Safe sealed for 40 years until museum visitor spins the dial

What was locked inside the safe was a 40-year mystery. The combination had defeated locksmiths and befuddled former employees at the hotel it once occupied. That was till two weeks ago.

'I asked him if he was a professional safecracker'

Stephen Mills, left, was on a tour of the Vermilion, Alta., museum when he surprised his tour guide Tom Kibblewhite, right, by cracking a safe unopened for more than 40 years. (Chris Stead)

What was locked inside the safe was a 40-year mystery.

The combination had defeated locksmiths and befuddled former employees at the hotel it once occupied.

That was till two weeks ago.

That's when the safe was opened by an unwitting visitor to the Vermilion, Alta., museum, where the safe sits in the basement.

"I had moved on to the next item on the tour when he just went down on knees and started playing with the dial," recalled Tom Kibblewhite, a longtime volunteer at the town museum.

"It couldn't have been more than two minutes, he tried the handle and the safe opened," Kibblewhite said in an interview Monday with CBC Radio's Edmonton AM.  "I was in total shock. And he was too.

"I asked him if he was a professional safecracker. He said, 'No, I'm a machinist. I work in Fort McMurray.'"

The one-ton safe came from the town's old Brunswick Hotel which closed in the 1970s.

Donated to the museum in the mid-1990s, the safe had been lowered onto a specially reinforced floor in the basement with a picker crane.

The manager for the hotel couldn't recall the combination or if anything of value was locked inside. Countless visitors to the museum had tinkered with the dial over the years to no avail.

Years ago, a locksmith told museum volunteers the safe was likely too old and seized up to ever be opened again.

"We had a conference call going with several of us standing around the safe, trying what the locksmith was telling us," Kibblewhite recalled. 

"But we tried all the combinations that she gave us with no results. And her response was that, probably it sat so long, we may have got the right combination but the gears weren't falling into place fast enough.

"It was a mystery to us," Kibblewhite said. "We didn't know what was in it. We couldn't get into it."

'Quite the time capsule'

Mills came across the safe during a tour of the museum this May long weekend. He was on vacation in Vermilion with his family when they decided to stop in to tour the exhibits.

Kibblewhite was happy to oblige and eventually led the family down to the basement for a look at the safe.

Mills was immediately intrigued.

"I said, 'That's quite the time capsule.' I said, 'I'm going to try this now for a laugh.'" 

He leaned his ear close to the lock, began cranking the lock and listened intently for the telltale click, click, click.

"I put in 20-40-60, three times right, three times left, one time right. Tried it, it's like, oh my God."

The door creaked open. The room filled with a cloud of dust and a round of applause.

"When it opens, total surprise and amazement, right? I have a little bit of luck but hopefully I didn't use it all up on this one."

Duct tape and a prayer

Alas, there was no valuable treasure inside the safe, just a few documents from its final days inside the old hotel. There was a dusty pad full of restaurant orders and a forgotten payslip from 1977.

"It listed 4½ hours at time and a half, seven hours of straight time and $42 deducted for meals and it came to a total payout of $9 and some cents."

And while the code has been cracked, museum staff are still wary of the stubborn lock.

They have left the door of the safe jammed open, and plan to keep it that way.

"Right now, we've just kept a piece of duct tape over the holes where the pins go in to close it," Kibblewhite said.

"We're probably going to keep it open."

With files from Madeleine Cummings