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The Hidden Time Capsules All Around San Francisco

Updated: Jul 03, 2020 10:42
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There are many time capsules buried around San Francisco containing everything from newspaper clippings to bottles of Anchor Steam beer.   The oldest SF time capsule is from 1865, and it was only unearthed in 2001.  Bellow we discuss the contents, discoveries and dates of several capsules that have found in the city, as well as those that remain buried to this day.

Locations where time capsules have been found around the city  Here’s the interactive google map of just some of the locations where time capsules have been found in SF.

Let’s begin with one of San Francisco’s oldest, continuous, time capsule location, under a statue in North Beach…

The 1879-1979 Washington Square Park Time Capsule

San Francisco’s first, publicly known time capsule was buried in 1879 under a statue of Benjamin Franklin by a dentist and eccentric millionaire named Henry D. Cogswell.  Cogswell came out west to seek his fortune during San Francisco’s gold rush in the 1840’s, and was one of SF’s first millionaires from mining stock. He was a well known crusader in the temperance movement, and he and his wife also founded the west’s first technical college, the Cogswell Polytechnical College.  (located in the SF Mission District in 1888, now it’s in San Jose and called ‘The Cogswell University of Silicon Valley‘.

Anyway, in 1979 Mayor Dianne Fienstein and a crowd of 1,000 SF residents had Cogswell’s Capsule opened and inside were personal family papers like his will and different deeds along with, “a copy of Harper’s Magazine dated 1872. There was also an almanac; copies of 14 different newspapers in English, Italian, German, French and Scandinavian; some coins; a tin of mints; and a rock that someone said was silver ore. There was also a note from a 14-year-old boy named Sackett Cornell, who predicted that by the time the box was opened steam-powered flying machines would fill the air and women would still not be allowed to vote or become president.”  (There’s a great article about the opening in 1979  here.)

Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights Book Shop, North Beach SF.

The ’79 capsule contained a lot of literature, like a Lawrence Ferlinghetti poems

The 1979-2079 Washington Square Park Time Capsule Contents

After 1879 capsule was opened, the space under Franklin’s statue was quickly filled with items from 1979 San Francisco, to be buried for another 100 years.  Including two poems by the city’s poet laureate Lawrence Ferlinghetti; notes from San Francisco’s leading citizens; a videocassette of the evening news; a pair of Levi’s jeans, size 0; menus from Julius’ Castle, La Veranda, Guido’s and Savoy Tivoli; Leggs pantyhose; birth control pills; a Bic lighter, a copy of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City, and a bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon.  And reportedly, ‘just before the box was closed, a Boy Scout dropped in a hastily-scribbled note that said, “Paul was here.’

The 1910-2011 ‘Excelsior’ Time Capsule

Photos of School children found in the 1910 time capsule.

The 1910 time capsule was a copper box buried for a century behind the Cleveland Elementary School cornerstone, and it was opened in front of school children in 2011.  Inside was a letter members of the ‘Excelsior Homestead Progressive Association’ (no longer in existence) along with the letter there were official city and trade union documents, various pamphlets, and photographs offering a glimpse of San Francisco four years after the 1906 earthquake and fire that destroyed much of the city.

The 1910 letter read:

“To the Honorable Mayor of San Francisco. Whoever he May be. During the period in which this box may be opened,” read the letter’s envelope, the words carefully typed and underlined in blue ink.

“…In the event that these lines are ever brought to light again it may be interesting to the readers to know something of the conditions prevailing at the time of the laying of the cornerstone,” the Sept. 18, 1910, letter said. “The city of San Francisco has just about recovered from the effects of the great earthquake and fire of 1906 and is now on a fair way to gretaer prosperity than ever.”

the Cleveland Elementary School 100 year old time capsule contents

The 1913-2013 SF City Hall time capsule

Former San Francisco Mayor James “Sunny Jim” Rolph Jr., installed a time capsule in 1913 at the base of City Hall. That box was accidentally discovered in 1997 during the City Hall renovation and seismic retrofit. It contained old coins, newspapers, and public documents related to the original groundbreaking of City Hall. Some of those contents are displayed in City Hall”s South Light Court.  (we can’t find any photos of the contents online unfortunately).

Mayor James Rolph Jr, Mayor Rolph on the last day of the Montgomery Street streetcar, 1927.

