3-ton safe facing insecure future

Bank vault from 1870s may be scrap metal unless owner is found

Hampstead

January 16, 2000|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

If only the bank had lasted as long as the safe.

First National Bank of Hampstead opened in 1910 and closed during the Great Depression. But the 6,000-pound cannonball pedestal safe sat there until last week, when a demolition crew hauled it away to make room for a new police station.

After protecting money and treasures for decades, the elegant sphere could end up as scrap metal unless someone comes forward with a very strong concrete slab and a lot of cash to haul the safe.

"There's no place in town we can put it," said Hampstead Town Manager Kenneth Decker. Even with an offer from Carroll County Bank & Trust Co. to provide help with hauling and temporary storage, the town had to take a pass on accepting responsibility for a white elephant that weighs as much as a real one.

Some town history buffs suggested that the safe go in the old train depot, which will be turned into a museum, but the depot's plank floor would never support the 3-ton weight. And a hole would have to be cut into a wall to get the safe inside. "The train station foundation is still trying to pay for a roof and siding," Decker said.

The safe was made by Corliss Safe Manufacturing Co. of Providence, R. I., during the 1870s, according to dates cast into its iron face.

Its heart is an iron sphere with three compartments, resting inside a round iron shell. The inner sphere rotates so that compartment doors can face the back of the shell, and the inner sphere can be locked in place.

In November, the contractor hired to renovate the bank building opened the safe to find 49 gold and silver antique pocket watches in one of the compartments, forgotten by the building's last tenant, Roy's Never Stop Clock Shop. The watches were returned to the store, now operated by Roy Ashe's son, Steve, a few blocks north on Main Street.

Steve Ashe said his father, now retired in Florida, had used the safe. But after the landlord died, no one else knew how to get into it.

Decker said the safe's appearance, as well as the surprise treasure inside, captured the fancy of many in town.

"But no one has put any cash on the table," he said. "We've had calls from people, but it's more like, `If you're not doing anything with that safe, you can drop it off in my driveway.' "

Such callers, he said, don't know what they're asking for.

The safe weighs about 1 or 2 tons less than an adult elephant, according to the Baltimore Zoo -- heavy enough to crack a driveway, Decker said.

An elephant could at least walk on its own, but it took a crew of five men 10 days to get the safe out of the old bank.

The man in charge of removing it used to live next to the building when it was Roy's.

"I used to go in there and look at that safe, and wonder how it would ever come out," said Bob Cote, field supervisor for Stop Corp., the White Hall demolition company that had the subcontract for removing the safe.

"Well, now I know," Cote said. "A lot of blood, sweat and tears."

No blood, actually, said Rowland Kempler, foreman for the job. No one was hurt, but they were pretty worn out and relieved when it finally rolled onto a trailer and was hauled to the demolition company's Harford County shop.

Before it could be rolled out, the crew had to reinforce the floor between the concrete slab on which the safe sat and the front door.

The men also had to take apart a steel vault the size of a bathroom, which surrounded the safe. They used acetylene torches to take off the door and one wall, a process that took about a day and a half. With steel panels weighing 300 to 500 pounds each, work has to go slowly and carefully to ensure no one gets hurt, Kempler said.

Earl Jones, one of the Stop Corp. laborers on the job, shook his head at the safe and vault that he believed was much more secure than it ever needed to be.

"If you put a stick of dynamite in there, the door wouldn't blow off," Jones said. "It would shake the ground, but that door wouldn't move."

That's why, he guessed, stories of old bank robberies usually involve a holdup while tellers are there to open the safe.

When the contractor first opened the safe in November, the inner sphere was not locked in place, but the compartment doors were, said Larry Why, construction supervisor for James F. Knott Construction Co., which has a contract to renovate the building. To remove the compartment doors, the screw that held the hinges in place was pulled out.

This month, the demolition company spent 10 days preparing to move the safe from the spot it occupied for 90 years. On Thursday, it took two hours to move the safe onto a trailer. It was hauled down Main Street to Harford County to be stored by Stop Corp. until the company finds someone to buy it.

Cote said Stop Corp., the safe's owner, will look for a collector or other party interested in such antiquities -- but not for too long. He has contacted trade and professional associations with no success yet. He searched the Internet but found no collectors of safes.

"I'm trying to sell it," he said. "I'll give it two weeks."

If no one buys it by then, he said, it goes to the scrap yard.

Decker said he hopes the safe will find its way to someone who wants it.

"The history will travel with the safe wherever it goes," he said. "Even if it ends up in Montana, it will still be a safe that came from Hampstead, Maryland."

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