Washington, DC is a repository of history which tells the story of a young country’s ascent to the world stage. The city boasts a plethora of world-class museums and galleries, but sometimes it’s the hidden gems that are most intriguing to the explorer, providing great locations to “surbex” – enter Matildaville!
The rise and fall of Matildaville, just outside Washington, was tied to the fate of the short-lived Patowmack Canal between Georgetown and Cumberland. The Patowmack Company, established May 1785, sprang from George Washington’s vision to link the east coast to the western frontier by trade; in his words, to “bind those people to us by a chain which never can be broken.”
Matildaville, in present day Great Falls, Virginia, was christened by its founder, Revolutionary War hero “Light Horse” Harry Lee (father of Robert E. Lee). It was named after his first wife, Matilda Lee. More than two centuries on, though, visitors would be forgiven for failing to realise this town was once a bustling staging post and venue for weary boaters to rest overnight and enjoy the local hospitality.
And so it was that, with the company superintendent’s house, a market, gristmill, sawmill, foundry, inn, ice house, workers’ barracks, boarding houses, and a few small homes to boot, Matildaville must once have been the place to be seen for traders, workers and canal enthusiasts alike!
Thousands of boats locked through Matildaville, some capable of carrying 20 tons of cargo. But the Patowmack Canal Company was plagued by financial problems due to high costs and extreme high and low water, which restricted use of the canal to a month or two each year. The crippled company buckled in 1828 and the town of Matildaville died along with the pioneering canal it served.
Assets and liabilities were turned over to the newly formed Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Company, which began an even more ambitious undertaking between Georgetown and Cumberland on the Maryland side of the Potomac River. The “new” canal, now long abandoned, remains in good condition today, with a tow path that provides a perfect setting for walkers, cyclists and casual explorers.
The fragile ruins of Matildaville can still be seen today. The remains of the Superintendent’s house, once the hub of activity during the canal days, can be seen near a newer structure – Dickey’s Inn – which catered to visitors when Great Falls was an amusement park from 1907. And while other remains are scarce, take a wander through the trees and you’ll stumble across various ruins of eighteenth century homes.
Want to visit the Great Falls area and explore for yourself? Check out this great article by Compass Points Media, which tells you all you need to know about hiking Great Falls, the trails (including Matildaville), how to get there by car and more.