Who buried the pot of gold unearthed during construction of the downtown YMCA?
James “J.M.” Armstrong was dead by 1917, but he once owned the land. He certainly had enough gold, but leaving pots of money lying around wasn’t his style. Armstrong was among the pioneer printers of the Midwest. His company grew into the United States Playing Card Company and he served briefly in the Ohio Senate. J.M. married well, too. His wife, Martha, was the daughter of Caleb Williams, an enormously successful builder of fine stone homes in Cincinnati. It was J.M. Armstrong who purchased, in 1867, the parcel of land at the northwest corner of Elm and Canal streets on which the Cincinnati YMCA sits today.
It’s also unlikely that Agostine “Gus” Solari left that pot of gold there. Mr. Solari was among Cincinnati’s early Italian citizens and sold produce at the downtown markets. When he managed to scrape a few dollars together, he bought real estate. That’s how he purchased the lot from J.M. Armstrong in 1884.
Cincinnati’s Young Men’s Christian Association grew rapidly in the early years of the Twentieth Century. The “Y” had established outreach programs to the city’s African Americans, to railroad workers, to suburban families, and to soldiers heading off to World War I. By 1917, they needed room for expansion. Their building at the northwest corner of Seventh and Walnut was ready for replacement just a couple of decades after it opened.
Although Agostine Solari died in 1904, his heirs still held title to the property along the canal and sold it to the YMCA. William Howard Taft, in between gigs as president and chief justice, popped into town to lay the cornerstone on 31 March 1917 for the new building on the north side of the canal.
A month later, workmen struck gold.
When workmen found a real pot of gold at the downtown YMCA, a lot of Cincinnati property owners fantasized about potential riches in their own backyards.
It was an African American laborer named Herbert Solid who found the gold, according to witnesses. Here is how the Cincinnati Post [27 April 1917] reported it:
“Herbert Solid, negro laborer, employed in excavating the site for the new Y.M.C.A., hit something solid with his pick. Investigating what the solid substance was, Solid discovered it was a crock. When he hit the crock a blow with his pick it broke and a flood of gold rolled out.”
A fat lot of good it did Mr. Solid. As all of his coworkers rushed to grab a share, Herbert Solid managed to snag only two $20 gold pieces. He gave one away and was almost immediately charged with grand larceny. The rest of his crew, seizing what they could, escaped into thin air.
Judge W. Meredith Yeatman of the Municipal Court very sensibly exonerated Mr. Solid because, without a victim, there can be no larceny and the fact was that no one knew who owned the gold.
Walter Weise, the contractor in charge of excavation at the YMCA site, said the gold belonged to him. His contract gave him ownership of any lead pipe or other salvage recovered during excavation.
Of course, as landowners, the Young Men’s Christian Association had a claim, and could have used the bonus to offset their construction costs.
The City of Cincinnati weighed in with an opinion that the crock was found on Charles Street, a public thoroughfare running north of the YMCA building. This is public land, not YMCA property, and therefore the gold belonged to the municipal government.
Since it disappeared so quickly one wonders who counted it, but all of the news stories agree that Mr. Solid’s crock contained $2,000 in gold coin.
The Cincinnati Post calculated that the owner, whoever he or she was, had made a poor decision burying the gold instead of entrusting it to a bank. Ignoring the bank panics of 1873, 1893, 1896, 1907, and 1910, not to mention a few miscellaneous recessions in between, the Post calculated that $2,000 invested in 1867 would have accrued something like $4,000 in interest alone by 1917.
The Central Trust Company picked up that theme in a newspaper advertisement [13 May 1917]:
“For years it lay deep in the damp earth, deep under the site of the new Y.M.C.A. building until it was turned up by the pick of a laborer. It did no work – no good. It drew no interest . . . The Lesson of the Pot of Gold should come home to you. We hope it will cause you to visit the oldest incorporated trust company in Ohio.”
A handy online inflation calculator suggests that $2,000 in gold in 1917 would be worth something like $38,000 today.
More recently, the YMCA underwent extensive renovations and reopened with fanfare on 21 July 2016. There seem to be no reports of unclaimed riches discovered during that project.
This article was reposted with permission from Greg Hand, editor of Cincinnati Curiosities.