Campus Mythbusting: Is there a bulldozer buried beneath Memorial Stadium?

A few weeks ago, the University Archives received a request from the Champaign News-Gazette regarding an oft-repeated claim about Memorial Stadium. The claim states: “During the construction a particularly rainy week caused a bulldozer to sink into the field, and it was determined that it would be cheaper to leave it in place rather than remove it.” Much like other campus myths, this trivia tidbit has never been linked to any documentary evidence, but it is a topic about which we have received regular inquiries. I decided to take up the question and look at every source that we have available. While understanding that it is far more difficult to prove that something did not happen than to prove that it did, I believe that there is sufficient evidence in the Archives to support the conclusion that this campus myth is highly unlikely to be true.

A thorough examination of the sources reveals that not only were bulldozers most likely not used in the Memorial Stadium construction project, but despite frequent setbacks due to poor weather conditions and the precarious financial situation of the project throughout its duration, there is no evidence to support the idea that large equipment would have been abandoned beneath the foundations of the building.

Brief Stadium Background

The University of Illinois Memorial Stadium was built during the years 1921-24. While the Stadium has served as a driving force in the development of the Illinois football program, one of its primary purposes was to memorialize the students who gave their lives during WWI, and the columns on its upper deck are each inscribed with the name of a fallen Illini. The Stadium was designed by Holabird & Roche, a Chicago-based architecture firm which also designed Soldier Field in Chicago. The construction work was carried out by the English Brothers, a Champaign-based contracting firm which is still in business today.

Memorial Stadium design drawing by Holabird & Roche

A Note on Sources

The Stadium project was a major undertaking, funded largely via donations and pledges from alumni and current Illinois students. The project was followed closely by locals and distant Illini alike and progress was reported in many places, including the Daily Illini Newspaper, the Illio Yearbooks, the Board of Trustees Reports (BOT), the Illinois Alumni News newsletter, and in internal progress reports held elsewhere throughout the Archives.

The BOT reports contain detailed financial information pertaining to the University, and one might think that the quickest way to answer this question would be to locate a receipt or expenditure record for purchase of a new steam shovel, bulldozer, or tractor. However, since the project was carried out by the English Brothers, the BOT only reports the money paid to these contractors, who then disbursed the money as needed to purchase supplies, equipment, etc. Therefore, the detailed financial information which might answer this question is not available in the University of Illinois Archives’ holdings.

In addition to the textual sources listed above, there are many photographs documenting the construction of Memorial Stadium. The photos in the Archives’ holdings are largely contained in our Photographic Subject file (39/2/20) and Building Photograph file (24/5/14). There may be additional photos in the English Brother’s records, such as the one published in the July 8, 2022 News Gazette.

What machines were in use during construction?

To begin with, let’s examine the question of the “bulldozer.” Pedantic as it may seem, it’s worth noting that as far as the records reflect, no “bulldozers” were used in the construction of Memorial Stadium. This quick history of the bulldozer sheds a bit more light on this, but back in 1923-24 when the Stadium was under construction, a bulldozer was the name of an attachment that might be used on a tractor rather than the large standalone machine that bears the name today.

Some heavy machinery was used in this construction, however. The Daily Illini makes note of the specific equipment being used on the project several times, including a steam shovel, several tractors, and two derricks. While a bulldozer attachment could have been used on one or more of these tractors, it is never mentioned in sources which published frequent updates on the progress of construction. The machinery that I believe may be closest to the “bulldozer” in the myth, however, is the steam shovel.

George Huff stands next to the Steam shovel at work on the Memorial Stadium site. Found in the 1924 Illio

The earliest mention of this shovel comes from a Daily Illini article on September 21, 1922, when construction first began. The article states: Steam Shovels, tractors, wagons and piles of dirt now dot the landscape included in the Stadium site, for work on the structure has commenced in earnest. English Brothers have start[sic] excavations at the four corners of the field, in preparation for the building of the stands.” The Alumni News from October 1, 1922 (on page 20), which includes the first Stadium progress report, also indicates that the equipment used included “a one cubic yard steam shovel and an elevating grader, pulled by a 10-ton Holt Caterpillar tractor.” These were large, heavy, and expensive pieces of machinery. The Archives holds a few photos of the steam shovel in use on the project, such as this one in the Photographic Subject File and this one from the 1924 Illio. It’s notable that the shovel has “English Brothers General Contractors” written on its side, indicating that this was one of the official pieces of equipment used by the English Brothers in multiple projects across campus.

