Hide-n-Seek

A colleague and I have spent the last two days outside the Colonial Building looking for stone drains/sewers that were built, likely, during or after the construction of the building. As far as we know, no one mapped out where they were installed so it was a little like playing hide-n-seek, except we had to use a back-hoe to find what was hidden.

From the Provincial Historic Sites website:

The Colonial Building was built between 1846 and 1850 as Newfoundland’s  legislature. A gem of neoclassical architecture, the building’s grandeur is a testament to the optimism its builders felt about Newfoundland’s future. The building was witness to events that still resonate as integral to Newfoundland and Labrador’s identity: gaining Responsible Government in 1855, the Riots of 1932 when Prime Minister Sir Richard Squires had to hide from an angry mob outside, and the National Convention of 1946. It was in these chambers that Joey Smallwood and others argued for Confederation with Canada. After Confederation in 1949, the Colonial Building was the seat of the Provincial Legislature until the Confederation Building opened in 1959.

Currently the building is closed for interior and exterior renovations and is slated to re-open in late 2015 with a restored interior, exterior and new exhibits on Newfoundland and Labrador’s political history.

Colonial Building
Colonial Building.

The renovations require the installation of new water, sewer and electrical lines, which means digging through the grounds of the building. Some of that work was done on the backside of the building during the summer at which time two drains or sewer lines were found. The first was a stone-capped and brick-lined feature.

Colonial Building brick and stone drain/sewer
Colonial Building brick and stone drain/sewer (#1 on map below).

The second feature was constructed of stonewalls and a stone cap. The drains are roughly parallel to one another separated by a metre or two. Both seemed to run parallel to the back of the Colonial Building.

Colonial Building stone drain/sewer
Colonial Building stone drain/sewer (#2 on map below).
Interior of the Colonial Building stone drain/sewer
Interior of the Colonial Building stone drain/sewer (#2 on map below).

Fortunately for us, the City of St. John’s is installing an outdoor skating rink in Bannerman Park, next to the Colonial Building. During that work, two other drains/sewers were uncovered and they seem to line up with the Colonial Building stone drain/sewer.

We know that there are more water, sewer and electrical lines to be installed, so our goal over the last few days was to try to get a better understanding of where these drains/sewers are what kind of shape they are in and if they are all related. Therefore, we had an excavator dig seven trenches and as is typical with archaeology, we found nothing in the first four trenches and we found drains/sewers in the last two.

Colonial Building map. Green rectangles are trenches we excavated. Yellow line are drains/sewers found this summer. Red lines are drains/sewers we found this week.
Colonial Building map. Green rectangles are trenches we excavated. Yellow lines are drains/sewers found this summer. Red lines are drains/sewers we found this week.

We found drain/sewer line 5 in trench 6. Unfortunately, it was collapsed, but we could tell that it was not straight like all the others. It seemed to be turning toward drain/sewer line 3 & 6. In the last trench, we finally found what we were looking for, an intact drain/sewer line. Amazingly, like several of the others, it still had water running through it. We managed to get the metre stick through one of the gaps in the capstones and learned that the drain/sewer line is at least 80 cm deep.

Colonial Building drain/sewer 6
Colonial Building drain/sewer 6.

With the seven trenches dug, we now had a better idea of where these features are on the Colonial Building grounds. We then started to speculate why they were built. We knew that the Colonial Building and Bannerman Park are built on land that was initially marsh and or bog so we think they were put in place to help drain the land.

In a letter to the British Colonial Secretary written on 18 May 1846 from Major Robe, Commanding Officer of the Royal Engineers (part of the committee selecting the site of the Colonial Building), lays out his concerns with the site selected:

The ground selected is in the very centre and lowest part of a springy marsh or swamp which, I believe, forms the source or head of all the wells and springs that supply the town in the district included between King’s Road and Fort William, having their extreme outfalls into the Harbour at Brooking’s and the Ordinance wharves. This swamp never completely dries up, and it acts as a well-saturated sponge from which a constant soakage is spread out over a large surface of gravelly sub-soil and through that it percolates, in a manner much more pure than any artificial course could convey it, to supply all the wells and springs in the district so described. The water thus obtained is of the very best description, soft and firm for all domestic uses, and it supplies all the inhabitants, not only within its range, but a very large portion that reside beyond its influence, at a considerable distance from the springs: any building, therefore, or other obstruction, placed on the swampy ground, or any attempt to dry it up by drainage for that object, would in my opinion, be very detrimental, inasmuch as it would tend to diminish, if not cut off altogether; the supply of water to these wells and springs.

In order to conduct the renovations on the Colonial Building, the restoration company required a better understating of the history of the building itself. During the compiling of that history we learned that the builders in the nineteenth century had to deal with water in the basement, not surprising given the reference above. During our excavations, one of the restoration/construction workers told us that there is a gap or hole in the foundation of the building.

Hole in the foundation of the Colonial Building.
Hole in the foundation of the Colonial Building from inside the building.
Hole in Colonial Building foundation from outside.
Hole in Colonial Building foundation from outside, just to the right of the construction workers shovel. Drain 1 is visible in the foreground.

The hole almost lines up with drain/sewer 6 & 3. We think that those two form a main line coming from the building and that 4 & 2 join the main line via 5 and that 1 also joins the main line. All of this together would form a system of drains that would allow the water to flow off Bannerman Park and out of the Colonial building parallel with Bannerman Road to Rennie’s River.

These types of drain/sewer features have been found in several other places throughout the city. Most of these features likely date to the mid nineteenth century according to research done by an archaeologist with Gerald Penney Associates Limited. Prior to their use household waste would be tossed out the door and it would drain along the street via surface drains.

Stone drain/sewer we uncovered in 2003 in the middle of the Merrymeeting Road Bonaventure Avenue intersection. The feature ran parallel with Merrymeeting Road.
Stone drain/sewer we uncovered in 2003 in the middle of the Merrymeeting Road Bonaventure Avenue intersection. The feature ran parallel with Merrymeeting Road.
Brick drain/sewer found near Fort Townshend in 2003.
Brick drain/sewer found near Fort Townshend in 2003.

The brick construction material suggests that this drain was built later in the nineteenth century. After this time, ceramic pipes replace the drain/sewer features.

Ayre's Cove sewer/drain line found in 2006.
Ayre’s Cove sewer/drain line found in 2006.

Gerald Penney Associates Limited found the above sewer/drain line during the construction of the Harbour Interceptor Sewer project in Downtown St. John’s.

Europeans have been living on or using the land around St. John’s for about 500 years now. It’s amazing just how much we have changed and altered the landscape in that period.

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6 thoughts on “Hide-n-Seek

    1. nlarchaeology

      Making a community requires and incredible amount of effort, most of it is behind the scenes, or in this case underground.

    1. nlarchaeology

      Yes. These were constructed as drains for waste water (or in this case to drain the bog that the Colonial building was constructed on), we have seen them in numerous places in the city. They were eventually replaced by ceramic sewer pipes.

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