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Cisterns

From the time that construction began on his mountaintop home, Thomas Jefferson knew that the water supply would be an ongoing concern. In his plans for Monticello, Jefferson mentioned cisterns as early as 1772. Two cisterns on the northern side of the house would be reserved for fire emergencies; corresponding cisterns on the southern side would service the laundry, the kitchen, and the garden.1

For many years, Monticello operated without the collection system that Jefferson had envisioned. A well near the south pavilion provided the necessary water when rainfall was sufficient; dry weather, however, caused the well to fail periodically.2 Nearing his retirement from the presidency in 1809, Jefferson revived his plans for building cisterns to supplement the unreliable well. He began by determining the amount of water that could be collected. Multiplying the average annual rainfall by the square footage of his house, pavilions, and dependencies, Jefferson concluded that "4. cisterns of 8. f. cube each, ... one on each side of each covered way" would supply 600 gallons of fresh water each day.3

On August 11, 1809, Irish brickmason and builder Hugh Chisholm, along with his brother John, began work on Monticello's four brick cisterns.4 During the following spring, Jefferson could report that the cisterns were prepared for saving rain water.5 By September 1810, however, problems had already become apparent. Jefferson anxiously solicited Hugh Chisholm for his services. "[Y]ou should come immediately ...," he wrote, "unless the cistern be done in time to dry, it will give way again in winter."6 Chisholm worked at Monticello for two months in the fall of 1810,7 but was back again in May 1811, when he "began to work with his negro boy 1811. May 7. or 8. plaistering the cisterns."8

For the next several years, Jefferson reported periodically on the status of his cisterns. "I have kept my cisterns empty thus long to harden," he wrote in August 1812, "& am only now preparing to let water into them."9 In February 1815, he admitted that the aging cisterns were simply not doing their job. They would be useful, he lamented, only "if I could by cement or plaister make them hold water. but this I have not been able to do as yet."10

In October 1818, Jefferson wrote to New York artist-sculptor William Coffee concerning his "useless" cisterns and the need for a proper cement to line them.11 Within a fortnight, Coffee responded with detailed information about Roman cement, a hydraulic mortar imported from Europe.12 Coffee himself came to Monticello in March 1820 and "instructed and assisted a bricklayer, a black man, how to use" the European product.13

Despite Coffee's personal assistance and the waterproof properties of Roman cement, Jefferson's system for gathering fresh water remained problematic. His cisterns were never completely watertight and only two reliably collected and held water over the years.14

- Nancy Verell, 3/1/2017

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."15

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."16

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 recieved at the bottom of the sand. I made, about 2 years ago, 4 cisterns of brick of 8 feet cube, each & 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. diametter 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 thus long to harden, & am only now preparing to let water into them."17

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 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."18

1818 October 27. (Jefferson to William Coffee). "[Y]ou 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. 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."19

FURTHER SOURCES

McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. New York: Henry Holt & Co., Inc., 1988.

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