Inauguration Day

Cornell University formally opened on Wednesday, October 7, 1868, a bright, warm—and breezy—autumn day. At sunrise the village of Ithaca awoke to a jubilant pealing of church bells mixed with booming salutes from artillery and cannons that echoed from the surrounding hilltops.

Hundreds of students, faculty, trustees, citizens of Ithaca, and distinguished guests from across the state and nation crowded into Library Hall, the Cornell Public Library in downtown Ithaca, to witness the inaugural ceremonies and hear Ezra Cornell state in his brief address:

“I believe we have made the beginning of an institution which will prove highly beneficial to the poor young men and the poor young women of our country.”

The inauguration was not without controversy. New York Governor Reuben E. Fenton, who three years earlier had signed the University’s Charter, had been expected to take part in the proceedings, but withdrew at the last minute to avoid criticism for supporting Cornell’s commitment to non-sectarianism.

In the afternoon the celebrants climbed up East Hill to campus to dedicate and listen to a chime of nine bells mounted on a wood frame. Louis Agassiz of Harvard, who would become Cornell’s first visiting non-resident professor the following week, told the crowds:

“I hope I shall live to see the time when all the old colleges will draw fresh life from this young university, when they will remodel their obsolete methods and come up to the mark.”

Ithaca Journal. Ithaca, New York, October 13, 1868.

The news of Cornell University’s inauguration ceremonies and first day of classes had made headlines in The New York Times, New York Tribune and other newspapers the week before, but Ithaca’s local paper was then a weekly publication and reported on festivities and addresses the following Wednesday. Note the brief announcement in the first column about the series of lectures to be given by renowned Harvard geologist and biologist, Louis Agassiz, at the Cornell Public Library. This was the start of Andrew D. White’s non-resident visiting faculty program, designed to bring scholars to Ithaca and Cornell.

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