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An Old Town Mystery is Solved

A mystery was finally solved after homeowner David Hudgins wondered why snow always melted in a perfect circle.

"I knew something was wrong," said Hudgins. "We noticed the odd melting pattern after a snowfall."

And it was a recurring phenomenon until David and his wife, Ann, attempted to expand the kitchen at the rear of their late 1700's Flounder home at 909 Cameron St., Old Town. That's when a 13-foot deep, 10-foot wide abandoned cistern, dating to the early 1800's was discovered.

"We estimate that the cistern goes back to about 1820 or '25 because city water became available about 1850," said Francine Bromberg, preservation archeologist, Alexandria Archeology, a division of the Office of Historic Alexandria.

"It's an exciting find. One of the coolest things about it was that there was a very clear hand print on the interior wall. It was probably left by an African American slave who was putting the finishing touches on the plaster inside," Bromberg speculated.

The cistern consists of courses of brick with a dividing wall in the middle and domed off at the top, according to Hudgins. "I told my architect that it might be a well, but, we never expected this," Hudgins said.

Residents of the property since 1996, Hudgins and his wife, Ann, only became aware of the true nature of the mystery spot when they began to construct an addition for their kitchen which would expand into the yard. "I'm sure the previous owners had no idea it was there," he exclaimed.

"Cisterns were designed to capture rain water on one side and provide clean water on the opposite, that's why the dividing wall, with finished plaster on the useable water side, " Bromberg explained. "Rain water would flow through three holes at the bottom of the catch side, filter through stone and charcoal, and fill up the useable water side. Clean water was then bailed or pumped out for use."

PLANS CALL FOR the cistern to be filled in with excavatable materials so that the structure will be preserved, according to Harry Braswell, owner of Harry Braswell, Inc., Alexandria, builder of the renovation project.

"We have to fill it in because the kitchen structure can not span it and would collapse if we tried to do that. The material we will use is engineered to support the structure over it but can be dug out just like dirt, if anyone would choose to do that in the future," Braswell explained.

"Originally, we thought that we might be able to incorporate it into the new design, but, it was prohibitive," Hudgins acknowledged. "To think that something this massive was actually dug by hand is amazing."

The validity of that statement was verified by the handprint on the dividing wall. A footnote to history, that has been and will continue to be, frozen in time.