically is one way to learn more about them.”

For example, a dig last year conducted by Central Michigan University archaeologists at the McGulpin Point Lighthouse site in Mackinaw City led to the discovery of objects dating to the 19th and early 20th century and provided some insight into the daily lives of lighthouse keepers and their families, said Sarah Surface-Evans, a post-doctoral fellow in archaeology at the university and one the lead researcher on the project.

Surface-Evans said the objects found, which included animal remains, toys from the former lighthouse keeper’s children and other remnants of 1800s life, show a side of lighthouse life not previously in view.

Archaeologists digging at the McGulpin Point Lighthouse in Mackinaw City found many interesting objects. Photo: GollyGforce (flickr

“Our discoveries provided interesting details for telling the story of the McGulpin Point Lighthouse,” Surface-Evans said. “Michigan has tremendous maritime history at terrestrial and underwater sites throughout the state. Lighthouses were one facet of this history.

“Professional research conducted at lighthouses can help us paint a more accurate picture of their lives and gain a better understanding of their role in maritime Michigan’s history,” she said.

The investigations at McGlupin Point will continue in summer 2013 with support from Emmet County, and the findings from the dig will eventually be put on display at the site, Surface-Evans said.

Excavations and digs have also been conducted in other lighthouse locations, including the Grand Traverse Lighthouse and the nearby Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore on Lake Michigan and the Copper Harbor Lighthouse on Lake Superior.

Discoveries gleaned from archaeological research shine new light on the historic lighthouse structures, said Jennifer Radcliff, president of the Clarkston-based preservation group Michigan Lighthouse Fund.

“Archaeological research pulls the curtain back beyond what people had time to write down in journals and shows how life was actually lived,” Radcliff said.

A dig at the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse on Lake Huron could prove interesting, and more digs in more locations would lead to an even better understanding of the lives of lighthouse keepers and their families, even though they lived more than 100 years ago.

“If it was possible to do digs like that at every light station, we would see a much clearer picture of what their lives were like,” she said.

  • Allen

    The Michigan Archaeological Society has chapters all around the state consisting of volunteers who are responsible people interested in Archaeology. The chapters could be invited to participate in digs around lighthouses and elsewhere and provide the trained labor needed to do a careful job. Please do consider us should there be digs around lighthouses this next summer.