Dr. Tim Able points out recently unearthed hearth of a cabin at Pike’s Contonment
In the woods near the old airbase flight-line, Plattsburgh’s version of “The Big Dig” is in full swing.
There, eight student archeologists under the watchful eye of Doctor Tim Abel, archeology professor from Clinton Community College, are unearthing the remnants of the 200-year-old “Pike’s Contonment.” The cantonment, which is defined as a military or police quarters or encampment, is where American forces under General Zebulon Pike over-wintered in 1812-1813, during the war of 1812. The Cantonment was burnt to the ground by British forces in the summer of 1813, in what has come to be known as Murphy’s Raid, and was subsequently lost to history until its location was found recently.
Excavations started last summer on the Plattsburgh landmark, with Abel and his crew discovering the corner of a building. This week, the entire footprint of that building has been unearthed, and a surprising amount of artifacts are being pulled from the soil.
“We now have a complete floor plan of a War of 1812 soldiers’ cabin,” Abel said. “To my knowledge, this is the only such excavated structure in the entire United States. I don’t know of any other site that has this degree of integrity.”
They believe the cabin to be an officer’s quarters, based primarily on the types of artifacts taken from the ground last summer, like a shard of what at the time would have been expensive porcelain. The cabin measured 12 feet in width by 15 feet long, and had a hearth at either end. Local fired bricks from the larger of the two hearths are clearly visible above the trench that has been dug to reveal the footprint of the building.
During a recent media day, elected officials from the town, county and city of Plattsburgh took time out to tour the excavation, and discuss informally their visions for what should become of the historically significant site.
“This is real…this is legitimate,” said Plattsburgh Mayor Donald Kasprzak of the historical significance of the Cantonmant.
As one of the students pulled entact nails from the soil, Plattsburgh City Clerk Keith Hurkalo, a local historian who has been intimately involved with the cantonment project, quizzed the students as to how iron nails could be in the ground for 200 years but not be rusted away. One posited that when the cabin was burned by the British in the summer of 1813, the heat from the fire tempered the nails, turning them to steel, which is less likely to rust. Satisfied with the answer, Hurkalo went back to his animated discussion with a local history buff about the lengthy process of discovering the location of the cantonment site.
Abel is already making plans for next year’s dig.
“Now we have a structure,” he said, with an obvious sense of excitement. “Next year we’re going to branch out and excavate to discover other structures.”
The land, owned by the county, has been placed on the National Register of Historic Places, giving it a slight degree of safety from development. If the county were to ever try to develop the land, they would first have to excavate the entire site, a pain-staking and ultimately expensive endeavor.
“You don’t get sites like this every day, with this level of preservation,” Abel said.
And with that, “The Big Dig” continues.