A copy of the free San Francisco Call Newspaper, 1911.

In 2001 Mayor Willie Brown replaced Rolph’s time capsule with a new box, it’s contents are clearly listed bellow and the capsule is scheduled to be reopened around 2101.

 2001-2021 SF City Hall Time Capsule: Contents

  • The Mayor’s hat
    An AIDS quilt piece
    A bolt from the Golden Gate Bridge
    Musical score of “Dead Man Walking” Opera signed by Jake Heggie
    A symphony tribute signed by Michael Tilson Thomas
    SF Opera 2000-2001 season magazine
    Program for DeYoung Museum closing
    Unopened bottle of PlumpJack, Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, Oakville 1997
    Bottle of Anchor Steam
    Chinese Plaque
    Limited edition poster for Beatles concert at Candlestick Park
    American Eagle silver dollar with box and U.S. one dollar coin
    Official autographed NFL jersey for Jerry Rice
    A Giants inaugural baseball
    Palm pilot
    Video cassette recorder
    2012 Olympics Pin
    SF Fire Department hose nozzle and Fireman’s suspenders
    Copies of awards won by City Hall Improvement Project
    Compilation of News articles of City Hall opening
    Treasurer & Tax Collector’s Annual Calendar
    Domestic partner certificate and poster for the domestic partner ceremony
    Pictures of various babies born to employees in City Hall in the year 2000
    Folder with various information pertaining to SFO, International Terminal opening
    Buttons and two patches of the SF Police Department
    Final edition of SF Examiner signed by Phil Bronstein
    SF Chronicle dated Dec. 15, 24, 27, 30, 2000
    Robert Cameron’s calendar for 2000 & 2001: Above San Francisco
    Above San Francisco books and photos by R. Cameron and Herb Caen, signed by R. Cameron
    Book: SFO: A Pictorial History of the Airport
    Book: The Ferry Building: Witness to a Century of Change
    Book: Dia de los Muertos en California, brochures, pin and video from the Mexican Museum
    Port of SF Waterfront Land Use Plan
    Free Publications and Street Sheet
    Real Estate listings
    List of contents for time capsule, 1913, and municipal record of dedication, 1913
    Video recording of time capsule opening dated June 3, 1997
    Computer printed photos of 1913 time capsule opening in 1997
    Freshman class high school photo for Myron Howard-Johnson with business card on back (Time capsule committee)
    Fourth grade class photo Nick Ziv (Time capsule committee)
    City Hall events brochure, tour guide, pins, newsletters, historical information in various languages
    Limited Edition photo of the Conservatory of Flowers
    Pacific Gas and Electric company key chain
    Information cards for City departments
    Coin set minted in the year 2000
    Business cards of elected officials
    Official ballots
    Rice a Roni
    See’s Candies Barbie Doll
    Bart and Muni Tickets
    Restaurant Menus (Includes menu from Fairmont Hotel and St. Francis Hotel)
    A Pokemon card and book
    Envelope of 3COM Park memorabilia
    Map of Golden Gate Park
    Chinese Chop
    Talking sign transmitter and receiver for the hearing impaired

SF’s oldest time capsule (1865) was found inside another time capsule

1881 Bush Street, first a synagogue in 1865, then in 1934 it was sold and became the Sokoji Buddhist Church.

Sometimes time capsules themselves contain time capsules, as was discovered in 2001 when the cornerstone of the former Ohabai Shalome synagogue at 1881 Bush Street was opened. Items that had been placed in the cornerstone during the 1895 construction of the building included an earlier time capsule that had been created by a group of San Francisco Jews in 1865. Together, these contents were fashioned into an exhibit at the Contemporary Jewish Museum entitled “Hidden in the Walls”.  Unfortunately none of those images are online.

Also it should be noted that time capsules almost never include valuables like golden nuggets or treasure maps.  They’re always filled with periodicals and personal items, things of historical and sentimental significance.  Otherwise treasure hunters would be out there digging up time capsules constantly, their lack of monetary value actually protects them from thievery.

In the year 2000, there was a ‘time capsule frenzy’ according to an SFGate article of that year.  Clearly the idea of the new millennium made it a trend to bury your junk across the world.  So in 2100, we’ll try to update this article ; ).

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