Road to Monticello

Many visitors during Thomas Jefferson's time described the road to Monticello.[1]   An 1816 visitor described Monticello as "a sort of Mecca." Jefferson's granddaughter Ellen Coolidge recalled: "We had persons from abroad, from all the States of the Union, from every part of the State, men, women, and children. In short, almost every day for at least eight months of the year, brought its contingent of guests. People of wealth, fashion, men in office, professional men military and civil, lawyers, doctors, Protestant clergymen, Catholic priests, members of Congress, foreign ministers, missionaries, Indian agents, tourists, travellers, artists, strangers, friends. Some came from affection and respect, some from curiosity, some to give or receive advice or instruction, some from idleness, some because others set the example, and very varied, amusing and agreeable was the society afforded by this influx of guests."

Whether an eagerly anticipated friend or an uninvited traveler, all of Monticello's visitors shared the common experience of ascending the 867-foot mountain that Jefferson called home. They came by foot and by horseback, riding in rented coaches and military processions. The terrain was "savage," winding, and steep, causing some to abandon their carriages and proceed on foot. One traveler crossed the river by "passing on the trunk of a tree." Fording the Rivanna was "disagreeable," and left horses lame and wagons under water. Through "untamed woodland," where "nature seemed to hold an undisturbed dominion," men, women, and children made a journey that culminated in "one of the most extensive views of any spot (on) the globe affords."

A visitor in 1808 noted that "In a few years, when some improvements, now begun, are complete, the approach will be worthy the taste of the proprietor."

Anna Thornton, September 1802

Saturday 18th... About 1/2 after ten we all set out on our journey to Monticello. Bishop M(adison) accomapinied us about 12 miles on the way -- it was very warm riding & the roads bad -- we travelled so slowly that it was quite dark before we reached the foot of the mountain and had it not been for the lightning (which) was played almost incessantly we should not have been able to have seen the road at all; at last we became so much afraid that we alighted, and all but Mama walked the remainder of the way to the house, which I suppose might be about 3/4 of a mile. The exercise of ascending the hill and the warmth of the evening fatigued us much. I kept up my spirits so much that by the time I got to my chamber I was exhausted & quite unwell. Besides the darkness of the night, and the roads which lead thro' woods principally, there was every appearance of a thunderstorm; fortunately we arrived safe about 1/4 hour before it began to rain violently...

Wednesday 22.- Took a walk of half a mile which has been made round the Hill, thro the trees; below there is another of two miles. The grounds want a great deal of improvement yet, tho a great deal has been done. The House is situated on the very summit of the mountain, on a circular level, formed by art, commanding a view of all the surrounding country, the small town of Charlottesville, and a little winding river (called the Ravenna) with a view of the blue ridge & even more distant mountains form a beautiful scene on the north side of the house. There is something grand & awful in the situation but far from convenient or in my opinion agreeable. It is a place you would rather look at now & then than live at.

Augustus John Foster, August 1807

It is a very delightful ride of twenty eight miles from Mont Pelier to the late President, Mr. Jefferson's, seat at Monticello. . . . There was a disagreeable ford to cross at the North River near Monticello which lamed one of my horses just as I was preparing to ascend. The mountain itself is separated from the range on either side and lies between two gaps. The ascent is very winding, about a mile in length and very well shaded until within about two hundred yards from the house which is built on a level platform that was formed by the President's father who cut down the top of the mount to the extent of about two acres.

Margaret Bayard Smith, August 1809

After a very delightful journey of three days, we reached Monticello on the morning of the fourth. When I crossed the Ravanna, a wild and romantic little river, which flows at the foot of the mountain, my heart beat, - I thought I had entered, as it were the threshold of his dwelling, and I looked around everywhere expecting to meet with some trace of his superintending care. In this I was disappointed, for no vestige of the labour of man appeared; nature seemed to hold an undisturbed dominion. We began to ascend this mountain, still as we rose I cast my eyes around, but could discern nothing but untamed woodland, after a mile's winding upwards, we saw a field of corn, but the road was still wild and uncultivated. I every moment expected to reach the summit, and felt as if it was an endless road; my impatience lengthened it, for it is not two miles from the outer gate on the river to the house. At last we reached the summit, and I shall never forget the emotion the first view of this sublime scenery excited. Below me extended for above 60 miles round, a country covered with woods, plantations and houses; beyond, arose the blue mountains, in all their grandeur. Monticello rising 500 feet above the river, of a conical form and standing by itself, commands on all sides an unobstructed and I suppose one of the most extensive views any spot (on) the globe affords. The sides of the mountain covered with wood, with scarcely a speck of cultivation, present a fine contrast to its summit, crowned with a noble pile of buildings, surounded by an immense lawn, and shaded here and there with some fine trees. Before we reached the house, we met Mr. J. on horseback, he had just returned from his morning ride, and when, on approaching, he recognized us, he received us with one of those benignant smiles, and cordial tones of voice that convey an undoubted welcome to the heart. He dismounted and assisted me from the carriage, led us to the hall thro' a noble portico, where he again bade us welcome. . . .There are 4. roads about 15 or 20 feet wide, cut round the mountain from 100 to 200 feet apart. These circuits are connected by a great many roads and paths and when completed will afford a beautiful shady ride or walk of seven miles. . . .

