Amid stacks of bright orange stadium seats on the floor of the vacant Astrodome on Thursday morning, a cadre of Harris County sheriff’s deputies using high-tech ground penetrating radar began the search for a lost and nearly forgotten relic.
No outsiders were allowed behind the chained and padlocked gates. A reporter and photographer were escorted off the premises.
Nothing to see here. Move along.
For hours, they scoured the floor of the former “Eighth Wonder of the World,” hands on their hips, watching intently for a sign of what was buried in the thick slab of concrete.
They weren’t searching for clues to some heinous crime — they were looking for a metal canister containing souvenirs from the past.
Last month, County Judge Ed Emmett learned that 52 years ago, when workers broke ground on what then was called simply the Domed Stadium, they buried a time capsule in the building’s foundation.
The only problem? No one has a clue where the thing was buried.
Now, with the dome’s future in question, the discovery of the capsule itself would only bolster the lore around the former home of the Astros that is now enveloped in a haze of nostalgia. This month, 25,000 Houstonians stood in line to get a rare glimpse inside the iconic building to mark the anniversary of its opening.
For years, officials have discussed demolishing it; Emmett hopes it can be saved and turned into the world’s largest indoor park.
The existence of the capsule has remained somewhat of a mystery over the years.
Harris County Archivist Sarah Canby Jackson said that before the Houston Chronicle contacted her, she had never heard of it.
Beth Wiedower, director of the Houston office of the National Trust for Historic Preservation, said she had heard about the capsule and found confirmation of it in James Gast’s 2014 book, The Astrodome: Building an American Spectacle.
Mike Acosta, the Astros historian, learned of it in 1999 and asked the few people who were at the groundbreaking and were still around if they remembered where it was buried. None did.
Acosta told Emmett about it last month. At the suggestion of a staffer, Emmett asked the sheriff’s bomb squad to try to find the capsule. They had the equipment to detect anomalies under the ground, like buried bodies and bombs. Maybe they could use it to find a time capsule.
Should the search crew find a box of historic keepsakes, it would not be the first such occurrence, Jackson said.
During restoration of the old criminal courthouse on Preston Street in 2003, crews uncovered a 20-by-13-inch copper box that had been placed behind a brick wall near a plaque at the time of the building’s construction in 1952. That box contained snapshots, old coins, a tie clip, a 1951 map and a corroded news reel.
The Astrodome capsule contains mementos from 20 consulates, as enduring symbols of those countries. But what condition the capsule is in is anyone’s guess. When Goliad County opened up its historic time capsule, water had penetrated it and most of the objects were undecipherable. It was “a moldy mess,” Jackson said.
Water damage is a real possibility for the dome’s capsule, Acosta said.
“You have to consider the land that the Astrodome is built on had underground streams,” Acosta said. “The area behind home plate was actually called ‘the catfish hole.’ You literally had underground streams, and there were pumps that would keep the water out.”
Acosta’s black-and-white news photographs from March 27, 1963, showed a throng of finely dressed dignitaries, including the team’s owners and city, county and consular officials, assembled around a neatly dug pit with concrete pouring down onto a shiny metallic cylinder, perched on criss-crossed rebar.
On Wednesday, Acosta reviewed his theories with the search crew. He had already scoured the photos and overlaid the original blueprints, before narrowing the search down to an area near a retaining wall behind home plate, somewhere between columns 16 and 19.
He thinks the capsule might be 4 or 5 feet deep. But the sheriff’s equipment should be able to detect it at that depth.
On Thursday, the bomb squad identified several possible locations where the time capsule could be. Sheriff’s officials began mapping the floor behind the home plate area, one little square at a time.
The deputies remained steady and focused, Acosta said, but for him the whole endeavor “has a Raiders of the Lost Ark type of feel to it. It’s very archaeological.”
He felt optimistic searchers would ultimately unearth the treasure. The bomb unit is set to resume its investigation this week.
“It’s definitely a good mystery. It’s a question that people might believe would never be answered,” Acosta said. “I think, all in all, if you’re playing that game of hot and cold, I think we are in the hot zone right now.”