Article By AmeriCorps member Kyle D. Mills
A cold and cloudy October day found a small group of historians standing in a semi-circle, peering into a dark abyss. A combination of mystery, suspense, and uncertainty danced in the air with the falling autumn leaves. “I wonder what will be down there,” one person said, “you have done this before?” said another. Curious for the unknown, all stood in anticipation. “On rope!” one man said, then, descended into darkness.
This adventure started in September when I was looking at the old saltpeter trough we have stored in the Wagon House at the Greenbrier Historical Society and North House Museum. I stepped off the porch of the Wagon House and walked over the grate in the yard of the North House. It appeared to be a typical storm drain, but being a cave explorer, I am compelled to look into any hole in the ground I might come across. I looked into the drain and saw that there was moss growing on stacked stone walls, and I couldn’t see the bottom. I ran to my car, grabbed my caving lights, and shined them down the hole. I could see the bottom and realized what I was looking at was a well.
I came back into the archives and asked Mr. Jim Talbert what the history of the well out in the yard was. He looked at me strange and I could tell he was wondering what-in-the-world I was talking about. We out in the yard and shinned my light down the hole, we must have looked a little crazy to the NRCTC students who were standing around outside. Mr. Talbert became excited and informed me that no one knew that a well lied under the storm grate. Surely at one time someone with the Greenbrier Historical Society had to know that this was a well, but time passed and the well was forgotten about. Curiosity had gotten to us and plans were made to explore the well.
The day finally came to explore the well. Using my vertical caving equipment, I rappelled into the well and discovered that the well is very well made. The bottom of the well is a six-foot-wide, six-foot-long, and five-foot-tall cistern blasted into the limestone bedrock. Evidence of the drilling and blasting process can be seen on the bedrock at the bottom of the well. Hand-hewn timbers have been constructed (similar to a log cabin) to form a platform to stack the wall rocks on. The walls are perfectly stacked flat rock in a circular pattern that seems to repeat itself after 5th layer, no mortar was used. The bottom of the well is dry and filled in with dirt and a small amount of surface debris. Also an old iron pipe extends about half way up from the bottom of the well. A shovel probe down about a foot showed that the soil continued deeper. In the bottom of the well I found two pieces of antique broken glass, chips of red brick, and a cave salamander (Eurycea lucifuga). The total depth of the well is 19 feet.
Research into the age of the well has not turned up any definitive time it was constructed. The most logical assumption would be that the well was built in the early 1820’s along with the construction of the North House, but this has not been proven. Another question is was the well constructed to be an open well, with a bucket lowered into a pool of water then drawn up? The circumference of the well and the size of the bedrock cistern at the bottom seemingly fit the dimensions for this style of well, but the absence of water in the bottom and iron pipe suggests that possibly a hand pump was at one time used. Two panoramic photographs of Lewisburg show the back of the North House and structures that appear to be at the well site. In the oldest picture, circa 1890-1900, a small shed appears to be over the well. In a later photo, circa 1902-1920, what appears to be a concrete platform with a hand pump is at the location of the well site. Possibly, the well was dug to be an open well and at a later time the hand pump was installed.
Now the question is what to do with the well? The well is important to the North House’s history and should be preserved better than having a metal grate hiding it. Continuing research could provide more evidence of what the housing over the well looked like when the North House was a private residence. This housing could be reconstructed to be period correct and add to the aesthetics of the North House lawn.
For more information about the North House well, contact AmeriCorps member Kyle Mills at the Greenbrier Historical Society at 304.645.3398.