NEWBURYPORT – Recent renovations to 7 Marlboro St. uncovered a cylindrical brick cistern possibly built during the latter part of the 18th century.
Primitive cisterns were a type of reservoir that collected water runoff, basically old-fashioned underground rain barrels that were built in the basement or more commonly outside of a house.
The nonpotable water was collected in the beehive-shaped well and then used for domestic chores such as laundry. With the advent of indoor plumbing, homeowners abandoned their cisterns and often filled them in with debris, sometimes making them an interesting time capsule for today’s historians.
Homeowners Paul and Pat Henault knew that the cistern was located outside of their back door before the renovation began.
“We discovered the cistern when we insulated part of our house a couple of years back,” noted Paul Henault. “The cistern did not hold any valuable treasures, just some pottery bits and broken bottle bits. Nothing too exciting."
“Cisterns are fascinating pieces of history,” said Tom Kolterjahn, co-president of the Newburyport Preservation Trust. Kolterjahn has explored many cisterns around Newburyport and is knowledgeable about their history, construction and uses.
“Early cisterns were built with wooden pipes and smaller bricks. Some were parged, a process where lime mortar was spread over the interior of the cistern to protect the bricks,” Kolterjahn said. “It wasn’t uncommon for homeowners, especially of larger homes, to build multiple cisterns.”
In 2018, a cistern or possibly a well was found at the foot of Dove Street during a sidewalk renovation project. The deep hole had been covered by two granite slabs. It was determined by historians that the large reservoir may have served the entire street at one point.
The Newburyport Department of Public Works covered the hole with a steel plate and the granite slabs were replaced before the sidewalk was replaced.
Richard Pettingell, a joiner, or tradesperson who specialized in joining wood for ship building or furniture making, built 7 Marlboro St. about 1758.
When the property was divided among Pettingell’s children, a deed from 1800 mentions “the entry way by the side of the well on the back side of the house.” It is unclear if this reference is for the recently discovered cistern or an actual well.
If you are lucky enough to uncover a cistern on your property, care should be taken to properly preserve it (the preferred approach when possible), fill it in, remove it or repurpose it. Homeowners can contact the Newburyport Preservation Trust for guidance about the appropriate steps to take.
Barb Bailey is a researcher for the Newburyport Preservation Trust. She may be reached at Barb.Bailey03@gmail.com.