From the Archives: When Hunan was a train station

On our storied campus, there is no structure we sleep on more heavily than Hamburg Hall. In that forgotten west corner of campus (that rarely an undergrad passes through unless they're walking to Chipotle), Hamburg is smack-dab on Forbes Avenue, north of Smith Hall, east of Robert Mehrabian CIC, kitty-corner to TCS Hall, and is home to the Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy. You can be forgiven for not knowing about this building, as Heinz is a graduate-student-only college whose minimal classroom space hosts no undergrad courses. Hamburg Hall is the forgotten seventh structure designed by Henry Hornbostel, the original architect of our campus. Porter, Baker, Hamerschlag, Doherty, CFA, Maggie Mo Hall, and Hamburg were all designed by Hornbostel in the "Beaux-Arts" style.

However, until 1985, this building was actually owned by a branch of the Department of the Interior known as the U.S. Bureau of Mines (USBM). Formed in 1910 to promote safety in the catastrophically unsafe mines of the 20th century, they conducted cutting-edge research on mining techniques, developed better PPE for miners, and conducted mine inspections. They won 35 R&D awards from R&D Magazine, an accolade that their Wikipedia page (which was definitely written by a former USBM employee) calls "especially impressive considering the small size of the Bureau's research budget." Congress voted to close the bureau in 1995 after realizing they had fixed mines.

But back in its heyday, the USBM owned not just Hamburg Hall, but a whole complex of structures that went as far as what is now Newell-Simon. Hamburg was just "Building A" until 1987, when the university acquired, renovated, and renamed the building after Lester Hamburg, a life trustee and major donor to the restoration. The building became home to the new School for Urban and Public Affairs, a graduate college which would one day become the Heinz college we [don't] know and love.

Hamburg was formally dedicated in a three-day event from Sept. 29 to Oct. 1, 1919. According to a letter from Vanoy Manning, the Director of the USBM, to CIT president Arthur Hamerschlag, they staged "an actual coal dust explosion" along with a "Mine Rescue Contest."

Most interesting, however, is the lineage of buildings on the current site of Newell-Simon Hall. Take a moment to close your eyes and imagine yourself at Hunan Express, nomming on some chicken 'yaki with the boys. Look at the wall opposite of where you got your food. What do you see? You see windows set in a brick wall, how strange is that? Why is an indoor space boxed in by some very exterior-looking walls? A knowing one may conclude this must be a formerly exterior courtyard that they threw a glass ceiling over, but Hunan is about three stories off the ground. Who would put a courtyard there?

The truth is, the Newell-Simon atrium was always indoors, but was merely designed to appear like it used to be located between two separate buildings. However, back in the USBM days, there actually were two distinct buildings at that site. Uncreatively named Buildings C and D, these structures housed the boiler rooms that provided power and steam to the USBM labs in Hamburg and Smith Halls.

In fact, Building D had a garage that was directly connected to the train tracks of Junction Hollow so trains deliver coal, cargo, and whatever else a 20th century man of the mines might order by train. These tracks are visible in a Sanborn Map of Pittsburgh from 1923, and it appears that the tracks were in place for about a decade before they put up building D. Sadly, this train line was too small and limited in its usage to ever get a name — and seeing as all the good names for train lines (A train, SEPTA, and Polar Express) are taken, I propose that we posthumously name it the Hunan Express.

According to the book "Evolution of a National Research University" by Ludwig Schaefer, the tracks were actually buried under pavement for a couple decades — it wasn't until in 1988 when they built the Facilities Management complex that the tracks were finally uncovered and removed.

Buildings C and D remained mostly untouched until 1998 when the school began construction of a new home for the Robotics Institute. The architects decided to reuse the foundations of Buildings C and D, hence the twin-building design of Newell-Simon.

Parts of this original complex still exist. According to Bob Reppe, University Architect, they uncovered an old coal shed during the construction of Scott Hall in 2015 (in the 1923 Sanborn maps, this can be seen as a small structure on the south side of the tracks). Underneath the patios in front of Newell-Simon, those brick circles are actually the remnants of old smokestacks, and an old steam tunnel still connects Newell-Simon to Smith Hall (message me on telegram for specific directions).

If you want to see some of this history yourself, go to the B level of Newell Simon hall (being careful that Carnegie Mellon Racing doesn't whack you with their contraptions), and you'll find tracks still embedded in the concrete floor, untouched for a hundred years.

Special thanks to the University Archives and Bob Reppe for their assistance in my research for this piece