Our Struggle to
"Water, water everywhere, Nor any drop to drink."
When we began to inhabit a cottage by Keuka Lake my parents had to face up to a situation like the one in Coleridge's lines. I was a child from the city and knew only that water came from a faucet. My folks had backgrounds that had made them aware of the real sources of water, but they weren't particularly concerned about getting water for drinking and for bathing and for washing at our lakeside location.
I first learned about getting water when my father began fitting galvanized pipes together to form a conduit from a nearby gully to our kitchen sink. He did get water to come out of the faucet, even a hair snake! However there were frequent interruptions when the stone and mud dam he had piled in the ditch failed. Leaks were frequent and I was often sent to plug a hole. Like the little Dutch boy I felt trusted and honored to stop the leak.
Across the lake from our cottage was a high hill that seemed often to divert rainstorms from our spot. Often in the summer, drought dried up our gully. Then I was sent to the lake with a pail to fetch water. The lift was about 50 feet from the lake's edge to our cottage, and I soon complained. To lessen the haul up the switchback trail my parents installed a pitcher pump half way down. The pump had to be primed so often, and pumping took as much effort or more than lugging the pail all the way from the lake shore. I quit using the pump and so did the adults.
Much of my time I spent roaming the hillside. One day I discovered a small spring seeping from the bank of a gully above our cabin. When I reported my find there was a surprising amount of excitement at our cottage. This time my father strung more than 300' of pipe to the spring where he sank an old brandy barrel to intercept the water. Once again water came from our kitchen faucet. The flow never quite stopped in dry seasons but we did have to practice strict water conservation. Every drop of water was valuable. We saved even the melt water from our icebox. Rain water from the roof caught by an eaves trough was collected in wash tubs and a copper boiler. The water from the roof was soft water and sudsier for washing and bathing than the water from the spring.
Near our cottage was exposed rock that was wet in the spring. Below this spot were a couple of willow trees which seemed to indicate a quantity of water. My father, however, didn't rush into digging a well here but inquired of neighbors about their wells. One had a dug well only twelve feet deep which sometimes had six feet of water standing in it.
People speculated that ancient ravines covered over by the glaciers continued as water channels under the surface. The problem was to find such an underground source. Some people thought dowsers could detect these streams.
My father even talked of sending an electric current into the earth and comparing its "echoes" on the surmise that where it was slower to return there might be a hidden source. But it was just a theory with him and in depression times he decided not to experiment. So he called in a water finder.
I had heard that these people were also called water witches, but all those we heard about were male, and I puzzled about men being witches. Then I remembered that witches had been burned at the stake. Another boy and I talked this over. He said that they hadn't burned after all because they were too wet to burn. Dowsing seemed to be dealing with the supernatural and there was a lot of mystery here for small boys to ponder.
Then there was my father, an engineer who thought of himself as a technologist, but he would try forked-stick operations!
I remember the man who came did employ a forked witch hazel stick. He scorned our spot by the damp rock and the willow trees. "Not enough here to be worth while." Instead he paced grandly out along a horizontal path and fixed on a spot at the same level but farther away. Here we dug. The blue shale was close to the surface, and not easy to dig. Using shovels, picks and bars we dislodged rock, filled buckets with clay and stones, and carried them from the excavation. All we got was seepage that ran away through fissures on the downhill side of the hole. Finally we gave up; leveled the spot off for a terrace and a clothesline.
All this time we got our drinking water from the fish hatchery. Conservation was still essential. We didn't have enough water for bathing, but that could be done in the lake.
Finally my parents decided to have a well drilled. Dad took me with him to visit our neighbors the MacCauls who had just had a well drilled. Jack pointed out that their well cap had a small pipe extending from it. He said it was to allow natural gas to escape. They had had an explosion, no fire, just gas pressure, that had blown the first cap off the casing.
Dad hired the same driller. Twenty feet downhill from the willow trees he blocked up his rig to be horizontal so that it could operate. Then began the thump, thump, thump as the bit pounded its way down. It had to go 220 feet before there was sufficient water to call the effort successful. A deep well pump was installed in an insulated concrete chamber below ground level. A pipe again took water to the kitchen sink. At last we had enough water. There was some gas; our well cap was vented, too. The water didn't have sulphur although it did have stone powder in it at first. We still brought water from the fish hatchery to drink.
The well was completed just before my brother and I went off to the Second World War. Gas rationing prevented my parents from travelling from Syracuse to their Keuka Lake cottage and eventually it was sold. We never built a bathroom.
© 1995, Robert V. Anderson