In 1880, Norwich University was in dire financial straits. At a meeting of alumni, some believed the university could not be saved, and that the best course of action would be to let it pass with dignity into the annals of history.
We are grateful indeed that this was far from a unanimous belief. Late in that year, a successful alumnus and businessman who sat on the Board of Trustees offered the university substantial financial support in order for it to remain open. That man’s name was Charles Hildreth Lewis, and in grateful recognition of his support, the trustees and the Vermont legislature voted to change the name on our charter to Lewis College. Lewis also officially served as president from 1880 to 1892, though the title was largely honorary.
Lewis was a graduate of the Class of 1855 who had made a name—and a fortune—for himself in the mining business. Among the terms of his financial contribution to the university were agreements to pay faculty salaries for a number of years; finance new buildings, including a second barracks and a mineral museum (in keeping with his mining interests); and donate $25,000 outright when enrollment reached 50 cadets. With a student body of 51 in the 1885-1886 academic year, Lewis College—by then renamed back to Norwich University—just barely met that goal.
Unfortunately, little is known about the conclusion of the Lewis College period. We know that Lewis’ proposed barracks and museum were not built—the next building to be erected was Dodge Hall, an academic and administration building completed in 1892. Though the university continued to face challenges as the 19th century came to a close, we can rest assured that it would not have survived and ultimately thrived without the aid of Charles Lewis.
Those who are curious are welcome to explore the course catalogs and Board of Trustees minutes, our main insights into the period, in the University Archives. We also recently acquired Charles Hildreth Lewis’ papers, though they deal mostly with his New York-based business interests.