The Alabama legislature founded Auburn University on February 1, 1856. East Alabama Male College, as it was originally called, was operated by the Methodist Church. Rev. William J. Sasnett served as the school’s first president.
The school opened in the fall of 1859 with eighty students and ten faculty members. It closed during the Civil War because most of the students enlisted. “Old Main,” the first building on Auburn’s campus, was transformed from a dormitory into a field hospital. The campus itself was used as a training ground for the Confederate Army. Six years after the school reopened in 1866, the state of Alabama took it over. That same year, the school was declared a land-grant institution under the provisions of the Morrill Act. As a result, the name was changed to the Agricultural and Mechanical College of Alabama. Throughout the remainder of the nineteenth century, most of the students were enrolled in the cadet program. In 1887, Old Main burned and was replaced by Samford Hall. In 1892, football became a varsity sport, and women were admitted to the school.
In 1899, the name was changed to Alabama Polytechnic Institute. During World War I, 878 males attended the school as soldier students. Enlisted men received training in mechanics and radio there. Like most institutions of higher learning, the school experienced serious financial problems in the Great Depression. During this time, Pres. Bradford Knapp’s ambitious building program was put on hold, and faculty salaries were cut. World War II brought sweeping changes to the university. To meet the need for engineers and scientists, the school added the Engineering, Science, and Management War Training (ESMWT) program to the curriculum. Between 1945 and 1950, thousands of veterans enrolled in the college on the GI Bill. Because the university was offering courses in fields other than agriculture and mechanics, its name was changed to Auburn University by the Alabama legislature in 1960. Segregation came to an end at the university in 1964 when the first African-American students were admitted. By the 2010s, the student body had expanded to over 23,000 students; the faculty included more than 1,200 instructors and professors.
The setting of Auburn’s signature ghost story is the University Chapel. Built in 1851 as a Presbyterian church, the chapel is the oldest building on campus. In 1864, Sydney Grimlett was brought to the Presbyterian church for the treatment of a leg wound he suffered while fighting with the Sixth Virginia Cavalry during the Atlanta Campaign. Because Dr. L. A. Bryan had more than three hundred patients to treat, he was unable to get to Sydney right away. As a result, gangrene set in, and Sydney’s leg had to be amputated. He died a few hours later inside the church. Over the next sixty years, the church was used for classroom space and even as a YMCA. Then in 1926, a theatrical group named the Auburn Players moved in, and they continued to use the building for the next forty-seven years. Some people say that Sydney was inadvertently lured back to the church after the production of a nineteenth- century English play. Sydney continued to make his presence known in the 1960s and 1970s by whistling in the attic, moving scenery, stamping with his one remaining foot, and causing props to malfunction. On one memorable evening, an eerie green light hovered near the ceiling during a production of Eugene O’Neill’s play Long Day’s Journey into Night. The identity of the theater’s resident ghost was unknown until a group of young actors consulted a Ouija board and it spelled out Sydney’s name. His presence was so much a part of the Auburn Players that the award for the most outstanding drama student was named “The Sydney Award.”
Whoever the spirit was, he evidently left the premises after the building was reded- icated as the University Chapel.
Haunted Alabama written by Alan Brown – Copyright © 2021 by Alan Brown