…and speaking of Old Cisterns.

My last post was about the built-in gutters on the Cross House, and how they originally fed into a cistern.

I was surprised by how many people asked questions about the cistern.

So, may I please introduce…the Cistern of the Cross House?



Behind the Cross House is a small backyard .And there sits a huge stone slab, surround by later cracked concrete. In the center of the slab is a cast-iron plate.



The plate has a rectangular opening, which appears to originally have had a swing door panel of some kind.



And even after 122-years exposure to the elements, the casting is clearly readable.



An advertisement for the company.


From Biographical Sketches:

JOSEPH C. JONES, foundry, was born in Monmouthshire, Wales, February 28, 1831. Came to the United States in 1851, and after a residence of about three years and a half in New York City, resided for thirteen years in Pennsylvania. In 1871 started West, and after three years spent in Ohio came to Kansas in 1874. Located in Emporia. Having early in life learned the trade of foundryman, which he has since followed, he bought the only foundry in the city, located on the M. K. & T. R’y track near the depot. After he had operated it about a year and a half it was destroyed by fire. He then, in 1876, erected a new foundry building on the corner of Market street and Third Avenue, which he continues to operate, doing mostly a jobbing business. Married Miss Catharine Fisher of New York City, March 16, 1852, and by this marriage has had seven children, of whom Horace G., George F., Charles W., and Joseph E. are living.



Inside the cistern? Well, it is WAY cool. There is, inexplicably, a brick “chimney” in the middle of a huge, deep stone round well. I think, think, that water from the gutters was fed into the chimney, which was filled with sand, and this acted as a filter before the water overflowed into the round well. I think. Surely somebody will read this and explain it all. I hope.


The cistern looks in amazing condition. I may be inspired, may, to drop a ladder into the deep, dark, dank depths (and it is deeeeeeep!), and investigate further.

As previously mentioned, I plan to reconnect the gutters to the cistern, and use this water for watering the landscaping.

It seems amazing that this once vital feature to the Cross House, long abandoned, is still so intact, unfilled, and seemingly ready to be called to duty after a very long hiatus.

Once again, The Cross House continues to surprise and delight me.


  1. Betsy on January 30, 2016 at 10:44 pm

    My grandmother – born in 1898-carefully collected rain water from her downspouts into covered barrels. This water was prized because , as she said it, it was ” soft “. She told me that they used this water to wash their hair and their hair came out softer than the well ( ground) water. ( this was way before our nice shampoos and conditioners). It was also used to bathe babies and children.

    • Mary on December 22, 2016 at 12:21 am

      My father built five houses starting in Indiana and onto New Mexico, one house there, and one house in San Diego, California. Since my mom and dad were from Indiana, they did some peculiar things. The house in San Diego was our last home built in 1975, I was nine years old. My dad built wide eaves on the house to protect the foundation, which people thought was weird and he put in a gutter system which fed into big black barrels on the corners of the house. I asked why he did that and he told me to water the plants and further explained how it is good to wash my hair with because it is softer water than water coming from the pipes. We did use it for plant watering, but never used it on my hair. Thought that was a bit strange.My mom still lives in that house and now my sister will be inheriting it. One of the few homes built by a man, lived in by that man and his family and passed down to one of his kids.

      • Ross on December 22, 2016 at 8:24 pm

        Thanks, Mary, for the wonderful story!

  2. Sally Moore on January 30, 2016 at 11:18 pm

    I found this about cisterns on oldhouseweb.com: “Although rare, there’s some remaining evidence of filtering the collected water. Some cisterns are divided into two or more chambers encouraging debris to settle and finer particles were filtered out as the water passed through porous brick or stone partitions. Some partitions were made with an interior cavity and animal charcoal, also called “bone black” filled the space, further purifying the collected water. In the latter part of the 19th century, canister filters began to appear on some cistern outlets.”

    I washed my hair and bathed with rain water as a kid too. It does make your hair turn out much better than with well water.

  3. Brandy Mulvaine on January 31, 2016 at 7:50 am

    Ross could there have been a pump on it?

