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?
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!
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.
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.
You can find out more about Matildaville and its fascinating history here:
- Formation and Development of the Town of Matildaville, Virginia by Debbie Robison
- Great Falls Historical Society, Virginia
I hope to post more of our photos from the day soon!