The Lost City of Matildaville

Matildaville Sign

The sign is a little beat up but you can almost read it.

One of the things Renee and I like to do occasionally is have an “adventure.”  Usually it involves trying something new or visiting an area where we haven’t been, so nothing too wild and crazy. (Sorry to disappoint all you thrill-seekers).  One of the places we discovered recently that really ended up being a great history lesson and a fun casual day-trip was Matildaville, Virginia.

What?  You say you’ve never heard of Matildaville?  That would be because it doesn’t exist anymore.  This “lost town” actually has a really interesting story attached to it.  It all starts in 1785 with the creation of the Patowmack Company by a gentleman named George Washington.  You may have heard of him.

Anyway, if you look at the date, the United States of America is still a VERY young country, only recently independent and not yet embroiled in the War of 1812.  There are 13 colonies but people are pushing ever westward and  George Washington worried about the tenuous connection between the more “civilized” eastern states and the western frontier, fearing a break of the union between states.  (As we all know, that happened much later and along north-south lines, rather than east-west.) George Washington’s idea was to connect the east coast to the Ohio River Valley through a waterway – the Potomac.  His vision was to “bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.”  Pretty clever, yes?

The Great Falls

We took several picture of the Great Falls and it's quite pretty but I will also say that we noticed that the scenic overlook that we took the shots from is much better on the Virginia side than on the Maryland side. We saw the poor folk on the other side crowded together trying to see.

However, as great an idea as that is in theory, there were a few technical difficulties with the creation of a Potomac river east-west waterway.  One of the amazing sights we saw and what would become one of the biggest obstacles for Washington is Great Falls where in just one mile, the river drops 80 feet.  The only way to get barges up and down the river was to bypass the waterfalls completely by building a canal with several locks to raise and lower the boats, like a giant staircase.  That’d be difficult enough to do today, now consider cutting into rock and earth and building a stone-walled canal in 1785!


Remains of Superintendant's House and Boarding House

The remains of the Superintendent's house and the Boarding house. The area was so green and beautiful...

Information from the local historical society and the Park Service gave us some more details – Matildaville came into being really as a result of the construction of the canal – a “construction town” built around the laborers and travellers. The town was named Matildaville for the wife of one of the founders, Harry Lee (who for you history buffs was the father of Robert E. Lee). Matildaville grew to include markets, gristmill, sawmill, foundry, inn, ice house, workers’ barracks, boarding houses, and small homes.

Matildaville Springhouse

The old springhouse had us both fascinated and I had Renee almost convinced to crawl down in the hole and take a look. FYI it ended a couple of feet in. But if we'd been smarter we would have realized...isn't that a great place for snakes to rest. Eeep!

But the canal was never really profitable.  Actually it was a downright failure. Construction costs had been high, and the Potomac route wasn’t useable much of the year because of water levels. The company went bankrupt and the canal was abandoned in 1830. Matildaville followed soon after.  Over time the woods reclaimed the town.  Now it is part of Great Falls Park and the Patowmack Canal has been declared a National Historic Landmark.

Renee in Lock #1 of the Canal










You can find out more about Matildaville and its fascinating history here:

I hope to post more of our photos from the day soon!

  1 comment for “The Lost City of Matildaville

  1. Jason Colflesh
    April 17, 2012 at 3:47 pm

    My daughter and I visited Great Falls Park a couple of years ago, and saw the Patowmack Canal. I agree, it’s pretty cool! Have you been to the C&O Canal on the other side of the Potomac? Among other things, they have canal boat rides and a few working locks in some of the watered sections. Also, did you get a look at the potholes carved in the rock from the old river? There are several nice ones along the trail near the river.
    Washington was a big proponent of westward expansion. When we visted Fort Necessity in southwest PA (the site of the French & Indian War battle), one of the rangers mentioned that Washington came back later and bought up a bunch of land as a speculator, expecting that it would be valuable as the Braddock Road/National Road brought more people through the area. He never ended up making money on that, either.

Comments are closed.