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Reconstructed Pump Harvests Water for Jefferson's Gardens

Gardiner Hallock

Recreated pump and cisternWhen Jefferson started to build Monticello in the 1770s, he understood that water would always be a scarce resource on the mountaintop. To help solve the problem, the self-trained architect planned to install four cisterns at the corners of the two terraces to collect rain falling on the roof and terraces. As Jefferson indicates in his building notes from 1772, the water was to be used for "the kitchen & Laundry, & for watering the garden" and for "accidents of fire." Ever the careful planner, Jefferson further wrote that the cisterns were "to be kept covered, with a pump in each." However, with the onset of the Revolutionary War and Jefferson's later work helping to govern the young United States, the cisterns were not completed until ca. 1809 and it would be another 16 years before the pumps were finally installed.

Jefferson's records document that mason Hugh Chisholm oversaw the construction of the four cisterns at the end of Jefferson's 1796–1809 renovations to Monticello. Because the cisterns leaked, installing the pumps was delayed until all four cisterns were lined with a cement-like material called terras. Only after the terras lining successfully held water for approximately a year did Jefferson feel confident enough to order four pumps from Charlottesville merchant James Leitch. These pumps were purchased between 1822 and 1824; watercolors of Monticello in 1825 document that the pumps were installed soon after.

Spotsylvania Court House PumpToday, Jefferson's cisterns continue to collect rain water from the roof and terraces. While the cistern decks were first restored in the mid-20th century, the pumps remained missing. As part of the multi-year Mountaintop Project to restore Monticello as Jefferson knew it, a reconstructed pump was recently installed on the western cistern. The design is based on documented historic examples and is similar to pumps used during Jefferson's lifetime. To make use of the water in the cistern, Charles Morrill, a Monticello interpreter, home shop machinist, and professional woodworker, designed a system to allow the pump to draw water. While modern materials were substituted for traditional wooden pipes and valves, the pump still functions in almost exactly the same way as an early-19th century pump. So far only one pump has been built in order to test the design. However, if all goes well this winter, similar pumps are planned for the three remaining cisterns. 

Amazingly, the newly installed cistern pump can draw approximately 1,500 gallons of water out of the cistern at any one time. If the remaining three pumps are installed, it is possible that Monticello's Gardens and Grounds department will have access to a total of 6,000 gallons. Thanks to Jefferson's foresight, this water source is also sustainably replenished after each rain. So with each pump of the handle, Monticello's gardeners are realizing Jefferson's 243-years old vision of using reclaimed water to help the mountaintop bloom.

Video of the recreated cistern pump in action


The Mountaintop Project is made possible by a transformational contribution from David M. Rubenstein. Leading support was provided by Fritz and Claudine Kundrun, along with generous gifts and grants from the Sarah and Ross Perot, Jr. Foundation, the Robert H. Smith Family Foundation, Mr. and Mrs. John H. Birdsall, Mr. and Mrs. B. Grady Durham, the Mars Family, the Richard S. Reynolds Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, Charlotte Moss and Barry Friedberg, the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation, the Mary Morton Parsons Foundation, the Cabell Foundation, the Garden Club of Virginia, and additional individuals, organizations, and foundations.


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