By ERIN ROLL
It all started with the discovery of a bottle on a construction site.
But it wasn’t just any bottle, it held a century-old clue about the people who helped build Montclair State University’s buildings.
Renovations at Montclair State University’s College Hall in November turned up a message in a bottle, left there by a construction worker 112 years ago.
The bottle prompted the university community to want to learn more about the people who once helped build Montclair State University’s buildings, and to know if they had any descendants still living.
In November, construction crews working on the overhaul of College Hall found the bottle, which contained a note dated July 3, 1907. Robert Kanaby, one of the workers on the site, was working with a crew demolishing a wall when there was a sound of breaking glass and he found the bottle, now broken, and the note. The note read: “This is to certify that this wall was built by two bricklayers from Newark, N.J., by the names of William Hanly and James Lennon, members of No. 3 of the [Bricklayers and Masons International Union] of America.”
Kanaby brought the bottle fragments and the note to university staff. “It gave me goosebumps. My hair stood on end,” he said of realizing that the bottle and its contents were 112 years old.
“I can’t say that I remember seeing anything as wonderful as finding a signed note in a bottle in the recesses of a building’s foundation. That is unique in Montclair history,” said Mike Farrelly, Montclair’s town historian.
Lennon, one of the bricklayers working on the building, wrote the note and put it into an ale bottle. The bottle was then placed into a niche inside the wall and bricked up, remaining undisturbed for just over a century.
Lorraine Arnold, a genealogist and a Montclair State University graduate, heard about the bottle’s discovery, and learned that the university was having difficulty finding descendants of Lennon and Hanley. She offered her services, and began combing through census records, birth and death certificates, and other documents from the New Jersey State Archives. “Connect the dots, so to speak,” Arnold said.
She found an obituary for the wife of one of the workers, and discovered that the other worker had been a pallbearer at the woman’s funeral. That, she said, showed just how much of a bond there is between members of a union and their families.
The note also names some of the other workers who were at work on the site, including a bricklaying crew member named P.W. Lynch.
Arnold says she believes the story has resonated with people for several reasons. “I think what it is, is people are becoming more aware of their history, becoming more aware of their ancestors,” she said.
History books are full of the prominent names associated with buildings: the architects, the owners, the significant donors, and so on, Arnold said. “But you don’t see the names of the people who actually did the work,” she said. The fact that the builders put their names on the note is very telling: “It shows pride in their work.”
Descendants of the workers began hearing about the story of the bottle’s discovery and reaching out to the university.
There have been examples of other buildings in Montclair having time capsules built into their cornerstones, with one example being the now-demolished Fellowe building on South Fullerton Avenue, near St. Luke’s Church. A time capsule, or small box, was found inside the building as it was being demolished, Farrelly said.
Farrelly said that whenever he worked on a construction site, someone often tried to leave something behind in the site. “It has to be hidden so the bosses, or owners don’t get mad. It usually doesn’t get found, but there is always a secret hope that it will be uncovered one day. I guess it’s human nature.”
The bottle’s discovery made headlines across the United States and around the world, with major media outlets picking up on the story.
College Hall is expected to be completed by this summer. Once construction is completed on the College Hall renovations, there will be a rededication ceremony at the university, and the descendants of Lennon and Hanly’s families will be invited, the university said.
“I think this story touches us differently than boring tomes on history, or oft repeated tales told at the dinner table, that change a little each time they are told. I think this story brought a small piece of history to our attention in an unexpected way. It is factual and can be researched. It shines a light on the fact that our ancestors and people who went before us were proud of what they accomplished just as we are silently proud of what we do everyday,” Farrelly said.