In 1989, the state of Washington celebrated its 100th birthday as a young girl sat inside the capitol dome and swore an oath.
That oath involved a two-ton green vault—and secrets that won’t be revealed for 300 years.
“From that day on, I was more interested in the great state of Washington,” says Jen Estroff ’03. “I thought about what our past had been, and what our future would be.”
Twenty-five years later, on George Washington’s birthday, Estroff stood on the capitol steps surrounded by children who swore the same oath she once did: That they will return to Olympia and fulfill their duty as Keepers of the Capsule.
“I didn’t come back to the capitol until 2009 when I was part of a political leadership program,” says Estroff, now chair of the board for Keepers of the Capsule. “I proudly led my classmates to the vault and pointed at the explanation of the Centennial Time Capsule Project. I realized that very few people who worked at the capitol knew exactly what the big green box was.
“I had studied science and art and history and racial equity and justice and wanted to make sure all of Washington’s innovations and missteps could be studied by future generations. And being a Keeper of the Capsule was how all of those experiences would come together.”
Most time capsules are buried once, then dug up decades—or centuries—later. This project is different. When it was designed in 1989, it was the world’s first time capsule that could be updated.
From the beginning, writer Knute Berger was involved. He helped start the project and was there on February 22 to open the vault and insert the second capsule, filled in 2014.
“Today is a very special day for Washington state,” Berger said. “We’re sending a time capsule on an unknown journey on the seas of time.”
Two of the 16 slots are now full. Each new entry put inside by the Keepers of the Capsule is made of non-corrosive stainless steel. After the items are put inside, the container is filled with argon gas and sealed by Highline Engineering in Richland.
“They are unique snapshots,” says Berger. “They’re like letters to the future. Acts of hope and imagination. There’s poetry, oral history. Lottery tickets and spare change.”
Each container has major books by Northwest authors, archives of newspapers, files of music and art. Or pieces of culture like a Felix Hernandez bobble head. Electronic items are put inside without batteries, which would corrode. Instructions are left inside with the watts and voltage to make those items turn back on.
Berger started this project in his 30s and is now in his 60s. He’d be 85 in 2039.
“Perhaps my clone will attend in 2389,” he says.
On this February day, Estroff was joined by other original Keepers of the Capsule, including fellow board member Erica (Mortensen) Gordon ’02, to insert and dedicate the new capsule along with boys and girls who’d just sworn their oath, kids from Longview and Spokane, from Vancouver and Ephrata and Renton, all traveling on a sunny weekend to take part in this tradition.
The capsule was opened with a combination from WSU Libraries, who had received it in 1990.
“The 2014 capsule contains the story of Washington state’s past 25 years,” says Estroff. “I like the idea of sharing our stories with people 375 years from now.”
She told the new generation that it was okay to get one of their Keeper shirts dirty, that it was fine to wear it.
“But put your Keeper medallion up somewhere you can see it,” she explained to them. “Ask your family to put your shirt for 2039 away somewhere safe, then make sure you help them remember where that is. Wherever you go, whatever challenges you face, whatever success you achieve, remember that you’re part of a larger story. You’re part of the story of Washington state.
“And we’ll start again in 2038, when we call the Keepers back together to get ready for Washington’s 150th anniversary. We’ll hear your stories, and it will be your turn to choose which stories we send into the future.”