Any project in Old Town Alexandria involves an element of mystery. Nobody really knows what’s underneath the ground. And digging just a few feet can unearth the long lost secrets of the past.
In the past few months, two projects have created an opportunity for city archeologists to make major historic discoveries. A house renovation on Fairfax Street uncovered a 19th-century cistern and the installation of a sewer line at the corner of Gibbon Street and Pitt Street exposed one of the city’s old fire wells.
“All of Alexandria has prehistoric and historic period sites,” said Steven Shephard, assistant city archaeologist. “Learning about these sites helps us to save the story of the past.”
THE CISTERN that was discovered on South Fairfax Street was buried just behind a house that was built in 1845. When city archeologists arrived on the scene to investigate, they discovered a domed structure under the ground. After they brought a backhoe and organized the careful removal of dirt from the structure, the archeologists found that the structure of the cistern was intact — an underground cylinder 10 feet in diameter and 10 feet deep.
“We had never really seen one that was intact like this,” said Shephard. “Every time we see one of these, we are reminded of how bad the water must have been in Alexandria.”
Archeologists say that the water cistern was used for filtering water in the 19th century, when dirty water often led to health problems. It was constructed by digging down into the clay subsoil and then plastering the inside walls. No bricks were used in the construction of the cistern.
“This is a very unusual construction,” Shephard said. “I would presume this would be a cheaper way to go about building something like this.”
The discovery of the cistern on Fairfax Street is consistent with four other historic water-filtration systems that have been found in Old Town. Although all the cisterns had similar functions, archeologists say that the one on Fairfax Street is unusual because of the construction techniques that were used to create it. They were surprised to discover that the cylinder was not made of brick, and they say that the method of applying plaster directly to the clay was rare.
THE FIRE WELL at the corner of Gibbon and South Pitt was a surprise discovery that was unearthed as a result of the installation of a new sewer line. Surprisingly, the well was intact — a circular brick structure 9 feet in diameter that is 8 feet deep. It was one of several fire wells that were scattered through Old Town at intersections, where fires were more likely to be a problem. The wells were also used as a neighborhood source of water.
“It’s not until 1852 that the city had its first water system,” said Jim Mackay, acting director of the Office of Historic Alexandria. “Until that point, you’ve got people building wells.”
When the fire well was originally built, it was partially in the street — extending well into the sidewalk. The well was covered with wide planks that rested on timber supporting joists. A hole in the center of the planks gave access to a pump that could provide access to the water in the event of a fire.
The upper part of the pump had been broken off, and a three-foot pump handle had been inserted into the hole in the top of the pump. At some point, fire well was covered with gravel. After archeologists fully documented the site, city crews transported the pump and handle to the Alexandria Archaeology storage facility at Payne Street.
According to a vintage Sandborn Fire Insurance map, the city had 284 such fire wells in 1921. By comparing Sandborn maps over several years, archeologists for the city found no evidence of the existence of the well before 1896. On the 1896 map, the well at Gibbon and Pitt was labeled “T.H.,” which indicated that the faucet had a triple pump.
“The intent was to have the fire wells scattered, so you could have a reliable source of water nearby when there was a fire,” Mackay said. “It not seem like much to us, but it was an improvement over the hand-pumped fire engines.”