Additionally, there seems to have been some public interest in steam shovels, considering their novelty at the time. A steam shovel was also in use during the construction of the subway system in Champaign-Urbana at Illinois Central Station, and there are numerous newspaper articles which indicate that the public stopped by to look at it regularly, closely following the movements of that machine across town. The same seems to be true of the steam shovel used by the English Brothers in constructing the Stadium. When the shovel was in use, it was referenced in the Daily Illini or the Alumni News. The English Brothers were responsible for constructing many buildings on campus, and when their shovel moved to another project on campus, that was noted in the newspaper. Notably, the August 1923 Alumni News published an aerial photo showing the construction progress and indicated that “the big steam shovel is chiseling away the dirt on its final job,” a task that it would not have been able to undertake had it been abandoned mid-construction.

While rain and mud did cause several setbacks, the project reached its lofty goal of having seats and a field ready for the 1923 Homecoming football game, which should not have been possible if the steam shovel which moved 1,100 loads of dirt daily, working day and night, been lost.

How likely is it that machinery would have been submerged?

A key element of the claim is that a day of particularly rainy weather led the construction site to become so muddy that the “bulldozer” was unable to be removed. While we have established that there was probably not a bulldozer present on the site, this part of the claim is not without reasonable foundations. Rain and poor weather did have a considerable effect on the construction process. Delays due to weather occurred throughout the project, but an article published in the Daily Illini on July 7, 1923 boasts that “in every case the difficulties have been overthrown and the construction goes merrily on.” This article also lists the many difficulties faced by construction crews to date, including heavy rains and the development of a small pool of water in the center of the field; “the present drainage system takes care of that, however.”

The earliest delay was reported on November 5, 1922 in the Daily Illini: “Work has been held up somewhat during the past week, on account of rain. Several of the smaller tractors have not been used because of the depth of the mud at the field. But the steam shovel has been working down in front of the east stand and excavations on the northeast ramp has been well started.” On November 19, 1922, the rain and mud force a pause in construction: “Night Shift Discontinued for Few Weeks Because of Inclement Weather Rain and mud have delayed work on the Stadium field this week and the night shift has been discontinued for a few weeks on account of the inclement weather.” Notably, no mention is made of any equipment becoming submerged.

At the end of January 1923, the Daily Illini asserts that “Bad Weather Does Not Effect [sic] Speed Of Stadium Work.” However, by June 9, 1923, the BOT agrees that inclement weather has plagued the project and reports that “Construction work has been greatly delayed during the spring months by frequent rains and unfavorable working conditions as a result thereof.” A storm in early August of 1923 threatened to pose the most severe damage and was the only noted instance where construction equipment sustained significant damage. On August 8, 1923, the Daily Illini reports that “No serious damage was done to the Stadium by the storm with the exception that several cement forms and a derrick was toppled over by the wind.” Another report the following day indicates that “A few forms were blown over while a brick tower by the east ramp tower and a concrete tower at the west stand were toppled over by the wind. About $1,000 damage was done.” By this time, the field’s drainage system had already been implemented, and even the heaviest rainstorm of the season did not successfully flood the field.

Memorial Stadium Stand Construction - trenches with horses and carts and equipment

Despite the many weather-related setbacks encountered during the construction of the Memorial Stadium, none of the reports indicate the loss of any major construction equipment due to rain or muddy conditions. In fact, while the heavy rainstorm in August 1923 caused the toppling of a derrick, there are no reports of equipment that was lost or not recovered following an accident, and none of these accidents involved the steam shovel. In assessing the weather-related setbacks for the project, it is important to remember that the stadium was built as a memorial to fallen Illini, and there’s no indication that a hindrance such as losing the steam shovel would have been deemed acceptable, especially if its presence below the foundations compromised the stability of the structure. It’s unlikely that this kind of loss (unless we’re talking about a much smaller piece of equipment) would have gone unrecorded in otherwise quite detailed reports. Even so, it is difficult to imagine that a piece of equipment small enough to write off would have been too expensive to retrieve.

