An Unexpected Time Capsule

{Robert Bailey, Roane County Historian}

Recently, a circular hole appeared on the lawn at the old courthouse near where the old jail once stood. It was about three feet wide and about two feet deep. The exterior was made of up of old bricks which were similar to those used when the old courthouse was built in 1854. The bricks had been burned at the top. Inside it looked like it had been lined with concrete. We weren’t sure what it was until research was done that revealed that it was a cistern that probably had served the jail. It turns out that it was not lined with concrete but with plaster. Because it was burned on the top level of bricks it indicates that it was there with the jail burned in 1885.

A cistern is like an underground tank used to collect and store rainwater coming off the roof of a building. It was thought rainwater was purer and therefore healthier than groundwater. It is different than a well which is not made waterproof.

When a cistern is no longer used it is filled up with rocks, dirt, trash and other debris. Often it contains artifacts from the time period that it was filled up. It is not known when this one was stopped being used. It appears that with all of the rain we have had, the dirt that was used to fill it in has shifted and caused it to appear. It has been sealed back up and it may be excavated in the future.

TheRwhich was built about 1886 and torn down in 1976. The cistern may have served this jail or the previous one which burned in 1885.