A visit to the Matildaville Ruins in the beautiful Great Falls Park in Virginia gave me the opportunity to check another item off my travel bucket list.
Great Falls Park is a draw for its natural beauty, but if you’re a history lover like me, you’ll find the Matildaville Ruins just as exciting as the rush of water over the rocks on the Potomac River.
The Matildaville Ruins are what’s left of a town that once thrived, thanks to a project envisioned by our first president and Revolutionary War hero George Washington.
Keep reading to discover the history behind the Matildaville Ruins and why this once-thriving village is now a ghost town.
The Romance Behind The Matildaville Ruins
Legend has it that Matildaville was named by its founder Henry “Light Horse Harry” Lee, for his first wife, Matilda Lee. (Harry was a Revolutionary War hero in his own right and father of Robert E. Lee, the famed Confederate General in the Civil War).
Born in 1764, Matilda was the daughter of the Honorable Philip Ludwell Lee and Elizabeth Steptoe. She married Henry Lee in April of 1782 at Stratford Hall, and died in 1790. (And yes, they were second cousins, which was not unusual at the time).
Lee re-married after Matilda’s death, but apparently still held a place in his heart for her when he named the town Matildaville.
The History Of The Matildaville Ruins
This is where George Washington comes in.
Following the Revolutionary War, Washington devised a canal system that would link the Potomac and Ohio rivers. He wanted to encourage trade, and this proposed system would unite the thirteen States and the western frontier with a waterway.
In November 1784, Maryland’s assembly approved a plan “establishing a company for opening and extending the navigation of the river Patowmack (Potomac)” and on December 13, 1784, Virginia concurred.
“The Patowmack Canal Company” was formally established and Washington was put at the helm.
‘Light Horse Harry’ Lee Gets Involved
In 1793, Harry Lee apparently thought the investment looked solid and took out a 900-year lease on the newly chartered land, calling it Matildaville.
The Patwomack Canal was built as a way to navigate around five areas of rapids on the Potomac River in northern Virginia that were impassable (House Falls, Shenandoah Falls, Seneca Falls, Great Falls, and Little Falls).
Needless to say, with the tools that were available at the time, the Patowmack project was an ambitious undertaking and an amazing feat to attempt.
For instance, at Great Falls, the Potomac River drops 76 feet in less than a mile and runs through a gorge that narrows from 1,000 feet wide to less than 100 feet. Mather Gorge is one of the steepest and most dramatic rapids of any river on the East Coast.
Upstream of Great Falls, locks weren’t needed. Instead, the river was dredged and boulders moved to accommodate passage. Downstream at Great and Little Falls, canal locks were used to counter elevation changes from the Potomac Gorge to Georgetown.
The canal at Great Falls was the most difficult of the Patowmack Canal Company’s projects. This part of the canal presented the greatest obstacle and was constructed by blasting through 60 feet of solid rock.
This was the first time black powder was used for construction instead of war in America.
Laborers, most of them indentured servants or slaves, worked on the Potomac canals for 17 years. Over that span of time, Matildaville developed and transformed from an informal settlement to a chartered town.
Success For The Potowmack Canal
Potowmack Canal Company didn’t complete construction on the project until February 1802, but by February 1798 workers at Great Falls were already busy moving boats and collecting tolls.
Sadly, George Washington would not live to see the completion of his lifelong dream. He died two years before it was finished, but Washington’s vision of a strong nation linked by trade came true — as did his frequent toast, “Success to the navigation of the Potomac!”
In August 1800, the Great Falls basin was full of boats and Matildaville’s workforce moved cargo day and night.
When completed, the project designed by Washington showed that the most treacherous section of the Potomac River could be traversed.
The Great Falls canal system was dubbed the greatest American engineering feat of its time, and tourists visited Matildaville from far and wide to watch it in action.
Thousands of boats passed through the Great Falls canal carrying raw goods such as flour, whiskey, tobacco, and iron to sell in Georgetown markets.
With their profits, the businessmen could choose to buy items like cloth, hardware and firearms before making their way back to rural places upstream.
Everything from simple rafts that carried a few items to keel boats that could carry up to 20 tons of cargo traversed the canals.