How likely is it that the machinery would have been left? What was the financial situation at the time of the dig?

Reading through the construction progress reports published in the Alumni News provides a strong sense that although the financial situation of the Stadium project was often tight, there was never any indication that corners would be cut which would compromise the integrity or grandeur of the project.

1923 Illio Drawing of a Finished Memorial Stadium Prototype with Large Clouds

The construction project enjoyed strong initial support from loyal Illini: current students and alumni alike. However, during construction, the project encountered constant financial struggles due to lack of payment on pledges, even going into debt and taking out loans to ensure its completion. Looking at the original design by the Architects Holabird & Roche, who also designed Chicago’s Soldier Field, several design simplifications were made over the course of the project. The reasons for this are not well-documented, but there is no reason to believe that changes were made as a reaction to construction issues such as inclement weather.

On June 13, 1924, the Daily Illini reports that “progress has been rapid during the past semester despite difficulties encountered because of a lack of funds in the Stadium treasury,” even considering the more favorable weather that characterized the 1924 leg of construction. This lack of funds, however, did not cause builders to enact cost-cutting measures, especially when it came to the structural integrity of the Stadium. On March 9, 1923, a letter from University President David Kinley relates that the piers for the foundations of the southeast ramp tower had to be dug much deeper than planned due to the discovery of an ancient swamp in that area, which resulted in additional cost being added to the contract for work on the Stadium’s sewer (2/9/1 box 91). This discovery had previously been reported in the Daily Illini in December of 1922.

The July 7, 1923 article in the Daily Illini which enumerates the many difficulties encountered during construction asserts that “in every case the difficulties have been overthrown and the construction goes merrily on.” Care was taken to source proper materials, brick layers, rust-free water, and other materials to remain true to both the intended design and function of the building. Had the contractors been prepared to adhere to cost minimization to the detriment of the project’s integrity, the detail and care taken to seek the highest quality resources would have been diminished.

On one hand, this project was financed by proud Illini who would have wanted to see their contributions responsibly spent, especially considering the memorial purpose of the Stadium itself. The fact that detailed updates on the progress of construction and pleas for timely payments on pledges were published regularly in the Alumni News reflects a desire on the part of the University to be transparent about the financial situation and encourage donors to uphold the pledges they made. On the other hand, this ensured that the financial struggles were both constant and public, and it is not difficult to imagine that the public would believe that a cost-cutting measure would be considered if the project hit a major roadblock such as losing a piece of heavy equipment.

The best way to get a sense for the financial struggles of the project would be to read through these reports in the Illinois Alumni News, each of which contain sections regarding “You Who Are “Slow-Pay,’” and “Arousing the Sluggards,” urging subscribers who have not fulfilled their pledges (or who have not paid on-time) to do so for the sake of current and future Illini. The March 1923 edition cites a message sent to these subscribers by George Huff which summarizes the situation: “The neglect of many subscribers who are not fulfilling their obligations endangers the completion of the stadium. We cannot reach them by letters, it seems. We hope that most of them are basically loyal. If some alumnus calls on each one of them, it is thought delinquents will pay up.” He then calls on Illini club members to reach out to alumni themselves to encourage prompt and full payment of pledges. The funding of the construction project was undertaken by the whole of the Illini community at the time, and the sense that it was the job of every subscriber to not only do their part in fulfilling their pledge, but also encourage others in their social circle to do the same, is found throughout these monthly Alumni News reports.

Despite the financial difficulties encountered during the construction of the Memorial Stadium, there is little evidence to support the claim that a major piece of equipment such as a steam shovel or bulldozer would have been willfully abandoned due to mud. The builders and the community keeping an eye on the construction project were proud of their ability to responsibly steward the funds provided and overcome obstacles as they occurred; a temperament which would not have been consistent with a failure for there being any contemporary report of the loss of an expensive and critical piece of equipment such as the steam shovel.

'Build that Stadium for Fighting Illini' 1923 Illio Drawing

So, where does this myth come from?

