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Dear Mr. Mudd: Why Do You Have a Piece of a Railroad Track in the Library?

Dear Mr. Mudd,

Why do you have a “cross section of railroad” in your Memorabilia Collection (AC053)?


In 1855, for the second time in its near-century of existence, Nassau Hall suffered a devastating fire. At the time, Nassau Hall still served in part as one of Princeton’s dormitories. An undergraduate had gone to Maclean House and a burning log fell out of a stove in his room. As the structure ignited, flames lit up the sky for miles around. The interior of the building was almost entirely destroyed, with even the college bell, which had survived the 1802 fire, left in pieces among the ruins. Fortunately for those of us interested in documenting the institution’s history, faculty and students rushed papers, artwork, and other valuable property to safety before the flames fully engulfed the building. Aside from one student who fell and broke his leg, no one was hurt.

F. Childs lithograph of Nassau Hall, ca. 1860. Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177), Box 1.

The architect who worked on the renovation after the fire, John Notman, preserved the exterior stone work for the building, but used what was then cutting-edge technology in the interior. The brick floors you see in the building today are supported by the iron rail beams Notman ordered from Trenton Iron Co. The company was beginning to produce structural supports, part of the movement toward the development of the I-beam we know today. I-beams allow more stories to be stacked on one another and are the reason why we are now able to build skyscrapers. The rail beams in Nassau Hall are rare examples of early structural iron still in use.

Cross section of railroad tie, 1855. Memorabilia Collection (AC053), Box D.3. Photograph by April C. Armstrong.

The iron supports in Nassau Hall were not used to add floors to the building, though this technology would have allowed for that. Instead, they functioned in another way: They ensured that a fire would not fully destroy the interior again. Notman’s use of brick and iron were a fireproofing measure.

Because the iron supports in Nassau Hall are concealed by the structure itself, they cannot easily be studied. However, the cross section in the Memorabilia Collection offers scholars interested in architectural history a chance to examine the material and its shape and dimensions.



Memorabilia Collection (AC053)

Nassau Hall Iconography Collection (AC177)

Smith, Robert C. “John Notman’s Nassau Hall.” Princeton University Library Chronicle 14, no. 3 (Spring 1953): 109-134.

For further reading:

Armstrong, April C. “A Brief History of the Architecture of Nassau Hall.”

Maynard, W. Barksdale. “From Princeton’s Vault: When Nassau Hall Burned.” Princeton Alumni Weekly, September 14, 2011.

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