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News / Business / Clark County Business

Construction uncovered a cistern in downtown Vancouver; it could date to 19th century

By Sarah Wolf, Columbian staff writer
Published: October 12, 2023, 12:15pm
5 Photos
The remnants of a historic cistern found on Fifth Street are pictured in downtown Vancouver on Thursday morning.
The remnants of a historic cistern found on Fifth Street are pictured in downtown Vancouver on Thursday morning. (Amanda Cowan/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

As construction crews uncovered a brick cistern in downtown Vancouver this week, they unearthed what would prove to be a mystery for the whole community. And a remnant of the Wild West Vancouver of old.

The huge brick tank was found Tuesday under Fifth Street in downtown Vancouver, just east of Washington Street. By Thursday morning, it was no longer intact.

The tank was discovered as Vancouver-based Hurley Development worked to build an apartment complex just south of Fifth Street. The street was closed as part of the project to put in a new sewer line to connect to the new building.

Cisterns are buried tanks designed to hold liquids, most often water. They were common in the 19th and early 20th centuries when they were used for water supplies for early fire departments in the days before citywide water systems.

A mystery

As images circulated on social media after the cistern was found, the community was captivated.

There were rumors that the cistern was connected to the old Lucky Lager Brewery. That, however, was blocks north of where the cistern was found.

State architectural historian Michael Houser estimated the cistern likely dates back to sometime between the 1880s and 1920s.

Large underground cisterns were installed throughout downtown Vancouver after multiple fires destroyed parts of the old city in the late 1800s. Urban fires were common in Western cities at the time and led to the formation of a volunteer fire department in Vancouver.

These municipal cisterns were all marked on the city’s Sandborn Fire Insurance maps dating all the way back to 1884. But maps showed nothing under the Fifth Street site. Yet another puzzle piece adding to the structure’s mystery.

Old times

The Sandborn maps offer a glimpse of a Vancouver life that no longer exists — a time before streets were covered in asphalt. People used stables, not parking garages. And they drank in saloons, not bars or restaurants.

In 1888, the city’s fire insurance map shows Fifth and Washington streets were sparsely developed.

By 1911, the area was much more dense. Pictured on a 1911 map appears to be the key to solving the mystery of the Fifth Street cistern — Hotel St. Elmo.

In Vancouver’s past, Hotel St. Elmo was a community hub.

The four-story brick hotel just south of Fifth Street was considered to be the most popular hotel in Southwest Washington at the time.

It hosted local events, big and small, including for groups like the Prunarians, the Knights of Columbus and the Washington State Grange.

The 77-room hotel opened in April 1907 on the site of what was previously a stable. The Columbian said at the time the hotel was “an indication that Vancouver is going to develop.”

It even had “an easy running elevator” — the first passenger elevator in the city, according to Columbian archives.

As cars began to replace horses, the cityscape changed.

In 1949, the hotel was renovated and a cocktail lounge operated on its ground floor, according to Columbian archives.

Ultimately, the Vancouver Fire Department ordered the top floors of the building to be vacated in 1959. The rest of the building closed in 1967 and it was later demolished.

The cistern

Businesses and individuals were known to have their own cisterns installed, especially if they had the resources to install them, according to records found at the Clark County Historical Museum.

The cistern on Fifth Street appears to be connected to the Hotel St. Elmo.

In fact, the hotel’s cistern was specifically named in The Columbian in two articles from November 1908 as the location for a Vancouver Volunteer Fire Department drill.

“The volunteers drill on Sunday, as it is about the only time they can all get together, unless there is a real fire,” read the article.

“They think that they should keep in practice so that in case there is a fire at any time, it can be extinguished in the shortest time possible.”

Large crowds used to gather to watch these practice drills, according to the archives.


Construction crews unearthed the top of the cistern on Tuesday, not knowing what was beneath. After exposing it more, the crews realized they were dealing with a structure.

“Anytime we encounter something like that, there’s a couple of things we need to do,” said Ryan Lopossa, transportation manager at the city of Vancouver. The process involves stopping construction at the site and ultimately documenting what is found.

Lopossa said Hurley’s team already had an archaeologist for the project since the area has some cultural and archaeological significance. The team will ultimately work with the Washington Department of Archaeology and Historical Preservation to determine when they can get back to work.

According to Lopossa, there’s no plan to preserve what’s left of the cistern.

“It’s a cool thing, but it’s also a void under our street that we generally don’t want to have,” said Lopossa.

Lopossa has worked for the city for about 13 years. During that time, many old things have been found at downtown construction sites — old trolly lines, a fuel storage tank and even another cistern of about the same vintage.

Lopossa expects the site to be closed for a couple of extra weeks, during which time traffic will continue to be rerouted around the block.

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