It is not difficult to imagine why this rumor has continued to resurface, especially since it’s been cited as fact on the UI Histories Project website. Although the Archives does host the UI Histories Project, its large size means we have not been able to endorse all its content as fact. The UI Histories website is an excellent resource which was compiled by a former student years ago and has great research value. However, like any source, its claims should be evaluated critically before being accepted as factual. The rumor it cites traces back to an old Campus tour website which has since been taken down. These tours are the sources of many myths that we are regularly asked about at the Archives, almost always without any traceable evidence in the historical record.

I would not be surprised if we found some documentation indicating that the myth was circulating at the time of the Memorial Stadium’s construction. As seen above, inclement weather, rain, and mud characterized the conditions under which the building was erected. It is easy to believe that students would have seen the steam shovel sinking into the ground a bit or sitting inside the large ditch it was excavating on a muddy day, and not been able to conceive of it being retrieved from such conditions. Steam shovel technology was relatively new at the time of this construction, and novel enough that people showed up to work sites to see it in action. They would have had little frame of reference regarding the capabilities of the machine, which would have been engineered with navigation in mud in mind, considering its function (excavation).

Chicago-Illinois Game, crowd at Memorial Stadium

The mud and water on the field was a significant feature of the construction site for much of the early stages of the project. Prior to the installation of the sewage and drainage system, the area which would become the playing field was frequently flooded. During Homecoming of 1922, a Stadium Parade brought supporters of the project to the construction site, where they encountered heaps of school spirit as well as mud, as reported in the Daily Illini on October 22, 1922. The April 1923 Stadium Notes (2/6/805) quips that “The weather man thought we wanted a place for a crew and converted the playing field into a young lake.” The locals affectionately nicknamed this temporary body of water “Lake Zuppke” after the head coach of the University of Illinois football team. In June of 1923, the Alumni News reports on the building progress, jesting that “Illinois has lost its only body of water. ‘Lake Zuppke,’ which covered the playing field-to-be was drained off by May 1 when the 24-inch tiles that hook up with the Champaign drainage system were connected.” Notably, it also indicates that “The stadium sprang to new life when the water disappeared. The big shovel steamed up to finish the cut for the field.” Had the steam shovel been submerged underneath this “lake,” it would not have been able to finish its job.

After the drainage of Lake Zuppke, the field and its approaches remained muddy through the wet season, and these conditions were observed by attendees to the first Homecoming football game played on the field in 1923. The 1925 Illio Yearbook included a reflection on the first two Homecoming games at the Stadium, citing excessive muddiness at the 1923 game. In preparation for the Stadium’s inaugural game against Michigan in 1924, visitors were assured that walkways would be paved prior to the game. Students who attended these games may have recalled the mud and unfinished state of the stadium in 1923, especially recalling the steam shovel in the ditch surrounding the field which would become the stands. Stadium-goers may have mused aloud about the changed conditions in 1924, spreading the idea of a machine stuck in the mud to the Michigan attendees. Notably, a similar myth is also told about the University of Michigan Stadium, built just a few years after the Stadium at the University of Illinois. Indeed, the muddy conditions were notable enough that the Daily Illini published an article recalling the muddy homecoming of 1923 in 1955. Interestingly, this article also notes that many game attendee’s cars got stuck in the mud, requiring the assistance of horses to remove them.

Stadium Dedication Aerial View (1)

I put my best foot forward trying to locate the true origin of this myth, but it has been elusive. The earliest reference I located to the claim is found on page 405 of the 1998 Illio yearbook, which indicates that the myth was already an established part of campus folklore. I am a third-generation Illini, so I asked some of my family members who attended the University whether they had ever heard the myth during their time at UIUC. None of them had heard the myth except through the Wikipedia page, and their tenure at the University ranges from 1961 to 1999. Of course, this is a very small sample and not one which is representative of the larger campus community.

The claim has continued to circulate online, being cited on Wikipedia and in several sports columns containing fun facts about the Stadium. Reddit users have indicated that they heard it during campus tours and even during commencement ceremonies in more recent years. Many users have stated that they believe the claim to be true due to the fact that it is endorsed on an Archives website, while others, such as the author of this article, believe it to be true simply because they read it online.

Myths and Legends

We would love to hear from you – have you heard of the bulldozer under the stadium before? Where did you hear it, and how long ago? While myths such as this one are difficult to dispel, they serve the practical purpose of binding the Illini together through the creation of a shared and storied past. We are always interested to learn more about their origins.

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