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Burning of Nassau Hall

The Burning of Nassau Hall in 1855

How the burning of Nassau Hall in 1855 impressed an undergraduate of that time is illustrated in the subjoined essay by the late Granville Wilcox '56, who subsequently had an honorable career at the bar and in the public service. This essay was written as a class exercise for Professor Matthew B. Hope, who is remembered by graduates of that period as one of Princeton's most inspiring teachers. The original of the essay is in the possession of Mr. Wilcox's family and we are permitted to publish it through their courtesy and that of Mr. James M. Breckenridge of St. Louis. It is not only interesting as a historical document but also as an example of undergraduate writing sixty years ago. We reproduce the original essay without change in capitalization and punctuation:


We propose in the following essay to describe the "burning of Nassau Hall", which occurred on the night of 10th of March 1855. this hall was first founded in 1747 or previous year. The origin of the college, as we learn from "Dr. Ashbel Green's notes", was from the "influence of religion". It was the fourth college of this country First established at Elizabeth town, from whence it was moved several times but was at length finally located at, a pleasant little village situated about midway between New York and Philadelphia, where it has continued to flourish, and is now among the first institutions in this happy country. In the year 1802, I think it was, the old building (Nassau Hall) was burned to the ground, but was soon rebuilt and continued in existence until the 10th of Mch. when it was again, unfortunately, burned. So much for its former grandeur and mishap; we now intend to give as minute a description of the grounds before the fire, as also the buildings, as our limited powers are adequate to.

The college grounds are situated in the center of the town of Princeton. Approaching the college buildings from Nassau or Main Street we first pass into the "Campus" through a gateway, the grounds being surrounded by an iron fence. the first buildings which attract attention are those of the President and professor Atwater, the former of frame and brickwork, the latter built of stone. these buildings are two stories high and stand fronting Main Street. Passing on towards Nassau Hall we discover on our right the library and recitation building, on the left we see the chemical and Philosophical halls, under which is situated the old Refectory, now unoccupied. We next arrive at the main building or Nassau Hall. This building has running in front of & parallel to it a long stone walk, which leads from Chemical and Philosophical halls to library & recitation building. The building itself is built of common stone, about 176 ft. in length by 50 in width having four stories, including the lower suite of rooms which is commonly known by the name of "Barracks" from their being formerly used as such in the revolution. Approaching the building we may enter by means of a flight of stone steps, sided by iron railings. There are three such flights on the front. Over the center door we see the head of Homer, said to have been brought from England. On top of the college however, we will see a cupola surmounted by a vane and also containing an old clock, whose works are connected to the bell. The bell has been hanging for fifty-three years and has served for a signal for everything to summon to the church or the grave! A signal for the town as well as college.

Entering the building we pass through a narrow vestibule, from which we are ushered into a long and rather narrow "entry". Directly in front of the middle door and across the "entry" we find the "picture gallery" in which are some of the finest portraits in the Union, as also the full length portrait of our invincible "Washington", the finest portrait of this hero in the world. Along this "entry" on each side we find students' rooms, at the extreme end we see two windows; the one end which looks out to the Chapel, which, recollecting our position, is on the left, whilst on the other side we see the residence of Professor Hope. this residence is two stories high, built of brick and stands fronting the stone walk. Now passing down this above named "entry", either way we approach another flight of stone steps. These lead us up to the third story or second "entry", which we need not describe, as it is exactly similar to the one just described, being on this 2d. "entry" we again find another flight of stairs which being followed up, we are soon upon the third "entry" or fourth story. This is similar to the two already named. Retracing our steps until we come to the first "entry", turning to the right we may pass out of the back door into the "campus" behind the "North college" or "Nassau Hall", and between the two colleges E. & W. is planted former we see on our left, the latter on right. Immediately before and to the left we see Whig Hall, on the right Cliosophic hall. East & West colleges are built of common stone, of four stories in height and hardly as long as Nassau Hall, being about as large otherwise. The plan of these buildings is somewhat different from N. Hall as they do not contain such long "entries" and are entered by but two doors, these having no connection with each other; there being two "tenements", the one door leading to one, the other to the other "tenement". Between the two colleges E. & W. is planted an old English piece of cannon, which is planted about half into the ground leaving about six feet above ground. This cannon was captured by the Americans during the battle of Princeton. The halls, Cliosophic and Whig are built of stone cemented and pencilled on the exterior. In front are large pillars, six in number, supporting a portico; there is a very wide flight of steps leading up to these porticos, the steps are the width of the edifices. They are truly Grecian structures. In this "campus" which we are now supposed to be in, there are in front of each college a long stone walk; which lead from N. Hall to the several halls, inside these or between these walks and E. & W. college are standing several old elms, in the rest of the "campus" we find a great many old trees which shade the grass covered yard and render it a most beautiful summer "loafing-place." So much for the first head or description of grounds and buildings before the fire; we shall now take a glance at the changed scene.

