On Observatory Hill one fall evening, mountain bikers barreled down rocky slopes, joggers chugged up steep inclines, and four-legged explorers sniffed around, leading their owners at the end of leashes.
Rising 865 feet on the western edge of Grounds, crisscrossed by a network of trails and covered by a canopy of chestnut oak and hickory trees, the hill is a haven for recreation. Amid the hubbub, however, was a quieter scene.
About 100 yards off the pavement, up a narrow path, a trickle of water meandered downhill. It came from the head of a mountain spring.
Not just any mountain spring but the water source that made the college below it possible. The mountain not only supplied water, but wood and stone, life-sustaining materials for UVA in its earliest days.
It’s not every university that has its own mountain, and not every mountain that nurtured a university. The role the mountain played in establishing UVA and sustaining it in its early days is not widely known, says Nancy Takahashi (Arch ’76, ’85), associate professor emerita of landscape architecture in UVA’s School of Architecture. She became interested in its history when she served as principal at Hereford College, located along the mountain. The story she discovered is one reason she enjoys bringing people to the spring, an unmarked spot that looks much the same as it would have 200 years ago.
“This is the spot that Jefferson knew,” she says.
The spot sits on what the U.S. Geological Survey calls Mount Jefferson; it’s also known as Observatory Mountain or at UVA as O-Hill.
By whatever name, it’s well used. ROTC cadets train there. Birders flock from mid-April through May, during migration season. The occasional bear is seen on the hill’s upper reaches. Deer, snakes, turtles and other woodland creatures also roam.
Cold War-era science buildings, including a former nuclear reactor, populate its lower slopes. The 137-year-old Leander McCormick Observatory presides at its peak.
The mountain has been imprinted in the popular image of UVA for nearly two centuries. In artists’ renderings of the nascent University, it sits companionably in the background, “as a topographic counterpart to the domed Rotunda, its rural wooded aspect in contrast to the village below,” Takahashi and Garth Anderson (Arch ’16), UVA’s facilities management historian, wrote in a 2018 paper, Downhill/Uphill: Material Flows Between a Mountain and an Academical Village.
More than just nice to look at, the land—simply labeled “mountains” in Jefferson’s 1817 survey of “Lands of the Central College”—was central to his conception of UVA, not acquired later, as many assume, Takahashi says. Jefferson coveted it for its water, wood and stone, but especially for the water. Everything hinged on that.
Securing the water was a close call, for as visionary as it was, Jefferson’s plan “was not perfect,” Takahashi says. The spring was not part of the original mountain parcel of 153 acres he purchased in 1817. Nor was that land contiguous to the other tract he bought, a cleared, farmed parcel that became the site of the Academical Village below.
It wasn’t until 1825, the year the first classes met, that the Board of Visitors acquired an additional 132 acres containing the spring and the waters running off it, connecting the noncontiguous parcels, securing the water and knitting everything together.
It was good that they did.
“Without the spring, it’s just a hill,” Takahashi says.
In the early days of UVA, water flowed downhill in hollowed-out wood logs.
It was not an ideal system. In the 1850s, the rotting wood pipes were replaced by cast-iron pipes running from the spring to the Rotunda. A reservoir was also dug. Its outline is still visible today.
By 1888, after a larger off-site reservoir was built, UVA no longer relied on the piped spring water. The Observatory Hill reservoir became a leisure destination and swimming hole. (The city of Charlottesville built a water treatment plant at the base of the mountain in 1923.)
The need for the mountain’s wood and stone also waned over time. Records suggest that enslaved laborers and independent contractors cut wood for use in 19th century kitchens, fireplaces and kilns, Takahashi and Anderson wrote. Stone was quarried for use in the University’s original buildings. It wasn’t suitable for architectural components like column capitals and bases, but for steps, sills and landscape walls in early buildings, they wrote.
And by 1898, classrooms and residences were heated by steam, reducing the need for timber.
(In separate research, Anderson discovered that Skipwith Hall, dedicated in 2017 and located near the foot of the hill, likely sits on the site of a former quarry. It’s named for Peyton Skipwith, an enslaved laborer who quarried stone at UVA.)
UVA is a careful steward of the hill these days, but that wasn’t always the case. By the 20th century, the flow of materials reversed and “the university took its problems uphill,” Anderson wrote in an email.
At various times, the mountain was a dumping ground for trash, waste and construction material and, during the 1970s, even hospital-generated waste and human body parts from UVA Medical Center, Takahashi and Anderson wrote.
The hill’s isolation made it the natural location for sensitive scientific research during the Atomic Age and for the University’s own nuclear reactor. Physicist Jesse Beams (Col 1925), who had been part of the research team on the Manhattan Project, moved his research from Rouss Hall to a new Ordnance Research Lab on the mountain in the late 1940s. Building the lab required clearing swaths of forest and drilling two deep pits to protect against the release of radioactive shrapnel should a high-speed centrifuge break.
The reactor was completed in 1960, two years after UVA started a nuclear engineering program. UVA was among the first wave of universities to build research reactors in the “belief that the atom could be harnessed for good instead of evil,” a 2006 Virginia Magazine article said.
The reactor core was housed in a 70,000 gallon, 27-foot-deep pool that glowed a bright blue when the reactor was at full power. The concrete and brick silo containing the reactor was nestled into the mountain, a short hike from the spring, and just above the reservoir, which was used as a waste pond.
“It is ironic that the reactor facility was built next to the body of water that was constructed to safeguard clean water one hundred years earlier,” Takahashi and Anderson wrote.
The reactor closed in 1998, and today the building houses the Observatory Mountain Engineering Research Facility. It’s one of several research buildings on the mountain, along with the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Virginia Transportation Research Council, the Aerospace Research Laboratory and the High Energy Physics Lab.
