Group plans to build interpretive center at Fort St. Joseph dig site

Published 10:26 am Friday, July 26, 2013

Tourists visit the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Open House. Leader file photo

Tourists visit the Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Open House.
Leader file photo

Could Niles have its own version of the popular Mackinaw City tourist destination Colonial Michilimackinac?

Barbara Cook, chairman of Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Advisory Committee, believes Niles can, but it won’t be easy. It will take a lot of money and, likely, a lot of time.

“If we can’t do that, then we would do something more simple,” said Cook, speaking to the Niles City Council Monday.

Cook said her committee wants to build a 3,000-square-foot interpretive center just south of the boat launch at the south end of Niles Riverfront Park on the St. Joseph River. It is the area where the annual Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Open House is held.

The committee, she said, would raise enough money to build, maintain and man the center — meaning it wouldn’t cost the city anything.

All the committee is asking for is permission to build on the property if and when it raises enough money.

Cook’s request came during the council’s committee of the whole meeting, so the council could not act on her request. Mayor Mike McCauslin said he would try to get it on the agenda for one of the council’s next two regular meetings.

In her vision, Cook said the interpretive center would serve as an entrance to a colonial park filled with reconstructed buildings and an ongoing archaeological dig. It would also house artifacts and serve as a place where archaeologists could do research.

The council seemed receptive to the idea, but several members said the city couldn’t afford being stuck with another building to maintain and man.

“I would think that not too many people would be in favor of doing this building until after your endowment was large enough to insure that you would be able to take care of it once it was erected,” said councilman Tim Skalla.

Cook said they wouldn’t attempt to begin construction until a considerable amount of funds was raised.

The area on which Cook is referring to is the site of an archaeological project ongoing since 2002. The dig site is located at a mission, garrison and trading post complex occupied from 1691 to 1781 by the French and British.

Those wishing to see it up close are in luck. Western Michigan University will hold its 11th annual Fort St. Joseph Archaeological Open House at the dig site Aug. 10-11. The event features archaeology activities, re-enactments, food and more.