Buried safe yields its treasure — one penny
July 28, 2007
At first, the crew saw just a corner of the object.
The workers were excavating Tuesday at Harry O’s, where they will build storage space underneath the nightclub’s dance floor.
Quickly, they realized the object could hold a treasure. It was a safe, and it was from long ago. John Whiteley, whose excavating company is doing the work, asked his workers to keep it hush-hush until they could discover what was inside.
"The fantasy of every excavator is gold pieces," says Whiteley, a veteran of Old Town’s construction business.
They dug out the safe, a modest steel box at 24 inches tall, 18 inches wide and 18 inches deep. It is heavy, though. Whiteley estimates it weighs at least 500 pounds.
Was something valuable inside, they wondered?
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Not even close.
A penny, just 1 cent, sat waiting for them when they broke into the safe.
Still, the find is captivating. Even as Park City booms as a mountain resort, tales of curious finds in Old Town quickly make the rounds. Many Parkites and visitors are fascinated with the city’s history, and the stories of its days as a rough-and-tumble silver-mining town are hallowed.
Whiteley says the penny dates to 1886, when Park City’s silver miners were burrowing into the mountains ringing their camp, which would later be known as Old Town.
The penny suffered from oxidization. If it were in good shape, it still wouldn’t be worth that much — not nearly as valuable as a gold piece would be. Whiteley says an Internet site pegged the value of a fine example of an 1886 penny at just $6.
Not knowing what was inside the safe when it was discovered, though, Whiteley was anxious to break it open. Four or five men, wielding sledgehammers, attacked the safe. They broke the hinges off first. Thirty minutes after the first strikes, the safe revealed its contents.
"It was the only thing inside. It was definitely a practical joke," Whiteley says, trying to figure out the sense of humor of someone from that time.
Whiteley, like other excavators who work in Old Town, where the hot real-estate market keeps them busy, tells stories of his numerous finds. His crew once found a skull at an Empire Avenue construction site. Over the years, he says, thousands of antique bottles have turned up underground, as have olden-day marbles.
"It’s great, but it’s a total hassle," Whiteley says, describing the occasional discovery of forgotten foundations or uncharted underground springs.
The Harry O’s site, on the 400 block of Main Street, has a colorful history, like that of other places along Main Street, which has been Park City’s commercial core since the mining days.
Hal Compton, the research historian at the Park City Museum, says a mercantile called Aschiem’s was there first. Another mercantile, called Blythe-Fargo, replaced the original store.
The building likely was put up after the Great Fire of 1898, which destroyed much of the city, Compton says. In 1927, according to the museum, the building burned down, and the land sat vacant until the Memorial Building, the one there now, was built in the late 1930s.
"It’s verification that something was there before the current building was built," Compton says. "Historians like to be accurate, first of all. If you find real solid evidence, that’s verification history was correct."