NEW HAVEN, Conn. – The veterans of the Grand Army of the Republic planned it in 1909: one canister to commemorate Abraham Lincoln, one to showcase themselves and their time.
The tubes were encased in super-hard concrete, poured into a barrel, set beneath a plaque at the base of a pin oak planted for Lincoln.
Aside from an article in the New Haven Register, no one knows if any clues were left that these local treasures existed.
State Archeologist Nicholas Bellantoni of the University of Connecticut was skeptical when he was called in to help open the 10-inch-long copper containers.
“In 26 years as state archaeologist I’ve been sent on wild goose chases for time capsules. This is the first time we actually got one,” Bellantoni said.
Drew Days III, chairman of the Proprietors of the Common and Undivided Lands (known as the Green), turned to the Diagnostic Imaging Department at Quinnipiac University, to get a better sense of what was inside the canisters.
“What was exciting for us (was) we were able to see on a coin two shafts of wheat” and other objects, said Quinnipiac Professor Gerald Conlogue.
One of the capsules contained artifacts linked to Feb. 12, 1909, the 100th anniversary of Lincoln’s birth, including a grapeshot ball that would have been shot out of a cannon and a deformed musket “mini-ball.”
“Both of these artifacts were taken from the battlefield of Gettysburg,” Bellantoni said. The musket ball, which actually had a conical end, “is kind of interesting in that it was not only shot but it hit something,” he said.
There was also a bulletin from a centennial service at Center Church, commemorative coins or medallions with a design similar to the Lincoln penny.
There were newspapers from Feb. 12 and 13: the New Haven Union, the Evening Register, the Morning Journal-Courier, the Palladium, the Leader. “These were the gift of ex-Mayor Albert Hendrick,” Bellantoni said.
The other tube contained a medal, with an eagle, flag and star, of the Grand Army of the Republic, a 1907 Barber dime, a 1902 Barber quarter, a 1906 Indian head penny (the Lincoln penny was first issued in 1909, but not until August).
There were letters, postcards, GAR muster lists from 1890 and 1900, rosters, a prayer, a speech by former Gov. Thomas M. Waller. Thirty items in all, Bellantoni said.
February would have been too cold to plant the tree, but the date chosen to plant it and bury the time capsules was significant. “They chose April 9, 1909, which is the 44th anniversary of the surrender at Appomattox,” Bellantoni said.
Now, the paper materials will be preserved and ultimately the artifacts likely will be turned over to the New Haven Museum, Days said.
The two Quinnipiac University juniors who worked with Conlogue — Katelyn Dallova and Nini Shingleton — are training to become radiographers, but enjoyed the unusual assignment.
“Just seeing how old it is just brought it to life and opening it and seeing it definitely made it more real,” said Shingleton.
Thousands have walked by the plaque at the base of the Lincoln Oak without knowing what was underneath, but once Hurricane Sandy knocked the tree over on Oct. 29, the mysteries were revealed, first of bones belonging to at least two people who were laid to rest when the Green was the city burial ground, then the time capsules encased in exceptionally hard concrete.
“This has been a surprisingly difficult and long-term project,” Days said. “Opening these canisters was not like opening a can of pretzels.”
The bones, which appear to be from the late 1700s, are being studied and will be reburied on the Green, in a service led by the pastors of the three churches.
And a new Lincoln Oak was planted Saturday during the city’s 375th anniversary celebration, with no time capsules underneath.