Laborers Discovered A Time Capsule Inside Baltimore’s Washington Monument

The Washington Monument in Baltimore, Maryland is more than 30 years older than the Washington Monument in D.C. Now over 200 years old, the building is one of Maryland’s most popular tourist attractions. But when construction workers repaired the monument in 2014, they discovered a cement block filled with unusual objects. Here is the story of the Washington Monument’s 200-year-old time capsule.

The Old Monument Needed Some Help

Baltimore's Washington Monument is seen from the street.
Getty Images
Getty Images

In January 2014, the Washington Monument was closed to the public. City officials were sprucing it up for its 200-year-old birthday. Throughout the centuries, the monument’s infrastructure had been crumbling.

The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy in Baltimore, Maryland paid $5.5 million to repair the monument. Workers took great pains to keep the repairs as historically accurate as possible. But when the construction started, the residents of Baltimore had no idea that it would lead to a historic discovery.

Workers Found Something In The Cornerstone

Construction workers lift a cornerstone block from the ground.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

In February 2015, project superintendent George Wilk II was digging at the base of the monument to install a new septic tank. But when he and his coworkers began digging, they discovered something unusual.

A large block of concrete stood in the way of their work. It was not part of the monument, but it seemed to have been buried there intentionally. Puzzled, the workers removed the block, and Wilk contacted the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.

Historians Knew That It Was Important

A concrete block has a square hold in it.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Wilk knew that he could not throw the block away. After all, the Washington Monument is a National Historic Landmark, and it gave Baltimore the nickname “the Monument City.” Instead, he brought it to historians at the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy.

To his surprise, Lance Humphries, the conservatory’s restoration chair, knew exactly what the block was. Not only was it historically significant, but it was also something that historians have been waiting to uncover for centuries.

To Understand, We Need To Explore The Monument’s History

A photo from 1900 shows the Washington Monument.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Baltimore’s Washington Monument was built in 1815, shortly after the War of 1812 ended. America had just fought with Britain for the second time, and the city of Baltimore wanted to show its patriotism by commemorating the nation’s first president.

Colonel John Eager Howard donated land for the monument, and American architect Robert Mills was hired for the project. Mills envisioned a simple yet striking design: a sleek pillar with an ornate statue of George Washington on top.

The First Monument Ever Dedicated To George Washington

A painting from 1794 portrays George Washington.
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images
Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

Believe it or not, Baltimore’s Washington Monument was the first monument built to honor George Washington. That’s why so many people were present for the time capsule. “Baltimore was proud of the role it had played in the War of 1812 and proud to build the first monument to George Washington,” Humphries explained.

Because the monument was not completed until 1829, it was not the first finished monument dedicated to George Washington. That is the the Washington Monument State Park in Maryland, completed in 1827.

An Unusual Ceremony For The Monument’s Opening

The Washington Monument is seen in Baltimore, 1850 engraving.
Archive Photos/Getty Images
Archive Photos/Getty Images

Although the monument was not finished until 1829, it first opened in 1815. When this happened, over 30,000 people arrived to see the building. But they also wanted to witness another ceremony: a time capsule that would be unearthed centuries later.

According to newspapers of the time, the citizens of Baltimore buried a time capsule there on July 4, 1815. But reporters never revealed its exact location, leaving historians to wonder what exactly was inside.

But Some Old Newspapers Held Clues

The statue on top of the Washington Monument is seen in front of the American flag.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Although historians did not know exactly what was inside this time capsule, they had some clues. Journalists revealed that the contents included newspapers from the time, coins, and an engraved copper plate.

“Newspapers and coins were pretty typical of cornerstones and time capsules of the time,” Humphries explained. “They were trying to show us what was going on in the world at that time.” It’s no wonder why so many historians were curious about this time capsule.

Finding The Capsule Was Pure Coincidence

A construction worker repairs the side of the Washington Monument.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Despite how curious people were about the time capsule, nobody can just walk up to the Washington Monument and start digging. If they did it the wrong way, the entire monument could topple over.

Laborers were not looking for the capsule; they had permission and the funds to examine the underground part of the statue. “It’s well known that they laid a cornerstone, but they never actually mentioned where the cornerstone was actually placed in the building,” Humphries said. “So, it’s pretty neat to have found it.”

Inside The Time Capsule…

Three jars are seen inside the 1815 time capsule.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

After laborers retrieved the cube, they had to saw through it. The cube had been soldered shut to preserve the items inside. Workers had to carefully cut open the stone to not harm the contents inside.

When the cube was opened, the first thing spotted was the Declaration of Independence. “They laid a copy of the July 3, 1815 Federal Gazette, which had a copy of the Declaration of Independence on its front page that day,” said Humphries.

The Declaration Of Independence Was Significant

Historians hold the copy of the Declaration of Independence that was in the 1815 time capsule.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

When historians saw the Declaration of Independence on top of everything else, they were surprised. “While it is well-known that the monument is the first erected to George Washington, the selection of this item for such a prominent placement adds new meaning to the monument,” Humphries told CNN.

