On April 6, 1892, about 30,000 people gathered around the newly constructed Salt Lake Temple to witness the laying of the capstone and the placement of a time capsule inside the stone.
Now, 128 years later, as part of a four-year renovation and upgrade project, the capstone has been taken off the temple and the time capsule retrieved.
“A journalist atop the temple to witness the laying of the capstone, including the deposit of a time capsule within it containing books, photos, letters, paper notes, medallions and coins (one of his own included) mused ‘on when, how, and under whose eyes it would be exhumed in some untold age in the future’,” according to a church press release.
On May 18, a few dozen construction workers removed the 3,800-pound circular granite capstone, along with the time capsule contents and the angel Moroni statue that has stood on top of it, according to the church.
“It makes me laugh a little bit (to think about that journalist and the large cultural event surrounding the laying of the capstone),” said Emily Utt, historic sites curator with the Church History Department. “Our opening (of the capstone) has been a few people on a loading dock with very small chisels. 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.”
It was just two days after retrieving the capsule that the First Presidency, including President Russell M. Nelson and his two counselors President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring, joined a group on the loading dock of the Church History Library to witness the initial opening, according to the church press release.
“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,” 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.”
Time capsule contents
From old news reports, the church knew there were materials or packets placed in the north, east, south and west portions of the capstone.
Some materials, such as a copper plate, coins and medallions are in good condition. The gold-leafed copper plate, discovered in the north cavity, is inscribed with the names of the church general authorities present for the placing of the temple cornerstone on April 6, 1853, as well as the names of church general authorities present at the laying of the capstone on the same date in 1892, according to the press release.
Some 400 coins have been found inside the concrete — mostly nickels and dimes, some pennies, a few quarters, and six-pence, three-pence, half-dime and three-cent pieces. Some coins remain unexcavated in the concrete, the church reported.
The Salt Lake Herald Republican report says that just minutes before the signal came to place the capstone, “every man on the platform eagerly thrust out a dime or a nickle [sic] or a quarter of a dollar” onto the bed of cement applied atop the bottom half of the stone.
“One of the really delightful things was finding coins that had been engraved,” said Emiline Twitchell, a conservator at the Church History Library. “We have some coins that had been ground down on one side so that a person’s name could be engraved. We have dimes, we have one penny and we have a couple of nickels that were engraved. Some of them appear to have been done professionally and some of them (look) like someone just scratched their name onto a nickel.”
The books, photos, letters and notes, on the other hand, suffered significant water damage because they were surrounded by cement.
“Concrete will sweat and leach and get hot as it’s curing,” Twitchell said. “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.”
The seven photos in the west cavity are in a similarly decayed state due to the concrete. Newspapers reported that the capstone contained photographs of Joseph and Hyrum Smith, Brigham Young, John Taylor, Wilford Woodruff, George Q. Cannon, Joseph F. Smith and the Salt Lake Temple. Because there is not a known photograph of Joseph Smith, historians were excited at the possibility of discovering one, according to the press release.
Sadly, the photos are laminated together because of the moisture from the concrete that was trapped within the capstone. Thus, no photographic image remains. The preservation team guesses that the cabinet cards came from C.R. Savage, a well-known photographer in Salt Lake City at that time, according to the history department.
“As we got to that last (cavity in the capstone) and realized that it was likely cabinet cards and realized that they were probably wet, the anticipation changes because the odds of finding any material that is even readable has now gone way down,” Utt said. “So 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. It’s likely of a copy of another image of Joseph that we’ve seen.”
Church History Department staff are cataloging each of the items into its vast collection of historical material. The contents may also be put on public display, though that is far from certain because of their fragility, according to the press release.