Posted by: Brian | September 25, 2011

We’re Excavating Hamline History (Again)

First week of excavation at the Old Main site

Fieldwork has begun on the Hamline Village History Project for the 2011 season. This year we’re excavating at several sites. The main focus will be our dig at Old Main on Hamline campus. Our real interest in the Old Main site is not the building itself, but the possibility of finding remains of the original University Hall which was destroyed by fire in 1883. The University responded to this disaster by immediately rebuilding on the same footprint. The new University Hall, which we now call Old Main, was open for business a short 11 months after the fire. Old Main is now 127 years old and a focal point of our campus. Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, it’s Victorian Gothic style has a classic old campus charm.

It’s a great old building, but what about the first University Hall? Are there any remains of this structure buried in the ground adjacent to Old Main? The answer to this question is the goal of our excavations.

We have very little documentation of the original University Hall. The only image I have in my files is a black and white print. I need to find out more about this image from our University archivist, but the pine trees in the background suggest the artist hadn’t seen the actual building in it’s prairie setting. There were virtually no trees and certainly no stand of mature pines on campus grounds during the 1880s.

Print of University Hall as it would have looked around 1880-1883. The view is of the north (front) and west (side) walls. We are excavating along the west wall in the vicinity of the porte-cochère.

Our preliminary finds are promising – machine cut nails and creme bricks – consistent with an 1880s construction. We will be excavating a rubble layer that is just below the ground surface for the next couple of weeks. Below the rubble is a thick layer of sand and gravel and then undisturbed soil. There’s more building material laying on top of the undisturbed soil, which may actually be the 1880 ground surface. The question for me is whether we are finding stuff from the demolition of a burned out University Hall or the construction of Old Main? Evidence of fire would be obvious, but what about bricks, cut nails, and limestone? The same materials were used in both buildings. The condition of the limestone foundation after the fire is key. The material below the sand and gravel could be from the original construction if the builders of Old Main were able to use the foundation without needing to repair anything below ground.

We’re digging along the west side of the building where I’m hoping to find footings from the support posts of the carriage porch or porte-cochère. It would be an interesting bit of physical evidence reminding us of a time early in our campus history when horse carriages were a common mode of transportation.

Our other excavations this year include searching for the fire station on Taylor and Asbury, some backyard digs, and most exciting to me – excavation along Territorial Road. Watch this blog and my Flickr site for updates and photos.

The first field exercise of my class involves trying to find the site of Hamline's Science Hall (1887-1971) using historic photographs and maps. Dawn and Cassidy are measuring distances on the Sanborn fire insurance map from 1927 to help locate the building corners.


  1. Great work excavating the campus! Over at MSU we’ved been doing campus excavations since 2005. Its nice to see other campuses beginning to do the same. Check out our site here:

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