An investigative journey to the center of the Germantown earth

Julie Carroll quite literally fell into an archeological discovery on Walnut Lane in Germantown.

While pruning rosebushes behind her Victorian home in March, one of Carroll’s legs plummeted into a hole disguised by pachysandra. Upon further investigation, she discovered an underground chamber.

She said she immediately contacted her fellow board members at the Germantown Historical Society to delve a bit deeper into the nature of the hole.

Alex Bartlett, the board’s archivist and archaeologist, first suggested using a camera attached to a stick as a means of examining the structure. The camera however only gave a brief glimpse of the room, providing few answers.

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From there, both Bartlett and fellow board member Peter DiCarlo, who is an architect, speculated that the room may have originally served as a cold cellar. At the time, neither knew the rooms true size, Bartlett believing it to be an oblong shape.

“I live in the Tulpehocken Historic District,” Carroll recounted, “and we figure the hole is probably from the mid 1800s.”

An underground investigation

This Saturday, Carroll, neighbors and her fellow board members continued the investigation, as several people were finally able to venture into the hole.

More than 15 people came to the backyard eager to find historical answers.

“It’s very exciting,” stated neighbor Sue Finch. “It could be anything.”

However, it was Carroll who was most excited for someone to venture into the hole.

“I wish I had the courage to go down there myself,” she conceded. “I am really hoping a jar of old coins is there.”

NewsWorks pitches in

As a journalist, I don’t often have the chance to delve into deep holes found in neighbors’ backyards. However, I jumped right in when given the chance to be a part of this historical discovery on Saturday.

Dr. Willie Bank preceded me, climbing down the ladder with a yellow hard hat and a construction light. He’s a neurologist, Walnut Lane neighbor and brave soul.

Climbing into the hole was not unlike traveling back in time. I imagined a group of men, dressed in Victorian-era clothes placing the stones deep in the ground, without hard hats or construction lights to aid them.

Bank and I stood in the circular room together. The room was 10 feet high and 8 feet in diameter. We noticed two pipes leading into the hole, used perhaps for drainage.

The walls were individual Wissahickon Schist stones laid on top of one another. Slate slabs in a crisscross pattern served as a roof over our heads. One of the slabs lay partially buried underneath the mound of dirt, which had given way under Carroll’s foot.

It was at this point I decided I would make my way back up the ladder and away from the possibility of being crushed by the remaining slabs.

After Bartlett had climbed into the hole, everyone gathered around speculating its possible functions.

“I believe it to be a dry well, but I don’t really know what’s right. I haven’t seen too many of these,” commented DiCarlo.

“It’s definitely some type of cistern now that I’ve been in there,” responded Bartlett.

Other ideas later ruled out were a pre-dated modern sewage disposal system, a cold cellar and a well.

There was no money jar to be found.

Dangers, and lingering questions below

After the investigation, the roof was deemed unsafe.

“It’s the counterweight of the dirt that’s holding it up,” Bartlett said. “You don’t want to take much of the dirt above ground off or the roof will cave.”

It was decided that the most effective way of making the area safe would be to fill the hole with sand.

While the discovery was fascinating and the venture into the hole exciting for everyone present, more questions remain.

Was this in fact a cistern or water catchment?

Who built the structure?

And most importantly, might many of us have similar structures buried deep in our yards yet to be discovered?

For Carroll, the investigation will continue before the sand trucks arrive to fill a hole that currently sits beneath a piece of plywood held in place by a rock.

“I am still not clear as to what it was,” she said Saturday. “I really wanted to find an artifact, something to symbolize the hole. I’m still hoping I will.”

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