'Twas eight o'clock one stormy night of last March, the fierce blast swept through the narrow entries of old Nassau Hall, moaning as if singing the death requiem of hoary winter. Beside the howlings winds all was of the stillness of death. Suddenly the cry of Fire! Fire! was echoed and re-echoed through the edifice. Soon the flame was seen rushing from a door upon the second "entry". Continued crying of the alarm and the rushing about of the students created a Babel-like confusion. the fire, subtle traveler, soon found its way to the old roof, which was so very dry that all the engines in the country would have failed to extinguish it, even if the company had been sober. The grand reasons of the of the failure to extinguish the flames were that the engines arrived too late and the supply of water came short and nothing could be done without it. The engines however managed to give the outer walls a good wetting as well as a good many students who were engaged in removing their furniture and books. a great many valuable books were destroyed. The Philadelphian Society lost their complete Library, containing perhaps some 300 or 400 volumes. Other students also lost many. Some lost everything and barely escaped themselves.

After the fire caught in the third entry and from it to the roof, it proceeded with giant strides to the west end of the building, as it occurred in the East. Soon the fell destroyer was seen to seize upon the old belfry, during the burning of which there was to be seen a most magnificent sight. Whilst the whole framework burned, it could be seen in portions, through the flame, looking whenever it peeped forth as if it would fain bid us a long-last farewell before falling forever into ruin.

The whole roof was now in one grand sheet of flame, the fire lighted the whole village from one end to another and was seen for some miles out into the country. the campus presented a map of animate matter, heaped together. A mighty assemblage was there ! from the lisping infant to the faltering old man. All seemed struck with pity. Before them they beheld the old habitation in which many of them were nurtured, but not as then, now she was going to ruin - then she was in the zenith of the sky of prosperity. Horror-struck all stood as if they would gladly let their melting heart issue rise from their eyes, but they could not! Alas, too sad to weep, their countenances only betrayed deep anxiety. "Twas as if they looked upon the death struggle of some mighty champion who possessed all their sympathies. It was truly a variegated picture. Here was seen the students rushing with furniture, there the engine company shouting as if noise was at last to supersede water as a fire extinguisher, yonder may be seen a knot of persons from town, who have come to look on, here a cluster of fair faces, which were wont to show their mite of sympathy by bringing forward to the light their soul-inspiring countenances. All was indeed in great confusion. Great danger was to be encountered at one time for the cry of "East college on fire" drew all that quarter and many thought that imperious fate had decreed that all should ere morn smoulder in a heap of ruins. But not so, - the fire being at that time commencing on E. college was soon stopped, but our attention was next called to the Whig Hall, as large sparks were seen to fall upon her devoted head; but thanks to a good tin roof and the watchfulness of her loving and devoted members - she too came out unscathed from this dreadful calamity. In the meantime, all efforts proving vain, the old building was assigned to the ravaging flames. Soon her former grandeur and beauty was stript from her and she appeared deprived of her flowers, with blackened walls she now stands eloquent in desolation. Her every window seems a mouth from which issues the sigh of "fallen", which her old walls seem to echo, - "Fallen, Fallen !" She now stands like some beautiful flower tree, stripped of her beautiful flowers she remains but a stalk, a blackened trunk, a monument of fallen greatness. Long, long will it be before her silvery toned bell shall again ring forth upon the still air those reverberating notes, which have time after time summoned all to our common assemblage. We can only hope the present desolation may be the preclude to still greater magnificence, that she may rise triumphant from her ruins and shine still brighter than ever in the Catalogue of our country's institutions.

G. Wilcox

Source: Princeton Alumni Weekly, 31 March 1915