Scientists may have found part of original fort at Hwy. 61 project

Claire Nelson, left, and Peter Hutchison, both of St. Paul and part of Bear Creek Archeology, sift through sediment pulled away from a couple of timbers found under the surface of a highway construction project in Fort Madison Wednesday. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC


FORT MADISON – Archeologists digging through the subsurface of the city’s Hwy. 61 rehab project have stumbled upon some timbers that have their curiosity.

Lowell Blikre, an assistant director with Bear Creek Archeology, of Cresco, Iowa, said Wednesday that crews were working to unearth two sections of timbers with iron rods protruding from them.

Blikre said he’s not sure what they are, but he has to treat them as if they are part of the original fort.

“We haven’t absolutely confirmed this is fort stuff, but we have to treat it as though it is because we haven’t found anything to indicate it isn’t either,” Blikre said Wednesday afternoon.

Claire Nelson of St. Paul gently pulls up sediment around several timbers, center, that have a an iron rod protruding from one. Lowell Brikle, the leader of the 11-man team said the timbers could be part of the original fort and will take the pieces for analysis. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC

The timbers were discovered in locations where the new sewer line is going to go on the south side of the construction just past the west side of the former Sheaffer building.

Blikre said now his team of 11 scientists are doing a more controlled excavation and are screening the sediment around the timbers.

“From hand probing I can see there is another set of timbers below these,” he said. “So were taking the associated artifacts back and we’ll analyze it.”

He said the metal rods seem to run through the timbers and may serve as fasteners for the timbers.

“We’ll expose them, go around the sides and find out how low they go, and what they are lying on so we can figure out what their context is,” he said.

He said the subsurface level dropped fairly quickly where the timbers were found and that was curious to him. He said he was surprised to find the timbers.

“This could be the cellar for the guard house, but we just don’t have enough data yet, so we have to treat it as though it’s part of the fort right now.”

He said the firm still has other trenches to dig to the east of where crews are meticulously screening soil. Using hand tools, workers are digging around the timbers and putting the sediment in buckets and then using stand-up screens to sift through for other possible finds.

Blikre said Bear Creek has a five-week window in the contract, which ends at the end of next week.

“That’s our contract, but it will depend on what happens. There are things that could trigger additional searches, but we’re really trying to stick with the contract and the budget for the city.

The city is paying for the work through its contract with HR Green of Cedar Rapids, who subcontracted with Bear Creek to do the archeological work.

“We don’t want to be a cost overrun on this. We want to get the information we need, find out what’s here, and get out of the way,” Blikre said.

Blikre said a lot of familiar corroded metal and glass have been found, but he did find some beef cattle bones in some of the deeper trench digs associated with the sewer line.

City Manager David Varley said he had heard they found a piece of timber earlier but discarded it.

“This is the first I’m hearing about these, so I don’t know. It could be from the fort or it could be from an old house or something from the city. We just don’t know. They have a guy there that will take it back and analyze it,” he said.

Varley said if the finds are of historical value then there could be some delays in the project if archeologists have to expand on the dig to locate any additional structure.

Blikre said he didn’t expect to find any thing from the ground surface of the fort, because repeated road projects have scraped that surface away, but the sewer line work is deeper than the other projects have gone and that’s where the timbers were discovered.

“Right now all we’re looking for is subterranean features like cellars, outhouses and things like that.”

Andy Andrews of the North Lee County Historical Society said he wasn’t surprised by the find.

“Not really, we knew there was still a lot of stuff buried under that highway. And there’s more under the highway, it’s just how much time they have to do the work,” Andrews said.

He said if the find is part of the old fort, it could result in some additional digging and time spent on the site.

“It takes a lot of time to sift through that soil to look for artifacts and clues. It won’t be a quick process that’s for sure.”

Andrews said he’s been going down to the site every couple of days and when he saw the timbers he went back to look at old designs and said it could very well be part of the guard house.

“There was a guard house that set immediately north of the southeast block house. After I went back and studied the original design of the fort, that seemed to fit, but I didn’t think it was far enough south to be the block house,” Andrews said.

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