Offering easier access, the trip took 3 to 5 days down to Georgetown and 10 to 12 days poling against the current back to Cumberland.
The Rise And Fall Of Matildaville
Matildaville grew and prospered, expanding to include a forge, sawmill, grist mill, store house, market house, public house, and boarding house for workers.
The ruins of the old town of Matildaville also show that there was a company superintendent’s house, the Patowmack Company’s headquarters, and a sprinkling of small homes.
With all of this initial success, it’s hard to believe that all that is left to see are the ruins of Matildaville.
But since Matildaville was born and flourished as a direct result of the canal project by the Patowmack Company, its existence depended on that company’s survival.
Unfortunately it didn’t take long for investors to discover that the business was not sustainable. While the Patowmack Company collected $172,689.39 in tolls by 1818, it had spent more than $650,000 on construction.
Due to the high construction costs, the company could barely pay interest on its numerous loans and complete financial failure loomed.
Over time it also became clear that the canal system didn’t work all that well, thanks to something out of Washington’s control: Mother Nature.
In the summer, water levels dropped and the canals dried up. In the rainy months, downpours flooded the canals making passage too dangerous. And in the winter, the canals froze over.
Matildaville Ruins Caused By Failing Company
The Patowmack Company ceased to exist on August 15, 1828 and its assets, including the Potomac Canals, were handed over to the Chesapeake & Ohio Canal Company.
The C&O Company hoped to link the Atlantic Ocean and the Ohio River valley, just as the Patowmack Company did, however they had a full staff of superior engineers.
Additionally, whereas the Patowmack Company was only backed by Virginia and Maryland, the C&O Company had the support of Virginia, Maryland, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and the United States.
The C&O used the Patowmack Company’s Canals for a little over a year, but abandoned them in 1830 to move to a newly cut Potomac canal on the Maryland side of the river.
With a river between them and the new canal system, Matildaville’s workers left and the flow of tourists and traders slowed.
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A New Lease On Life For Matildaville
Thankfully, investors stepped in to capitalize on the town’s industrial remnants. In the mid-1830s, Thomas Jones, William Bradley and Hall Nielson bought the land for $3,000. They established a water-powered textile factory, and called the new company the Great Falls Manufacturing Company.
In 1839, the Virginia Assembly repealed Matildaville’s Charter and acknowledged the formation of a new town called South Lowell.
The Great Falls Manufacturing Company prospered and became a publicly traded company that employed more than 200 workers.
South Lowell benefited from the success, and in the 1850s, Virginia’s Assembly discussed funding a train line through the town.
But all that came to a screeching halt in 1858 when the Great Falls Manufacturing Company was sued by the U.S. government, putting the fate of the canal in jeopardy.
Unfortunately, in 1853, the State of Maryland had granted the U.S. government the power to condemn land along the Potomac River and construct an Aqueduct.
Being that Maryland’s claim to the Potomac River extends right up to the Virginian bank, the Federal government argued that it was entitled to condemn the Great Falls Manufacturing Company since the company’s mills made use of the Potomac’s currents.
Virginia came to the company’s defense, but a 40-year legal battle ensued that resulted in the decline of South Lowell.
One Family Remains
Almost everyone abandoned the town of Matildaville over the following years, but one family did remain.
For nearly 200 years, six generations of the Dickey family occupied the same 18th century barn, starting before Matildaville was even conceived.
The family continued their business despite the fact that the entire town was practically empty. In fact, they had witnessed the rise and fall of two industrial towns,
At one time, William “Billy” Dickey allowed their home to be used as an office for South Lowell’s Great Falls Manufacturing Company. The Dickey’s were better known however for operating the barn as a public house for visitors to the Great Falls.
In fact, the Dickey’s were said to have played host to every president from George Washington to Teddy Roosevelt.
Dickey’s Tavern During The Civil War
Dickey’s Tavern was briefly mentioned in reports about a July 1861 skirmish at Great Falls between Confederate soldiers on the Virginia side of the river who fired over a Union battalion on the Maryland side.
Another minor incident occurred in October 1861 near Great Falls when Confederate soldiers on the Virginia side fired at Union soldiers on the Maryland side.
During this affair, Union troops made use of their Parrot guns, causing the Confederates to retreat.
