Prior to June of 1977 everyone living on Ocracoke Island relied on rainstorms and runoff from the roof for fresh drinking water. According to oral tradition the first water storage containers were simply wooden barrels, undoubtedly gathered from sailing vessels or local stores after they had emptied them of vinegar, rum, or molasses, popular fare brought to the island from the Caribbean and other faraway places. Eventually large round wooden cisterns held together by iron bands replaced barrels and troughs. Some had flat wooden tops; others had more elaborate conical roofs…but the vertical planks were cut much like barrel staves. Oral tradition suggests that many of these cisterns were purchased from mail order houses as kits, and assembled in place. Still later, several varieties of brick cisterns became popular. James (Mr. Jim) Garrish and Thad Gaskins are remembered for building brick cisterns around the village. Some were plastered with cement; others were simply painted (typically white, or to match the color of the house trim). Many brick cisterns were round with flat, wooden tops. Others had domed tops. Finally, in 1977, Ocracoke got a municipal water system. Nearly everyone who was eligible signed up, and cistern water was reserved for watering gardens and washing cars. However, because water mains were not extended to all outlying areas new construction there still relied on cisterns. By the last quarter of the twentieth century fiberglass tanks had replaced concrete cisterns.
During World War II, the US Navy built a base on Ocracoke Island. The only remaining structure from the base is the large, round white cistern located next to the Visitor Center. For many years after its closure, islanders referred to this area as “down base.” Even today, a few old-timers still call it by this name.