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In 1791, Thomas Jefferson decided to implement a new, more consistent way to supply fresh water to his home, Monticello. He concluded that, in order to supplement the inconsistent water supply available from ground wells, he would need to build cisterns to catch rain water coming off of the house, the pavilions and the dependencies. Jefferson meticulously calculated the total area of the roofs of the main buildings at Monticello, multiplied them by the average yearly rainfall, recorded in his personal records, and came to the conclusion that four eight-foot cube cisterns would allow the house to gather an average of six hundred gallons of fresh water per day.
On August 11, 1809, Hugh Chisholm and his brother began work on Jefferson's four cisterns. Even though the brickwork for the cisterns was finished in 1810, it took several years for Jefferson to find sufficiently waterproof plaster to line them. In 1818, he wrote to a New York artist-sculptor, William Coffee, who was finally able to assist Jefferson with this problem. Coffee sent Jefferson extremely detailed information and instructions on how to use Roman cement, which was a hydraulic mortar imported from Europe. Coffee then came to Monticello, at Jefferson's request, and taught one of Jefferson's bricklayers how to use the cement.
Despite Coffee's active participation in the creation of the cisterns, Jefferson's system for gathering fresh water never fully worked. Although the Roman cement was thought to be waterproof, Jefferson's cisterns were never completely watertight and only two reliably collected and held water over the years.
Primary Source References
1771-1772. (Jefferson notes on the construction of the offices). "the two Northern cisterns to be reserved against accidents of fire: the Southern ones for the use of the kitchen & laundry, & for watering the garden. the cisterns to be kept covered, with a pump in each."
1811. (Jefferson memorandum). "Chis[h]olm Hugh. Began to work with his negro boy 1811. May 7. or 8. plaistering the cisterns May 24. finishes June 19. to 23. worked on the pier head."
1812 August 9. (Jefferson to Benjamin Harris). "With the construction of filtering machines I am but little acquainted. I know that the best drinking water commonly used in Paris is filtered through large cisterns of sand, being received at the bottom of the sand. I made, about 2. years ago; 4 cisterns of brick of 8. feet cube each and sunk in the earth, and always intended, in order to have potable water, to sink a well 2. or 3. f. from one of them, of 2.f. diameter and of the depth of the cistern. To fill the well to a certain height with sand, and have a pipe of communication at the bottom, expecting that the water rising thro' the sand in the well would be sufficiently purified. I have kept my cisterns empty this long to harden, and am only now preparing to let water into them."
1815 February 9. (Jefferson to William Thornton). "I have endeavored to constitute a supply of water at Monticello by cisterns for recieving and preserving the rain water falling on my buildings. these would furnish me 600. galls of water a day, if I could by cement or plaister make them hold water. but this I have not been able to do as yet. they are of brick, 4. in number holding being cubes of 8.f. sunk in the ground...my expectation is that my cistern water may be made potable, which will add much to their value."
1818 October 27. (Jefferson to William Coffee). "You saw probably my cisterns, and know that they have continued useless for want of a proper cement to line them. All agree that the substance called Terras, imported from Amsterdam and Hamburg is proved effectual by long experience, and I am told it is in use in New York and can there be had. My cisterns have about 1280. square feet of surface, and, for a coat of half an inch thickness, would require 40. bushels either of that material alone, or of the mixed material, whatever that is, and so more or less in proportion as the coat should be thicker or thinner. Will you be so good as to inform me whether the material is to be had in N[ew] York and at what price? How thick a lining is found sufficient for the inside of a Cistern? And any details of manipulation which you may be so kind as to collect for me."
1. James A. Bear, Jr. and Lucia C. Stanton, eds. Jefferson's Memorandum Books: Accounts, with Legal Records and Miscellany, 1767-1826 (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1997), 2:1246.
2. Jack McLaughlin, Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder (New York: H. Holt, c.1988), 303.
3. Jefferson to Coffee, October 27, 1818. Polygraph copy at Massachusetts Historical Society.
4. McLaughlin, 303.
5. Please note that this list should not be considered comprehensive.
7. Undated memorandum, Massachusetts Historical Society.
8. J. Jefferson Looney, ed., The Papers of Thomas Jefferson: Retirement Series (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2004-), 5:308. Cumulative index available on Monticello website. Polygraph copy available online from the Library of Congress.
9. American Philosophical Society. Excerpted in Edwin M. Betts, ed. Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, 1766-1824: With Relevant Extracts from His Other Writings (Philadelphia: American Philosophical Society, 1944. Rep. 1999), 541. Manuscript and transcription available online.
10. Polygraph copy at Massachusetts Historical Society.