  4. gmf001 on January 31, 2016 at 10:03 am

    Very cool. So how deep is it? Our 1884 home has a cistern in the basement. Roughly 6′ deep, 12’W x 20L. Not sure how it was fed since as far as we know the home had exterior gutters and spouts. Must have gathered together at some point

  5. Lynn on January 31, 2016 at 4:00 pm

    How cool Ross! A little scary though. Reminds me of the scene in “Silence of the Lambs” where the senator’s daughter was held while waiting to be killed for her skin.

    Seriously though, it will be so cool to employ its use again.

  6. Cindi M on January 31, 2016 at 6:43 pm

    Ross, I shared this post on Reedy Creek Coalition’s FB page as an example of ways of collecting rain water. Our group educates people on the effects of storm water runoff on Reedy Creek in Richmond VA with a hope to someday restoring all the creek. (Currently major parts are encased in concrete culverts.) Our partner, Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay, helped us secure grants from Fish & Wildlife Services so that we could help people in our watershed create rain gardens and bayscapes and install rainbarrels. An condo complex installed a modern day cistern (all plastic, above ground) to collect storm water as well. Cindi M

  7. Michele on January 31, 2016 at 9:35 pm

    My Grandparents house had a cistern in an old built on backroom of their house. It was level with the floor and did not have a cover on it so we were not allowed in that room. I don’t know how it was filled since there were no gutters on the house. Eventually, they filled it in and covered over the top.

  8. Tiffaney on February 1, 2016 at 2:59 pm

    But what is the purpose of a cistern? What does it do? Does it collect water that gets pumped into the house? I’d love to know the anatomy of the set-up.

    • Ross on February 1, 2016 at 6:02 pm

      A cistern is an underground tank for storing water. The water was collected from the roof gutters.

      The water might have been used by the household if there was no city water at the time.

      The water may have been pumped into the house. And/or there may have been a hand-pump on top.

      The water may only have been used to wash clothes and for the landscaping.

      There is a lot we do not know today about the cistern at the Cross House. Except that it is still extant and in great shape. And it could be used again.

  9. Blair Carmichael on September 10, 2016 at 5:36 pm

    We are under contract on a house built in 1900 which I discovered, has a very large and deep underground cistern. There is a lead pipe coming up into the basement laundry room with an antique hand pump. No water comes out when pumped and when the home inspector pried open the small cast iron manhole it appeared to be dry with some trash in the bottom. There is an inground downspout close by against the house. I am interested in restoring it for irrigation or possible gray water extraction/storage.

  10. Seth Hoffman on October 16, 2016 at 2:44 pm

    The family farmhouse I grew up in (Illinois, circia 1895) had an underground cistern in the backyard just pursue the back door from the kitchen. The downspouts fed to it, and it had a cast iron hand pump outside. It may have had a pump inside at some point as well.

  11. djd_fr on January 15, 2017 at 7:55 am

    A cistern is not necessarily underground. (unless there is another name for that?) Ours is above ground and has two faucets, one of which is at waist level over a sort of tube which has a drainboard, I guess for pounding laundry.

  12. Diane Gibson on February 11, 2017 at 7:30 am

    I would caution you to make sure the cistern has good air when you go down inside. Sometimes these old holes have gases from the ground or from other material and it can kill you quickly because it replaces oxygen. Never go without someone up top and never go without a rope attached to you in case you should become disabled and need to be removed quickly. Aside from saving your life – wanted you to know what a lovely blog you’ve kept. Found it from OHL. Keep strong. We completed our renovation about twenty years ago and I’m glad we were able to do it while we were younger and stronger and healthier. Now for upkeep we find hiring some things done is the only way instead of doing it all ourselves. But, while we were doing the work ourselves it was a never ending joy to find things, to discover the past and replicate as best we could. Best wishes to you on this never ending and wonderful project you’ve chosen.

    • Ross on February 12, 2017 at 12:43 pm

      Golly! Good advice! Thank you!

