Civilian Conservation Corps Tribute Held July 7 at Library
Michigan storyteller Bill Jamerson will deliver a program about the Civilian Conservation Corps, in story and song, at the Mackinac Island Public Library Saturday, July 7, at 4 p.m. His program will call attention to the CCC’s work on Mackinac Island, most notably the reconstruction of Fort Holmes, a War of 1812 fortification built on the highest point on the Island by British soldiers following the fall of Fort Mackinac.
The CCC was a federal work program during the Great Depression, and Mr. Jamerson has given customized presentations across the United States for CCC reunions and at national and state parks where the CCC had projects.
The fort was built by the British after it used the high ground to surprise the American garrison at Fort Mackinac at the beginning of the War of 1812, according to historical resources available through Mackinac State Historic Parks. Following the American surrender, the British recognized the need for a fortification there to maintain control of the island and guard against recapture by American forces the same way the British took it. To this end they constructed an earthen wall encompassing a timber blockhouse on the island’s highest point, simultaneously defending Fort Mackinac’s vulnerable north side and providing a platform on which the British could place heavy cannons that could fire into the harbor to the south. This position, christened Fort George in honor of King George III, who reigned in Great Britain at the time, addressed many of Mackinac Island’s defensive problems, despite its small size.
Fort George played no substantial role when American forces tried to recapture the Island in 1814. The Americans were stopped near British Landing, but the elevated fort would have posed a serious obstacle to the attackers if they had got that far.
The fortification was renamed Fort Holmes in honor of Major Andrew Hunter Holmes, a young American officer killed during the 1814 Battle of Mackinac Island. Fort Holmes would be a central feature of Mackinac Island’s military occupation through 1817, when it was inexplicably abandoned. Accounts vary, but the most common explanation is that, with the decreasing military importance of the island, maintaining two forts was impractical and the blockhouse at Fort Holmes was dismantled and its timbers were used to build a barn below Fort Mackinac.
The fort site was used for a variety of purposes in the intervening years between the removal of the blockhouse and the first reconstruction in the early 20th century. The hilltop played host to a series of watchtowers, the first of which was built by future Civil War General George Meade, the man who would go on to win the Battle of Gettysburg. At this time, Mackinac Island State Park became an established presence on Mackinac Island, and with its rise came a renewed interest in the Island’s historical properties, including Fort Holmes. The barn timbers were returned to their original location in 1907. This structure, however, was a highly inaccurate reconstruction and was burned to the ground by forces unknown in 1933. The following year, utilizing labor from the Civilian Conservation Corps, Fort Holmes was rebuilt.
“The new reconstruction was based on the original plans archived by the U.S. government,” Mackinac Island State Park Chief Curator Steve Brisson said, “It was a notable historical feature on the island and was worthy of a reconstruction effort, especially since it was connected with the War of 1812, a particularly dramatic moment in Mackinac history.”
The new reconstruction featured the full wooden wall built atop the earth mound, which surrounded a two-story timber blockhouse. Two buildings built half above and half below ground, called bombproofs in the 19th century, were also added outside the walls, just as they were when the fort was occupied. This complex stood until 1968 when the fort, in disrepair and posing a safety hazard to visitors, was dismantled by the state park and left in its current condition.
“It just wasn’t safe anymore,” Mr. Brisson said, “It had to come down or, eventually, someone was going to get hurt up there.”
It is the efforts of the CCC, an organization formed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to put Americans back to work during the Great Depression, which Mr. Jamerson will celebrate Saturday. He became interested in the CCC after discovering an archive of its film, which he integrated into a documentary for Michigan Public Television. Since then, he has continued to produce films for PBS, as well as presenting the work of the CCC to audiences through oral histories he has collected over his career.