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Unlocking history: Mysterious State House vault may soon be opened 

  • A locked safe on the balcony inside Room 103, often used by the Senate finance committee, is seen at the State House in Concord on Wednesday. The contents of the safe is unknown according to State House officials who plan to have it opened. ELIZABETH FRANTZ photos / Monitor staff

  • House Speaker Shawn Jasper is pushing to spend $475 for a locksmith to unlock the vault. Once scheduled, the public would be invited for the big reveal.

  • A locked safe door on the balcony inside Room 103, often used by the Senate finance committee, is seen at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A locked safe door on the balcony inside Room 103, often used by the Senate finance committee, is seen at the State House in Concord on Wednesday, April 26, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Friday, April 28, 2017

The locked vault is one of the greatest mysteries of the New Hampshire State House. It’s silver door, raised at least 10 feet off the ground in the rear of a Senate committee room, is sealed shut and has been for as long as anyone can remember.

No one knows the combination, when the 1800s-era vault was last opened and more importantly, what may be hidden inside the six-by-10-foot space.

In a few weeks, top lawmakers plan to have the lock cracked.

“We should know what’s in there,” said House Speaker Shawn Jasper. “It’s a little silly to say we got a vault and we don’t know if anything’s in it.”

Jasper wants to spend $475 on a locksmith, who will open the combination lock using an electronic tool that can detect tumbler movements. Once scheduled, the public would be invited for the big reveal.

In a best case scenario, the safe will be holding old portraits, priceless documents or old state records. Pragmatists caution that it will be empty.

According to State House lore, the vault was last opened in the mid-1900s. Before that, its use shifted as the room was repurposed though the decades. In the 1800s, the area served as the state treasury, then later as a department of motor vehicles where residents picked up their license plates, according to Secretary of State Bill Gardner. Now the vault is part of the back wall in State House Room 103, where members of the Senate finance committee meet to work on the budget.

“We don’t know why it got shut back up and we don’t know why it hasn’t been reopened,” said State House Visitor Center Director Virginia Drew. “It’s been a source of contention, because at the very most there’s a state treasure in there, and at the very least it’s more space.”

It’s not unheard of for people to stumble upon long lost artifacts within state buildings.

Mint condition copies of the Bill of Rights and the 11th Amendment, stashed inside a tin tube, were uncovered in 1978 when workers were cleaning a dusty vault at the State House, according to old news clippings. The priceless, parchment documents were among the originals sent to the 13 states in the late 1700s.

Just two years ago, a 140-year-old federal document signed by President Ulysses S. Grant was discovered inside a wooden crate hidden beneath steel shelving at the state archives building. The state received a copy of the order commemorating the centennial of American Independence in the late 1800s, but its whereabouts since then have largely been a mystery.

“It will be interesting to see what’s in (the vault),” said former House Speaker Gene Chandler, a Bartlett Republican. “I hope there’s no bodies, but you never know.”

Since the late 1980s, House leaders have made attempts to crack the safe, according to current House Chief of Staff Terry Pfaff. But they couldn’t scrounge up the money, find someone with the needed expertise or muster the political will.

Along came Jasper. The history buff has made preservation a priority. He converted a section of the speaker’s offices into a “Daniel Webster Room,” covering the walls with framed portraits and drawings of the politician that he had unearthed from the state’s archives.

“I have been talking about (opening the safe) for the better part of a decade. With everything going on, it’s one of those things that keeps slipping off the radar,” said Jasper, elected Speaker in 2014. “It takes somebody who is curious about these things.”

The State House is full of room-sized vaults installed as fireproof safes in the 1870s. Then, they mostly held documents and papers. Today, most are used for storage. A vault directly below the locked one holds large gold frames, Civil War swords and old portraits separated by pieces of cardboard.

All the safes are open except the one on the back wall of the Senate finance room, accessible by a spiral staircase that leads to a thin, metal balcony.

“It could be full of boxes of records, it could be entirely empty,” Jasper said. “I certainly don’t expect to find anything terribly valuable. But it’s there and it shouldn’t be locked.”