What is this hole in my backyard?
May 14, 2008 7:46 AM   Subscribe

While digging out the backyard of our Philly rowhome to lay a patio, I came across a brick-lined pit with a pipe in it (pictures here and here). What is it?

The pipe was sticking up out of the ground by the house & is filled with concrete, so whatever that was, it's not in use anymore. As for the hole, it's about 18" across, and though I haven't dug out all the edges yet, some prodding in the dirt that I haven't dug yet seems to indicate that it's pretty much square. I dug down about 3.5-4' before hitting something solid, whether it's concrete or metal or whatever, and there's a drain cover of some sort down there that seems to be hooked to the pipe that's sticking out. I'm thinking it might be an old privy or outhouse hole that was filled in at some point (my house is at least 135 years old, if not older), but I'm not sure what the purpose of the pipes is then. I'm also somewhat curious to break through the bottom & see what's underneath, but don't know if it's worth the effort or if I'd be screwing something up by doing so. Any insight?
posted by zempf to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Could it be a rainwater cistern? From this page:
Another underground feature found in bigger houses was the water cistern. This was a large brick-lined chamber that was made watertight and arched over with a small access hole. Rainwater from the roof was directed into the cistern where it could be stored for future use, being softer than water drawn from a well in the chalk. Sometimes a pipe connected the cistern to a hand pump in the kitchen. Like cesspits, a number of water cisterns were merely slabbed over when abandoned but the workmanship often means that the brickwork is still sound.
posted by cabingirl at 8:25 AM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: I'm guessing cesspool. Piped sewers didn't show up until well after your house was built (early 1900s here in Baltimore), and cisterns aren't common on the east coast.
posted by electroboy at 8:34 AM on May 14, 2008

a well? I was just watching one of those house flipping shows, and they had a well on an abandoned property. they had to connect to city water and disable the well (local code to prevent contamination) and had to fill the whole pipe with concrete.
posted by killy willy at 9:00 AM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: Could have been an old outhouse that was then turned into a cesspool (or even a simple one-tank septic tank) when they installed an indoor toilet.
posted by Forktine at 9:19 AM on May 14, 2008

Best answer: I think Forktine nailed it.
If there is no substrate of old crockery or "garbage" like those found in brick-lined pits all over the Philly area, I'd say cesspool.
You could always ask the National Parks Service people (bring a hard copy of your photo) at the Franklin House for confirmation.
posted by Dizzy at 9:56 AM on May 14, 2008

My 1910 house in Wisconsin had what I was told was a rainwater cistern buried in the back, near the kitchen and slightly downhill of the roof, complete with narrow pipe sticking through the top. The lid was round and the opening was just wide enough for me to squeeze through. The cistern was about 6' deep and 4' wide, if my dim memory serves. It was smooth masonry of some sort, not brick, and very clean inside.
posted by PatoPata at 9:59 AM on May 14, 2008

Agreeing with a few others, if it's not a rainwater cistern, it's a dead ringer for one. My 70-year-old+ house has a still-working cistern. The gutters on one side of the house drain into the cistern through a hole which might be plugged on your setup. The small pipe at the bottom, which looks just like yours, allows us to pump water out of the cistern (we have an electric pump), and run it through a second outside faucet, assuming we wanted to water our grass with occasionally brown smelly water. Well, the greywater movement would be pleased and the water is a lot cleaner after a big rain. The big standing pipe, again just like yours, is an overflow pipe which hooks into our basement drain when the water level rises too high in the cistern (I guarantee you that is no longer allowed by city code pretty much anywhere in the USA).

Assuming you could get it working to code with modified overflows and all that, you still might not want to do it. If the water sits too long in the cistern, it smells when it comes out. And -- look away if you're squeamish -- it is a potential entry point for vermin. In my very clean, very white-bread, very well-kept neighborhood, I once popped the top and noted a drowned rat floating about. Making the mistake of notifying my wife of this, I was, once again, instantly promoted to chief dead animal disposal officer. Unpleasant, it was. The cistern might be a decent place to hide the bodies of children who run across your lawn once too often, though.
posted by mdevore at 10:34 AM on May 14, 2008

just fyi...

I lived in Havertown (suburb of philly) in the Life magazine 1941 house of the year.... there was a similar area in the basement...

turned out it was where they stored the coal...
posted by foodybat at 10:54 AM on May 14, 2008

Response by poster: I'm thinking the cesspool guesses are probably correct. It looks like it might've been an old outhouse that they converted to a cesspool or added plumbing to or something to that effect. It's probably not worth excavating further, I haven't found much interesting in there besides a few pieces of broken bottles. I assume there may be more beneath the concrete, but I'm too lazy to dig it up.
posted by zempf at 11:58 AM on May 14, 2008

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