William P. Dickey’s son, James H Dickey, was a captain in the Confederate army.
Dickey’s Hotel In Matildaville
William Dickey, who went by “Billy,” was known to all of the tourists and fishermen who frequented the falls. An article in the Fairfax News in 1873 said:
Dickey’s Hotel located near Great Falls: …we finally arrived at Dickey’s hotel, near the Falls…[We] trusted ourselves in the hands of Mr. Dickey, who set before us in due time an excellent dinner, which we did full justice to; Mr. D, in the interim, had fitted out our tackle in first rate style, and dividing our party into two, reached the river at different points, and cast our lines with high hopes, but alas! had fishermen’s usual luck.
William P. Dickey died in 1887, and his son James H Dickey became the head of the household.
James Dickey continued the operation of the tavern and was also a farmer. He called his establishment at the falls Dickey’s Farmhouse, which became a well-known sporting establishment catering to cyclists.
After traveling to the Maryland side of the falls, visitors would cross the Potomac River about a half mile below the falls. Here they were met by the boatman from Dickey’s who would row parties over to the Virginia side.
James H Dickey died in 1896 after months of poor health caused by being stricken while rowing a group of cyclists across the river.
Outside of the house there were said to be rowboats used as flower planters, the remains of a corncrib, and a springhouse.
President Theodore Roosevelt was among the many visitors over the years that enjoyed a chicken dinner at Dickey’s. In fact, fried chicken dinners were served at Dickey’s until about 1935, when the last of the Dickeys moved away.
In June 1950, Dickey’s Farmhouse, Matildaville’s first and last building, went up in flames.
The remnants of a chimney are all that remains of Dickey’s Tavern, but it’s amazing to know that you’re standing in the same place where Teddy Roosevelt (among thousands of others) warmed himself by a fire and enjoyed some home-cooked fried chicken.
Visiting The Matildaville Ruins
The Matildaville Ruins are located within the 800-acre Great Falls Park in northern Virginia on the Matildaville Trail. See below for a link to the Park Trails Map.
The wooded trail is flat and can be muddy in places so wear proper shoes.
You can park at the Great Falls Park Visitor Center and access all of the walking trails from there.
Visit The Waterfalls Near Washington D.C.
The Great Falls National Park is a wonderful place to spend an afternoon even if you don’t want to visit the Matildaville Ruins.
The water running over the Great Falls section of the Potomac River is really something to see.
There are places to walk out near the river so that you can view the Falls and see the awesome power of the water. These river views are spectacular and make for great photos.
The terrain near the falls is rocky and can be slippery. Wear proper shoes and be careful.
Does Great Falls Park Allow Dogs?
The National Park Service at Great Falls Park welcomes leashed pets on all park trails, parking lots, falls overlooks, and picnic areas.
However, there are no off-leash areas in Great Falls Park. Owners must have physical control of the animal, using a six foot leash, at all times. With the exception of service dogs, pets are not permitted in the visitor center or on ranger-led programs.
The NPS warns visitors to be aware of the dangerous currents in the Potomac and the difficult walking conditions on the rocky cliffs. There are also venomous snakes and coyotes that live in the park.
Another important note for pet owners: During the warmer months, do not leave your pet unattended in a car. Temperatures in closed vehicles can be fatal to pets.
Does Great Falls National Park Have Walking Trails?
Yes! Great Falls Park has fifteen miles of hiking trails, some of which are multi-use for biking and horseback riding.
There is also a beautiful shaded picnic area, close enough to the river that you can hear the roar of the falls.
In addition to the Matildaville Trail, there is a longer Patowmack Canal Trail (2.5 miles); River Trail (3 miles); Swamp Trail (1.8 miles); Old Carriage Road Trail (3.2 miles); and Ridge Trail (3 miles).
No matter which one you choose, the scenery is spectacular!
A reminder that there are two national parks in the area of Great Falls – Great Falls Park on the Virginia side in Fairfax County, and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Historic Park on the Maryland side.
I did not pay an entrance fee, but there is a posted signed that says $20 per car.
Directions To Great Falls Virginia
Great Falls State Park is part of the George Washington Memorial Parkway.
You can find directions to Great Falls on MapQuest.