Peculiar Pittsburgh

Pittsburgh’s missing time capsule: When X doesn’t mark the spot, the search continues

Third time’s (hopefully) a charm.

James Hill time capsule
Courtesy of James Hill
MJ Slaby

They know it exists.

Newspaper articles about the Pittsburgh Centennial celebration in March 1916 include details about two time capsules — one for Pittsburgh and one for Allegheny County — being placed in the then-under construction City-County Building.

So when city staffers started planning for the city’s bicentennial last year, they wondered if they could find the time capsule by the city’s incorporation anniversary, said James Hill, special assistant to Mayor Bill Peduto, and John Chapman, city special events coordinator.

Well, that didn’t happen.

“We’ve found exactly nothing,” Hill said, adding that although the capsule wasn’t a secret, there weren’t searches for it before 2016.

Volunteers — mostly city employees, including the bomb squad — as well as the North Pittsburgh Past Finders searched for it multiple times. But, they haven’t given up and have hopes of finding it this year, which marks 100 years for the City-County Building.

Yet, there’s no agreement on where it could be.

Chapman says he’s very sure about the next location he plans to search, but he wasn’t quite ready to publicly reveal the spot. But Dan Gabler, Past Finders president, said he wants to go back to a previously searched spot.

The clues

Most often, a building has one time capsule in a cornerstone, and it’s labeled in some way. But Pittsburgh’s City-County Building has two, and neither are marked, Chapman said.

And there are no hints.

“This building is full of archives, but there’s nothing there,” Chapman said, adding that he expected to find meeting minutes that discussed the time capsule, but found nothing.

The city asked for the help of Past Finders, which specializes in finding items from the past using metal detectors. (They will also help people recover recently lost items.) The Past Finders went over the City-County Building’s blue prints with a magnifying glass looking for an “X” or “T.C.” to indicate the time capsule, Gabler said. Nothing.

Without records or city documents, all the clues that volunteers have have come from newspaper articles and photos.

Details from Pittsburgh Daily Post articles say that the time capsule is behind a 4-by-8 foot granite slab. The county time capsule is north of the building’s entrance, and the city’s is on the south side, according to the articles.

Photos show an outside centennial ceremony in March 1916, and there’s also a photo of Joseph G. Armstrong, the mayor’s son, placing a copper box inside a “brick receptacle” before it was covered with the granite slab.

Since time capsules are typically found when a building is torn down, the bricks were likely there to protect the copper box from being crushed during demolition, Gabler said.

What’s in it

While the newspaper articles don’t provide an exact location, a Daily Post write up does detail what’s inside the city’s time capsule:

  • a bible
  • a history, including photos, of the cutting of the hump, aka the hill, on Grant Street that was cut away for the building
  • the deed exchanging property between the city and the county to construct the building
  • a proclamation from the mayor and the county commissioners
  • a copy of the city charter and historical information about the city
  • names of all Pittsburgh mayors, as well as names of city, county and state officials and county, state and federal judges
  • a copy of each of the daily Pittsburgh newspapers
  • a copy of speeches at the dedication and a ceremony program
  • photos of the old block house and old city hall
  • small U.S. and Pittsburgh flags

One article even pointed out that “Egyptian spices” were used as an “ancient preserving powder intended to protect paper and ink from the ravages of time.”

For Hill, knowing what’s in the city capsule is a double edge sword — he doesn’t wonder about what could be in it, but it also doesn’t make finding it as urgent.

Gabler said he expects the newspapers will have headlines about World War I and the steel industry or unions.

As for Chapman, well, he’s hopeful for more. “I’m pretty confident that there are a few surprises in there too.”

Where the time capsule (probably) isn’t

time capsule final

The first potential time capsule spot

MJ Slaby / The Incline

Volunteers searched a first spot in early summer. 

They zeroed in on an area to the right of the revolving doors on the building’s Grant Street entrance. The granite slab is the right size, it’s outside, and the area seems to match the area in the photo of mayor’s son.

City officials, Past Finders and the bomb squad checked there by using a wire camera to reach behind the granite from inside the building.

They didn’t find anything.

Gabler said the Past Finders couldn’t use metal detectors because of wires now inside the building. That’s part of the problem, Hill said, adding that what was accessible a century ago might not be today thanks to added pipes and phone and internet wires.

The group searched again nearby, focusing on the vestibule between the revolving doors and the inside doors. (That all would have been outside when it was built.)

Behind the register grate, bricks are visible on the far right. Maybe that’s it?

Chapman said it isn’t, and he’s confident about his latest, TBA theory.

Gabler, though is convinced that’s where the time capsule is and could be reached if the revolving door were removed.


Volunteers searched the fifth floor balcony for the time capsule, but no luck.

Jasmine Goldband / The Incline

In December, volunteers from the city tried again, testing a theory that the time capsule was on the Grant Street-facing balcony on the fifth floor outside of city council chambers. The bomb squad helped again, using wire cameras, Hill said.

Nothing. Again.

Chapman said he was skeptical about that location, and he thinks there would have been a mention that it was that high off the ground.

Now, he’s focused on organizing a hunt for his latest guess.

‘Now or never’

It’s still a mystery why there’s no record of the time capsule’s creation.

Officials were probably “too caught up in the pomp and circumstance” to remember to label where the time capsule was, said Bill Marks, Past Finders’ secretary. Gabler agreed and said officials probably never thought that someone would search for it.

He said that if the city time capsule is found, he’d like to find the county’s next. County Spokeswoman Amie Downs told The Incline in an email that she’s unaware of any plans to locate that relic.

Hill and Chapman said they’ve also found mentions of a third time capsule. This one is a beer bottle filled with notes from the builders, Hill said. But there are even fewer clues on where that could be.

In a Pittsburgh Daily Post article that Chapman found from March 1916, a county official said some of the younger people in the crowd would see the City-County Building torn down. He said he didn’t expect the building “to last more than 30 years. To last longer than that would indicate a lack of community progressiveness.” Instead, it’s outlived the crowd and is about to celebrate its centennial.

And that makes the search a timely one.

“We can’t destroy anything, but it’s now or never,” Chapman said.