The well that never ran dry

November 21, 1994|By Donna E. Boller | Donna E. Boller,Sun Staff Writer

No one can say for sure whether the old well that construction workers found on the grounds of the Shellman House in Westminster is God's Well. But it may be.

The workers uncovered the well last summer during reconstruction of East Main Street.

That project has taken two years -- with a break last winter -- and cost $3.3 million. Financing was 80 percent federal, 20 percent state.

State Highway Administration (SHA) and city officials celebrated the prospective end of the project with a ribbon-cutting ceremony Friday at Main and Sycamore streets. The last section, Washington Road from Leese's Auto Sales to Quintal Drive, is now under construction.

Workers found the hand-dug well in June, partly under Sycamore Street and partly on the grounds of the Shellman House at 206 E. Main St. It still contained water, appropriate for what may be God's Well.

The legend of the well, recounted by J. Thomas Scharf in his 1882 "History of Western Maryland," concerned a severe drought.

"The citizens of Winchester [Westminster's original name] became alarmed and many of them locked their pumps and refused even a cooling drink to the thirsty traveler or the famished beast, lest they should not have enough for themselves," Mr. Scharf wrote.

Two single women who shared a house at the eastern edge of ZTC town posted a notice at their well: "Free admittance to all -- water belongs to God."

All other wells in town gradually dried up, but the well owned by the two women continued to provide water until rain ended the drought.

"The two noble-hearted Christian ladies . . . have long since found their reward in heaven. Their old home has been torn down, but the well still remains on the old lot of Mrs. Col. James M. Shellman, and though now covered over and out of repair, has never been known to fail, but to this day is filled with excellent, pure water," Mr. Scharf wrote.

SHA archaeologist Richard G. Ervin said he was initially skeptical about the well. "But I came to the conclusion that this may have been the same well referred to in the legend," he said.

Although he can't declare that the find is God's Well, Mr. Ervin said, "At least we were able to determine that there is a well behind the Shellman House that fits the description and is from the right time period."

The archaeologist said he stopped short of a definite determination because old records described the well, but didn't specify its location. Without excavating the yard of the Shellman House, the possibility of another well can't be ruled out, he said.

Archaeology team members took photographs, made notes and then had the well and adjacent coal chute covered again.

Mr. Ervin said that was the least expensive way to preserve resources. The agency also had the well repaired. It had been damaged slightly when it was being uncovered.

The county Historical Society, which has owned the Shellman House since 1939, hasn't decided whether to restore the well, executive director Jay Graybeal said.

He said a decision will await more research by the society's property committee.

Construction workers unearthed other traces of Westminster's past: another abandoned well, a boundary stone at the corner of Main Street and Manchester Avenue and some glass bottles near the East End Tavern in the first block of Washington Road. Mr. Ervin said the well near 279 E. Main St., a building most recently occupied by Wheeler Chrysler-Plymouth dealership, may have provided water for a former hotel at the east end of Main Street.

That well also was re-covered.

Mr. Ervin said he had information that a boundary stone from the original survey of Westminster in 1764 might surface during the construction. But when workers found the stone, it had been crushed, probably by traffic over the years, he said.

The bottles turned out to be relatively recent, early 20th century.

The SHA archaeologist's report on the items found in Westminster will be submitted to the Maryland Historic Trust for its records.

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