MTU archaeology project digs up bits, pieces of Keweenaw County history

Graham Jaehnig/Daily Mining Gazette Michigan Tech industrial archaeology student James Schwaderer stands by some excavations on the site of the former Astor House.

COPPER HARBOR — Michigan Technological University’s Department of Social Sciences has been conducting an industrial archaeological field school with a two-fold purpose across the road from Fort Wilkins in Keweenaw County for the past two weeks.

“Part of the goal of it is to train our students in archaeological field work,” said Professor LouAnn Wurst, who is leading the school.

At the same time, the school is being conducted in conjunction with the Department of Natural Resources and the state to look at Copper Harbor’s range lighthouse keeper’s residence, and locate the Astor House, which is believed to have stood behind the house.

“What we’ve done so far this year, and we’re in the last week of field work,” Wurst said, “we’ve excavated the privy associated with the range lighthouse keeper. We’ve excavated a couple units where the wash house was supposed to be, but we didn’t find much. It looks like the wash house had a concrete foundation, just some bits and bobs from when it was torn down, and now we’re concentrating on the Astor House location.”

The Astor House was originally built from logs as a storage house by the Pittsburgh and Boston Copper Harbor Mining Company, probably in 1844, when the company was conducting mining operations in the area around Fort Wilkins.

When the company relocated operations to the Cliff mine a year later, the building briefly became a hotel. It also housed the Lake Superior and Copper Miners’ Journal, a newspaper which soon after relocated and became the Marquette Mining Journal.

Historical documents suggest the building was owned then, or leased to, Joshua Childs who in 1845 was the manager of the Copper Falls Mine, but the hotel was run by a man who is only known as “Francois.”

So far, archaeological excavations have revealed little.

“It’s revealing its secrets very, very slowly,” Wurst said, “and that’s not surprising, because it was there for such a short period of time.”

Wurst said although she was hoping more would be found, mostly what has been excavated has been cut nails, an abundance of clay smoking pipe fragments and bits of ceramics.

“That all makes sense,” Wurst said, “but nothing in any kind of density, and nothing structural.”