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Celebrating 150 Years of Classes

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November 6, 2005

Exactly 150 years ago this week the official opening of Northwestern and the first day of classes took place on Nov. 5, 1855.  Although Northwestern’s founders first met in May 1850 to plan the University and Northwestern received its charter from the state of Illinois in 1851, the first years of the University’s existence were consumed by fundraising, so classes did not begin until 1855.

In addition, Northwestern started classes late that first fall because construction on the first building, called simply the University Building and later known as “Old College,” didn’t begin until that summer. The building was located at Davis Street and Hinman Avenue, now the site of the Davis Street Fishmarket restaurant.

Being frugal Methodists, the founders had a boatload of pinewood for the building shipped across Lake Michigan to newly founded Evanston. But the area had no dock, so to get the cargo ashore deckhands tossed the lumber overboard, and local farmers hauled it up to the construction site board by board.

The construction continued through the summer and fall. The building, which cost just under $6,000, was ready in early November. The building was about 50 feet wide, 40 feet deep and three stories tall with an attic and belfry. It contained six classrooms, a chapel, a small museum for natural science exhibits, halls for two literary societies and three rooms in the attic “where, with a little oatmeal for food, a few aspiring students might board themselves and compensate the university for their rent by ringing the college bell.”

As it turned out the new building was more than adequate for the first class of students. Of the 10 students enrolled for fall 1855, only four were there on the first day of class and the faculty numbered a total of two. Northwestern’s first president, Clark T. Hinman, had died the previous fall, exhausted by the travels required for fundraising efforts for the new institution. Three key members of the University’s founding trustees, John Evans, Orrington Lunt and Grant Goodrich, were there, but the day was remembered as “quite colorless.” So eschewing pomp and ceremony and with no president, virtually no money and a campus consisting of one hastily constructed wood-frame building, the University opened its doors and began teaching students, thereby taking the first steps to becoming the distinguished institution that it is today.

For more information and photos of Northwestern’s history, go tohttp://www.library.northwestern.edu/archives/nu_history.html or tohttp://www.nu150.northwestern.edu/

Topics: University