What Princeton Really Needed

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Carnegie was as good as his word. Construction was begun that spring by the Hudson Engineering Company to build Lake Carnegie by damming up Stony Brook, east of the campus. Howard Russell Butler, Princeton class of ’72 and an avid rowing enthusiast, served as general manager of the project. Two and a half years later, at a cost of $400,000, the lake, three and one half miles long, four hundred to one thousand feet wide, was completed and officially opened at elaborate ceremonies attended by Carnegie on December 5, 1906. President Wilson gave a long speech of welcome to Carnegie, concluding with an account of how Carnegie had visited Princeton and had “seen exactly what Princeton needed—a lake.” That Wilson could say this with a perfectly straight face was a tribute to his Calvinist upbringing and an indication of how adept college presidents must become in dealing with the eccentricities of wealthy patrons. Carnegie also gave a speech at this momentous occasion in the history of Princeton. He said he had been happy to give the lake in the hope that it would be used for aquatic sports to the discouragement of football. “I have never seen a football game, but I have glanced at pictures of such games, and to me the spectacle of educated young men rolling over one another in the dirt was—well, not gentlemanly.”

According to the newspaper reporters who were present, “Mr. Carnegie’s remarks were received with murmurs of dissent from the undergraduates.” Carnegie, however, was very much pleased with both his gift and speech. He wrote to Charles Eliot, “I did what I could at Princeton to stand by your side in regard to football, and I am happy to say that everybody, from President Cleveland down, thanked me for speaking the needed word.” President Eliot, in a rather neat bit of one-upmanship over his Ivy League competitor, promptly replied, “It is odd that your note of yesterday should reach me the day after Harvard won from Yale in debating. Six years ago when I was in Bermuda you congratulated me in winning in debate when we lost in football. The same thing has been repeated this year. We also won in chess.”