A safe adventure in the Williams River

CHESTER, Vt. – The Great New England Hurricane struck Chester in late September 1938. The water flooded Main Street, deep gullies laid open the flat ground and the E.R. Wiggins Lumber & Construction buildings, located just off Cobleigh Street, were swept downstream in the Williams River. The Wiggins safe was never to be seen again … or perchance it would surface 79 years later.

Plenty of team work was needed to get the chains connected to the safe. Photo by Brandy Todt

On a 1925 Sanborn Insurance map, Wiggins is shown to have constructed a variety of buildings in what is now the field behind the Fullerton Inn. Wiggins would have been the big carpentry company of the day; they built the Chester Masonic Lodge in 1922.

Herbert “Herbie” Randall, was born in the 1880s and a previous worker at Wiggins, lived in a modest home down the road from Ron Patch’s house on High Street. Patch spent a lot of his time at Randall’s place, learning and listening; it was during one of those times he told Patch about the missing safe. A fan of the Hardy Boys mystery books, Patch dreamed of one day finding the treasure.

A lovely summer day in 2016 Patch was fishing near the Swinging Bridge, which connects School Street to High Street, when he noticed something in the river. That section of the river is an “old friend” to Patch, as he crossed the bridge many times at a child. The object was lodged into the streambed and was about one-third above ground.

On behalf of the Chester Historical Society, Patch applied for an excavation permit. The permit gave the society one year to extract the object. Patch had hoped to remove it in the autumn of 2016 but he had to put the excavation on hold because the high water levels.

Finally, after keeping this a secret throughout the winter and spring, on June 29, Patch and Steve Lavoie went into the river to ascertain if the object was actually a safe. There were no hinges on the side or a handle or dial. There was a small opening but the remaining part of it was under water surrounded by rocks. Another day of pre-excavation was scheduled on July 10.

Lavoie was the second person to see the object in the river in the spring of 2016. He knew it wasn’t there in the autumn of 2015 and believes that the winter ice dislodged it from where it had been hiding.

   “I thought it was at first trash from Irene that had been loosened from the riverbank. Then after talking with Ron, I remembered hearing about the missing Wiggins safe as a child,” said Lavoie, ”Last Monday, I was ninety percent sure it was a safe before we got into the river, then after we went in for a look, I came out thinking it wasn’t a safe.”

If it wasn’t a safe, what could it be? Patch believed perhaps an antique kiln or part of a steam furnace from a factory.

Danny Clemons, Tom Hildreth, Steve Lavoie, Ron Patch, and John Russell arrived at School Street on Monday, July 10 filled with boyish excitement; the mystery was soon to be solved.

Patch, Russell and Lavoie – armed with his scuba gear – went into the river. First they had to remove the rocks that were around the object, and then they attempted to use crowbars to roll it over in order to expose the side that was face down in the riverbed. This side would determine if the object was a safe or not.

After discovering that the object was too heavy to roll, Russell brought in chains and a winch. Securing the chains to a buttonwood tree and using the power of the winch, the box started to budge and a corner pierced through the water’s surface.

“Its gonna come outta there. I wasn’t sure for a while but its gonna,” shouted Patch from the river to the remaining group of onlookers standing on the bridge.

As they continued to work, the object slowly lifted upright to reveal the front. A hinge and a door!

Patch points out the hinge. Photo by Brandy Todt

Unfortunately, the safe has already been pillaged; the square opening on the top was an unsuccessful attempt, but a large opening on the right side was a success. Whatever was in the safe has long been removed. However, this opening allowed Patch to put his hand inside and learn that the safe walls are made of six inch thick concrete mixed with stone.

The safe was too heavy to manually move up the steep river bank and had to wait until Saturday, July 15 when Palmer Goodrich of P&L Trucking, Logging, Excavating arrived with his log picker truck. After securing the safe with chains, it was hoisted effortlessly to the grass and onto P&L’s trailer then driven to the front lawn of the Chester Historical Society to drain and dry out.

At the Society, a more thorough examination took place. The measurements were 26 inches wide, 23 inches in depth and 31 inches in height. The door piece measured 22 inches wide by 27 inches high. The estimated weight is 1800lbs. There would have been casters on the bottom but those, the handle, one hinge, and lock are all gone. The concrete is covered in a steel boilerplate that was designed in panels; a style of the late 1880s. The safe is rusted but if and how to clean it has not yet been determined. It was noted that not all of the chambers inside have been plundered; therefore it is possible that when the safe is opened there could be identifying material.

  “The most exciting part for me was not when it was lifted from the river but when we had tilted it upright to reveal the hinge and door. It is a safe!” Russell said with wide-eyed enthusiasm.

It is a safe but is it the Wiggins safe?

One possible story is this safe was from a business, perhaps in Chester, Grafton or Springfield; it was stolen, broken into and then hauled to a river for disposal.

The plan is to “crack open” the safe from the back, therefore preserving the front and allowing the Society to display the relic. Jess Robinson, the state archeologist, will be present at the opening. Once it has been opened, there is sure to be more questions and hopefully some answers.

If anyone has information that can help solve the safe mystery, please contact either Ron Patch at knotz69@gmail.com, The Vermont Journal at editor@vermontjournal.com or 228-3600.

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