Monday morning. I again rose early in order to observe the scenes around me and was again repaid for the loss of sleep, by the various appearances the landscape assumed as the fog was rising. But the blue and misty mountains, now lighted up with sunshine, now thrown into deep shadow, presented objects on which I gaze each morning with new pleasure. After breakfast Mr. J. sent E(llen) to ask me if I would take a ride with him round the mountain; I willingly assented and in a little while I was summoned; the carriage was a kind of chair, which his own workmen had made under his direction, and it was with difficulty that he, Ellen and I found room in it, and might well be called the sociable. The first circuit, the road was good, and I enjoyed the views it afforded and the familiar and easy conversation which our sociable gave rise to; but when we descended to the second and third circuit, fear took from me the power of listening to him, or observing the scene, nor could I forbear expressing my alarm, as we went along a rough road which had only been laid out, and on driving over fallen trees, and great rocks, which threatened an overset to our sociable and a roll down the mountain to us. "My dear madam," said Mr. J., "you are not to be afraid, or if you are you are not to show it; trust yourself implicitly to me, I will answer for your safety; I came every foot of this road yesterday, on purpose to see if a carriage could come safely; I know every step I take, so banish all fear." This I tried to do, but in vain, till coming to a road over which one wheel must pass I jumped out, while the servant who attended on horseback rode forward and held up the carriage as Mr. J. passed. Poor Ellen did not dare to get out. Notwithstanding the terror I suffered I would not have lost this ride; as Mr. J. explained to me all his plans for improvement, where the roads, the walks, the seats, the little temples were to he placed. . . . We returned home by a road which did not wind round the mountain but carried us to the summit by a gentle ascent. It was a good road, and my terror vanished and I enjoyed conversation.

Francis Calley Gray, February 1815

The country constantly ascended as we proceeded west and on Friday soon after noon, we crossed the North River at the Ford near Milton and soon reached Monticello, between which and another mountain belonging to Mr. Jefferson, passed our road to Charlottesville, at which town we dined. . . .On Saturday it rained and at twelve o'clock we went from our tavern in a hack to Monticello, three miles east of Charlottesville on the same road we had passed the day before. Our road passed between Monticello and the S. W. mountain which is much higher and along whose side runs the narrow path which led us between these hills to the gate on the S. E. side of Monticello. The sides of both these hills and the valley between them are covered with a noble forest of oaks in all stages of growth and of decay. Their trunks straight and tall put forth no branches till they reach a height almost equal to the summits of our loftiest trees in New England. Those which were rooted in the valley, in the richest soil overtopped many which sprung from spots far above them on the side of the mountain. The forest had evidently been abandoned to nature; some of the trees were decaying from age, some were blasted, some uprooted by the wind and some appeared even to have been twisted from their trunks by the violence of a hurricane. They rendered the approach to the house even at this season of the year extremely grand and imposing. On reaching the house we found no bell nor knocker and, entering through the hall in the parlour, saw a gentleman (Col. Randolph), who took our letters to Mr. Jefferson.

George Ticknor, February 1815

We left Charlottesville on Saturday morning, the 4th of February, for Mr. Jefferson's. He lives, you know, on a mountain, which he has named Monticello, and which, perhaps you do not know, is a synonyme or Carter's mountain. The ascent of this steep, savage hill, was as pensive and slow as Satan's ascent to Paradise. We were obliged to wind two thirds round its sides before we reached the artificial lawn on which the house stands; and, when we had arrived there, we were about six hundred feet, I understand, above the stream which flows at its foot. It is an abrupt mountain. The fine growth of ancient forest-trees conceals its sides and shades part of its summit. The prospect is admirable.

Lt. Francis Hall, 1817

Having an introduction to Mr. Jefferson, I ascended his little mountain on a fine morning, which gave the situation its due effect. The whole of the sides and base are covered with forest, through which roads have been cut circularly, so that the winding may be shortened or prolonged at pleasure: the summit is an open lawn, near to the south side of which the house is built, with its garden just descending the brow. . . .I slept a night at Monticello, and left it in the morning, with such a feeling as the traveller quits the mouldering remains of a Grecian temple, or the pilgrim a fountain in the desert. . . .My travels had nearly terminated at the Rivannah, which flows at the foot of Monticello: in trying to ford it, my horse and waggon were carried down the stream: I escaped with my servant, and by the aid of Mr. Jefferson's domesticks, we finally succeeded in extricating my equipage from a watery grave.

Duke Bernnhard of Saxe-Weimer-Eisenach, November 1825

President Jefferson invited us to a family dinner; but as in Charlottesville there is but a single hackney-coach, and this being absent, we were obliged to go the three miles to Monticello on foot. We went by a pathway, through well cultivated and enclosed fields, crossed a creek named Rivanna, passing on a trunk of a tree cut in a rough shape, and without rails; then ascended a steep hill overgrown with wood, and came on its top to Mr. Jefferson's house, which is in an open space, walled round with bricks, forming an oblong, whose shorter sides are rounded; on each of the longer sides are portals of four columns. The unsuccessful waiting for a carriage, and our long walk, caused such a delay, that we found the company at table when we entered; but Mr. Jefferson came very kindly to meet us, forced us to take our seats, and ordered dinner.

Footnotes

1. This article is based on Ann M. Lucas, Monticello Keepsake, November 1, 1996.

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