Cisterns: MSU’s History of Water

Earlier this week, a group of construction workers excavating trenches for the new campus steam tunnel network came across a circular brick enclosure on the south side of Cook Hall. Returning their call, we went to the site and exposed the circle of bricks to find that there was a large metal drum embedded within. Taken with the metal pipes connecting the inner metal drum to the foundation of the building, the feature appeared to be a cistern from the early days of campus. While there was little more we could do other than document and photograph the cistern, it seemed like an excellent opportunity to explore the history of cisterns on and off campus.

Ian taking measurements on the water cistern.
Ian taking measurements on the water cistern.

Constructed as far back as the early fourth millennium (4000’s) BCE in Near Eastern countries such as Isreal, Jordan, and Lebanon, the technology and design of cisterns has gone relatively unchanged since its inception. Whether found as below-ground chambers or above-ground reservoirs, every cistern is fundamentally a water-tight basin that collects rain or well water for long-term storage. Early cisterns took the form of small plaster-lined dugouts underneath one’s house that would collect rainwater for daily needs, whereas later (early modern and modern) cisterns are commonly characterized by large semi-buried or above-ground concrete structures in order to provide natural water pressure to an indoor faucet.

In the case of the campus cisterns such as the one discovered near Cook hall, they were often large metal drums that would connect to a faucet in the basement of the building. In so doing, each building on campus maintained an independent water supply throughout the mid to late 1800s prior to the construction of the campus water-pipe network. According to university archives these were largely open top metal drums that were placed within a deep pit adjacent to each building and surrounded with a layer of brick or stone to help preserve the integrity of the structure. The semi-buried, open top design however allowed rainwater as well as other refuse to continually fill the drum, eventually resulting in the university ordering metal caps for each one of the cisterns in an attempt to better preserve the quality of the water. Additionally, pump handles were added to each of the cisterns in order to allow continual filling from the various wells that had begun to be constructed throughout campus, as well as to offer an additional faucet from which to draw water.

Water cistern found on the south side of Cook Hall
Water cistern found on the south side of Cook Hall

Due to the gradual expansion of campus throughout the later years of the 19th century, the increasing water demands and disproportionate expense of improving the cistern infrastructure (records of board minutes from 1900 discuss the great expense of $25,000 needed to provide residents on the second story of the Howard Terrace building with water to their floor) necessitated the introduction of a campus wide water-main and fire hydrants system that shortly made the cisterns obsolete, though they are undoubtedly a part of our campus history to this day.



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