The first thing Alan Barnett pulled from the corroded tin box was a small Bible about an inch thick.
It once had a painting on the cover but the image has faded with time, leaving an empty frame. On the front page someone inscribed in swirling cursive letters: “Deposited in this box on the 27th day of Sept., 1887.”
When Barnett reached in a second time, he grabbed a leather album filled with signatures. The third item was a copy of “The Ogden Morning Herald,” also from 1887, with the headlines “A thrilling accident” about a Park City mining glitch and “Our own city,” a discussion of freight rates, on the front page. He unfolded it carefully and set it on a nearby table.
The fourth thing he lifted out took him a little by surprise — he gasped — and then he held up a typed list. “It looks modern,” Barnett said. “This was not originally in the box.”
As he read the yellowed paper, he realized it was an inventory of the time capsule, added in 1976, from a man listing the tens of treasures that were inside. That was likely the last time the box had been opened until Barnett dug through it Tuesday at the state Archives. And his unboxing was the first time the contents were shared publicly since it was buried more than 132 years ago.
“Time capsules are really an interesting phenomenon,” said Barnett, a local government archivist for the state. “They’re about sending a message to the future. When it’s opened, a piece of the past will be preserved.”
The capsule was placed in the cornerstone of Ogden Academy, a school built in northern Utah by the Congregational Church, when it was constructed in 1887. The building switched hands and names so many times that by the time it was demolished in 1959, no one had remembered the capsule was there and construction workers pulled it out of the debris. The lid is still coated in cement mortar.
Ogden School District administrators stumbled upon the box again in 2016 when they were clearing out storage and, without so much as a peek inside, turned it over to the state with a bunch of other materials “to determine what has historic value and needs to be saved,” Barnett said.
In front of about 40 people Tuesday, he opened it with much anticipation, not knowing himself exactly what he’d find. “Let’s see what this box tells us about the history of education in Utah,” he said with a smile.
Among the items was a handwritten note from the carpenter who built the structure — R.S. Hopkins — who wrote, “Best wishes to the school.” There also was a handful of ornate 1800s business cards from booksellers and fruit producers and marble carvers. One was an advertisement for Boyle & Company, which likely furnished the school.
One paper was signed by the academy’s contractor, E.W. Hyde, who wrote that he expected the building to be completed in January 1888 and his commission would be $14,225. (Today, according to inflation estimates, that would be more than $400,000).
The building later served as Ogden High School, Central Junior High School, a classroom for what was then Weber College and an annex for Lewis Junior High School. Its original purpose was to promote Christianity in Utah, said Barnett, by the New West Education Commission, which believed that members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints were not true Christians.
“But they had very little success in converting Mormons from the supposed error of their ways,” Barnett noted with a laugh.
The building, before it was torn down, sat at the corner of what is currently 25th Street and Adams Avenue in Ogden. An apparent apartment complex now stands there.
Barnett has been studying the history of the school for years and presented the information to an audience of eager onlookers ready to see what was inside the capsule. The archivist had somewhat of a “spoiler alert” at the beginning when he provided a list printed in a local newspaper in 1887 when the box was sealed — it included what was supposed to be inside. And, it turns out, everything was still there.
There was several newspapers, including The Salt Lake Daily Tribune, The Salt Lake Enterprise, The Optic and the Deseret Evening News (which listed “the Utah territory” under its masthead). One of the publications boasted of “Salt Lake’s boom” with the completion of a railroad to Los Angeles. Another reported about a polygamy trial and suggested there was “very flimsy evidence.” A third boasted an ointment to cure cholera, diarrhea, measles and whooping cough.
The room “oohed” and “aahed” with each item Barnett pulled out. A photo of the landmark Salt Lake Temple still under construction. A stereograph of a Utah waterfall. A portrait of a professor at the academy named H.W. Ring. A brochure from the Union Pacific railway claiming to be the “shortest, quickest, safest and the favorite transcontinental line” in stunning typography.
There were items from the school, too, including a list of courses and students, the price of tuition and the start of the term.
At one point, Barnett pulled out an envelope and looked puzzled. Inside was a decaying ribbon, a woman’s hair pin, a black button, a pebble and the metal tip of a pen. Those items, he said, were likely thrown into the capsule at the last minute by the individuals who came to see it buried.
Laurie Bryant, a volunteer at the state Archives who came to the unveiling, said those were among her favorite items. “It’s off the cuff. Somebody wanted to be represented,” she said. “Some woman put that in it. And I love it.”
By the end, the table was full of all of the items that came out of the capsule. And Bryant and others snapped pictures of the contents, which will be archived and preserved with digital copies online. The state also hopes to host another event in Ogden so the community there can see its own history.
The opening of the box was part of the celebration of Archives Month at the state Archives. This year the focus was on education. Barnett said he’d been saving the time capsule for this event. “We were very excited about this,” added Lauren Singer Katz, outreach manager for archives.
Before Barnett pulled the last item out of the tin box, he paused and laughed. He held up a tiny brown blob. “If I had to guess, it looks like a piece of gum, still in the wrapper,” he said.
The label said it was Colgan’s Taffy Tolu Chewing Gum. Today, such vintage candies are selling for $350 online. "Somebody sacrificed their chewing gum so we could see it today,” Barnett joked. “That’s fantastic.”