The fire began in the chimney, as one family member recalled. It was a windy spring day in central Virginia. The year was 1819.

Kyle Chattleton: This is Mountaintop History, a podcast produced by the Thomas Jefferson Foundation at Monticello. 

Olivia Brown: Mountaintop History brings forward meaningful stories from this historic home and plantation — from the past and from the present.

Kyle Chattleton: My name is Kyle Chattleton. 

Olivia Brown: And I'm Olivia Brown.

Kyle Chattleton: Thank you for joining us. We hope you'll learn something new.

Olivia Brown: The fire began in the chimney, as one family member recalled. It was a windy spring day in central Virginia. The year was 1819. According to Thomas Jefferson, there were other fires that day. "Many houses burnt," he wrote to John Barnes, "farms laid bare by the destruction of their inclosures, whole herds of hogs in the forest burnt up, and 3. or 4. lives within my own knoledge, lost by suffocation, becoming surrounded by the fire." 

Kyle Chattleton: On that day at Monticello, a fire began in the chimney of the North Pavilion, a small structure just off the main house. “The wind blew very hard," wrote Elizabeth Trist, causing the small man-made flame in the fireplace to grow and grow until it began to consume the pavilion. As it spread across the room, family members rushed in, trying to save important papers. 

Olivia Brown: The fire threatened to destroy much more than this small structure. The North Pavilion was connected to a wooden terrace with stables and workspaces underneath. At the other end, stood the Monticello mansion. All of it could go up in smoke if action was not quickly taken. 

Kyle Chattleton: As the wind whirled and the blaze grew larger and larger, those on the mountaintop, enslaved and free — even the 76 year old Jefferson — made a desperate effort to stop the fire in its tracks. 

Olivia Brown: It was a chaotic scene. Elizabeth Trist described papers "flying about the level" of the terrace. Another witness reported that the South Pavilion almost caught fire as well and that Jefferson had fallen "down among the boards And rubbed the skin off" of one of his shins. 

Kyle Chattleton: Just below the terrace was the "snow house," as Thomas Jefferson called it, filled with snow and ice. He and others rushed down and began hauling snow to the terrace, covering a portion of it to prevent the fire's spread. " Our snow house," he wrote, "enabled us so far to cover with snow the adjacent terras which connected it with the main building as to prevent its affecting that." 

Olivia Brown: Their efforts were successful. The fire was stopped, and it only destroyed part of the North Pavilion. 

This has been another episode of Mountaintop History, a collaboration podcast between WTJU and the Thomas Jefferson Foundation. 

Kyle Chattleton: Join us for new episodes every two weeks on Apple and Google Podcasts, Stitcher, and the Virginia Audio Collective.

Olivia Brown: To learn more about Monticello or to plan your next trip, visit us online at 


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