Construction: a word dreaded by most individuals, especially during these summer months when it seems to be the most prevalent. Like many other people, archaeologists dislike construction for the fact that it makes it extremely difficult for us to get to work; however, construction can be an archaeologist’s best friend believe it or not. Last week, Campus Archaeology was called in when the construction workers hit a historic wall foundation in between Morrill and Eustace Cole Halls while working on the West Circle steam loop. As dreadful as construction can be, it sometimes is able to open up doors into discovering more of our archaeological past.
To the construction workers, it looked like a boring wall. To us, well, it looked like a boring wall too – but only at first glance. When we first began our work, the wall was a mystery. There is no evidence of any structure in that location on any type of historic map of campus. After a few days of clearing away giant piles of dirt, detailing every stone of the wall, and drawing very intricate profiles, we were able to learn a little bit more about the history of this historic foundation.
With the help of the University Archives and Historical Collections, we were also able to find an old image of the university from 1903 with a large boiler house located in the exact location where the wall was uncovered as well as an unnamed building on maps that it could possibly be. When we first saw the image, we were all shocked that no one had noticed this building before seeing as though there was a HUGE smokestack attached to the structure. The boiler house dates from 1900-1904, and was used to heat Morrill Hall.
Although just a foundation, we can tell a lot about what possibly happened to the building from what now remains. From the looks of it, after the structure was demolished, the foundation was covered by the road rather than being completely removed. The wall runs northwest to southeast, and on the north end we’ve uncovered a series of bricks, mortar, and a large pipe, perhaps materials used in a road made of brick before the paved road near Morrill was constructed. We also excavated in hopes of finding evidence of a builder’s trench, but came up short of anything. In archaeology however, it is sometimes the absence of such things that can offer insight as well. The fact that there is no builder’s trench, along with evidence of the wall tapering off on the south end and the brick structure on the north end, leads us to believe that this area was highly disturbed throughout the years. This old boiler house was most likely destroyed and forgotten until now. Although, just a simple wall, this historic boiler house foundation gives us another glimpse into MSU’s past and how it operated in historic times.
We are still conducting research with the help of the University Archives and Historical Collections to try and learn a little bit more about the boiler house. In the mean time, you can check out the State News and their stories regarding the boiler house excavations!