Colgate Folklore, Facts & Falsehoods

Autumn 2015

From the outlandish to the perfectly plausible, we explored 13 Colgate legends in hopes of either verifying or disproving the titillating tales that have been told over the years. Test your knowledge, and prepare to be surprised.


By Aleta Mayne | Illustrations by Jonathan Carlson



1. Found at the bottom of Taylor Lake: a piano, cars … and a hatchet


You know the joke: What’s the difference between a piano and a fish? You can tune a piano, but you can’t tuna fish. However, there may be both fish and a piano in Taylor Lake, according to a 1997 Maroon-News article on Colgate mythology. The authors, Neal Bailen ’99 and Peter Lindahl ’98, cite a source as saying it’s a “credible rumor” that a piano melted through the ice after a winter party and rests at the bottom of the lake.

Bailen and Lindahl also tell a story from the 1976 Spring Party Weekend when a car was pushed from the top of the hill at James B. Colgate Hall and “plunged into the watery depths.” They add that in 1991, the owner of a white Datsun parked at the library “forgot to set the emergency brake and later returned to find that his car had disappeared.” Both of the cars, they reported, were pulled out the day after the incidents.

Jack Loop, Hamilton’s town historian, threw in his two cents recently: “There could be a piano (although I’m remembering that it was a harpsichord), but I question the cars. The ‘lake’ is only four or five feet deep. It’s named after Professor James Taylor (he also was superintendent of buildings and grounds), who had the swamp dug out and made into a lake. It was dredged in the 1970s and no four-foot-high cars were found.”

While we continue to test the water on these theories, it is a bona fide fact that students literally “buried the hatchet” in Taylor Lake. A 1920 Maroon article explains that, on Moving-Up Night, students would toss a hatchet into the lake as a symbol of the year’s end to the freshman-sophomore class rivalry.

2. Dig this: The statues that lived in James B. Colgate Hall when it served as the library are buried somewhere on campus.


We weren’t able to bust this myth, but the story that’s been circulating suggests that when everything was moved out of James B. Colgate Hall into the new Case Library in 1959, no one knew what to do with all of the statues. So, Aphrodite and Apoxyomenos went AWOL. Some say they’re buried somewhere on the hill; others say they were taken to the dump.

3. Blast from the past: The basement of Newell Apartments is a bomb shelter.


As tensions heated up during the Cold War era, fallout shelters were built to protect against a nuclear attack. “Many sturdy structures, such as high school gyms and basements of churches, were deemed nuclear shelters. The basement of Newell was deemed as such a structure,” according to the 1997 Maroon-News article by Neal Bailen ’99 and Peter Lindahl ’98.
“The person you make out with on the Willow Path bridge will be your spouse. Worked for me!”

4. In 1794, Samuel Payne “felled the first tree in a virgin wilderness,” knelt in prayer, and dedicated to God the land that has become Colgate’s campus.


A stone monument on the Quad, dedicated by the Class of 1912, marks the spot.

5. An aerial tramway transported the stone from the quarry down the hill when Alumni Hall was built.


When the Hall of Alumni and Friends was built in 1860, an aerial tramway — proposed by Washington A. Roebling (who later designed the Brooklyn Bridge) — conveyed the stone from the quarry to the workmen below.

Bonus fact: There are 13 steps between each floor in Alumni Hall.

6. East Hall was built by students.


In the summer of 1833, construction on East Hall began and students contributed much of the labor. During this era, there was a movement in which educational institutions encouraged manual labor among students — to promote exercise, help them earn extra money, and discourage “wasting time or loafing and inviting one’s soul,” as Howard Williams ’30 (paraphrasing Walt Whitman) wrote in his book A History of Colgate University 1819–1969.

7. Colgate spirit(s)


EATON HALL was known as the “Angel Factory” — not because there were seraphim sightings, but because it was the seminary until 1928 (when it became dormitory and classroom space). Even so, the site — which was razed in 1956 to make way for Dodge, Eaton, and Kendrick Houses — was supposedly haunted. “We heard stories of the ghosts of old seminarians returning to the site,” Jim Smith ’70 recalled from his student days. Smith, who is working on a book about Colgate history for the bicentennial, explained that some of the missionaries who went abroad in the early days of the university died while on their missions. “Perhaps for lack of a resting place, their spirits returned to the site of the school of the prophets,” he said.

Student ghosts are rumored to live in ANDREWS HALL alongside their earthly counterparts. A first-floor room had sightings every year, according to Kaori Nakamura DiChiara ’93, but she had a frightening experience in her own suite, room 303. “A female student dressed in a sweatshirt and sweatpants appeared in my bedroom, two times on my bed (as if it were hers), and there were a few ‘walking around’ our coffee table in the main room. The morning after my first sighting, the ceiling light in my bedroom fell and crashed to the floor. It almost hit my roommate, who had just replaced the lightbulb and secured every screw in the fixture the night before!” 