Although the Washington Monument was dedicated solely to George Washington, the time capsule seemed to honor all of American history. After the War of 1812, Baltimore residents wanted to show their patriotism.

There Were Three Jars In Total

A top-down view shows the three jars and papers in the time capsule.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Underneath the Gazette, there were three jars. Each sealed glass jar each contained different items in each other. Even more fascinating: each jar was themed!

For instance, one jar featured documents that focused on George Washington. The second focused on the current events of the day, including the newspapers and ten American coins. The third jar had a religious theme. Whoever designed this time capsule put a lot of thought into its contents.

One Jar Was Dedicated To George Washington

A person picks up a copy of George Washington's inaugural address from a time capsule jar.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Since the monument commemorates President George Washington, it’s no surprise that one of the jars was dedicated to him. It contained an image of Washington’s face, plus a copy of his Inaugural Address and farewell address. All of these were still legible, almost like they were only a few years old.

The jar also held two medals: One of Washington himself, and one honoring Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington. Historians believe that people wanted to commemorate his military campaigns during the Spanish Peninsular Wars.

The Second And Third Jars Were More Specific

A copy of the Federal Gazette from July 3, 1815 is seen in a jar.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

The second and third jars weren’t as full. The second jar only had one item: A copy of the Bible from 1812. The third jar contained two copies of the Federal Gazette, dated July 5, 1812, and July 6, 1812.

These two newspapers tell us what life was like for people who lived in Baltimore in 1812. The July 6 copy talked about the time capsules and how the cornerstone was laid. Historians were fascinated with it.

The Contents Were Surprisingly Well-Preserved

A historian preserves the contents of the time capsule.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

For a 200-year-old time capsule, each item was surprisingly well preserved. The newspapers and jars had a bit of water damage, but other than that, they were in fair condition. Instead of paper, the creators used linen, which lasts much longer.

The stone masons seemed to do their job, too. “Inside the cornerstone… there was this beautifully carved decorative panel of the stonemasons and the stone carvers from 1815,” Humphries revealed. The time capsule wasn’t just a cornerstone; it was a piece of art.

What About The Copper Plate?

The copper plate with an engraving for the 1815 time capsule is cleaned and propped up.
Baltimore Memories/Facebook
Baltimore Memories/Facebook

At the bottom of the cornerstone, there was a square copper plate. Initially, it appeared weathered and difficult to read. Preservation experts from The Walters Art Museum had to safely clean the copper plate to make out the inscription.

Once the plate was properly cleaned, historians analyzed it. It reads: On the 4th of July AD 1815 was laid this Foundation Stone of a Monument to be erected of the Memory of George Washington.”

Who Created The Stone?

A stone plaque includes the names of all stone cutters who contributed to the time capsule.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Just as the time capsule was a collaborative effort, the cornerstone was, too. The lid of the cornerstone included the carved names of all stonecutters who created it. The first was Thomas Towson, a last name that appears frequently on Maryland’s buildings. Towson built several buildings in both Maryland and Washington.

The second stonecutter was William Steuart, who also served as the Mayor of Baltimore from 1831 to 1832. And the third was stone mason Sater Stevensen, who helped with the overall monument.

A Few Months Later, Workers Found Something Else

The 1915 plaque on the Washington Monument reads,
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Believe it or not, the 1815 capsule was not the only time capsule found beneath the Washington Monument. In June 2015, laborers were digging behind the plaque that had been installed on the monument in 1915. They were tightening some of the joints to keep the monument steady.

Project superintendent Wilk found another unusual block behind the 1915 plaque. “We unbolted that plaque, and then I took a cellphone picture in the dark to see what was behind it,” he recalled.

They Discovered Another Time Capsule!

The 1915 time capsule metal box is unearthed from the Washington Monument.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

The workers had discovered another time capsule! This one was inserted 100 years later in 1915. When reporters asked Wilk if he was hunting for time capsules, he replied, “No, didn’t know it was there.”

Unlike the 1815 capsule, the 1915 version was made from metal and soldered shut. It also contained fewer items than the older time capsule. If you guessed that the 1915 version was laid for the 100-year anniversary, then you were correct.

What Was Inside The 1915 Capsule

A photo shows the first glimpse inside the 1915 time capsule.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Although the 1915 capsule was not as organized as the first, it still contained some significant items. Like the first, it included some Baltimore newspapers from the time, including one about the time capsule itself.

But those weren’t the only papers included. The 1915 capsule also contained a German-language paper and the city’s official municipal journal. Rather than a paper copy of the Declaration of Independence, historians found a photograph of it. Already, it was much different than the 1815 capsule.

This Capsule Commemorated The Battle Of Baltimore

A historian holds out an old coin honoring American independence.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

While the 1815 time capsule honored early American history, the 1915 capsule reflected on the War of 1812, which inspired the monument’s creation. It contained several artifacts that commemorated the Battle of Baltimore. These include metals and artworks.