Jefferson had scientific uses in mind when he acquired the land. It wasn’t just natural resources he coveted. He wanted a site for an observatory.
He didn’t get one in his lifetime. The money ran out. An observatory was built around 1827 or 1828, and although little is known about it, it was not suitable for astronomical observations, says Ed Murphy (Grad ’93, ’96), an associate professor of astronomy who runs the department’s education and public outreach programs. It instead became a popular spot for students to drink and gamble. Around 1840, it was torn down.
Four decades later, on the same spot, the cornerstone was laid for the Leander McCormick Observatory. Completed in December 1884 at a cost of $64,000, and dedicated on April 13, 1885, it was at the time the second-largest lens telescope in the world, at 26 inches.
McCormick had an 80-year run as the Department of Astronomy’s primary research instrument, until it was supplanted in the 1960s by Fan Mountain Observatory, 15 miles south of Charlottesville. McCormick was relegated to measuring the distances of stars until the 1990s, when satellites began doing the job better.
Today, astronomy students take labs at the observatory. For the University, and particularly the Department of Astronomy, it’s an outreach and education tool, open to the public on the first and third Fridays of every month since 1963, Murphy says.
Down to its wooden floors, reclaimed from beneath linoleum and tile, the interior looks much the same as it did 100 years ago. Some 500 pounds of wiring, conduits and electrical supplies once attached to the telescope have been replaced by an unobtrusive box housing its electronics.
The 32-foot-long telescope is now raised and lowered with an electric motor but is still pointed by hand. The telescope is so finely balanced that a finger will do the job.
Visitors climb the original 137-year-old ladder, put their eyes to the lens and see images from the telescope itself, not through a digital camera as at some other observatories. When gazing at Saturn, for example, “the light is coming from Saturn directly to your eye,” Murphy says.
For many visitors, it’s a visceral experience, he says.
Stored in filing cabinets in the basement are 144,000 photographic plates, images of the sky taken over the decades by researchers. Handwritten logbooks, sorted by plate number and date, detail the information on each plate. Uses for the data today are few. The images could theoretically be used for tracking the orbit of an asteroid over time—potentially valuable for determining if the asteroid could one day hit Earth—but digitizing the logbooks would take millions of dollars and many years. Harvard University, which has more than 500,000 plates, has been at it for 10 years and is only halfway done, Murphy says.
For now, the plates sit in the basement among other relics of a bygone scientific age.
Adding to the observatory’s vintage aura, a bat swoops down from the ceiling and begins circling the room as Murphy closes the aperture and shuts off the lights.
“He keeps coming back,” Murphy says.
The observatory is flanked by two residences. Alden House, built in 1883, was home to Ormond Stone, the University’s first astronomer, and to subsequent directors of the observatory. Vacant for some 20 years, it is a decaying Queen Anne-style pile that wouldn’t look out of place in a horror movie. It would cost millions to restore it to its former glory.
“We’re trying to keep it from falling in on itself,” says Don Sundgren, UVA’s associate vice president and chief facilities officer.
To that end, Alden is getting a new temporary roof while its future is decided.
In finer fettle, though still showing its age, is Vyssotsky Cottage, roughly 1,400 feet of tucked-away domicile built by an astronomy professor in the 1930s and sold back to UVA. For the past 22 years it was the residence of Ricky Patterson (Col ’84, Grad ’89, ’95), associate director for Research Data Services and Social, Natural and Engineering Sciences at UVA Library.
An astronomer by training, Patterson served as caretaker of the observatory and took observations for a nearby weather station. He and his partner lived a quiet life on top of the hill—most of the time. As in the 1830s, students still found their way up there in the wee hours—especially for events like meteor showers—with one memorable group bringing a keg and starting a fire, Patterson says.
The biggest change in the 22 years Patterson lived on the hill, and in the 42 years since he came to UVA as an undergraduate, Patterson says, is the surge of activity on the trails.
“When I came in 1980, I remember walking on the trails and running on them some,” he says. “Now, there’s a little bit more to dodge around.”
Maybe too much at times, Patterson says. He also worries that with fences coming down and more human intrusion, flora and fauna could be harmed.
“It would be nice if there was a way to ensure survival of that resource,” he says.
UVA is working on it. The trails, for instance, were once largely unmanaged, opening the way for bikers and other users to blaze their own without regard to environmental impact.
“People just did what they wanted,” Sundgren says.
That changed about 10 years ago when UVA negotiated a memorandum of understanding with the Charlottesville Area Mountain Bike Club. CAMBC, as it’s known, maintains the trails for UVA, with an emphasis on preventing erosion and other adverse impacts. It has also opened new trails, the most recent originating near Kellogg House, a first-year dorm at the foot of the mountain.
“The trails have never been in better shape,” says Chris Smeds (Engr ’96, Com ’11), who serves as Facilities Management’s point person with CAMBC and has been riding and running the trails himself since 1991.
The trails are part of the larger Rivanna Trail, making them a convenient destination for local riders. They offer 300 feet of vertical elevation for more daring riders as well as looping horizontal trails for those seeking a more relaxing ride.
“O-Hill is kind of the gem of the local trail system,” says Dave Stackhouse, CAMBC president. “There are trails for every level of mountain biker except maybe the most extreme professionals.”
Mountain biking is also growing in popularity among students. Hayes Hegemier (Col ’25), the UVA Cycling Club’s director of mountain biking, says the number of mountain bikers in the club has tripled this year to 15.
The club competes at other schools and was host for a race in September featuring college teams from around the region. Hegemier, who has ridden all over, says UVA’s course has one big advantage over others.
“The neat thing about O-Hill,” he says, “is it’s right on Grounds.”