I was born with somewhere in the neighborhood of 18x more stubbornness than the average individual. This has been both a blessing and a curse.
The cistern story, at least the part where I'm involved, starts a couple years ago. A funky little depression I'd noticed in the brick paving behind the house led me to pull up a couple bricks and stick a shovel in the ground.
Long story short, the dirt under the removed bricks fell into some kind of void and, after additional digging and poking around, I realized that I'd discovered the house's cistern, still fully intact (but only partially filled in).
What's a cistern, you might be asking yourself? It's basically a big underground tank that holds water, and was entirely essential for sustaining life before the advent of indoor plumbing. How'd the water get there, you might be asking yourself? Rain would land on the roof, travel to the gutter, travel to the downspout, and the downspout would be piped underground into the cistern. It wasn't the cleanest of water, but it was water. A hand-operated pump above ground would bring the water up and out of the cistern.
The cistern at my house is shaped about like this, although when I started digging I had no idea the thing was 6' deep (and 7' deep at its peak):
Anyhow, up until yesterday, that section of the yard - and cistern opening, a 24" diameter brick-lined hole - looked like this:
There's a litany of projects to be undertaken in this part of the yard and I didn't want to deal with the cistern until I was ready to tackle everything else, so I left it as-is. Until a couple days ago.
On Saturday I pulled up all the bricks in that part of the yard, and foolishly had high hopes for fully excavating the cistern over the next couple weekends. See those bricks in the left center of the pic? That's the cistern opening.
I knew there were tree roots growing across the top of the opening. They're the reason I didn't cover the opening or do anything to keep something from falling in; everybody that lives here is much too large to fall through that web of roots.
My goal was to find a spot outside the cistern, dig down 3 or 4 feet, and get a good look at the structure from its exterior. I can't explain why, maybe it's my engineering background, maybe it's my infatuation with old school craftsmanship, but I wanted to see the thing before I demo'd it.
I felt like the greatest chance of dodging oak tree roots while digging was to dig on the side of the cistern opposite the tree, so I cleaned up the cistern opening a bit and started digging in that direction. And of course, tree roots. Everywhere.
I dug about as far as I could and then tried a few other spots, trying to avoid tree roots. No luck. The oak tree roots crisscross and zigzag all over the place. I tried, and I tried, and I tried - remember that stubbornness comment I made to start things off? - but I just couldn't find a patch of dirt without tree roots.
Also, due to recent rain, the ground was super saturated and digging up nothing but mud pretty much sucks. I started to question how much digging I really wanted to do, and how much room I realistically had to do so. It's pretty cramped over in that part of the yard and having the energy to dig up many cubic yards of dirt is one thing; having a place to dump it is another.
After about an hour of walking laps around my little excavation while rationality and stubbornness - I did NOT want to give up on my original plan - waged war against each other in my head, I decided to resort to the backup plan. I decided to collapse the top of the cistern, fish out all the brick, and make the thing safe to work in.
I told myself that, at the very least, if I wasn't gonna get to see the exterior face of the cistern wall, I was at least going to remove all the dirt from inside the cistern and see its bottom (and maybe some rad leftovers from the 19th century). I went inside, grabbed my big pry bar, and figured I'd have the cistern's lid popped apart in no time. In terms of this line of thinking, mistakes were made.
Many, many mistakes.
I underestimated the cistern's strength by comical proportions. Just getting a couple dozen bricks removed from the cap was WORK. I've repointed a lot of the brick and limestone throughout the house and about 50% of the time, the existing mortar is absolute trash. Somehow, the mortar used in this structure, below grade and subject to dirt and water every bit as much as, say, the side of the house, is stupid solid.
After a couple hours I had at least widened the opening enough that I could safely stand inside the cistern and work from there, but the big pry bar wasn't cutting it. I went inside, grabbed a hammer and cold chisel, and figured - again, ridiculous amounts of incorrectly - I'd plow through the rest of the cap in no time.
Truth is, a demo hammer would have been the perfect tool for the job but I don't own one, it was too late in the day to go rent one, and I didn't want to drop $800+ on a tool for a job this small. So I kept banging away with the hammer and chisel.
Once I got enough brick and dirt removed to where I could crouch down and halfway comfortably see the walls of the cistern, I noticed the inlet pipe. The other end of it is very much sticking up above ground at the corner of the house where the existing downspout drops from the gutter.
I also noticed one of Freckles' footballs; she must have dropped it down there while chasing squirrels or, more likely, the resident neighborhood possum.
I swung that hammer until my arm started cramping up and my swing-and-miss rate got a little embarrassing. Once you start hitting your chisel-holdin'-hand more than the chisel, it's time to call 'er a day.
I still have a couple courses of cistern cap brick to get rid of but I got a lot done this weekend. That said, I'm going back and forth on my plan to remove the dirt from inside the cistern.
I was expecting the cistern to be 3 ft., maybe 4 ft. deep, but it's not, it's every bit of 6 ft. deep. In its shallowest spot. By my math, that means there's about 10 cubic yards of dirt in the cistern.
My stubbornness is making me want to give 'er a go and dig out the 10 yds. of dirt, although having a place to dump it is a whole other issue. By the end of each work day my ambition isn't so high and I feel like maybe whatever's at the bottom of the cistern - which may be nothing at all - should just stay there.
Either way, I've still got some tough, tough labor ahead of me to just remove the cap brick, so I have some time to give it all a little more thought...