History Among the Ruins - Capsule Opened at State Hospital
Thursday, July 27th 2006
Daily Hampshire Gazette
NORTHAMPTON - History looks like this: a copper box from 1856, its lid dented by time, sitting in the middle of the sweltering office.
On Wednesday, the contents of this long-lost time capsule were finally revealed during a small presentation by the developers for the Village project on Hospital Hill, MassDevelopment.
As the copper lid was pried back at the seams, the local historians in the room held their breath. What would the box reveal? And would the documents inside still be intact?
For the past 150 years, the 15 inch copper box had rested in the cornerstone of the Northampton State Hospital.
Placed during a dedication ceremony for the main building that included town officials, firemen and 80 Amherst College students, the box and the granite block where it hid were subsequently forgotten.
Two years ago, local historian Barbara Pelissier stumbled across a reference to the box while searching through archives of the Daily Hampshire Gazette.
Pelissier, president of the Westhampton Historical Society, searches for accounts of old time capsules because the practice of placing such items in buildings was a common event over a century ago, she said.
When she came across the description of a Fourth of July ceremony in 1856, Pelissier was intrigued. According to news reports from the time, residents had filled a copper box with documents and a plaque. While cannons roared and firecrackers popped, they placed the container in the right corner of the new state hospital.
"The citizens of Northampton to their children's children who in after ages shall break the seal of this memorial, send greeting," said one speaker during the ceremony.
According to one article, the capsule contained copies of newspapers and annual reports, Northampton tourist guides and papers from the ceremony.
"People buried this with every confidence that we would find it," said Pelissier.
Pelissier quickly realized that box was in what is now known as Old Main on Hospital Hill. Fearing that the box might be destroyed during the demolition of the building, she immediately alerted the Northampton Historical Commission and the city planning office.
The planning office, in turn, called MassDevelopment and the contractors working on the Old Main site.
Although workers immediately began searching for the time capsule, no one was sure the box would be found, said Sara Northrup, project engineer for MassDevelopment.
Over the years, as new additions were placed on the building, part of the original cornerstone was removed and destroyed, she said.
Doubt turned into delight Tuesday afternoon, when construction workers uncovered a granite slab with a square piece set in the top.
"One of the asbestos workers has found these things in the past," said Northrup, who was on hand for the discovery. "He was looking at a rock and it looked like a dirty rock. I didn't see anything until he pointed it out."
The box had been sealed with wax and soldered shut. As workers removed the capsule, Northrup said about a pint of water poured from it.
An opening ceremony was hastily organized, including an archivist from the Calvin Coolidge Presidential Library and Museum at Forbes Library.
At 3:45 p.m. Wednesday, Northrup used several wedges and a hammer to finally pry the lid back from the box.
Time and rain had turned the once copper box a dull brown, streaked with green.
Archivist Julie Bartlett donned yellow gloves and carefully began removing lumps of paper.
Water, filling the container, had also turned most of the paper inside to soft piles of pulp. There were no coins or personal documents, as some historians had hoped, but the box did contain printed pamphlets of the day, with titles such as "Insanity and Idiocy in Massachusetts."
As Bartlett carefully moved wet paper to plastic bags, she also uncovered floor plans for the original building, a piece of metal with names of the engineers and a silver plate with the inscription: "The Corner Stone of an Edifice for the Third State Lunatic Hospital."
"These little finds, the things people left, are wonderful," said Pelissier, as Bartlett signed for legal possession of the capsule. "When someone leaves something as tangible as a 150-year-old newspaper to find, I wish everyone was required to bury time capsules."
Papers from the 1856 capsule will now be frozen to preserve them for later restoration. The original box and plaques will be cleaned, said Bartlett, and are expected to go on display at Forbes Library in the coming months.
Developers are asking that people stay away from the grounds where work is under way for safety reasons.
This article was written by Rachel Hanley and published by Daily Hampshire Gazette on Thursday, July 27th 2006 and NOT owned by nor affiliated with opacity.us, but are recorded here solely for educational use. The photographs featured in the article are randomly selected from the Northampton State Hospital galleries on opacity.us unless noted otherwise; they may not directly relate to the article subject matter except for the site location - any other relation is purely coincidental.