What’s inside the Salt Lake Temple time capsule?

Just past noon on April 6, 1892, a hurried messenger arrived at the Salt Lake Temple with materials to place inside the temple’s capstone — the large granite sphere upon which the 12-foot 5-inch angel Moroni statue stands. 

Four parcels wrapped in silk oilcloth were carefully laid in the north, south, east and west parts of the capstone, according to an article in the Salt Lake Herald-Republican published the following day. The south and east parcels were placed in concrete compartments; the north and west parcels were laid directly into concrete.

“There’s a dime, lay it in,” someone said. Within moments, every man on the platform threw coins into the capstone, the article states. 

A few minutes later, a crowd of 40,000 watched as President Wilford Woodruff, fourth president of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, laid the capstone by pressing a button to enact an electric motor and place it in position. The ceremony signified the end of construction of the Salt Lake Temple, and the sacred building was dedicated a year later.  

More than 128 years later, on a morning in late May, the First Presidency — President Russell M. Nelson and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring — donned masks and watched as Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, carefully removed items from the south compartment of the capstone.

President Russell M. Nelson, center, and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring, look over items removed from the Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020.
President Russell M. Nelson, center, and his counselors, President Dallin H. Oaks and President Henry B. Eyring, look over items removed from the Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Twitchell pointed out the leather binding of a book and the fragments of the oilcloth it was wrapped in. Twitchell and Emily Utt, historic sites curator for the Church, showed the First Presidency Parley P. Pratt’s signature on the book “Voice of Warning” and pages from the Pearl of Great Price.

“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,” said President Nelson. “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.”

Opening the time capsule

Crews removed the capstone — along with the angel Moroni statue that stood above it — from the central east spire of the Salt Lake Temple on May 18. Weighing 5,000 pounds or 2.5 tons and resting 160 feet high, both were carried through the air to the ground via crane for preservation and refurbishing; the removal of the statue and capstone is part of the temple’s four-year structural and seismic renovation.  

Crews remove the capstone after the Angel Moroni statue is removed from atop the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during renovation in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 18, 2020.
Crews remove the capstone after the Angel Moroni statue is removed from atop the Salt Lake Temple of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during renovation in Salt Lake City on Monday, May 18, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The capstone with the time capsule was stabilized by a metal pipe more than 30 feet long running lengthwise through the angel Moroni statue and capstone and into the tower. 

“The capstone was created in two halves and then mortared together at the seam around the circumference,” Twitchell said. “Our hope was that we could cut around that mortared seam and just pop the two parts of the ball apart, and then uncover the time capsule that we knew was inside.”

The process of uncovering the time capsule proved to be more difficult than expected as they discovered the capstone was filled completely with cement, she said. 

Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, removes items from the Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020.
Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, removes items from the Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

In his 1912 book “The House of the Lord,” Elder James E. Talmage listed what was believed to be included in the capstone, including the books Twitchell and Utt showed the First Presidency and others, as well as documents, photographs and a copper plate engraved with the names of Church leaders.

Just as the newspaper article described, four packets of material were found in the cardinal directions of the capstone, with the remains of several items listed in Talmage’s record. 

The following items have been found in the capstone as of mid-July:

South packet (top half of capstone): 

A Book of Mormon laminated to an unidentified book found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
A Book of Mormon laminated to an unidentified book found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News
  • “Voice of Warning” by Parley P. Pratt
  • “Key to the Science of Theology” by Parley P. Pratt
  • Book of Mormon
  • Pearl of Great Price
  • “The Martyrs: A Sketch of the Lives and a Full Account of the Martyrdom of Joseph and Hyrum Smith” by Lyman O. Littlefield
  • Unidentified book
  • Unidentified paper

East packet (top half of capstone): 

North packet (bottom half of capstone): Gold-leafed copper plate inscribed with “Holiness to the Lord,” notable dates in Salt Lake Temple construction, and the names of general authorities at time of the groundbreaking in 1853 and as constituted on April 6, 1892

West packet (bottom half of capstone): Paper envelope containing approximately seven unidentified mounted photographs known as cabinet cards

A gold-leafed copper plate engraved with general authorities' names found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
A gold-leafed copper plate engraved with general authorities’ names found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

As Utt and Twitchell moved around a long table displaying the contents of the capsule, they explained the significance of the items — items that may have been placed by construction workers and people who toured the scaffolding. 

“The materials that are inside this particular time capsule reflect really the motivations of the people that put it together,” Utt said. “They’re putting things that are readily available and things that reflect their current life.” 

The books were not rare but easy to come by during that time period, Twitchell added. Though hardly legible, they are identifiable by their spine or visible print inside. 

Of the cabinet cards, Utt said these were a popular form of mounting photography in the 1890s. A high-quality photographic print mounted on thick paper, “They’re easy to trade, they’re easy to sell. You could mount them in a photo album.”

Laminated together due to the moisture from the concrete, no photographic image remains on the cabinet cards, Utt said. However, on the back is an identifiable inscription from C.R. Savage’s studio. C.R. Savage was one of the best-known photographers in Salt Lake City at that time, and his studio was on Main Street across from the temple.

