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Safe cracker opens long-locked State House vault with treasure trove of documents

State House Bureau

November 27. 2017 1:34PM
House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff, left, and Speaker Shawn Jasper peruse the contents of a State House safe that was locked for decades. (Dave Solomon/Union Leader)

isa Eldridge with Kamco Lock Solutions holds up a ledger of patients treated at New Hampshire Hospital in the 1890s, as House Communications Director Jim Rivers takes a picture. (Dave Solomon / Union Leader)

CONCORD – Christmas came a few weeks early for state Archivist Brian Burford, who grinned broadly Monday morning as a long-locked safe was opened for a curious crowd at the State House, revealing a treasure trove of documents dating back to the Civil War.

Burford and his associates in the Secretary of State office will have plenty of material to go through as the contents included shelves of state treasury records, old posters promoting New Hampshire tourism, Civil War bonds and state hospital records, to name a few of the artifacts identified at first glance.

“It should be very interesting,” he said. “I expect to spend some time with it. We’ll make a quick assessment here, and some things will be moved out to examine in greater detail.”

House Speaker Shawn Jasper has been pushing for years to have the century-old vault in Room 103 at the State House broken into, since the combination to the lock was as much a mystery as the safe itself.

It was manufactured by the Mosler Safe Company in 1884, and as far as anyone could tell, was last opened in the 1970s.

With only days to go before he hands over the speaker’s gavel and becomes commissioner of agriculture, Jasper finally got the go-ahead from the Joint Legislative Facilities Committee to crack the safe on the upper level of what is now the Senate Finance Committee room, with donated help from Kamco Lock Solutions, of Nashua.

Locksmith Marty Russo had already opened the safe days before the great reveal, drilling a hole and using a scope to observe the inner workings of the broken lock system.

With a crowd of onlookers that included lawmakers, staffers and interested members of the public, the door was opened as scheduled at 10 a.m.

The first item, held up to roars of laughter, was a large and fairly recent portrait of Senate President Chuck Morse.

Morse had been lukewarm on the idea of opening the safe with such fanfare and someone from his staff apparently thought to inject some levity into the occasion with the surreptitious placement of his photo.

“The president did want to be here, and that’s the only way it could happen,” said House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff, who has been pushing to get the safe opened for the past 15 years.

Storied past

The room has a storied past, once housing the state Treasury Department and as recently as the 1960s serving as the single location for the Department of Motor Vehicles.

“There is stuff in there well over a century old,” said Pfaff, including cancelled $500 war bonds from 1861, issued by Nashua Trust, and records of general obligation bonds from the 1930s.

“These are things that could have been lost forever. It sounds like someone messed up the combination, which is why it remained locked for so many years,” he said.

Most of the material will end up in the State Archive, although Pfaff said some items could be put on display at the State House.

“We should be able to keep a few things for a little display in our Visitors Center that shows what can happen in a State House when people overlook things, forget things, or things get lost in the change of administrations,” he said.

For a history buff like Jasper, the great reveal was a welcomed distraction from the logistics associated with his transition from speaker to commissioner.

“I think the contents are pretty exciting,” he said. “I was expecting to find nothing, so to go in and find Civil War records of who purchased war bonds, a lot of documents on highway funds and the state hospital… there’s a lot of information in there that probably doesn’t exist anywhere else. It’s a nice find.”

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