Go big or go home, right? That’s no doubt what Henry Lee III was thinking when he signed a 900-year lease on land near the Potomac River’s Great Falls. In the 1790s, old Light-Horse Harry had high hopes for the up-and-coming Matildaville, which had been named in honor of his late cousin-turned-first wife. He bought 30 lots in town. It was going to be a smash.
Alas, Light-Horse Harry’s outlook was a little too rosy. As Debbie Robison points out in her history of Matildaville, the town’s fate rested solely on the fortunes of the adjacent Potomac Canal. Builders lauded the canal as a triumph of human ingenuity over the river’s rocky rapids, but it turned out to be a world-class flop. The temperamental river never made a firm commitment to furnish enough water. The short window every year when the canal was usable proved unable to keep it financially afloat.
Others shared Light-Horse Harry’s optimism, but they, too, were jilted as circumstances conspired to dash dreams on the rocks of the Potomac. The Great Falls Manufacturing Company planned a company mill town there that was to resemble water-powered Lowell, Massachusetts. In fact, organizers liked Lowell so much they pinched the name; Matildaville was renamed South Lowell. Unfortunately, South Lowell was destined to share Matildaville’s fate.
For those of you unfamiliar with Virginia and Maryland’s grudging siblinghood (think Protestant v. Catholic, Confederate v. Union), you might be surprised that among the points of contention between the Old Dominion and the Old Line State is water rights. The question of which state owns what water figured prominently into a little-known civil war comprised mainly of unofficial maritime skirmishes called the Oyster Wars. Much to Virginians’ chagrin, since the eighteenth century, Maryland has owned the entire breadth of the Potomac River all the way to the Virginia shore. The Potomac is not split down the middle like many other border rivers.
At any rate, South Lowell was going to be run by water from the Potomac, but Uncle Sam nixed that idea because Virginia didn’t own the Potomac and, therefore, had no rights to use the water. That decision drove a stake into the heart of Matildaville, a.k.a. South Lowell, once more.
Matildaville was a ghost town a hundred years ago. Evening Star, 10/13/1907. Library of Congress.
The named was changed again, this time to Potomac, but many of the stone structures there lost their raison d’etre and began a slow decay. Today the ruins of all those dreams, and the buildings that once supported them, lie in Great Falls Park.
Still Matildaville’s (a.k.a. South Lowell, a.k.a. Potomac) flirtation with greatness wasn’t a total wash. None other than Teddy Roosevelt enjoyed the fried chicken at Dickey’s Tavern there. While the bulk of the structure is gone, there survives a piece of the chimney that warmed old TR’s bones as he gnawed on chicken bones, no doubt flashing that winning grin as grease ran down his chin.
Teddy Roosevelt’s winning grin. Library of Congress.
You’ll find this remnant of a vanished town well protected by the National Park Service, free of graffiti, off limits to the relentless hordes of relic hunters who’d cart off pieces of this doomed venture to adorn their mantels. Yet to be seen is if the ruins at Matildaville can survive Light-Horse Harry’s 900-year vision.