Big vault in Oregon Capitol full of history - and mystery

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — At the Oregon State Treasurer's office in Salem, there's an imposing relic from the days before electronic banking.

The state treasurer's vault at the Capitol is a curiosity, no longer serving its intended purpose. The vault is more than a hunk of impenetrable metal.

On a recent tour, Oregon State Treasurer Ted Wheeler pulled opened the vault's door, grasping the spoked wheel used to lock it down.

"Why am I thinking of Captain Nemo when I do that?" Wheeler said.

Gleaming plate steel parts give the vault a steampunk look. Moving the two-foot-thick door is like nudging an elephant: after it starts to move, it's hard to stop.

The Mosler Safe Co., a storied Ohio safe maker that also made Sherman tank turrets in World War II, built the vault in the 1930s.

Cashier checks for investments and money for the state payroll once were stored inside. Cashier checks were held in the vault well into the mid-1990s.

Decades ago, state workers could cash their paychecks at the treasurer's office while a state trooper with a dog stood guard, Wheeler said.

These days, officials don't bother locking the vault. There's no gold or greenbacks, only office supplies and stacks of children's books for a treasury-backed financial literacy program.

The space is compact, about 11 paces long by 6 paces wide. Because the vault is uncomfortably warm or cold, depending on the season, using it for office space isn't practical.

It was, however, a den for a large, stuffed toy python during Oregon State Treasurer Ben Westlund's tenure.

An intern for former State Treasurer Randall Edwards managed to lock himself behind a steel gate inside the vault, according to treasury office lore.

Another version of the story is a child on guided tour of the Capitol briefly was trapped.

The vault's designers thought about such mishaps, adding a small opening in its side to get air and water to someone stuck behind the main vault door.

Oregon Gov. Barbara Roberts' security detail evaluated using the vault as an emergency shelter for the governor in the event of an earthquake, said one longtime treasury employee.

A few nooks remain a mystery on par with Al Capone's "secret" vault opened by Geraldo Rivera in the 1980s.

Between the transition from one state treasurer to another, the combinations to six safes inside the vault were lost. As part of a state audit last year, officials decided it was time to see what was inside, Wheeler said.

A safe specialist was hired. The professional, Wheeler said, arrived with computer controlled gear that automatically manipulated the safes' dials.

Unlike in movies about the big heist, all the safes didn't click open after a dramatic pause. A couple of them remained locked, their combinations unknown.

Penney Ryan, director of executive services and a longtime employee of the Oregon State Treasury, doubts the safes contain anything of value.

"We know there's not a gold bar back there," Ryan said. The last official use of the safes was for storing microfiche and back-up tapes of electronic records, she said.

Until recently, a visitor could pop in without an appointment and be taken to the vault by treasury staff. The policy changed in June after demonstrators occupied offices at the Capitol. Only organized tour groups are given tours.

"Kids love it for obvious reason," Wheeler said. If a group of children want to tour the vault, the treasurer will find a way to accommodate them, he said.

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Information from: Statesman Journal, http://www.statesmanjournal.com

Copyright 2012 The Associated Press