Creek under old Art Building rumored to have been used for chemical disposal

Construction+of+the+old+Art+Building+addition+%281920%29.+

Construction of the old Art Building addition (1920).

Kelsey Werkheiser and Jaxon White

A dusty dance studio in the basement of the old Art Building was once a Chemistry laboratory and is rumored to have had a set of doors leading directly to the creek below. According to stories, it was used to dump harmful chemicals into the waterway.  

The disposal was not documented in Bucknell’s archives and there are no current or retired faculty that could confirm whether it took place or not, but they agreed that it was common practice in the 1920s and 1930s. 

“Given the reigning ethos at the time, I think it would be way more surprising to learn that Bucknell was decades ahead of its time in being concerned about environmental pollution,” Associate Professor of Geography Duane Griffin said.

Also missing from the archives, and Bucknell Facility’s digital records, are the initial blueprints for the building — which could have disclosed the initial intent for the doors. Current blueprints do not include the doors.  

Background on the building 

The old Art Building was constructed in 1889 and initially housed the Chemistry and Physics departments. Bucknell’s records said it was a gift from William Bucknell, Chairman of the Board of Trustees from 1882–1890, and named the Physical and Chemical Laboratory. 

Although the building originally didn’t bridge over Miller Run, it was extended in 1920 to cover a portion of the creek, according to the archive report. It was between the 1920s and 1930s that faculty say most of the creek dumping would have taken place, if it occurred. 

About 35 years after the building’s enlargement, in 1955, the building became home to the Music and Art Building; as it remained, with minor renovations, until 2000. Then the Music Department moved to Sigfried Weis Music Building, allowing the building to become the Art Building for the next two decades. 

The “antiquated” Music and Art Building became nothing more than a storage space in 2021 after the construction of Holmes Hall, which became the new residence of the Department of Art and Art history, according to Bucknell University Archives

Miller Run, the creek running under the building, begins around Bucknell’s golf course. It then flows under the club’s practice range, through underground pipes, into private property that was built on a coal ash landfill. It then crosses under Route 15, continues through a concrete-lined channel on campus, and empties into a larger creek, where it then meets the Susquehanna River. 

“Hearsay” and a “joke”

Why would Bucknell extend the building overtop of Miller Run? 

That question has sparked speculation and rumors for decades about disposing of harmful chemicals into Miller Run, according to current and retired faculty. Many of whom said they are afraid that the answer has been lost to time. 

“The ‘joke’ was that the old chemistry building was built over [Miller Run] so that waste disposal could be expedited,” Professor Emeritus John Cooper said. “Everyone who worked in that building as a chemist is now dead. So I have nothing to contribute except ‘hearsay’ and I can’t even recall who said it.”

Stories about the chemical dumping were always told “aghast” of the irresponsibility of the participants’ fault, according to Cooper. He isn’t the only one that has heard the stories. 

“It is legendary — and perhaps true — that the old chemistry building at the bottom of campus was built over the stream, with a door in the floor, for easy disposal of chem lab chemicals,” Professor Emeritus Ben Marsh said. 

He couldn’t provide any further information beyond a list of names who may know more, that is how The Bucknellian spoke to Professor Emeritus Charles Root. 

“Although I’m the oldest living member of the Chemistry Department, I am too young to have ever worked in the old Art building (I came to BU in 1965),” Root said, in an email. “I did hear stories of events that took place, but I can’t say with any accuracy what took place.” 

None of the three retired faculty members said they could provide any further details.

Associate Professor of Geography Duane Griffin first heard the rumor of chemical dumping in 1999, when he joined members of the class of 1939 for a reunion dinner. 

“A few weeks earlier, Miller Run flooded, the building became a dam, and a lot of very valuable musical instruments were damaged,” Griffin said. “I had just moved here, that was my first flood, and I was marveling about why anybody would put a building athwart a creek. The response was ‘chemical disposal.’”

Despite the lack of documentation and official recordings, Griffin said he still believes the dumping could have happened. 

“The first is a question that, for most of the past few centuries, rarely ever came up: not ‘why would they do that?’ but ‘why not?” he said. 

Waterways across the country were commonly used as waste sewers, such as the steel mills, tanneries, slaughter houses and mines along the Susquehanna River over the past century. Griffin said he’d be surprised if any early environmentalists would have given the relatively small lab disposal any thought. 

“And even if they did, there was no chemical/hazardous waste disposal industry like there is today… so the only alternative to environmental dumping was to bottle it up and store it,” he said. “We know that’s what they did at the original chemistry labs located where the Facilities plant is today, because workers digging around there today often turn up antique bottles of nasty chemical and other lab waste.” 

The convenience of “just flushing it into the creek” must have at least been a consideration, Griffin said.  

Miller Run today 

In the Spring of 2009, the Henry Luce Foundation Grant to the Bucknell University Environmental Center sponsored a research project focused on creating a plan for the restoration of Miller Run.

Although the report did not include any information about the rumored disposal methods, it did write that the creek has been “greatly impacted by human use” through “construction near or around the stream as well as the channelization of the stream itself.” 

According to the study’s findings, there are “several problems that are associated with Miller Run from a water chemistry perspective.” Compared to streams of its size, Miller run apparently had “significantly higher” levels of ion concentration, which can harm the ability of animals and plants to acclimate to the waters. 

In 2015, there was a restoration project sponsored by the Bucknell University Environmental Center’s Watershed Sciences and Engineering Program, and a $270,000 grant from the Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection.

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