A Mystery and a Treasure Trove of History at the State House

December 1, 2017

 

by Laurie Jasper

A mystery was solved on Monday, Nov. 27, at the New Hampshire State House in Concord, when a 150-year-old safe was opened for the first time in over 40 years.

The 198-year-old New Hampshire State House is home to several large, fireproof safes.  Most of them are now used for storage.  The safe in question is located in what was once the State Treasurer’s office.  It later housed the Department of Motor Vehicles.  Currently, the room is used by the Senate Finance Committee.  There are actually two vaults in the room; one located on the main floor and the “mystery safe” located directly above.  Access to the upstairs safe is via a metal, circular staircase and catwalk.

Through the years, efforts to open the safe were discussed, but never finalized.  Enter Hudson native Shawn Jasper.  Those who know Jasper know of his affinity for local, state, and American history.  Jasper became Speaker of the House in 2014, and has served a total of 23 years in the House of Representatives.  “There aren’t many places in the State House I haven’t seen.  That vault was one of them,” said Jasper.  During his tenure as speaker, Jasper and his Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff have made it a mission to spruce up the State House in preparation for its 200th anniversary in 2019.  Another was to open the vault.  So, they coordinated with Senate President Chuck Morse and his staff.

Kamco Lock Solutions of Nashua donated its services and locksmith Marty Russo set to work.  “If history proves it out, there will be old paper clips and some papers,” said Russo prior to the big reveal.  Jasper was given the honor of officially opening the door and reporting to the crowd of reporters, employees, and members of the public.

“Someone’s been in here,” Jasper laughed as he removed the first item … a poster-sized portrait of Morse.  It was then admitted that Russo had actually cracked the safe a few days prior to ensure the official opening went smoothly, without Jasper’s knowledge.  Since Morse was unable to attend, Morse’s staff slipped the portrait inside.  (Later it was also admitted that new light bulbs were procured for the room ahead of time).

“We usually try to dial it open, but the combination wasn’t set correctly, so the wheels didn’t work as they should,” said Russo.

“It takes 15 turns to open a four-wheel lock,” Russo said.  He went on to say that it appears that, in order to save time opening the lock; the first number had been set to its correct setting.  However, eventually the first number slid out of place, rendering the lock inoperable.  This made the operation more difficult, as Russo had to drill a hole and use a small video scope to view the tumbler.

Regardless of when it was officially unlocked, the vault reveal did not disappoint.  Inside, Jasper announced the safe was filled with ledgers, binders, and historic documents.  Soon, members of the press and state archivists were eager to take turns climbing the stairs to gain access to the room.

David Alukonis, president of the Hudson Historical Society and director of Legislative Services at the State House, was amazed at the find.

Brushing off a bit of dust after visiting the vault, Alukonis said, “That was the treasurer’s safe.  There are many ledgers.  There are lists of regiments from 1898 and names of soldiers from the Spanish American War along with what injuries they were treated for.”

“This is a treasure trove of history going back to the 1800s.  Some of the handwritten ledgers are just amazing to look at,” said Pfaff.

The most recent date noted on a cursory search was 1971.

Pfaff showed off New Hampshire promotional posters from the 1950s or 1960s in pristine condition, and an idea to reproduce them for sale in the State House gift shop was met with much enthusiasm.

“I’m very pleased that the safe has been opened and the mystery of what was in it has been solved.  Of what I saw, the records of Civil War bonds were the most interesting.  I was surprised to see how much was in the vault,” said Jasper.

The items will be reviewed and catalogued by state archivists.

When asked what has been the most interesting find during his career as a locksmith, Russo said, “I’ve found family jewelry and some money, but this tops the list.  There is always a little adrenaline rush when a safe is opened.  This kind of a cache of historical documents is the most interesting.”