Light on the hill: A history of Tufts College, 1852-1952

Miller, Russell



THOSE FAMILIAR with the vast and sprawling campuses, intricate administrative machinery, impressive faculties, bulging enrollments, and huge endowments and other resources of a later day would be inclined to chuckle at the sight of Tufts College when Hosea 2d began his presidential duties. Judging from reminiscences and contemporary accounts of the opening years, it was not a very prepossessing place. The hill on which the lone building stood in the fall of 1854 had had important and interesting historical associations but had lost its tree-covered beauty long before the College appeared on it.

Walnut Tree Hill was originally upland pasture for residents of Charlestown in the seventeenth century and was densely wooded. That part of the hill on which the first College buildings were constructed was part of a large area annexed by the village of Medford in 1754. Tradition has it that the hill was stripped of many of its trees for firewood by Hessian soldiers captured as an aftermath of the Battle of Saratoga during the American Revolution and temporarily stationed in the area northwest of Boston until they could be transported overseas. The remaining trees were apparently cut down by Medford residents for firewood, or possibly for the shipbuilding business that flourished in the early nineteenth century along the Mystic River, which flows not far from the campus.

The southerly part of what later was to become "College Hill" and still later simply "the Hill" was transferred from Charlestown to Somerville in 1842. Charles Tufts, the fifth generation of his family in the Boston area, inherited several hundred acres of Medford and Somerville land and added to a rather princely domain by numerous purchases. It was from this large acreage that he donated


land on which Tufts College was built.[1]  The nearest house on the Medford side of the Hill was the mansion of George L. Stearns of Medford, about a quarter of a mile away.[2]  On other sides could be seen a scattering of farmhouses surrounded by apple orchards and outbuildings mingled with patches of woodland, rocky pastures, and winding cow paths and cart roads. Tumbledown stone fences stretched across the Hill in all directions, and boulders were scattered over the hilltop. One end of the College Edifice was partially hidden behind a lofty pile of old lumber; the ground was so overgrown with weeds and strewn with rubbish that gaining entrance to the building was a major challenge.

No well-defined road to the campus had yet been laid out. Those who had occasion to come to the College reached it "by crossing the fields by any route that suited the fancy of the visitor." For over a year after the College opened, and before a house was built for him on campus, President Ballou had to tramp some four miles each day to and from his home on Washington Street in Medford, through pastures, woodlands, and orchards. For many years the College, located as it was on the outermost fringes of the Boston area, was considered isolated and in fact inaccessible. However, there was a main link with the city via the (then) Boston and Lowell Railroad. In the 1850's and 1860's trains terminating in Woburn stopped at what was described as "the College Station." In 1860-61, the institution received the post-office designation of College Hill, Medford, and another link was forged with the outside world.

For several years faculty, students, and Medford townsfolk undertook to beautify the barren hilltop by planting trees of all kinds. Pleas for gifts of trees were made in Universalist newspapers, and in the spring of 1858 the campus could boast 300 such plantings. However, the tree-planting project seemed never ending because of the constant addition of land to the original twenty acres.


Charles Tufts made two additions to his original gift: in 1856, forty-seven acres; in 1864, thirty-six acres. Between 1862 and 1866 the College purchased about sixteen acres from various individuals. By 1866 the campus comprised 120 acres. One donor contributed 104 trees, but the great majority came in small numbers from many individuals. Perhaps the efforts of some generous individuals were not always appreciated at the time, for in 1856 the faculty saw fit "to admonish and solemnly warn" one student for using "indecent language" in the presence of a group of Medford ladies who had come to plant trees. Later generations were to esteem these nineteenth-century efforts at beautification. Unfortunately the ravages of time, weather (including the destructive hurricane of 1938), and building needs took down many of the trees so laboriously set out during the first decades of the College's history.

