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Camp Au Train archaeology

Michigan Tech University archaeology students Laura Grotjan and James Schwaderer draw the profile of their excavation unit. (Photo courtesy of LouAnn Wurst)

Archaeologists from the Industrial Heritage and Archaeology program at Michigan Tech University, directed by Dr. LouAnn Wurst, have teamed up with the Hiawatha National Forest to investigate Camp Au Train in Alger County near Munising.

Camp Au Train was established for the Civilian Conservation Corp in 1935. The first groups of enrollees were from Detroit and mainly worked in reforestation, timber stand improvement, road and campground construction, and fire prevention.

The CCC appropriations were canceled in 1942 but the camp was reactivated in 1944 to serve as a camp for German prisoners of war captured from Rommel’s Afrika Corp. POWs lived and worked at Camp Au Train until 1946.

During the war, the camp was occupied by the commander, three non-commissioned officers, 39 enlisted men and 228 prisoners. The POWs were brought in to alleviate labor shortages and meet the increased demand for pulp wood.

The POWs housed at Camp Au Train worked for the Bay de Noquet Lumber Company and Niemi & Niemi Company who were required to pay the Army the going wage for similar work while the POWs received 80 cents per day in canteen script.

Hiawatha National Forest archaeologist Eric Drake and MTU Industrial Archaeology student Joseph Iwanicki screen for artifacts at Camp Au Train. (Photo courtesy of LouAnn Wurst)

The site includes the remains of a range of buildings, including barracks, garages, mess hall, showers, latrines, library, infirmary, and recreation and education buildings in addition to a tennis court and ball field.

One aspect of our research focuses on the landscape changes that turned the CCC camp into a space appropriate to house the POW labor forces. Using the map of the CCC camp, we can document the structures that are not shown, assuming that they were added by the army for the German POWs.

One difference between the camps that we have documented is a large garage complex represented by multiple concrete pads that includes a large metal-lined pit that may have been used to change vehicle fluids.

Another difference between the camps is in the barracks area. No foundations are visible in the area of the barracks indicating that the buildings were meant to be temporary and did not have permanent foundations, typical for mobile CCC camps.

However, several large rectangular pits were found in the corners of at least three of the barracks suggesting that latrines were added to the existing CCC barracks for POW use.

Our research also focuses on aspects of the everyday life of the CCC enrollees and the German POWs while they lived at Camp Au Train. Historic records and oral histories provide a great deal of information about both camps. Archaeological data adds information about mundane aspects of everyday life by recovering the objects that the occupants had, used, or threw away.

During the weekend of Sept. 29 we excavated two areas next to the mess hall that had dense trash deposits. While it will take a long time to wash and analyze the artifacts, several patterns in the data are clear. The most common artifact type we found are fragments of large #10 cans, not surprising given the institutional nature of the camp. The large number of butchered animal bones will allow us to talk about the food typically served in the camp.

We also found a lot of bottle caps that likely represent items purchased by the POWs in the canteen. What seems surprising is the wide range of the beer and soda flavors, such as root beer, cream soda, cherry, orangeade and strawberry, and brands such as “Wegener’s Original Rock and Rye” from Detroit.

Next summer we will continue our work with a Passport in Time program with the Forest Service. The goal of PIT is to preserve our nation’s past with the help of the public. Volunteers contribute to historical research helps protect and conserve the sites, memories, and objects that chronicle our collective past.

We will be presenting preliminary results of this project at the Archaeology Fair at the Marquette Regional History Center in Marquette on Saturday from noon-3 p.m.

This is a great opportunity to learn more about Camp Au Train and other archaeological work in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.