Fort Wilkins Historic State Park is a state park in the U.S. state of Michigan located on Big Lake near Rogers City, between northern and western shores. The park preserves the restored 1844 army outpost known as Fort Wilkins which was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1970. It is operated by the Department of Natural Resources as a historic site with exhibits about its history.
The park features picnicking facilities, camping sites, cabins, swimming beach, boat launch, playground areas, hiking and ski trails, and interpretive center. Visitors can tour seven furnished, open-air barracks rooms, complete with desks, chairs, bed frames, and windows. Four officers’ quarters have been rebuilt following archeological studies. An original building housing the commissary, bakery, and butcher shop has been reconstructed and houses the visitor information center.
Other buildings include a blacksmith shop, icehouse, carpenter’s shop, school, hospital, store, barber shop, and dentist office. Many of these structures are surrounded by moats filled with water. Others show evidence of having been fortified against fire. Only three buildings are missing from the fort: the commander’s house, the powder magazine, and the gravelly bank. These three buildings were never rebuilt due to structural concerns. The park contains approximately 1 mile 2 furlongs wide and 3 miles long, lying south of Sand Bay Road east of Interstate 75 and west of M-93. On November 11, 2006, the Friends of Fort Wilkins signed a lease allowing the group to take possession of the former fort as a private facility to be named ‘The Old Soldier’s Home’. Although still struggling financially, the non-profit organization planned to reopen the historic site to visitors in 2007. However, the project fell through when funding became unavailable. Since 2011, the DNR manages the park itself.
In July 1844, less than two months after the end of the War of 1812, the British Empire began to block American trade with Canada; at the same time they encouraged Native Americans to attack frontier settlers. As retaliation, Congress authorized the president to call up the militia if necessary to repel an invasion. President James K. Polk ordered Fort Wilkins built along the southern shore of Big Lake in what is now the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. Construction started in June 1843 but was not completed until October 1844 because of bad weather and financial troubles. When it was first garrisoned in December 1844, only one officer and 15 men were assigned there, although additional troops were sent later.
The fort’s mission was to protect lumbermen and other citizens from attacks by “savages” or Canadian-born persons intent on stealing their property during the ongoing dispute over who controlled the upper Great Lakes. The fort lay outside the boundaries of the United States and therefore wasn’t subject to the jurisdiction of any court. Instead, under the theory that it was part of the international border, it was administered directly by the military. This made it a convenient place for deserters from the Union Army to flee to when they crossed into Canada. At least 20 such fugitives hid out in Fort Wilkins before being captured and returned to the USA.
In May 1850, as a result of these desertions, the army decided to close the post. However, the federal government continued to own the land, so the state of Michigan took charge of security through the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) while another CCC crew led by noted landscape architect Oscar Newstrom prepared the grounds for public use. A large picnic area has been developed north of the fort, where most of the buildings have been reconstructed or are standing in good repair.
There are several miles of hiking trails leading away from the main campground and others leading inside the fort. There are also many cross-country skiing trails. One trail leads past the old commandant’s house to the cemetery where four soldiers are buried. Two of them died at the post from diseases, including dysentery and consumption. Another soldier lost his life in a logging accident. A fifth man, William Wright, deserted from the 55th Illinois Volunteer Infantry Regiment and was declared an outlaw by the governor of Illinois. He was pursued by the military all the way to Fort Wilkins, where he was killed by a fellow deserter, Sgt. Joseph Wilson, who had taken a liking to him. After this incident, no more deserters ever fled across the border to safety in Canada.
The park offers recreatuional opportunities including:
- cross country skiing
- horseback riding