Hazardous Consequences: Mystery of the Vault Contest


Everyone gets two (2) guesses – their “real” guess and an outlandish assessment (please, keep it clean. Yes, skeletons are welcomed).


Over on SqueezeThePulp former (and soon to be?) Carrboro Board of Alderman candidate, Orange County Democrat Women President, local businessperson and activist Katrina Ryan has offered a delicious La Rez meal for the grand prize winner and guest.

Thanks Katrina for stirring the pot!


(click to expand)

I’ve covered the devolving fortunes of our Town’s Downtown Development Initiative (DDI) since last Fall.

Throughout, I’ve referred to the Lot #5 development as an expensive boondoggle, a miserable mistake, poor public policy, a looming Behometh, a monument to the triumph of political ego over the public good.

I’ve also called it a potentially vast money pit.

Our elected folks might argue with most of my characterizations but not, it appears, my claim that Lot #5 is a money pit.

According to the recent environmental assay, Lot #5 contains

An unknown feature located at position A was identified as a potential metal vault approximately 8ft by 10 in area.

Former Councilmember, NC legislative bill drafter and longtime Chapel Hill observer Gerry Cohen speculates on the vaults contents:

I’m going to assume that Ross Norwood abandoned the vault when his lease was terminated around 1970 and he was kicked off the site. I will offer advance speculation that it is filled with cash. I’m being serious about this. I think I posted earlier about the swindle with his dollar bill machines, and there was a post in another thread on OP from a former employee at Ross Norwood Esso about “questionable ethics”.

Like Geraldo Rivera’s Al Capone’s mystery vault stunt, the over-hyped Lot #5 project is already fated to disappoint.

Whether the vault exists, has cash in it or not, I thought the mystery was worth some speculative fun and a community reward.

To that end, I’m sponsoring a contest to reward two local community organizations with cash donations.

Post a comment on this thread detailing your ideas about:

  • the most outlandish, Chapel Hill related, treasure this vault might contain (Dean Smith’s bronzed baby shoes?) and
  • the most accurate description you can summon on the vaults contents (a $100,000 in singles as per Gerry) or what “the vault” might actually be (Jerry Garcia’s missing VW Bus?)


  • Please keep entries clean and “family friendly”.
  • Winners will be selected based on accuracy and creativity.
  • I will contribute $150 to each winning person’s local charity/organization of choice.
  • Though the awards will stay within our local community, local residency is not required.
  • Sorry, no one working for the construction or excavation firms can participate.
  • Contest closes one hour before the vault is revealed.
  • Finally, while I’ll be the sole judge on both criteria, please feel free to influence the outcome by voting for what you think is the most outlandish, creative idea.

So, some good – and a bit of socially redeeming revenue – will come from building on Lot #5.

I invite other organizations more PR savvy (Liz, maybe the Downtown Partnership?) to build an “event” around this vaults unveiling – it might be the most “rewarding” aspect of this project for years to come.


11 responses to “Hazardous Consequences: Mystery of the Vault Contest”

  1. Gerry Avatar

    Thanks for running the contest. I have no actual information about what the vault might contain, just speculation based on Ross Norwood Esso. My suggestions of a vault of cash are a bit tongue in cheek, but are within the margin of error.

    See Mike’s entry
    http://orangepolitics.org/2007/02/share-your-chapel-hill-story/ Comment at 7:07am 3/21/2007 “Worked at Norwoods Esso
    – Norwood challenged good ethics – daily”

    and mine
    http://orangepolitics.org/2007/02/open-thread-for-lot-5/#comment-109053 Comment at 6:18am 2/16/2007
    “This is WWWAAAYY off the point of RAM, but it is about lot 5 and vicinity. but I remember doing a Daily Tar Heel expose piece on Norwood’s ESSO around 1970, he had one of the earliest self-service gas pumps, but this was b4 credit card activation and there was a machine you fed dollar bills into. The story ’round town was that you didn’t actually get any gas, it stole your money, when you complained, you’d just get the stare down from Norwood or one of his thug attendants. I went with five ones, put them in the machine, took out the pump handle, the machine did nothing, no gas, no nothing. I went to the attendant, who came over and verified that I did not get any gas, and brazenly told me that if it did not pump any gas, it meant that I had NOT out any money in. I got out my reporter looking notepad and asked the attendant for his name. He asked me why, I told him “for the name on the warrant”. He unlocked the machine, it was JAMMED to the gills with an enormous amount of cash. He asked me how much I lost, I told him $5, he reached in and got out five ones, handed them to me and stormed off after locking the machine. I remember writing either an news story or column about it. Norwood had expanded the station, and at some point when his lease was cancelled, he got up on the roof and began to saw off the roof at the point of the old building line saying he was removing the expansion. The lessor got a court order to get him off the property. For the longest time you could see the power saw marks on the roof. This was today in Lot 5 history.”

