This morning, after taking the dogs to Wilmore Park and eating breakfast I decided to putz around the backyard. I didn't work on the house too much this week -- the basement demo took a lot outta me last week -- and yesterday was a golf + beers + pizza day, so today, Sunday, I was looking for some low key, inconsequential work to get into.
I ended up trimming some tree limbs and pulling some invasive ivy outta the little bit of invasive Japanese Knotwood I have left in the yard, and then...boredom and curiosity got the best of me. I grabbed some shovels and started digging.
Early on, during the initial stages of de-jungling the backyard, I discovered a pipe sticking up out of the ground. If it was part of some water or gas infrastructure, it was clearly no longer in service. It seemed too small to have been a gas line, and the threaded connections indicated that it wasn't any kind of legit, modern water line. The pipe was only a foot or so above ground, which wouldn't have made any sense for somebody to use as a fence post or something like that. I was stumped.
But there's more to the story. A short distance from this pipe, and a little closer to my house, the yard has a low spot.
That gradually keeps getting lower every time it rains.
Now, it's rained a TON this summer, and the argument could be made that the low spot is just a natural spot between my house and my neighbor's house that happens to collect water. There has to be a low spot **somewhere**, right? That's fair. This spot always stays wet longer than the rest of the yard, although the case could be made that because it's fully shaded, that may be the cause. However, I've added dirt to this spot on a couple occasions and still...it seems to sink.
Anyhow...long story short, my thought was that maybe the low, sinking spot was the location of an old cistern, and maybe this pipe sticking up out of the yard was connected to it somehow. In fact, that's really what I was hoping for; I think excavating an old cistern would be pretty rad.
For context, the above left pic is from a 1903 map, when the house was already 25 years old. The way the lots are divided, what I currently own is (3) lots; the main part of my house eats up 1 lot, the bumped-out, angled sections starts getting into a 2nd lot, and then there's the 3rd lot, closest to my neighbor's property, which has never, ever been built on.
The above right pic is from the property survey I had done when I bought the place; I added the red "X" to show the location of the mystery pipe, and the red "O" to show the location of the sinking area.
I wasn't really looking to make a day of the project, I just wanted to see where the pipe went. I was hoping I would find that it ran over to the sinking area, which would more or less confirm that some sort of underground water storage system had existed there at some time.
The pipe dig was a bust. I dug down about 2 feet and either the pipe rusted through and I just didn't want to dig any further, or I reached the end of the pipe and that was that. Either way, 2 feet of excavation and she came right outta the ground. It didn't appear to be connected to anything, wasn't set in concrete, and I didn't uncover much other than dirt while digging. Maybe the pipe was there for some goofy reason and I'll never know why.
Not wanting to be defeated, I turned my attention to the sinking spot. The ground is super soft right now, the digging is easy, and I was disappointed with the pipe dig. I wanted some redemption.
I picked a spot close to dead center of the sinking area and started digging. I hit some tree roots early on, and that made me hesitate a bit; I didn't want to dig some fruitless hole and kill the nearby pine tree - which is pretty massive - in the process. On the other hand, of all the trees in the yard it's the one I - and my neighbor, especially - really wouldn't mind losing, so I kept digging.
About a foot down I started finding weird stuff...like bits of broken clay flower pots. They seemed to be modern, so I wasn't too excited. If anything, I wondered why modern trash was buried a foot down in the yard. But I kept digging.
I kept finding more stuff, albeit none of it real noteworthy or indicative of a cistern. There were rusted pieces of metal, which I think may have been old nails or hinge pins, stuff that was long, and skinny. There was glass, but single-pane stuff, like from an old window. Again, why all the trash 18 inches underground?
And then...the dirt I pulled out of the hole started getting sandy. Some of the sandy stuff came out in chunks. It was mortar, like the kind used in the masonry of these old houses. Mortar was a good sign. I dug further, and widened the hole a bit.
I got about as far down as I felt like going, which was close to 2 feet, and not having found anything other than a small pile of trash and some sandy soil, I was almost ready to call it a day. And then I heard it...the clink of a metal shovel on something that wasn't dirt or tree roots. I couldn't see very well into the bottom of the hole, but everywhere I banged the shovel...CLINK. I had either hit a giant rock, or...I'd found a cistern.
I laid down on my belly, reached as far into the hole as I could, removed dirt by hand, felt around, and tried to brush off whatever I'd hit.
It wasn't stone. It was mortar. Covering the entire bottom of the hole, which by that point was about 12" by 12". And it was sloped, like a domed top of something.
That's when I called it a day and filled in the hole. Truth is, I don't know what I found. But it's 2 feet deep on an undeveloped lot, I ran across garbage on the way down, if it's some kind of structure, it's held in place, at least in part, by mortar, and the earth above it is slowly sinking. What's beneath the mortar? Brick? Is it hollow? How expansive is the mortar layer? Is it a cistern, or something else? If it's a cistern, does the evidence of trash indicate that somebody may have filled it in or excavated in this spot? Is this really where dirt is disappearing to?
I don't know, but **something** is down there, and on an upcoming weekend when I'm a little better prepared, I'm gonna find out what it is.
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