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Time capsule from 1960s unearthed in Anchorage windstorm

Amanda Coyne
Amanda Coyne photo

The high winds that rocked Anchorage Tuesday night and into Wednesday morning wreaked havoc across the city. The storm closed public schools, two universities, and even a military installation. It knocked out power to as many as 60,000 customers. It blew down numerous trees, and one beloved landmark, the 103-foot-tall Sitka Spruce flagpole in downtown Anchorage.

When local photographer Charles Tice heard about the landmark, he knew he had to go see for himself and to try to capture the scene. He knew that because he had recently heard about a tradition of soldiers putting items inside the globes — or “trucks” — out of which the flags arise. A gun, he had heard, in case a foreign power was invading and a soldier needed to do something quick, and matches so a flag can be disposed of properly.

He has since been told that’s just lore, but he was still intrigued. So he made his way to the Anchorage Veterans Memorial on the Delaney Park strip and looked around. The humongous pole was on the ground, and the flag was gone. Something lying there, however, caught his eye.

“When I saw the old coffee can, I knew that it was a time capsule,” he said.

He was with his friend, and then others gathered. Among the crowd was Anchorage Assemblywoman Harriett Drummond, Anchorage Daily News copy editor Barry Piser, and KTUU Channel 2 sports reporter Charlie Sokaitis.

There’s a picture of the Maxwell House can, intact, on Drummond’s Facebook page. “Is this a time capsule? Rescued from the shattered globe atop the Veterans Memorial flagpole taken down by the wind on the Park Strip tonight,” she wrote under the picture.

Tice had a pocketknife with him, so he decided to dig in. No one in the crowd appeared to object.

In another post, someone asks if it’s a time capsule. “Yes!” Drummond wrote. “See the other pics on my page.”

There wasn’t much inside, four items in all. But it was still pretty cool. Among the items were a 1960 penny, a list of firemen on the back of a poster, a May 5, 1961 edition of the Anchorage Daily News, and a Union 76 gas card issued to Charles Gillick, whose address in Anchorage was listed as a P.O. Box 699.

Piser swooped up the can and the contents, took it all home and brought it to work on Wednesday. 

'Thought we were pretty clever'

“I’ve looked up at the flagpole and wondered if that coffee can was still in there,” said 78-year-old Gillick, who spoke to Alaska Dispatch from his home in Soldotna. “I wondered if anybody would ever find it,” he said.

Only a handful of people knew about the can, he said. His own wife didn’t even know. “It was our secret. We thought we were pretty clever for thinking it up.”

Here’s how the can got there: In 1961, Gillick was in the U.S. Army, working for the Alaska Communications System, which then was the only communication system in Alaska and run by the military. He was also a volunteer fireman at the downtown station on Fourth Avenue. The stainless steel globe adorned with copper land masses, which had been painstakingly welded by volunteers at the Alaska Plumbing and Heating in downtown Anchorage, was being stored there awaiting installation.

Lt. Gene Bennett, he said, came up with the idea of the time capsule. He knew about those globes, and knew that there was a plate on them that could be unscrewed.

So they wrote a list of the people at the station on that day of May 7, 1961, including the volunteers. It’s a little hard to read, because the paper is ripped where the knife cut into the can as it was being opened. But it’s clear that there were 12 of them in all that day. Among them was Chief William McNutt, whose nickname was “McNasty.” (Not because he was nasty, but it was just too hard to resist, Gillick said). Lt. Howard Thorton’s name is on there -- “Tators,” for short. The name Robert Groeneweg (“Grow-n-wiggle”) is on the list. His son, Greg, is a now a firefighter with the city.

In addition to the names, they wanted to put a few things in there with dates on them, Gillick said. “My gas card was about to expire, and I thought, ‘I should just put that in there.’”

Gillick thought that there might be a few more coins in the can, but he can’t be sure.

Eventually, the pole was moved from Downtown Anchorage to the Delaney Park Strip. In 1999, the pole itself was rotting and had to be replaced. But the globe was still in good shape, and the names of the firefighters lived in that globe. Until Tuesday night.

'The rest of the story'

On Wednesday afternoon, Anchorage Mayor Dan Sullivan rummaged through the contents of the can, which had been laid out on a table in city hall. He folded the newspaper open, and saw the name of his cousin, Dan Eagan, who, it was reported, won the Nenana Ice Classic that year. He saw that the minimum wage was $1.25 an hour. And he thumbed the ripped list of firefighters.

The can had been delivered at about 3 p.m. by Anchorage Parks Director John Rodda, who himself had gotten it from Piser, the Anchorage Daily News copy editor.

The photographer who found it, Charles Tice, had given it to Piser for safe keeping. Piser’s interest was in the newspaper.

Sullivan said that he wished that something “more formal and ceremonial” had been done with the can. Drummond, he said, should have known enough to follow better protocol, he said. However, he doesn’t think too many people will be upset.

For his part, Gillick’s just glad it was found, and that the person who found it knew what might be inside.

“Now, we know the rest of the story,” he said.

Contact Amanda Coyne at amanda@alaskadispatch.com