The History of Echo Hall & Augusta College
"To some, paradoxically, the greatest glory of Augusta College was in its demise."
- The Encyclopedia of Northern Kentucky
Edited by Paul A. Tenkotte & James C. Claypool
The year was 1820 and the Methodist Episcopal Church called for the establishment of educational institutions throughout America during its General Conference. Church leaders were particularly keen on establishing institutions of higher-learning in frontier areas. Pooling together their available resources, the Kentucky and Ohio Conferences answered the call by co-sponsoring such an institution at a mutually agreeable site on the banks of the Ohio River in Augusta, Kentucky.
On 7 December 1822, Augusta College received a charter from the Kentucky legislature and, after effecting an agreement with the trustees of the Bracken Academy, opened its doors. It claimed to be "The First Established College in Methodism in the World" as it was the first Methodist college (in the world) permitted to confer degrees. It most certainly was the first Methodist College in Kentucky.
For the next several years, construction ensued while the school offered only a preparatory curriculum by a lone faculty member. Bracken Academy Board trustee James Armstrong was Augusta College's main benefactor, building the three-story brick edifice that would house fifteen rooms of lecture and recitation halls, a chemistry laboratory, a library and a chapel. Armstrong donated this building as well as the entire three-acre city block that surrounded it. By 1825, the edifice was erected and Augusta College was completely operational. In 1829, it awarded its first degree.
Initially, students found lodging and meals by boarding with local residents. In 1825, board and lodging cost students $1.25 per week, including washing and candles. Three years later, the cost had risen to $1.75 per week. Considering a year's tuition in 1825 was $12.00 (or the cost of a decent milking cow), trustees realized they needed to do something to help limit student expenses.
Echo Hall was one of two dormitories built circa 1830 to offer students a competitive housing alternative. Originally called the "Eastern Boarding House," it was situated directly across from the main college building on Frankfort Street. According to the college's By-Laws from 1837, students paid $2.50 per week to live at Echo Hall (the cost of tuition had risen to $16.00 per session by then). This princely sum included meals, laundry, lodging, candles, fuel and attendance, including a College Purser who would help students manage their money. Parents could send funds to this staff member with the understanding that the money would only be doled out on an "as needed" basis.
Colleges were rare in the West and Augusta College enjoyed an excellent reputation. Some of Augusta College's most notable graduates were Randolph S. Foster (president of Northwestern University in Illinois), Robert Wickliffe (governor of Louisiana), William Preston (U.S. general), John G. Fee (noted abolitionist and cofounder of Berea College in Kentucky), and William S. Groesbeck (independent presidential candidate).
All students enrolled at Augusta College were obliged to maintain an appropriate decorum, on and off-campus. Whistling, hollering or speaking in a loud voice were strictly frowned upon. Students were prohibited from gambling, profanity, setting off fireworks, making bonfires, causing civil disturbances, or engaging in theatrical productions. In 1829, the institution boasted students from 11 states - the bulk of them originating from the South.
For a short time, Augusta College had a sister institution, Augusta Female Academy. Founded in 1837, it boasted 40 pupils during its first year. Although the new school's schedule and curriculum conformed to that of its fraternal institution, female students were charged a lower tuition of only $10.00 per semester. Echo Hall may have been designated to serve the housing needs of these female students during the academy's short tenure.
Without question, the issue of slavery contributed to the demise of Augusta College. As early as November 1828, the student body held well-publicized debates on the topic, concluding that "slavery should be abolished by government decree." Unhappy with the anti-slavery sentiments expressed by several members of the Augusta College faculty (including the institution's president) and seeking a more centrally located institution, the Kentucky Methodist Conference transferred its financial support to Transylvania University in Lexington. Meanwhile, the Ohio Methodist Conference terminated its funding of Augusta College, citing a desire to sponsor a college on their own soil due to a variety of factors, including the fact that Kentucky was a slave state.
By the 1840s, Augusta College was facing declining enrollment and severe financial difficulties. On 26 February 1849, the Kentucky legislature revoked Augusta College's charter and closed its doors for good.
Eventually, the college's buildings and ground reverted back to the Bracken Academy trustees, where the institution operated under a variety of names. Unfortunately, it lacked state sanction to issue degrees and was never able to gain its previous status or reputation. On 29 January 1852, a fire destroyed Augusta College. Of the original college structures built prior to the Civil War, Echo Hall remains a testament to the turbulent times faced by our community, our country and our Commonwealth.
Won't you help us preserve this important piece of pre-Civil War history?
1) Savage, Rev. Dr. George S. Historical Sketches of Institutions of Learning Within the Bounds of the Kentucky Annual Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. Winchester, KY: 1899.
2) Spencer, Bernie. www.nkyviews.com. Accessed 15 June 2017.
3) Rankins, Walter Herbert. Augusta College, Augusta, Kentucky: First Established Methodist College, 1822-1849. 1957.
4) Augusta College (Kentucky). . Accessed 19 June 2017.
5) Kleber, John E. ed. "Augusta College" in The Kentucky Encyclopedia. University Press of Kentucky, 1992.
6) Rivers, Terry. Augusta. Bracken County, KY: 1996.
7) Algier, Keith. Ante-Bellum Augusta: The Life and Times of a Kentucky River Town. Bracken County Historical Society, Brooksville, KY: 2002.