164-Year-Old Cistern Found in CMCA Excavation
Thursday, November 20, 2014 8:05 AM
Recently, workers at the site of the new CMCA building on Winter Street in Rockland uncovered a find that has excited local historians. While excavating the site underneath the former Fireproof Garage building, workers found what some believe is likely an old cistern covered by half a dozen massive slabs of granite, one of which had a bucket-sized hole carved out of it. It was about 15 feet deep and 10 feet long and the walls were made from field stone.
(Photo by Glenn Billington)
Local historian Ann Morris believes that the structure is a reservoir built 164 years ago for fire suppression.
"There were fires all over, buildings were burning to the ground," said Morris. "They needed to assess the people to get fire equipment ...what they were getting were pumper trucks, these things that the horses would pull that had long hoses and pumped water."
According to Cyrus Eaton's "History of Rockland," cisterns were constructed around the city in 1850 as part of a broader fire suppression initiative. Morris said that for buildings near the shore, fire fighters could run a hose from the ocean to put out fires, but they could not reach many parts of Main Street. Morris also noted that workers in August 1956 uncovered a similar 10-foot-by-18-foot cistern, which reportedly held about six feet of water, during an excavation on School Street. Workers also discoved what was called "a lantern hole."
At the time, Harold Halligan, the city superintendent, told the Courier-Gazette that the old-timers in the street department said the holes were used to check on deeply buried sewer lines and gas leaks. Halligan recalled one "irascible" gas company superintendent named Tom Hawkins several years earlier who grew frustrated with his workers for failing to find a gas leak in the area of School Street.
"Mr. Hawkins was called and the fur flew as he berated workmen for their inefficiency," the article said. "Down a manhole he popped to find the leak. Out came the match, scratched, perhaps, on the seat of his official britches. Up came Hawkins enroute to the hospital. Up came the street and out went windows in the center of the business district."
According to the article, the street was never properly repaired until Halligan and his crew went to work on it on that day in 1956.
After consulting with members of the Rockland Historical Society, society President Brian Harden said that he agrees that the Winter Street structure is likely a fire suppression cistern, but that it could also have been used for watering a nearby horse stable owned by the Berry Brothers. He noted that old maps show there were fire hydrants nearby.
"It's too big for regular domestic use," said Harden. "As close as we can get with the research tools that we have is that there were tenements there ... and it's close enough to the Berry Brothers Stable, so it could have been for drinking water for the horses because they had a lot of horses."
On June 16, 1920, four business blocks burned in that area, causing nearly half a million dollars in damages, accoring to "Shore Village Story," a history of Rockland. A business block was defined as a building with multiple businesses in it. Ten stores, four offices, a lodging house, a suite of apartments, a livery stable, a large carriage house, a blacksmith shop, two double tenement houses, and a home were reportedly lost in the fire. The Berry Brothers built the Fireproof Garage following the fire.
After looking at old city maps, local amateur historian Tim Sullivan said he believes the structure was the cellar to a house owned by Richard Spear that was on the site before the 1920 fire. However, Harden and Morris disagree that it could have been a cellar because there were granite slabs covering it.
"This is a mysterious thing and we don't know what it is," said Harden. "The field stone in it was interesting because there is a lot of field stone in basements around here, but not like that. 10 x 16 is not basement material. If you're going to build a bomb shelter maybe, but 1800s is a little early for bomb shelters."
The workers have since filled in the site.