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Colter Peterson, KSL

What a 132-year-old time capsule tells us about what life was like in Utah back in 1887

By Carter Williams, KSL.com | Posted - Oct 16th, 2019 @ 8:10pm


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Editor's note: This article is a part of a series reviewing Utah and U.S. history for KSL.com's Historic section.

SALT LAKE CITY — Back on Sept. 27, 1887, around the time the cornerstone was laid on an Ogden school, some people associated with the school likely gathered to fill a small metal box with all sorts of mementos that highlighted life in Utah at that time.

The box was sealed that day and wouldn’t be discovered until June 1959 when the old Ogden High School and Central Junior High School was torn down. Since the school changed ownership many times after the box was sealed, it probably had been completely forgotten, said Alan Barnett, a local government archivist for the Utah Division of Archives and Records Service.

“No one had any idea it was there, and as they’re demolishing this building they find this metal box,” he said.

There were old pictures of Salt Lake City and Ogden taken by official railroad photographers, such as a portrait of the Salt Lake Temple still under construction at the time the capsule was buried. There were newspapers, including copies of the Deseret News and the Salt Lake Tribune, and a few others of yesteryear — all dated Sept. 27, 1887.

A Bible, an autograph album, a constitution that students of the school abided by, a map of Salt Lake City, Ogden business cards, buttons, and even old chewing gum were found in the box.

The contents of an 1887 time capsule that was discovered in the cornerstone of the Ogden Central Junior High School when it was torn down in the early 1960s are displayed at the Utah Division of Archives and Record Service in Salt Lake City on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019. At the time, the metal box was cut open to reveal its contents, which were then returned to the box and put in storage at the Ogden School District offices. The time capsule and its contents were eventually sent to the Utah State Archives and Record Services for permanent preservation. The time capsule was reopened in celebration of American Archives Month. (Photo: Colter Peterson, KSL TV)

Barnett explained time capsules are essentially a message to the future and a showcase of what life was like at the time the box was sealed. This capsule tells the story of a school built in the 1880s, a time before Utah was even a state, but also other aspects of Utah life.

The school itself was a reminder of the rise of non-public education in the state. The New West Education Commission, which was founded in 1879 and had main offices in Boston, Massachusetts and Chicago, Illinois, constructed the New West Academy to be a school run by the Congregational Church in 1887.

According to one Utah State History account, the commission spent $20,000 to construct the school and about 600 students were enrolled in its first year. An Ogden Herald article from 1887 reported that it was located on the corner of 5th and Spring streets, which is the corner of Adams Ave. and 25th Street today.

Barnett said the commission built many similar schools across the west as a way to assist in converting Mormon settlers and Catholics to the Protestant sect of Christianity.

“The proposal was the best way to reach these Mormons would be through educating them,” he said. “The assumption was Mormons were not well-educated and it was too late to reach the adults, but you could still reach the children. So they set up this New West Education Commission to run schools in Utah.”

An undated photo of the New West Academy that was built in 1887. The building, which was renamed many times during its existence, was torn down in 1959. (Photo: Utah State History)

The Congressional Church also had a school in Salt Lake City that was financed by a congregation in Burlington, Vermont, and its most successful school was in Provo. The schools were free of charge, which made them appealing to people of all faiths living in Utah at the time.

However, Barnett pointed out there were other Christian sects that set up schools like this during the first few decades after pioneers settled in 1847. St. Mark’s School in Salt Lake City was founded by Episcopalian leaders in 1867; Presbyterian leaders set up Wasatch Academy in Mt. Pleasant back in 1875, as well as schools in Mendon and Salina; and Methodist leaders set up a school in Payson and other places in the territory.

The Ogden building remained one of these schools until 1896 when the commission leased it over to the Ogden School District and it became Ogden High School. The district purchased the building the following year. In 1909, the high school moved into a new building and the old building was turned into a “sub-high school” otherwise known as Central Junior High. The building was added onto in 1921.

A construction worker digs a ditch in front of the old Central Junior High School building in 1913. The school originally opened as the New West Academy in 1887. It was torn down in 1959. (Photo: Utah State Archives)

In 1937, Weber College purchased the building after Central Junior High was moved into the second Ogden High location and the high school moved into a third building. The property was sold back to the Ogden School District in 1956 and the building was eventually torn down in 1959. Today, an apartment complex stands on the land where the school once stood.

The capsule remained with the district after the school’s demolishing and there was evidence its contents were logged in 1959 and again 1976, but its contents were never publicly released. It was given to the Utah State Archives in 2016.

However, the capsule showed other aspects of life in Utah at the time outside of education.

Back in 1887, the population of Utah — still a territory at the time — was much, much smaller than today. A little more than 210,000 people lived in Utah by 1890, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. That’s about 10,000 more than all of the estimated population of Salt Lake City alone in 2018.

Railways were a dominant mode of transportation, and several documents in the capsule referenced the strength of the Denver & Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1887. The modern automobile was invented the year before, but it was two decades before automobiles were accessible to the masses.

There were also many different newspapers found in the capsule that no longer exist today, which also highlights how much media has shifted over 132 years. The capsule was sealed 40 years before the first electric television was invented, and there were four television news stations covering the event as it was publicly opened Wednesday.

As for the contents of the box, they will likely be showcased at another event in Ogden sometime in the future, Barnett said. He added they will then be stored together in the state's archive. It's also possible they could be digitized in the future for people to view online.

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Carter Williams

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