The Lacy Hotel Project: Historical archaeology in graduate school

Submitted by Melissa Scharffenberg (Graduate Student at Georgia State University)

In 1836, Georgia legislation approved the development of the Western and Atlantic Railroad, running from Atlanta to Dalton in order for a more efficient method of transportation. By 1858, Kennesaw, formally known as Big Shanty had been added to the route. As this became one of the many stops along the railroad, the need for a boarding house arose.

This boarding house, built in the late 1850s, became known as the Lacy Hotel and remained as a significant landmark in Big Shanty during the mid-19th century. Lemuel Kendrick, a railroad contractor, was the first proprietor of the hotel until he leased it to George Lacy in 1859. The Lacy Hotel became famous for Mrs. Lacy’s Southern breakfast and hospitality. With the development of a Confederate training camp known as Camp McDonald across the street, 1861 proved to be a productive year for the hotel. Many camp visitors stayed at the hotel, including historical figures Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Georgia Governor Joseph Brown, and Major General Joseph Johnston.

In 1862, the Lacy Hotel was the starting point for one of the greatest events in Civil War history, formerly known as “The Great Locomotive Chase.” The event involved union soldiers, led by Union spy James J. Andrews, stealing a locomotive named “The General” with a plan to interfere with the confederate rail supply network. The Lacy family was removed from the hotel on June 9, 1864, and General Sherman used the establishment as a military headquarters during the Battle of Kennesaw. Union forces later burned the hotel in November of 1864. The Lacy Hotel was regarded as the best hotel in Big Shanty during its time and continues to be of central importance to Kennesaw’s rich history.

As a graduate student in archaeology at Georgia State University, there came a point when I began contemplating thesis topics. I was approached by the curator of the Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History to interpret the Lacy Hotel through its collection that was being held at the museum which I had previously researched and analyzed as an intern back in 2007. I was familiar with the artifacts and the limited history of the Lacy Hotel, and I felt this would be a great opportunity for me to develop its history through the combination of archaeological and historical data in order to reveal civilian life during this period of turmoil. Under the advisement of Dr. Jeffrey Glover of Georgia State University’s Anthropology Department, I started the Lacy Hotel Project this past summer.

Prior to my work at the site, an archaeological investigation was performed by Dr. Betty Smith of Kennesaw State University in 1997 and 1998 on the Lacy property now owned by the City of Kennesaw. Many artifacts were recovered ranging from pre-historic to modern. Past archaeological testing and ground penetrating radar on the Lacy property had led to inconclusive results regarding the hotel’s actual location. While reviewing past archaeological reports, historical documents, and local legends, I felt it was important to unlock the mystery behind the location of the Lacy Hotel and it warranted another look through survey and excavation. Within archaeology, a structure existing for only five years and the continual disturbance of the site can prove to be difficult in gathering data.

To determine the location of the hotel, I proposed the use of an electrical resistivity device, a form of remote sensing, that would expose the burned foundations of the hotel. This type of advanced technology provided potentially new data that was undetected in past survey analysis. Gretchen Eggiman, a graduate archaeology student from the University of Georgia, generously donated her time and expertise and conducted electrical resistivity tests in three areas. The results of these tests were verified with shovel testing and strategic excavation.

Many 19th-century artifacts, such as plain whiteware, historic glass, and metal were discovered along with high volumes of brick, presumably from one or more of the six chimneys located on the property. In addition, a small brick foundation in fairly good condition was uncovered along with evidence of charred wood. This could possibly be the foundations of one of its four outbuildings: servants house, kitchen/servants room, smokehouse, and dairy. I am currently analyzing the artifacts, in which, I hope will reveal how the room was used and if it dates to the mid-19th century.

It was quite an experience to be the project manager of an excavation for the first time. I found this to be a great opportunity to develop my skills in the field. It allowed me to expand on my methods and techniques in the field which can not be replicated in the classroom. It is one thing to hear about strategic excavation in a classroom and another to see and experience it firsthand.

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Uncovering the brick foundation was more than I could have hoped for and it would not have been possible without help from Dr. Glover, his students from GSU, and students from Kennesaw State University. This project was achieved with the generous support of the Southern Museum of Civil War and the City of Kennesaw. In the end, the excavation proved to be a success and a valuable learning experience that I will take with me in future archaeological endeavors.