The exterior of the College Edifice presented a more imposing appearance than its surroundings. It was designed in what was


rather loosely called "Italian Renaissance" style, three stories high with walls of red brick; the basement story, corner quoins, and window and door trimmings were of brown sandstone. The main entrance, facing south toward what later became Professors Row, was equipped with a "Roman Ionic" portico surmounted, like the roof, with a balustrade. Six chimneys rose above the slate roof. It was intended originally that the building would house only academic and administrative facilities; there were to be separate boarding houses for the students. But the exigencies of the situation demanded that for a brief period the first-floor rooms served as dormitories. Externally, the building changed very little over the years. The major alteration was made in 1939, with the addition of a matching portico on the side facing the main campus drive. This portico was the gift of Eugene Bowen, Class of 1876. Internally, the main building was completely remodeled in 1955-56, in a combination of modernization and restoration.[3] 

The Trustees had felt from the beginning that the College should be as residential in character as location and finances would permit. The public was even invited, via newspaper advertisements, to purchase land from the College on which to build living accommodations for students. In the spring of 1855 the College itself set about remedying this deficiency. The result was a three-story brick structure designated for a time merely as "Building A" but known from completion in 1856 until 1872 as "West Hall." The erection in the latter year of another dormitory, also christened "West Hall," necessitated another name for the older building. It remained "Middle Hall" until 1886, when the simple designation "Library" was chiseled over the entrance. The name "Packard Hall," familiar to later generations, was attached to the building in 1910 as a belated gesture toward Sylvanus Packard, the benefactor of half a century before.

The uses to which this second College building were put were


as various as its names. It was built to accommodate twenty-six students and included dining facilities and housing for the steward and his family in the basement.[4]  The second president, A. A. Miner, developed an unalterable aversion to Middle Hall. It had suffered from structural defects from the time it was built, and tie rods had to be inserted to restrain the bulging walls before the structure was a decade old. The damage from moisture seepage through the brick walls called for frequent repairs and redecoration. After one such round of repairs in the 1870's Miner reported to the Trustees that the time could not be far distant when "that edifice must give place to a more substantial structure" and recommended that repairs in the future be held to a minimum. A short time later he expressed the hope that a new dormitory could "replace the unsightly and unsuitable building known as Middle Hall." Miner did not have his way. Between 1886 and 1908 two floors were used to house the College library, while students continued to live on the top floor until 1901. They were removed because of the potential danger to the library from fires in stoves and fireplaces in the days before central heating. After brief service as headquarters for the theological school beginning in 1910, the structure was remodeled for classrooms and faculty offices. A large room used earlier as a chapel by the theological school served for faculty meetings and other gatherings until Ballou Hall was remodeled. In 1955-56, during the latter activity, Packard Hall served as temporary headquarters for the administrative offices of the institution.

The third academic structure to appear on the Hill was a wooden building erected in 1857 and intended also as a dormitory. The College officers gave this addition to the campus the rather unimaginative designation "Building B." Unlike the first two, it never received a name. For three years it served its original purpose and then became a dwelling for two of the original faculty. Even another dormitory (East Hall), completed for use during the academic year 1860-61, failed to provide adequate student accommodations for long. East Hall was originally a rather grim-looking


edifice, for it was covered with a brown mastic (stucco) which eventually began to peel off. Several paintings, sand-blastings, and repaintings were subsequently necessary to make the rough brick walls attractive. After East Hall was completed, the dining hall was moved from Middle (Packard) Hall and installed in the basement of the new building. Known as the "Dive," the Commons remained in East Hall until a new multi-purpose structure (Curtis Hall) was built in the 1890's.

"Building B" was removed from the top of the Hill in 1870 and relocated on what became known as "Professors Row" paralleling the south side of the hilltop. After serving as a faculty residence for years, the structure became the western half of Richardson House, a girls' dormitory. On the original site of "Building B" was constructed the largest, most ornate, and most luxurious dormitory on the campus up to that time - West Hall. This structure, completed in 1872 with four stories and a basement, and replete with Gothic-type windows, towers, cupolas, ironwork roof


decoration, and dormers of various dimensions, stood proudly as the best (or worst) example on the Hill of "collegiate gingerbread" in the overdressed Gilded Age following the Civil War.

