News Column

Archaeological dig uncovers 1836 courthouse footprint

July 29, 2014

By Mary Ann Ford, The Pantagraph, Bloomington, Ill.



July 29--BLOOMINGTON -- Archaeologists on Monday uncovered part of the footprint of the 1836 courthouse where Abraham Lincoln often worked as an attorney.

The discovery by archaeologists Floyd Mansberger and Christopher Stratton came about an hour after an excavator started digging on the south side of the McLean County Museum of History. It was the first day of a two- to three-week archaeological search before construction starts on a new entrance into a planned tourism center on the lower level of the history museum.

"They literally found where the courthouse was," said Greg Koos, the museums' executive director. "They found the corner and now can plot out the exact location. These are the physical remains of an incredibly historical episode in McLean County."

The 1836 courthouse, a two-story brick structure, was the second for the county, replacing a wood frame building. It sat slightly closer to Washington Street than the current building and served as the local courthouse until it was torn down in 1868 to make room for an Italian Renaissance-style courthouse. The 1868 courthouse was destroyed in June 19, 1900 in what became known as the Great Downtown Fire.

The current building was built in 1903 and served as a courthouse for several decades. The McLean County Museum of History opened in the building in 1994.

Stratton said Monday's work revealed a "builders' trench" that typically was used by workers as they constructed a building. Part of the trench appears to be filled with debris from when the building was torn down in 1868.

Besides finding part of the building footprint, a "handful of artifacts" also were found, said Mansberger, including pieces of glass, a pipe stem, ceramic pieces and spikes and nails. The dig also uncovered holes for a line of fence posts and an architectural piece that likely came from the 1868 courthouse.

Stratton said typically items found during such digs are given to the state Historical Society.

Koos said depending on what is discovered, the McLean County Museum of History might want to put some items in a new Lincoln exhibit planned for the first-floor.

Mansberger and Stratton, archaeologists for Fever River Research of Springfield, plan to sift through the debris that fills the builders' trench, but first will move their focus Tuesday further west to see if they can uncover the southwest corner of the 1836 courthouse. According to their research, the courthouse was about 42 feet across. At some point -- likely between 1858 and 1865 -- wings also were constructed.

The corner of the southeast wing was uncovered Monday.

Mansberger said the work also includes looking under the sidewalk on the south side of the museum.

The dig is required because the museum received a $249,000 tourism attraction development grant from the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity/Illinois Office of Tourism. However, Koos said the museum would have done the work even without the grant requirement.

In addition to searching the south side of museum lawn, Mansberger said an archaeological dig will be conducted at the four corners of the property were four new trees will be planted.

While he's not expecting to find much if anything on three corners, Mansberger is looking forward to the dig on the northwest corner.

"That's the site of two early jails," he said.

To see the "data recovery plan" developed by Mansberger and Sutton for the site, go to pantagraph.com.

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(c)2014 The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.)

Visit The Pantagraph (Bloomington, Ill.) at www.pantagraph.com

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Source: Pantagraph (Bloomington, IL)


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