A cute pocket park in downtown Brenham preserves the early history of Brenham at a location of the town’s cistern and water supply, a marvel of 19th century engineering and infrastructure and a State Archaeological landmark in this small Texas town. A total of 8 signs here detail the early development of Brenham, its growth as a railroad town, its troubled occupation by the Union Army and Freedmen’s Bureau troops after the Civil War, and the founding of the city’s Hook and Ladder firefighting company.
Beneath Brenham streets is a State Archaeological Landmark, a large system of historic cisterns. The cisterns were built in the late 1800’s to store rainwater for public fire fighting. Private cisterns were also abundant throughout early Washington County, used for bathing, drinking and cooking.
The large system of public cisterns in early Brenham was a rarity. The city was considered very progressive for using the new-fangled contraptions to fight fires. No other Texas cities were known to install public cisterns, or to provide public services so early.
Enjoy the Wild West story of why these cisterns were built. It’s a tale of an early railroad, a rough Boom Town, and colorful characters who shaped Washington County’s history.
Follow the intriguing details of the 1866 Burning of Brenham and the large gunfight that led to the fire.
Learn how Brenham citizens banded together to protect themselves and their properties from oppressive Union troops during Reconstruction.
See a large private cistern circa 1880 and learn how it was used.
Discover how public cisterns were built and supplied with water by innovative private businesses.
Find out about present-day cisterns and how to harvest rainwater for your landscape, water features, livestock, and even for indoor use.”
The waymarked sign of history reads as follows:
“BRENHAM’S EXTENSIVE CISTERN SYSTEMS
By 1878, the success of cisterns in Brenham was proven and the new contraptions were quite popular. Construction of cisterns systems accelerated throughout Washington County. Many new buildings were designed with reservoir roofs, feeding rainwater into cisterns.
Private households and small businesses usually couldn’t afford underground cisterns, so above ground tanks were the most common.
Most affluent businesses installed underground cisterns which were often larger, and stored water away from the sun. This kept the water cooler, cleaner, and free of bacteria. In those days, it was common for business houses to include living quarters, and there cisterns provided water for cooking, bathing, drinking, and fighting fires.
Construction of public cisterns also escalated. By eighteen fifty-five, there were twenty-seven cisterns available for public use in Brenham, a remarkable number to be built in only eight years. Most were under public streets and quite large, their tops sealed with manhole covers.
Rainwater was fed into these underground cisterns through downspouts and pipes from the roofs of adjacent buildings. Brenham’s brand-new Silsby fire truck was designed with hoses to draw water from the cisterns, filling its large tank that was pulled by horses or men.
The proliferation of cisterns in Washington County created a demanding market for the devices. A local cistern factory was established in 1884 by Adolph Seelhorst and his partner W. E. Reichardt. They began making cisterns of galvanized iron, which greatly improve the quality and performance.
Although Reichart and Seelhorst also made flus and other products, cisterns were there most popular items. They supplied the local market and also shipped many cisterns across “Texas, the Indian Territory and Old and New Mexico.”
Seelhorst lived in a large, stately home that was built in about eighteen seventy-nine. It had a copper lined roof to catch rainwater that was piped to a cistern under the back porch. Today the private residence displays a Texas historical marker, and the roof and cistern are still intact.
Many cisterns that were built during this era are still under Brenham streets and buildings. But since most cisterns were installed above ground, there is no longer any evidence of them.
No other example of such extensive cistern systems has been found in Texas. It is believed that, when the city of Brenham began building cisterns, it became the earliest Texas government to offer public works. The unique venture was driven by local, innovative businessman who couldn’t bear to see their properties burned again.
Most other cities didn’t begin building water systems until the late 1880s to the early 1900s. Soon after that, the installation of fire hydrants eliminated the need for public cisterns.
In 2000 the city of Brenham uncovered an underground cistern while doing street work at a downtown intersection. A cistern expert, from the Texas Historical Commission in Austin, inspected the large cistern invalidated its historical significance.
Shortly thereafter Brenham’s public cistern systems were named a state archaeological landmark.”