WATERVILLE — Colby College alumni, faculty, staff and students joined members of the Waterville community Wednesday to celebrate the college’s bicentennnial.

“We are always, and deeply, affected by the history that is being made all around us,” Colby President William D. Adams said Wednesday night in his remarks to the community gathered to celebrate the college’s 200th birthday.

The Bicentennial Address, along with the presentation of a multimedia show Wednesday afternoon, were two parts of a day’s worth of special events that the college invited the public to attend.

Despite the softly falling snow outside, about 450 people gathered at Lorimer Chapel. They listened as Adams outlined the history of the college, beginning with the signing of its charter by the Massachusetts Legislature on Feb. 25, 1813, and the “bitter struggles” its early leaders and students endured for their education.

Daniel Merrill, a Baptist pastor from Sedgwick, petitioned the Legislature to approve the charter and led the young institution originally intended as a place of higher learning for the religious community, according to Adams.

Adams also read part of an account from one of the school’s early students, James Upham, who compared his experience in 1831 to that of a “shipwrecked mariner.”

In the days before railroads, Waterville was a remote part of New England but not so removed that its residents did not experience the historical events and social movements that engulfed the nation, Adams said.

In 1833 abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison spoke at the college, inspiring students to start a local chapter of the Anti-Slavery Society; and in 1871 the college admitted its first female student, Mary Low.

Adams encouraged students to look for similarities between today and the school’s early history and to think about the connection to the local community.

“I hope the college of the future continues to make sure that students ideas and issues are addressed and that students can improve the community with their ideas,” said Jen McGeoch, 19, a freshman from New Hampshire.

The day also included a celebration of student activism — presentations on social action projects and a contest among students asking what they would do with the chance to be president of the college for a day, McGeoch said.

“However our mission evolves over the next century, it must always embrace the notion that our students should be prepared to make contributions to public life,” said Adams, noting that the school, often referred to as the City on a Hill, also has an obligation to engage life around it.

The college has come a long way in securing finances, students and an extended community of alumni and family that it did not have 200 years ago, Adams said. He warned students against becoming complacent after making such progress.

“We have gathered and remembered and honored, as another generation of Colby men and women will do 100 years from now,” he said. “There will be much to talk about, I know. In the meantime, there is much to do.”

Rachel Ohm — 612-2368
rohm@mainetoday.com