Historians also uncovered a copy of the “Star Spangled Banner.” A portrait of the song’s author, Francis Scott Key, also appeared in the capsule. The time capsule was a combination of Baltimore pride and American patriotism, similar to the 1815 one.

What Happened During The Battle Of Baltimore

An actor stands in an encampment before re-enacting the Battle of Baltimore.
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images
Matt McClain/The Washington Post via Getty Images

Baltimore played a unique role in the War of 1812. In September 1814, British soldiers invaded Baltimore by sea. American forces fought them back, and although they retreated, they halted the British invasion and bought America much-needed time. This battle was significant to the creators of the time capsule.

“American national independence was fresh in the minds of Baltimoreans of July 1815,” Humphries explained. “They had just played a key role in resecuring that freedom during the Battle of Baltimore the previous fall.”

Finding Two Time Capsules Is Exceptionally Rare

A historian picks up a jar from a time capsule carefully.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Finding two time capsules inside of one building is exceptionally rare, and Humphries acknowledged this. “Few buildings have two time capsules,” he claimed. “These items speak to the antiquity and symbolic importance of the monument in the history of our country.”

The fact that both of these time capsules were unearthed near the bicentennial anniversary was also an uncanny coincidence. Now, the city of Baltimore had plenty to celebrate during the monument’s 200-year anniversary on Independence Day.

What Happened To The Items?

A close-up photo shows a copy of George Washington's farewell address.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Many wondered what happened to the time capsule items after they were discovered. The Mount Vernon Place Conservancy sent all items to the Maryland Historical Society, which is also in Baltimore.

There, experts cleaned and preserved both time capsules. (Luckily, all items were already well-preserved.) In May 2015, they sent the items to The Walters Art Museum, where they were displayed. Visitors can see both time capsules for themselves and learn more about the history of Baltimore.

Both Time Capsules Were Similar, But Different

An old Federal Gazette newspaper is rolled out on a table.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Although the time capsules were buried on the same holiday for the same monument, they had very different themes. The 1815 one focused on George Washington and American Independence. It also included several relics to show future Americans what life was like.

The second one, however, relayed more of America’s past. Its items represented the War of 1812 along with other battles throughout American history. Both time capsules tell us about the thoughts of previous generations of Americans.

These Objects Reflect What Older Generations Were Thinking

Glass jars are seen stored in a cement block.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Historians understand that, whatever was included in the time capsule, it held some significance to Americans from the past. “When you pull [these items] out, you literally feel what [the people] were thinking when they placed those items in that cornerstone,” Humphries explained.

For instance, the fact that they laid the Declaration of Independence on top shows that it was at the forefront of peoples’ minds. Every bottle clearly had an intention and a plan.

Historians Waited To Present The News

An American flag is hung in front of the Washington Monument.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Despite being excited about the monument’s time capsules, the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy waited to reveal the items to the public. In honor of tradition, they presented the time capsules on July 4, 2015–the 200-year anniversary of the Washington Monument.

Fortunately, the monument was also fully repaired and reopened on that date. It was like a repeat of the 1815 opening.

The Washington Monument Is Fully Repaired, Too

The Washington Monument is seen fully repaired.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

While historians were analyzing the time capsules, construction workers continued to repair the Washington Monument. They had to know Baltimore’s history, too. Faith Millspaugh, the vice president of the Mount Vernon Place Conservancy, said that the laborers worked hard to keep the monument historically accurate.

“The monument has been restored to its original condition – the way it was originally built,” she told the Baltimore Business Journal. “[The construction workers] wanted to do everything historically correct[ly].”

A Rededication Ceremony

A crowd looks up at aircrafts flying over the Washington Monument.
Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images
Ken Cedeno/Corbis via Getty Images

When the Washington Monument reopened, the city of Baltimore celebrated a “rededication” on that day. On Independence Day, visitors could once again climb the 228 steps to the monument’s peak. Members of the Maryland Historical Society also revealed the contents of both time capsules.

The reopening was followed by an old-fashioned county fair. Two hundred years later, Baltimore residents were celebrating American history in the same way that their predecessors were. Who knows what people will do 100 years from now?

Did Modern Americans Create A New Time Capsule?

A new cement time capsule includes metal recreations of statues.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

Because the Washington Monument was repaired in 2015, many people wondered if historians would continue the time capsule tradition. They did! This time capsule featured more modern versions of American patriotism.

This new time capsule includes 3D replica statues and notes to future generations. Of course, not everything was revealed–future Americans need some surprises! But it is exciting to know that Americans from 2115 will open this time capsule and get a glimpse into our current era.

A Coincidental Plaque, Or Not?

The original plaque from 1915 is held up.
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook
Mount Vernon Place/Facebook

While examining the monument, Humphries noticed a coincidence on the 1915 plaque. On it, the word “memory” was engraved more deeply than any other word.

“I think it’s revealing, too, that the word ‘Memory’ is engraved a bit deeper than all the rest of the words in the inscription on the original [1915] dedication plaque,” Humphries told Baltimore. Was that a coincidence? Or did the artists know what they were setting up for future generations?