On April 6, 1892, about 40,000 Utahns gathered on or near Temple Square to watch a 3,800-pound granite capstone be placed atop the Salt Lake Temple, just below the famed Angel Moroni statue.
It was a thrilling moment for the crowd, most of whom likely were members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and had watched patiently for 39 years as the sacred edifice was constructed.
Just over 128 years later, on May 18, only a few dozen construction workers and a small gathering of onlookers were on hand to witness the orb’s descent — along with the earthquake-damaged statue — as part of the iconic temple’s renovation and seismic upgrade.
It was, after all, taking place during the coronavirus pandemic.
“Our opening [time capsule within the capstone] has been a few people on a loading dock with very small chisels,” Emily Utt, historic sites curator with the Church History Department, said in a Wednesday news release. I don’t know if [the people of 1892] could have imagined that kind of interaction. They had such fanfare. Our opening has been much quieter.”
Two days later, church President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors in the faith’s governing First Presidency, arrived wearing face masks at the loading dock to the Church History Library for the initial opening of the capstone.
“We did not expect to find much because we knew that the contents of the capstone had not been insulated from the weather during the 128 years that had elapsed,” the 95-year-old Nelson said. “But we wanted to be there anyway, just to be close and to pay tribute to the leaders and courageous pioneer craftsmen who against all odds built this magnificent temple.”
The contents from the four separate chambers of the time capsule, as reported by the Salt Lake Herald-Republican and other newspapers, included 12 books, seven photos, letters, paper notes, dozens of medallions and 400 coins (even one of the reporter’s own) — mostly nickels and dimes, some pennies and a few quarters.
Experts now have positively identified some of the badly damaged books found inside as a Bible and two Latter-day Saint scriptures (a Book of Mormon and a Pearl of Great Price), along with several volumes penned by pioneer apostle Parley P. Pratt.
“Concrete will sweat and leach and get hot as it’s curing,” Emiline Twitchell, a conservator at the Church History Library, explained. “And the books essentially were sponges to all of this process that the cement is doing. And so they just leached in all of that moisture and sat for decades and decades and decades.”
There was some initial excitement due to the newspapers’ list of photographs in the capsule — Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, Joseph F. Smith and the Salt Lake Temple.
There are no known photos of Smith, the faith’s founder, so historians were eager to see if the capstone contained one.
The scholars concluded that the photos were likely “cabinet cards,” or images glued to a thin card, not original pictures. And they were “laminated together because of the moisture from the concrete trapped inside the capstone,” the release said. “Thus, no photographic image remains.”
Probably in that “stack of cabinet cards is some likeness of Joseph Smith, but it’s not going to be the never-before-seen photograph of him,” Utt said. “It’s likely of a copy of another image of Joseph that we’ve seen.”
General President Bonnie H. Cordon, who leads the church’s Young Women organization, noted in a video that one of the coins was signed by her grandfather’s cousin, Alice Hillam.
“I look at this coin and I think about 17-year-old Alice,” Cordon said. “Could she have imagined that 128 years later we would discover her simple offering?”
Church History Department staffers “are cataloging each of the items into its vast collection of historical material,” the release said. “The contents may also be put on public display,”
That “is far from certain,” it said, because of the items’ “fragility.”