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The water supply at Monticello was a constant struggle for those living on the mountaintop. In 1769, when construction began on Monticello, Thomas Jefferson employed a crew of workers to dig a well near the South Pavilion. The men spent forty-six days digging through sixty-five feet of rock.1 Dry weather conditions, however, caused the well to fail for six of the years between 1769 and 1797.2 Whenever the well ran dry, water had to be carted up from springs lower down on the mountain.3
In 1808, Jefferson settled upon the construction of four eight-foot-cube cisterns.4 The cisterns were positioned near the house to capture rainwater running off the roofs and terraces.5 Work on the new project began in 1810, but it took many years of trial and error to create a waterproof plaster before the cisterns held rainwater — and even then, it was never a perfect system.6
- Betts, Edwin M., ed. Thomas Jefferson's Garden Book, 1766-1824: With Relevant Extracts from His Other Writings. Philadelphia: The American Philosophical Society, 1944 (reprint edition, Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Foundation, Inc., 1999).
- Betts, Edwin M., Hazlehurst Bolton Perkins, and Peter Hatch. Thomas Jefferson's Flower Garden at Monticello. Charlottesville: Thomas Jefferson Memorial Association and University Press of Virginia, 1986, 17-20.
- McLaughlin, Jack. Jefferson and Monticello: The Biography of a Builder. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1988.
- 1. Betts, Garden Book, 17, 283 n2.
- 2. Thomas Jefferson, 1776-1818, Weather Record, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Jefferson's notes concerning the water supply in the well are available online. Transcription available in Betts, Garden Book, 629.
- 3. Weather Record, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Jefferson's record of temperatures at Monticello's fifteen springs is available online. Transcription available in Betts, Garden Book, 630.
- 4. Weather Record, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Jefferson's calculation on cisterns is available online. Transcription available in Betts, Garden Book, 630-31.
- 5. See Jefferson to James Dinsmore, November 7, 1808, Coolidge Collection of Thomas Jefferson Manuscripts, Massachusetts Historical Society. Transcription available at Founders Online.
- 6. See Jefferson to John Brockenbrough, June 4, 1823, Thomas Jefferson Papers, Library of Congress. Polygraph copy available online. Transcription available at Founders Online.