Less than ten years after the College opened, the Trustees were approached by officials of Charlestown who wanted to construct a water storage facility on the highest point of the Hill.[5]  The result was a brick and stone reservoir with four and one-half acres of water surface over twenty feet deep, built between 1862 and 1864. Known to generations of Tufts students and alumni as the "Rez," and the scene of uncounted extracurricular activities, the facility was razed many years after it had ceased to serve its original purpose. The area became College property after World War II and was filled in to provide additional space for the growing campus. Many of the bricks were used to construct the Bray Mechanical Laboratory in 1946. The late Boston Post mistakenly announced that the "Rez" had been removed in order to build homes for Tufts faculty. Instead, the fringes of the old reservoir site became locations for three men's dormitories. The College long drew its water supply from the Rez, a privilege obtained in exchange for rights-of-way granted by the College for access roads and the laying of water pipes. Fragments of the old pipes were disinterred when the foundations were dug for the Lincoln Filene Center in 1962-63.

Those who live in an era of urban congestion and mechanization may find it difficult to realize how rural, and even pastoral, a college could be in the nineteenth century. From its opening until the late 1880's and early 1890's, both the College and its residential faculty engaged in extensive farming operations. Beginning in 1856, part of the pastureland which still comprised most of the Hill was let out at $60 per year. The College also operated its own farm for many years and raised a crop of hay so bountiful that the surplus that would not go into the barn then standing behind Middle (Packard) Hall was sold. As late as 1880 the Executive Committee of the Trustees reported that "a considerable portion of the college lands in Somerville has been cultivated . . . and four milch cows have been kept; the proceeds of the farm having been used, under the direction of the President, in the College boarding house, securing thereby board for students at a much cheaper rate."

The faculty were also allocated land for cultivation and grazing of cattle. For eight years one professor kept sufficient cows to furnish twenty quarts of milk a day to seven College families, and so expanded his agricultural activities that he had to hire student help and to rent a barn from another faculty member. The College owned several barns besides the one which remained behind Middle Hall until 1876, and as changes took place on the Hill the barns migrated from place to place or were torn down. Many of the old barns remaining on Professors Row were later converted into garages. The Trustees finally decided that farming operations, either by the College or by its faculty, were not in harmony with the dignity and purposes of the institution, and the last cow officially departed from the Tufts campus in 1893.


[1] Further details may be found in Richard B. Coolidge, "Walnut Tree Hill," Medford Historical Register, Vol. 39 (June 1936), pp. 21-36; there is an abbreviated version of this article in the Tuftonian, Vol. 2, n.s. (May 1942), pp. 164 ff.

[2] Stearns was one of the "Secret Six" who helped finance John Brown's famous raid on Harper's Ferry, Virginia, in 1859. Stearns' home was for a period the Medford headquarters of a branch of the "underground railroad" organized before the Civil War to assist fugitive slaves from the South to escape. Many of those who were assisted by the Medford organization fled to Canada.

[3] Edwin B. Rollins, Class of 190l, Professor of Electrical Engineering Emeritus, devoted the better part of a decade following his retirement to compiling histories of the physical aspects of the Hill campus. In 1960 he generously donated to the University Archives eleven volumes of illustrated notebooks detailing the stories of every important building, gate, walk, and set of steps and containing other valuable historical information. The writer, and many users of these notebooks, have appreciated the great effort and care that went into their compilation.

[4] In this basement was born the only child known to have come into the world on the hilltop section of the campus. She was the daughter of Patrick Burns, a man-of-all-work around the campus for many years.

[5] The land was not at that time part of College property, but certain access rights had to be obtained from the College.

  • Light on the Hill, the history of Tufts College, was published to coincide with the centennial of the institution in 1952. A second volume was published in 1986. This edition was created from the 1966 edition of Light on the Hill, Volume I.
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