  2. Administrator Avatar

    So, Gerry, do you want to stick with massive wads of cash? Maybe they added a secret chute that would send 1 of every 2 bills down to the hidden vault?

    What about an outlandish suggestion? Did Chapel Hill have its own Roswell incident – with the alien remains safely tucked away under Lot #5?

  3. Gerry Avatar

    Based on the graphic Will posted with the location of the underground vault and my recollection of the site in the early 70s, I’d say it was located right under where the service station was.

  4. Gerry Avatar

    Interestingly reading the site report from the geophysical consultants, under site history it mentions ONLY residences on the site and speculates about the type of heating oil used, but later in the report it talks about former service station(s) on the site.

  5. Pat Day Avatar
    Pat Day

    A stack of well used, old Rigid Tool calendars.

  6. Administrator Avatar

    The report is an interesting read – including some bits that appeared to be added part way through the report like the points you noted. For instance, page 6 of the letter you reference says:

    Prior to construction of the parking lot in the mid-1980’s, the subject property was used for residential purposes. Information was not available regarding the heating systems used at former residences, which was reported in the Phase I ESA as an on-site recognized environmental condition (REC).

    No mention of Hunam’s.

    Then they reference the removal of the Happy Store gas station tanks as a REC:

    Additionally, Top of the Hill, Inc., located at 100 East Franklin Street and approximately 700 feet up-gradient from the subject property, was reported to have had a release from their underground storage tank (UST) systems (which were removed on July 20, 1992). In the
    report, ECS identified this incident as an off-site REC.

    but doesn’t make any case for that leak being associated with the current situation (in other words, why mention it?).

    The 2004 report [PDF] goes into some detail about this

    Top of the Hill, INC., located at 100 East Franklin Street, is approximately 700 feet from the subject property and is listed under the IMD, LUST, and UST databases. Six (6) USTs were removed from the site on July 20, 1992. The report provides an incident description stating that a soil analysis revealed contamination. The incident is dated as having occurred on August 15, 1990. According to the SER report, the
    site has not been closed by NCDENR. Because of the distance to the subject site and the facility’s elevated hydraulic gradient, it should be considered a recognized off-site environmental condition.

    with a further note that this represents the one (1) potential off-site source of contamination. Of course, the contamination noted in the new report has a stronger correlation with the two “mystery” features than the Happy Store.

    McFarling’s Exxon (which has recently sold, btw) doesn’t appear to have had any issues that would contribute to mystery feature B areas contamination (SB 1,10). The other significant contamination clusters just South of the mystery vault (feature A – SB 5,6,7).

    Strangely, while they note “The lot slopes from the eastern-central portion of the site slightly toward Franklin” and both cluster of contamination spread South from both features towards Franklin St. – the chance that these features are associated with the contamination are discounted.

  7. Katrina Avatar

    One of my neighbors has just entered his guess over at Squeeze the Pulp, and a timely one it is:


    I’ll leave you to decide which catagory the guess falls into.

  8. Terri Avatar

    Cross posting from OP:

    I think the vault is really a time capsule, buried in 1976.

    Inside will be: the missing portrait of Rev. James Pleasant Mason; a copy of Give Us a Break (Arrogance); the first pair of Birkenstocks ever sold in Chapel Hill; the first menu from Wildflower Kitchen; and the secret recipe for Limeade from Colonial Drugs.

  9. eneely Avatar

    A layer of dust. Can’t wait for the dinner at La Rez!

  10. Kirk Ross Avatar

    Tried to leave this over the weekend.

    My offbeat guess: can’t remember, but it sure was funny at the time

    My actual guess: an old greasepit. The ones under Copytron were covered with metal plates.

  11. Vault occupant Avatar
    Vault occupant

    The asnwer is old air, for both.

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