C.R. Savage photographs found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
C.R. Savage photographs found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

The Salt Lake Herald-Republican and other newspapers reported at the time that the capstone capsule included a photograph of the Prophet Joseph Smith, but one was not found.

Elder LeGrand R. Curtis Jr., a General Authority Seventy currently serving as Church Historian and Recorder, was present with the First Presidency at the time of the capsule opening. “There are no known photographs of Joseph Smith,” he said. “If there really was a photograph of Joseph Smith that would be a find.”

Coins

Several other materials were found in the concrete surrounding the four packets, including the remains of a pencil, rope, a metal bit, paper scrolled around a wooden dowel, paper laid into the concrete and approximately 400 coins. 

The coins are mostly nickels and dimes, with some pennies and a few quarters. A half dime, 3-cent piece, sixpence, threepence and a few medallions have also been found. There are still coins that have not yet been removed from the concrete. 

Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, looks over coins found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020.
Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, looks over coins found in the Salt Lake Temple capstone and time capsule at the Church History Library in Salt Lake City on Tuesday, July 14, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

Perhaps the most interesting part of the time capsule are the 15 coins inscribed with names, Twitchell said. “Now we have names we can attach to stories. … It’s a cool feeling to come across a coin with someone’s name on it, especially when you’ve been looking at a bunch of deteriorated books,” she chuckled.

Of the names identified on the inscribed coins so far, Twitchell and Utt have discovered two families: the Hulls, who lived in the Avenues in Salt Lake City, and the Hillams, who lived near 400 South. Names include 10-year-old Florence “Flossy” Hull, 17-year-old Alice Hillam, her sister Emily Hillam and her brother R. Hillam Jr. 

The Hillam family are the first cousins of Young Women General President Bonnie H. Cordon’s grandfather.

3 lessons President Cordon learned from her ancestor’s coin in the Salt Lake Temple time capsule

“We’re not sure if those families all climbed the scaffolding together or someone went up and threw all the coins in,” Utt said. 

Utt said they hope to publish the names of those found on the coins once all have been identified. 

Lessons learned

Capstone ceremonies and time capsules are common on construction projects, Utt said. The time capsule in the Salt Lake Temple was a form of celebration for the early Saints. “This is a moment to reflect on the last 39 years of construction and to give the people the last little bit of motivation to get this building done.”

However, “Time capsules really aren’t meant to be long-term archival storage,” she said. 

Twitchell agreed. “Time capsules are an important tradition and have value in their curation and in the ceremony, but as a way to preserve materials, they are very ineffective.”

All the material in the time capsule was very damp due to the surrounding concrete. “As concrete cures, it lets off a lot of water and a lot of heat,” Utt explained. But water and heat don’t travel through concrete or granite. The trapped elements caused the materials to disintegrate. 

The books were “sponges” to the cement’s curing process as they absorbed the moisture, Twitchell said. “The oilcloth packets did not appear to do much of anything as far as waterproofing or protection.”

Though pouring cement around the time capsule wasn’t ideal for the material, there is almost no evidence of external environmental permeation of the time capsule, she added. 

This graphic shows the items found in the Salt Lake Temple's capstone in May 2020.
This graphic shows the items found in the Salt Lake Temple’s capstone in May 2020. Credit: Mary Archbold/Church News graphic

“Even though it’s sitting up on the top of the temple on the spire, we’re not seeing evidence of rain or snow or any of the elements,” she said. “Their deterioration is caused exclusively by the concrete that was poured around them, and then sitting in that internal environment, that microclimate for so long.” 

The time capsule in the capstone is one of two known official time capsules in the Salt Lake Temple, Utt said. The other is the record stone, which was located in the foundation and excavated in August 1993 in conjunction with the temple’s centennial restoration efforts and subsequent celebration. 

The remaining fragments found in the record stone — including a Book of Mormon translated in French and Italian and historical publications such as the Deseret News, Millennial Star and Times and Seasons — are housed in the Church History Library.

Future plans

Referencing the copper plate with Church leaders’ names, Utt said, “We’re having discussions about how much do you clean it? How much do you leave it alone? Is it stable the way it is? Would our efforts to clean it cause more damage? 

“And we’re having those same conversations about everything else that came out of this ball.”

Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, right, and Emily Utt, historic sites curator, look over contents from the Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule items in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020.
Emiline Twitchell, conservator at the Church History Library, right, and Emily Utt, historic sites curator, look over contents from the Salt Lake Temple capstone time capsule items in Salt Lake City on Wednesday May 20, 2020. Credit: Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret News

For now, all materials in the time capsule will be conserved in their current state and cataloged in the Church History Department collections and available for other researchers, Utt said.

“We’re hopeful that we can put them on exhibit so people can see them. We still don’t know what we have. So really the next step is research.”

Utt said discussions and design are currently taking place for the replacement of the top half of the capstone. 

Sarah Jane Weaver, Church News editor, contributed to this article.