Fort Wilkins is a restored mid nineteenth century military outpost and lighthouse museum on the rugged shores of Lake Superior. If you’re visiting the Upper Peninsula this summer, it’s a must-see with friends and family! Today Barry James, a history specialist for the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, fills us in on what’s new this summer at Fort Wilkins Historic State Park.
If you drive north near the very tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula, you’ll be in Copper Harbor, Michigan’s northernmost village. Known for scenic views, excellent hiking and biking trails, this picturesque town also boasts Michigan’s northernmost fort. Just a mile from the village is historic Fort Wilkins State Park.
The park is unique because it is bordered by water in a setting virtually undisturbed by modern intrusions. Overlooking Lake Superior’s rugged shoreline, nearly 600 miles from their regimental headquarters at Detroit, soldiers built Fort Wilkins in 1844 to keep law and order during Michigan’s copper rush. If they could return today, the men, women and children who once lived there would still recognize this wilderness outpost, where 19 buildings survive – 12 of them original structures dating from the 1840s.
A perfect place for children to explore and learn, most of the fort’s buildings are accessible. Some have period room settings, others have hands-on displays. The Michigan Historical Center recently completed renovation to exhibits in the Married Enlisted Men’s cabins. Located outside of the fort’s wooden stockade, the four log cabins once housed married soldiers and their families. Known as “Suds Row,” this is where the post laundresses washed clothes. The cabins now introduce visitors to Fort Wilkins through a new audio-visual program, exhibits and a cabin where kids can compare the past to the present.
When entering one of the cabins children can play in a mid-nineteenth century log cabin exhibit. They learn about period cooking, games and keeping house by measuring period ingredients to “Make a Meal,” learning the “Steps of Laundry” and playing period children’s floor games. The open exhibit allows kids to touch objects, climb on a period bed, and play house.
Another noteworthy improvement is the nine-minute orientation program, “Beyond the Wilderness: The Fort Wilkins Story.” The program details the fort’s history and helps park visitors understand the origins of Michigan’s copper rush. The Michigan Historical Center carried out the renovation project in collaboration with the Department of Natural Resources’ Parks and Recreation Division with additional funding support from the Keweenaw National Historical Park Advisory Commission.
If you are traveling the Upper Peninsula this summer, be sure to visit Fort Wilkins Historic State Park and check out the new log cabin exhibits, as well as the other fort displays. You may even meet a laundress or a soldier in full costume. The fort presents an engaging experience that educates both adults and children about life at this remote outpost. Fort Wilkins State Park is open now through the end of August.
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Barry James is a history specialist for the DNR’s Michigan Historical Center in the Upper Peninsula. He works out of the Michigan Iron Industry Museum in Negaunee.