When digging out some of the plumbing pipes on the side of the house leftover from removing the laundry room, I came across the rusty edge of some kind of metal plate. The plate was about 3/4″ thick, 5″ wide, and of unknown length. It was buried about 2 feet deep, and ran towards the fence between my neighbor’s house and ours. It felt pretty solid and unmoving, and I figured it was just some random piece of metal. It turned out not to be random, and led to a much bigger project than I expected.
I dug along the length of the metal until I had uncovered about 2 feet of it, and eventually I came across another metal plate running parallel to the first one. Both seemed to run into some concrete, with a hollow chamber inside the concrete. Here’s what I had, but I still didn’t know what this was:
After clearing away more of the dirt, I could see that the steel plates seemed to cover the hollow chamber and hold up the concrete, forming a cap. I broke off the edge of the concrete cap, and could see an old clay pipe inside:
At this point I thought I might have found an old well. The clay pipe only went down about two foot or so, and didn’t seem to attach to anything:
Surrounding the clay pipe and hollow area were stones of various sizes, most set into concrete:
I cleared away more of the dirt, and broke the concrete cap into small pieces with a sledgehammer as I went. I found several more of the steel plates forming a criss-cross pattern:
I was still thinking this was an old well, although I couldn’t figure out why it was capped like it was instead of just filled in with dirt. No matter what it was I wanted to get it gone, though, so I continued clearing dirt and breaking the concrete cap.
Eventually I was able to remove most of the rusty steel plates, revealing a hole that was oval in shape, about 8 feet long and about 4 feet wide. The sides of the entire hole were stones set in concrete. The odd shape of the hole made me start to wonder if this was something other than a well:
After clearing the remainder of the concrete cap and steel plates, I started to clear the dirt that had fallen into the hole. At this point I had been working on this for several days, and was less than happy. As tempted as I was to just leave this here and fill it in with dirt, leaving things like this have a way of coming back to haunt me in the future. I could see wanting to put something else here at some point, and didn’t want to think about dealing with this at a later date, so I decided to continue digging it out.
After getting the steel plates out, they turned out to be about 6 feet long. I mentioned the plates to a guy here in town, and he told me it was likely they were blades from an old road grader. He used to work for the Department of Transportation, and told me that the blades were used to grade or scrape roads, and when they got worn out they used to give the old blades away to whoever wanted them. Recycling wasn’t really a thing back then, so many people used them to cover old holes and wells. The holes in the blades are where they would bolt to the road grader:
I dug more dirt out of the hole, and was able to dig the clay pipes out. The pipe I first found went down a couple of feet and into a concrete and stone bottom. I cleared the remaining two feet or so of the dirt out of the hole, and realized that what I had found wasn’t a well but an old cesspool. Cesspools were common here before septic tanks were used, and if you aren’t familiar with them you can read about cesspools here. There’s no way for me to tell how old this was, but it’s entirely possible this was original to the house.
The cesspool was fairly large, with sides and bottom made of a mixture of stones and poured concrete. When a previous owner decided to retire the cesspool they laid the grader blades over the top, poured concrete over it all, and then covered up the whole mess with dirt. And now I was digging around in it…
Hoping that whatever I was digging out was actually dirt and didn’t contain some horrible pathogen ready to escape and wipe out some significant portion of the planet’s population, I decided it all had to go.
Using my demolition hammer and whatever other implements of destruction I could find I started breaking apart the concrete and stones that made up the sides and bottom:
Breaking out all the concrete and stone took me another couple of weeks, and made a depressingly large pile:
After breaking up all of the concrete and rock, the remainder of this project was predictably boring. I wheelbarrowed the rock out of the area and filled the hole in with dirt. Here it is about half-filled:
This project was pretty much the very definition of frustrating. First, it was unexpected and delayed other important projects I wanted to get done. Second, I thought it was going to be a quick “dig this piece of steel out of the ground” and move on kind of thing, but turned into almost three weeks of hard digging and rock-moving. Finally, the ground where the cesspool was now looks EXACTLY like it did before, with no grand improvement. I suppose I feel better knowing that the subterranean pile of rusty steel, concrete, and poop deposited there before the turn of the century is gone, but that’s of little comfort.
This project is done, finished not with a bang but a whimper: