I have reported recently on a time capsule that was recovered from the concrete base that once supported a steel sculpture in front of the old vocational school (now the child development centre). People were intrigued by the opportunity to glimpse into the past, and see what messages Yukoners had for us 50 years ago.
There was a good turnout attending, and despite the certainty that it would be there, there was an element of suspense wondering if anything would be found at all. With the help of a team of contractors, using a variety of tools and equipment, the time capsule was recovered, slightly damaged, and turned over to Donna Clayson, the driving force behind its recovery. Clayson said that she had been thinking (dreaming?) about the time capsule since 2011.
Despite her disappointment at the actual contents, she was satisfied with the outcome. “I’m glad I did it,” she said.
The capsule, Clayson told me, was actually an empty plastic container of acrylic paint, presumably from Ted Harrison’s art class. The contents included a newspaper dated June 13, 1973, a small ceramic vase (broken when the container was first exposed), a blob of paint that was in all probability a painting on canvas or burlap, and a note from Ted Harrison.
Dated Whitehorse, June 13, 1973, Harrison’s note read: “Greetings to people of the future from the Yukon Vocational School. We hope that the times you live in are not in too much turmoil.” It was signed, simply, “Ted.”
Fortunately, the contents survived intact, if a little worse for wear. Other time capsules have not had similar good fortune. Last year, Vanderbilt University uncovered a time capsule locked away in the cornerstone of Kirkland Hall, a building on campus, that was constructed 150 years ago. Fortunately, they know what was contained in the capsule because they were detailed in a newspaper article from the period. Unfortunately, the capsule had been infiltrated by water, and the contents were in badly degraded condition. Water penetration seems to have been a frequent problem with time capsules, wherever they have been found.
Imagine too the disappointment felt by others, when they opened their capsules from the past, only to find that the contents were missing. That happened in Derry, New Hampshire, where the contents were placed in a steel safe. Unfortunately, to make sure that the safe could be opened at a future date, the combination was written on the back. Like the tombs of ancient Egypt, somebody got to the goods, and there was nothing left to examine.
Worse yet, consider the time capsule left in Westport Elementary School in Missouri in 1947. The school superintendent provided a note to ensure that people would remember to open it 50 years later. Unfortunately, he forgot to include one vital fact: where the time capsule was interred. To the best of my knowledge, they still haven’t found it
Then there are the time capsules like the one in Alvena, Saskatchewan, which was placed in a stone cairn in 1968 to commemorate the Canadian centennial of the year before. Years later, everyone waited expectantly for the opening. The man who originally constructed the cairn and placed the capsule (a glass jar containing some old county documents) forgot precisely where the container was placed (sound familiar?). After a hammer and chisel failed to gain access to the cairn, they brought in a backhoe and applied substantially more force. The contents, when recovered, were a disappointment to everyone.
The Yukon has had its own share of time capsules, past and present. Last year, Lyn Bleiler, a long-time resident of Mayo, recounted to my wife Kathy and I that her husband, Lowell, remembered a story his mother told him. In 1922, a new Anglican church was constructed in Mayo. A time capsule had been buried, waiting to be dug up 100 years hence. No one else still living could recall this event. Could we help out?
Kathy found an article published in the Dawson Daily News, Sept. 15, 1922, which confirms what happened: “The foundation was declared well and truly laid after being tested with the carpenter’s level, and the bishop drove spikes into the timbers at the two front corners. A galvanized iron box was deposited which will contain documents relating to the church and the circumstances leading up to its erection; also, the constitution of the diocese, copies of the Dawson News, coins of the realm and other papers and articles of interest.”
Construction of the church was completed a month later, as well as a manse next door. So far, however, no one has been able to confirm the recovery of the galvanized iron box that contained the documents of the era.
I am told that there is a time capsule buried in the plaza in front of the Elijah Smith Building in downtown Whitehorse. In 1985, a special time capsule, whose design was overseen by a conservator, was buried in the government compound in Dawson, behind the Commissioner’s Residence, between the old Mounted Police stables and jail. I was not there personally to witness the burial of the capsule, but the location was marked by a stone with a plaque mounted on it. Hopefully, that will be enough to preserve the location and contents until it is opened in the future.
But the best time capsule in the Yukon has been provided by Mother Nature. In recent years, organic artifacts thousands of years old have been uncovered in ice patches that are slowly melting away. Similarly, the well-preserved human remains of Kwädāy Dän Ts’inchį, were uncovered near the BC/Yukon border almost three decades ago.
The goldfields surrounding Dawson City have yielded perfectly preserved equipment from the gold rush era, as well as remains of ancient (now extinct) Pleistocene animals. And don’t forget the hoard of silent films recovered from Dawson City more than 40 years ago. It seems that accidental burial and long-term freezing have proved to be the ideal form of preservation.
So, is there anything that we can learn from past attempts at creating time capsules? First, choose something that will still be accessible 50 or a hundred years from now. Imagine the difficulties that arise from attempting to recover data from computer cassette tapes, or 5 ½-inch floppies. It would be cruel to pass on to a future generation something that they will not be able to gain access to.
Second, let’s choose a location we will remember, and method of burial that will protect the integrity of the contents. Perhaps a cairn or marker of some sort would help.
Also, let’s select items that will be meaningful to our witnesses from the future. Time capsules from the COVID-19 era are now being cached that contain such interesting items as rolls of toilet paper, face masks and hand sanitizer. What will a future generation think of these items? What can we include that will speak from our time to future generations?
Select a storage container that will last a hundred years and resist the penetration of water. Choose interesting items that are more likely to survive decades of burial. Gold is an ideal material to inscribe our messages upon. Artifacts of gold are durable and will not corrode with the passage of centuries. Of course, we won’t do that. We don’t want “tomb robbers” to get to them first.
Michael Gates is Yukon’s first Story Laureate. His latest book, “Hollywood in the Klondike,” is now available in Yukon stores. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org