Hydrating History

The question of safe drinking water was historically a problem in #Charleston. Natural springs were virtually non-existent on the peninsula, so the initial source came from shallow wells. The sand and clay substrata made it easy to find ground water in an city that gets as much as 60 inches of rain each year. But the wells dug typically in backyards within a growing, tightly-packed ¬†urban area were very susceptible to bacteria intrusion from the days in which outdoor bathrooms, or privies, allowed waste to be dumped into the same soil strata. People did not understand this completely until science improved by the late 19th century, so up until then, typhoid fever and cholera were constant companions of Charlestonians and killed many over the years. The safest water, until artesian aquifers were finally tapped into by 1879, came from rain trapped in attic vats and outdoor masonry pools, called cisterns. Cisterns became a common part of the urban landscape, and during the Civil War, buildings with the largest reservoirs of rain water were used as soldiers’ hospitals. The concept is still very similar to the landscape pools still gracing houses such as this one on Laurens Street, and although purely an atheistic addition these days, is a reminder of the methods used to gather safe water long ago.

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