What's Inside This 1872 Reno Time Capsule?

Apr 17, 2019

In 1872, a lead box was embedded in the foundation of the Reno Mercantile building. On Tuesday, the contents of this time capsule were revealed to the public. As KUNR’s Bree Zender reports, the box housed newspapers, coins, a bottle opener and a few surprises. 

I’m standing next to a fenced-off empty, gravel lot, next door to the Whitney Peak Hotel where the Reno Mercantile building--also known as the Old Masonic Lodge--was standing just a few months ago. Right now, the lot is in transition.

Back in 1872, Masonic Lodge officers placed a cornerstone for their brand new local headquarters in downtown Reno, just a half block away from where the Reno Arch would eventually be placed. And in that cornerstone, they added a box filled with objects they felt represented their time. It’s the fraternity’s tradition to place time capsules in or near their buildings as they are erected.

Wayne Kingsley is one of the 300 people who attended the reveal of these artifacts. He’s been a Mason for 30 years.

“I’ve placed cornerstones in Carson City, Las Vegas, Eureka...several places,” Kingsley said.

But this is Kingsley's first time seeing an unearthing of a time capsule.

“This is a first-time event for almost everybody that’s here, I think,” Kingsley said.

The Masons had records of the capsule but weren’t sure if it was still there, or if it had been moved. You could only really know by demolishing the site, which is where Whitney Peak comes into this story.

The cornerstone where the Whitney Peak Hotel workers found the time capsule.
Credit Jana Sayson

“We really didn’t know what we were getting into,” said Eric Olsen. He is the general manager for the hotel and was on the search team.

“There were also some holes in the side of the walls that had brick crammed into them,” Olsen said. “And so we may have thought someone had taken the content out and then refill[ed] it with bricks.”

But, the search team eventually struck gold, or rather, lead in the form of a lead box placed squarely in the cornerstone.

“About three feet from the very bottom, we saw some big, perfect rectangle stones, and we kind of had a hint that that might be the actual cornerstone,” said Olsen. “So, when we removed the first rectangle block, we saw a little square cut out in the next one. We pulled that out, and it was the cornerstone. We could see some contents in it, and that was the point where we called an archaeologist so that we handled the property [safely].”

They called in Catherine Magee. She’s the director of the Nevada Historical Society.

“Well, it was very delicate because it had been waterlogged, and it was very muddy,” Magee said.

Finding a harmonica in the capsule surprised the Reno Masons. The 1872 Masons who embedded the box kept a record of what was in it, however, they did not list the harmonica.
Credit Jana Sayson

Magee’s favorite item in the box was a harmonica. In addition, there were cufflinks, newspapers and several coins, but not just any old coins.

“We were really in the crossroads of international happenings because there’s a coin from Mexico and there are sovereigns from England. There are things from San Francisco, Carson City, of course,” Magee said. “But it really shows us, you know, that we’re not this isolated little town. We were an important town at the time to have these materials.”

Mason officials placed several coins from various places in North America in the lead box.
Credit Jana Sayson

Excavating this piece of local history came at a cost, with the loss of the capsule’s home for more than a century, the Mercantile Building.

Nathan Digangi heads Reno Lodge #13. He said he was disappointed when Whitney Peak was unable to save the building.

“But at the same time, when we started talking about all of the history that we would get to remove from the building, it kind of changed into a bit of a more bittersweet sense,” Digangi said. “Being here today, I feel very at ease.”

Digangi said it’s important to recognize our history as Reno moves forward. In some of the historic Reno newspaper clippings in the capsule, Digangi said there was an attitude of always rebuilding.

“They viewed big fires as, you know, they were disasters, but at the same time, that’s what paved the way for new things to happen,” Digangi said.

The Reno Mercantile Building in 1978.
Credit Western Nevada Historic Photo Collection

While the original building is gone for good, the management at Whitney Peak said that the history wouldn't be discarded completely.

“We did spend eight weeks deconstructing that building; whereas, the other building we took down next to it, it took a day,” said General Manager Eric Olsen. “We preserved a lot of the stuff in there. It will be nice to incorporate all of this wood and brick back into the building.”

And when they lay the cornerstone for the new building, Reno’s Masons have agreed to be there and lay a new time capsule.

Spectators discover the content of the lead box that Reno Masons left for future generations to find back in 1872.
Credit Jana Sayson

Discover the contents of the time capsule with a photo series produced by digital student reporter, Jana Sayson.