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Time capsule hunt uncovers glimpse of Toronto’s past

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For an intense deadline-driven six-day period in early September a small team of workers from Historic Restoration were as much history detectives as stonemasons.

The Toronto-based firm uncovered the 1915 time capsule of the former North Toronto Railway Station a day before the 100th anniversary celebration of the building’s construction.

Encompassing some pre-excavation archival research and the methodical cutting away of the mortar around the cornerstone and the adjacent stones, the project generated some anxious moments for the organizers of the anniversary party in the lead up to the event. Now serving as the Summerhill LCBO, the landmark limestone structure in the heart of Toronto was built in 1915/16 to service the Canadian Pacific Railway. Mayor Tommy Church laid the cornerstone on Sept. 9, 1915, although construction carried on into 1916 and was officially opened in June of that year.

Although there was (and is) a stone in the building with the year 1915 engraved on it, there was no definitive evidence it was the actual cornerstone, says Horst Taricano, operations manager for the Woodcliffe Landmark Properties which purchased and restored the building in 2002. As well, a scan of the building did not reveal any sign of the time capsule, he says.

"They (Woodcliffe) wanted us to start work about 20 feet away from it," says Historic Restoration president Paul Goldsmith.

Rather than dislodge a whole assembly of stones in what could have been a long and costly search, he recommended that some archival research first be conducted. That recommendation paid off because a photo of the 1915 cornerstone dedication was soon discovered in the Toronto Archives by E.R.A. Architects project manager Sydney Martin, who has collaborated with Historic Restoration in the past on projects.

Although the date is not shown clearly in the photo, the configuration was similar to the one with the 1915 inscription and that, along with some other archival material, seemed to confirm it was the cornerstone, says Goldsmith.

"We were optimistic we would find it (the time capsule). It was a like a treasure hunt."

Locating and unearthing it, however, turned out to be a challenging assignment for the four-member excavation team led by Goldsmith. Their work was periodically monitored by Read Jones Christoffersen Consulting Engineers.

To avoid damaging the cornerstone and adjacent ones, hand tools and a carbide saw had to be used to cut away the thick, full-depth mortar. After the mortar had been cut away from the 3,700- pound cornerstone, a 50-tonne jack was needed to lift it, he says. Even then, it was immediately unclear that the time capsule was buried beneath. Using a metal detector loaned by a spectator, Goldsmith was able to locate it. After gently heating the soldering ends, he cut off the lid of the copper box with tin snips. After measuring it, he and his staff went back and fabricated "an exact replicate."

The next day, 100 years to the day of the cornerstone laying, the glass-protected contents were displayed at a public event attended by approximately 1,000 spectators.

"There were eight different newspapers, each with coverage of the events of  First World War," says Summerhill LCBO manager Reg Garner. Other contents include coins, stamps, and the station’s original blue felt building plans. Woodcliffe will be donating the contents to a museum, he says.

Two new time capsules were installed under the cornerstone the day after the event. In recognition of the importance of the wine industry to Ontario, a bottle of Ice Wine was buried in its own special package. The new copper box has an array of material including copies of Toronto’s newspapers, cell phones, and photos of Woodcliffe founder Paul Oberman, his wife Eve Lewis and their children. It will be opened in 2115.

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