    • Eric on February 18, 2020 at 12:09 pm

      I know this is a very old post…but just wanted to applaud you for chiming in on the SERIOUS DANGERS of confined spaces that the layman is generally unaware of. Also….main rule of confined space, as it goes against everyones initial reaction and judgement: NEVER ATTEMPT TO RESCUE A PERSON FROM A CONFINED SPACE BY TRAVELING INTO IT AFTER THEM!!! I know people that have died because of this and by not having proper training. Air monitors, a rescue plan, and other people are 100% A NECESSITY for entering a confined space!!! An hour long safety course for 20 bucks is also a great resource.

  13. ANSC on February 14, 2017 at 6:42 pm

    Just found your wonderful blog myself and it is amazing. I’ll enjoy following your work.

    As far as the cistern, I’ve seen a couple of really interesting ones.

    While I was in college (40 years ago! as an Architectural Design Major) I had a part-time job at the Texas State Historical Commission writing National Register nominations. I don’t know about the interior “chimney” but what you said about the sand as a filter makes perfect sense.

    The two odd ones I know of were in the nominated houses I worked on. One wasn’t that surprising except that it was in the basement of an early log cabin. It was built on a hill so allowed access up into the house by a steep stair. I think usually these were springs the cabins were built over, but this one apparently guided water from the roof. No gutters, just runoff.

    The even more interesting one was amazing. It was a large two story house that had an inverted metal roof that caught the run off in the center where the roof ridge would normally be. (Now they call them butterfly roofs and act as if water recycling this way is new.) A metal pipe ran down one side of the house and brought the water into the house where it was used in the kitchen. Of course local stories said it was in case of Indians, but that had nothing to do with it. The farmer/rancher just figured out how to get water for his wife. This was in a very rural area but it was still one of the earliest homes in Texas with an indoor water source, which was why it got the National Register designation.

    • Ross on February 14, 2017 at 6:50 pm

      Nice to meet you!

      Great stories! Thank you!

  14. Mary on March 4, 2017 at 1:09 am


    My parent’s house out the country had a cistern in the back of the side yard. There was a 4-ft-high tank and pump on it. We use the free water to water our garden. The house had large round copper downspouts that feed into the cistern. I would look around in the basement of the Cross House; you may have a cistern tank and pump down there.


  15. Stewart McLean on June 22, 2017 at 5:59 pm

    I have heard that, if you go to the bottom of a well in broad daylight on a cloudless day and look up at the sky, you can see the stars. This presumes that you can normally see them at night. Don’t know if this is true, but if you go down, please let me know.

    • Burr Nelson on March 23, 2020 at 12:34 pm

      Oh, I think that refers to the person trying to get out just before he passed out from the fumes, hence, he saw stars.

  16. Patsy on December 15, 2017 at 7:28 pm

    In Canada many rural homes had (have)cisterns in the basement or garages these were entered and cleaned every spring before the rains .Someone in town ran a water truck for those who ran out!Cleaning was done with two people! We removed the sediment with bucket rope and shovel . Ian sure they have some kind of vacuum now ,we had no hydro in those days.

  17. Keith Helmuth on March 21, 2020 at 3:16 pm

    The purpose of the brick chimney in the middle of the cistern is to filter the rainwater coming from the roof. The water in the cistern seeps slowly through the bricks into the chimney and is then piped from the chimney into the house.This process produces very clear, highly filtered water. The bricks used for this system are call salmon bricks and are of medium density, not soft bricks or hard bricks.
    I grew up in a house that had this cistern and brick chimney filtration system. We used the water for laundry and bathing but not for drinking. Another, and perhaps more common, design is to build a brick wall across the middle of the cistern, dividing it in two parts. The rainwater is piped into one part and seeps through into the other part, accomplishing the desired filtration. I scanned all the other replies to this post and did not see any that provided this information. Perhaps by this time you have figured it out

    • Michael W Ahern on November 14, 2020 at 8:29 am

      I owned an 1890 farmhouse in Ohio with the exact configuration you describe. The brick wall does an amazing job of filtering the water. Instead of being a deep hole, the cistern was easily accessible in the basement.

