Holding Down the Fort


Today on Museum Bites we’re sailing to revolutionary Fort Mackinac (1780-1895). Nestled atop Mackinac Island, off the northern shores of Michigan, this well-appointed fort was built by British redcoats during the American Revolution (1776-1783).

Fort Mackinac, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Fort Mackinac, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Mackinac’s steep, limestone bluffs and natural harbor provided a secure and defensible location. The fort itself did not see much combat, however, ownership bounced back and forth between the British and Americans several times during its 115-year history. Today we’ll get a taste of fort life with a tour through three of the fort’s 13 buildings.

Photo by Tato Sievers, Pixabay
Photo by Tato Sievers, Pixabay

Canteen: A Soldier’s Social Network

After a long day of soldiering, the men of the 23rd Infantry kicked back and relaxed at the canteen, where billiards, books, board games, and fort gossip were popular entertainments. Ham and Swiss cheese sandwiches with French mustard were on the menu, along with coffee, light wine, and Schlitz beer. At 5 cents a glass, Schlitz was so popular coffee was taken off the menu. Commanding officers encouraged use of the canteen because it improved morale and prevented soldiers from making mischief in town. If, however, a soldier tossed back one too many Schlitz or became disorderly, he was thrown into the fort jail conveniently located in the guardhouse next door.

Fort Mackinac Rifle Demonstration, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Fort Mackinac Rifle Demonstration, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Guardhouse: Jailhouse Rock

Fort Mackinac’s guardhouse served as the headquarters of the 24-hour watch, as well as the fort’s jail. During the fort’s early history, unruly soldiers and prisoners of war were flogged or tossed into the black hole, a windowless pit situated beneath the guardhouse. By the mid-1800s, a kinder, more gentle approach was used to discipline the rabble-rousers.

Fort Mackinac-View of Lake Huron, cjverb (2017)
Fort Mackinac, View of Lake Huron, cjverb (2017)

The floggings ceased and a spacious jail cell, with views of Lake Huron and Mackinac harbor, was constructed above ground and inside the guardhouse. An account of this new form of punishment was recorded in 1861 when three confederate sympathizers were incarcerated at the fort.

Despite their status as prisoners, the three men apparently enjoyed a pleasantly boring summer on Mackinac. They were allowed to explore the island with a small guard detachment, and wrote of Mackinac’s interesting geological formations and rich history. They frequently wrote letters home to Tennessee, and Guild and Barrow both complimented Capt. Wormer for his kindness and dignity. Indeed, the prisoners received such liberal treatment that in early August, Col. William Hoffman, the Commissary-General of Prisoners, reprimanded Wormer for failing to impose harsher restrictions upon the men.

~ Mackinacparks.com (2012)

Bathhouse: Rub-a-Dub-Dub Why is No One in the Tub?

Fort Mackinac Bath House, Photo by cjverb (2017)-2
Fort Mackinac Bathhouse, Photo by cjverb (2017)

The bathhouse was the last building constructed at Fort Mackinac, and by army standards, it was one of the most luxurious places at the fort. Prior to its construction, water was collected in barrels from Lake Huron and carted up the steep hill in a horse-drawn carriage. In 1881, a pump was installed to draw water from a spring located 125 feet below the fort. Within a few short years, the bathhouse was complete. Hot steamy water flowed into six private bathing chambers, each tricked out with its own Cialis-style tub, but despite these painstaking efforts, a soldier’s hygiene was a dodgy business.

Fort Makcinac, Soldier's Barracks, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Fort Mackinac, Soldier’s Barracks, Photo by cjverb (2017)

A daily splash of water on the face and neck was considered acceptable, anything more was deemed excessive, even harmful. Fortunately, medical advances, particularly germ theory, and an enlightened fort doctor changed all that. A mandatory weekly hot bath was prescribed by the fort’s surgeon and the effect was almost immediate.

“The percentage of sickness at this post has decreased since the command had better lavatory facilities in the bathhouse.” 

~ Dr. John R. Bailey, Post Surgeon (1885)

Flush toilets were installed four years later.

Cleaner, healthier and no doubt smelling much sweeter, the 23rd Infantry ceased military operations in 1895.  Soon after, Fort Mackinac was transformed into Michigan’s first state park. Click on this clip of Fort Mackinac for a glimpse.

Fort Mackinac Cannon, Photo by cjverb (2017)
Fort Mackinac Cannon, Photo by cjverb (2017)

Fun Fort Facts: Fort Mackinac was the second national park, after Yellowstone (1872).  Established in 1875, Mackinac National Park was under the jurisdiction of the War Department until 1895. The land was subsequently transferred to the state of Michigan and shortly thereafter became Michigan’s first state park.

Next week, we’ll explore some of the man-made and natural wonders of Mackinac Island. In the meantime, have a great week!



Mackinac Parks

National Park Service


Youtube – Life to the Max TV

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