It’s anyone’s guess who haunts MERRILL HOUSE, but several campus safety officers and custodians are certain that there’s paranormal activity in the old president’s residence. “I had a co-worker who refused to go in there unless it was daylight,” reported Gert Neubauer, a 33-year veteran of the campus safety department. “It would be nighttime, we’d have gone through all three floors, and knew no one was there. But we’d hear doors close and noises on the stairs. We’d go back through and not find anyone.” The Scene staff — who work in Merrill House and have spent a fair share of late nights in the building — have conflicting opinions on the matter.


8. Prehistoric prank: Students poached Colgate’s famed dinosaur egg.


Late one Friday night in March 1957, two students snuck into Lathrop Hall, smashed the glass case containing the 80 million-year-old oviraptorid specimen, and absconded. Geography professor Theodore Herman heard the glass break and contacted the authorities (supposedly, even the FBI was called). The next morning, an emergency meeting was held in the chapel and students were informed that search warrants were issued to check every room on campus. Frightened, the perpetrators wanted to put the situation in the hands of God, so they placed the egg on the doorstep of the local priest’s house. When Father Shannon walked outside, he accidentally kicked it into the bushes and didn’t find it until he later received an anonymous phone call. The Mongolian miracle was then locked in the university vault until a proper home was built for it in the Ho Science Center’s Linsley Geology Museum. Long after all the eggcitement had died down, an alumnus called the specimen’s caretaker, geology professor Connie Soja, to confess the details of the (cracked) case.

9. Colgate requested to join the Ivy League, and was accepted by all members except Cornell, which blocked Colgate’s entrance.


The Raiders did express interest in joining the Ivy League and were denied, but we’re unable to find any evidence of a Big Red rebuff. The December 15, 1972, minutes of the Trustee Committee on Athletics Affairs state: “[Ivy League] presidents have been reported to consider increased scheduling with Colgate to be desirable, but are not prepared to consider expansion of the league at this time.”

Fred Dunlap ’50, longtime head football coach and athletics director, remembers hearing over the years that Colgate attempted to get into the Ivy League. He added that the Patriot League was formed in consultation with the Ivy League members because those schools needed more opponents to play.

10. Bewitching mystery: covens in the quarry


We’ve heard that in the fall time, witches used to meet in the quarry, build fires, and engage in some Hamilton hocus-pocus. Our source(rer)s are skeptical.

11. The clanging of the chapel bell was a call to action.


It rings true that many decades ago, if students sounded the bell, it was a signal for an impromptu get-together. Remembering his days as a freshman in 1946, Fred Dunlap ’50 recalled the first football game of the season when Yale students caused a ruckus in the middle of the night. Colgate students then decided that they’d ring the bell in the future if they needed to awaken Raider spirit. So, “one night a couple of us scaled the wall, jimmied the window, went up on the second floor, and rang the bell,” Dunlap said. “Sure enough, people came out and the cheerleaders started a pep rally.”

Bonus fact: The bell disappeared mysteriously in 1891 and then reappeared in 1928; its whereabouts during those years is unknown.

12. Freshmen had to wear green beanies, attend chapel, and memorize the alma mater.


Up until the 1960s, first-years were required to don green caps, regularly go to chapel, and recite the alma mater when prompted by upperclassmen. If they didn’t comply, they risked getting paddled by their older peers. “It didn’t seem like a chore, it just seemed like the thing to do,” said Fred Dunlap ’50. “We were all imbued with the same spirit and camaraderie.” Dunlap added, though, that there was no paddling in his era. Half of his classmates were World War II veterans in their 20s — “tough guys who had beards and smoked cigars” — so the upperclassmen knew better.

13. Frank Dining Hall was purposely designed to look like a pig.


This myth is clearly hogwash, but you might see why some tour guides used to point out to visitors how the front archway resembles a snout, framed by windows as eyes.



What do you know?





3 Responses

  1. Lawrence (Ladd) Connell

    On “Folklore, Facts & Falsehoods:” Thanks for this enlightening & amusing article! As to what has gone into and been pulled from Taylor Lake, let me add another auto: a 1968 Plymouth Fury III (I believe)…a car that was figuratively, and in this case literally, a boat! It was senior week 1977, and a bunch of my fraternity brothers convinced one of us to drive his car into (temptingly close) Taylor Lake. Several piled in, took it a short way on Broad St., turned off on a footpath, then turned off the footpath and sped headfirst into the lake! Thankfully it wasn’t deep and all made it out safely, but it wasn’t long before there was a call from a dean (Fred Dobens, I believe) telling the car owner and his buddies to get the car out of the lake if they wanted to graduate. Apparently, they did, since all managed to graduate and proceed to illustrious careers in the law, national defense, and business.
    Go ‘gate!
    Ladd Connell ’77

    • L J Danehy '60 (Bud)

      “Folklore, Facts & Falsehoods:” Number 7 – Lawrence Hall was known locally as the “Angel Factory”. As a townie growing up in Hamilton in the 40’s and early 50’s it was known as the Angel Factory, but I was told by a couple of the local firemen, it was because if it caught fire at night most of the students would not make it out – the fire would make a lot of Angels. The wood oiled floors would go very fast.
      Never heard of the ghosts populating the building.