      • Burr Nelson on November 14, 2020 at 9:38 am

        Did your 1890 Farmhouse have any special features like mudroom, radiant heat, Butler’s pantry etc?

  18. Anne Moore on March 27, 2020 at 5:17 pm

    G’day Ross,
    Wow came across your interview on youtube and I just had to visit your web site to see the home, Yes I have visited Bo’s as well and yeah drool I did.
    In Australia no such things as cisterns, well actually they are but that what we call the unit with which one flushes the loo.
    In old homes they were mounted well above floor height so the water could be released by chain with enough pressure to flush contents thru the bowl. Or like my childhood in central western NSW we had the outdoor pit dunny, used to scare me silly as I always feared that I would fall in. I grew up listening to this song which only made it worse : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TjDAiq2-xeU .
    So water storage in Australia both rural and suburbia was in the beginning above ground water storage tanks, with capture from roof tops some were mounted above the ground like djd_fr said above but not so much for doing laundry but so water was easily transferred to bucket for transfer into the house and so you could get the most out of the tank. Most rural areas of Australia still has that methodology for rain capture for house and stock use. Im looking at putting in two underground tanks in rural suburbia 10,000 litres so I can water my gardens and also use it for firefighting if necessary.
    Anyway, I dont suppose that you could upload some new pictures of where the house now stands as far as internal finishings, for those of us who will never be able to visit The Cross House in person.
    Many thanks for you blog it filled in the past 2 days with this horrid Covid19 pandemic
    Hooroo from Aus

    • Ross on March 27, 2020 at 5:34 pm

      G’day, Anne!

      Thanks for the fascination information!

      If you continue reading the blog you’ll find any and all updates I have.

      BIG virtual hug from America!

  19. Charles Read Sayre on March 30, 2020 at 5:16 pm

    I am truly enjoying reading your blog and watched the video on your house. I was raised in my great grandfather’s house built in 1859 in Montrose, PA. It has 18 rooms and my father wanted to move into it and he did his whole life. My grandmother wanted to demolish it as it was too large so she make it smaller for my dad. Every room was wall papered and parquet floors done by my great grandfather restored. My dad removed 100+ years of painting from the clapboard sides one side a summer. I loved the house. We sold it when my dad had already passed away and my mom had dementia and neither of the 3 kids wanted to take it on. It is a beautiful inn.

    You are an inspiration. I am 76 and owned a few houses where I did wall papering and refinished wood floors and moulding. That is about it.

    I will continue to follow you. Thanks for the posts on your progress.

  20. Sue from Illinois on May 24, 2020 at 5:38 pm

    Hi, Ross,
    Found your post while I was looking for a way to put a new cover on my in ground cistern in the backyard. Mine is not quite as elaborate as the one you showed, just a brick lining. My house downspouts are no longer hooked to it but it still gets plenty of water from the french drains around my house. There is also access in my basement, that was probably for easy access for washing clothes or bathing. My neighbor who has lived in her house for more than 50 years tells me all 3 (yes there are 2 more) were in use until about 1970 when the owners got to old to do the work of watering the garden bucket full by bucket full. This cistern also is connected to the pit for the in ground sump pump pit outside my house. Not how they are connected but when the rains are too heavy and the sump pump (2 of them) can’t keep up my basement begins to fill with water. When cleaning the sump pump pit one day I found a toad alive don’t know exactly how he got in there! My home was built around 1900 maybe a bit earlier. Hope your restoration is going well.

  21. Ohlert on June 7, 2021 at 8:54 pm

    The rectangle hole looks exactly the size of a chain pump. Can google Gem or Boss chain pumps to see examples. Although I’m sure you’re already familiar as they are pretty common, around me anyway. I like them way more than the lever pumps. Constant flow and less maintenance.

  22. Karen on June 30, 2021 at 7:17 am

    Interesting comments about cisterns. We had one in a circa 1900 house in the basement (there was a well with a pump in the back yard). I’m not sure how the cistern was fed. We thought it would make a cool sauna, but we moved before we could do it. I can think of lots of uses for yours if you don’t want to restore it to use – a tornado shelter perhaps?

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