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Red Wing Locality








The Original Hamline University Site      
Site Number(s):   21GD212  
County:   Goodhue, MN  
City Township:   Red Wing  
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The site of the original building of Hamline University in Red Wing serves as an excellent example of the educational and cultural ambitions characteristic of Minnesota in its territorial years. Erected in l856-57, it housed the first four-year institution of higher learning created west of the Mississippi. Its excavation also served as a model for combining historical and archaeological research with community-based participation and programming.

Preliminary Investigation


The history of Hamline and its first building are well documented. Archival research revealed that the college, chartered in 1854 by the Minnesota Territorial Legislature and supported by the Methodist Episcopal church, was named for its major donor, Bishop Leonidas L. Hamline.

Early map of Red Wing
Early map of Red Wing, showing location of Hamline University.


Classes began immediately in rooms over a store on the river front. Hamline was one of only a few U.S. institutions of higher education to admit women before the Civil War, and during its years in Red Wing women formed a large proportion of its student body. This reflected in part the territory's great need for school teachers. Unlike many church-based colleges, Hamline did not require attendance at religious services.


Hamline's first building erected in 1855.
Hamline's first building erected in 1855. It contained a chapel, recitation room, schoolroom, library and laboratory, reading rooms, and dormitory quarters.

Construction of a new red brick building began in 1855. It was oblong in shape, about 60 X 120 feet, and three stories high with a basement under part of it. It contained a chapel, a recitation room, a schoolroom, a library, a laboratory, and reading rooms.


Dormitory quarters were on the second floor, with women at one end of the building and men at the other. A kitchen and dining room were in the basement, along with some additional student rooms. The third story was never finished, although students partitioned off one or two rooms there for occupancy during one winter.


Hamline students circa. 1868
A group of Hamline students circa 1868.

Tuition sheet
Hamline University tuition sheet. Notice the cost for a college student - $10.00.


The Panic of 1857 created financial difficulties, and with the coming of the Civil War nearly all the male students, along with the faculty, marched off to fight for the Union. Thus Hamline University was forced to close its doors in 1869, and when it reopened after 11 years it was located at its present site in St. Paul.


The building in Red Wing was demolished in 1871, and for more than a hundred years it's foundations lay almost forgotten beneath the lawns of Central Park. In time part of them were covered by a large cement bandstand erected at the upper end of the park.

Red Wing Central Park
Central Park serves as a town square for Red Wing.

Research Design

To explore the role of an ambitious, progressive educational institution in the life of a frontier town, investigators asked four principal questions:

  • What were the nature and quality of everyday student life?
  • How were the college grounds organized and used?
  • What were the exact location, size, and composition of the college building?
  • What processes led to its abandonment and early demolition?
In addition three broader themes were considered:

  • Immediate effects on the local economy
  • Longer-term effects on economic development
  • Effects on the social structure and character of the community
There were conflicting historic reports about the exact size and location of the building. Archaeologists especially wanted to locate its reported basement kitchen and dining room. Also on the research agenda was looking for evidence of a heating source for the building and for a privy (outhouse) shown in period photographs.

Preparing to Dig

With support from Hamline University, approval from the City of Red Wing, and a license from the State Archaeologist, the Institute for Minnesota Archaeology (IMA) conducted excavations during the summers of 1996 and 1997.


It was a community-based investigation, designed to engage and involve university students, school teachers, children, and volunteers from the community in the discovery and conservation of this buried part of Red Wing's heritage.

Excavation photo
The excavations were accompanied by tours, lectures, open houses, classroom visits, hands-on opportunities, field schools, and teacher workshops.


Remote sensing - Soil resistivity
Soil resistivity survey map of the Hamline site.

Before starting excavation, the archaeologists tested the area of the original building for electrical soil resistivity and used ground penetrating radar to test soil magnetics. Thus they located a number of possible foundation walls and found indications of pathways leading to and from the building.


Further remote sensing conducted during the 1996 field season covered 60 per cent of the park area, including the bandstand. Results suggested that the Hamline building had extended farther north than originally thought.

Excavation and Data Collection


Setting up an excavation unit
Field school students learning how to set up an excavation unit.

Test unit, view to the west.
Red brick from the school building is visible in the profile of this test unit, view to the west.


Excavation at the Hamline site
Excavation at the Hamline site.

Schoolchildren screening excavated material
Schoolchildren screening excavated material.


By the end of the two field seasons, more than 4,000 people had visited the excavation and more than 500 children and adults had contributed time and labor in professionally directed hands-on archaeology.


Pipe and stem
Pipe bowl and stem.

Structural debris
Structural debris recovered during excavations included a metal hinge (left) and window glass (right).


Many artifacts from the fabric of the building itself were found. They included both hand- and machine-made bricks, stone and mortar, roof slate, tar paper, nails, fragments of wall plaster, window glass, ceramic doorknobs, hooks, and hinges. Also related to construction were fragments of white clay tobacco pipes, possibly dropped by workmen.


Education related artifacts
Shown here are remnants of education-related items found at the Hamline site: stoneware inkwell (left) and slate pencil (right).

Articles related to women's clothing
Articles relating to women's clothing included a plastic gem (left) and a piece of a tortoise shell comb (right).


Excavation also uncovered numerous small objects likely to have been used by the first Hamline students. Among them were bits of lantern chimney glass, medicine bottles, writing materials, and clothing items such as buttons, hairpins, pieces of an earring, and a tortoise shell comb. More personal objects were a toothbrush, eyeglasses, and an enema tube.


Plate in situ
Ceramic Plate in situ.

The half-basement dining and kitchen areas were of particular interest to investigators. There they found many fragments of glassware and ceramic dishes.


Ceramics included enamelware, stoneware, whiteware, porcelain, ironstone, earthenware, pearlware, redware, and yellowware. Parts of a cast-iron stove appeared, including a stove lid lifter, and there were a tea strainer and several tablespoons.

Whiteware dinner plate
The whiteware dinner plate shown here was made in England and was probably imported through a Milwaukee firm.


The artifact collection also contains a small but well preserved assemblage of animal bones, including beef, pork, chicken, fish, and frog, as well as some egg shells.

Despite efforts to find it, the privy was never located.

Analyzing the Data

Analysis of the Hamline site is still ongoing.


Three of the building's four corners were uncovered, thus making it possible to locate the original structure and measure its exact size. Field maps and artifact distribution will give clues to the interior arrangement and use of rooms. From the remote sensing studies and shovel testing outside the foundation walls, archaeologists will learn the organization and use of the college grounds.

Exposed foundation walls
Exposed foundation walls.


Some work has been done on the animal remains which suggests that at least one beef animal was butchered on site. It appears that the initial dismemberment was accomplished with an axe and secondary cuts were made with a meat saw. The number of pork shanks in the collection suggest German ethnic cooking at the school.

It is hoped that further analysis of the personal and household artifacts will reveal clues to the social status of the students and the nature of everyday life at the school.

Conclusions and Interpretations

Most of the conclusions await further analysis of the data, which it is hoped will be completed in 1999.


Exposed foundation
Exposed building foundation.

One, conclusion, however, was reached at an early stage. The project team noted that the building's foundations extended only about two feet below the surface of the site. Such shallow foundations may not have provided adequate support for the two-and-a-half-story masonry building, especially given Minnesota's harsh winter climate. This suggests a reason for the building's abandonment and demolition after only 14 years.


Further questions raised by this are: "Why was it built that way?" and "Who was responsible?" The answers may lie in a shortage of skilled labor on the Minnesota frontier.



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Updated 29 June 1999