If George Washington has had his way, Matildaville, Virginia, would have been the hottest thing between Philadelphia and Richmond.
Instead, it's a few stones and a lot of stories smack in the middle of Great Falls Park.
The town dried up in 1822. That was the year the poorly-designed, short-lived Potowmack Canal shut down for good and the C & O began to flow.
Nowadays, Jim Putman, the Park's historian, leads weekly hikes which trace the history of Matildaville. His yarns conjure up from the runins images of grist mills, rippling corn fields and unbounded optimism.
"Do you see this dry little ditch?" Putman asked the assembled visitors one recent Sunday afternoon. "This was Washington's idea of a major east-west trade route."
Washington envisioned boatloads of furs, crops and dry goods fresh from the frontier, playing the waterway through Matildaville, his metropolis-on-the-make. In 1785, he formed a company to build locks around Great Falls, and smaller by-passes around Little, Horse and Seneca Falls and Harpers Fery. These would, he hoped, allow for successful navigation the entire length of the Potomac River.
Unfortunately, he and his hired engineers, or mechanics as they were then called, had more enthusiasm than actual knowledge about building canals, especially around something as tricky as the rocky Falls.
"There Americans thought they were sixteen feet tall," noted Putman, appraising the early American character. "Here was an impossible project they tought would be a snap."
Problems beset the Canal from the outset. The workers were indentured servants who, when not looking for ways to supplement their daily twelve-ounce ration of rum, frequently ran away. Although their superiors punished them by shaving their heads and eyebrows, the crew proved too rambunctious. They were eventually replaced by slaves.
Their labor troubles were further compounded by workers' annoying penchant for lighting the right fuse at the wrong time, as the company experimented with black blasting powder as a way to dig a faster ditch.
Workers would bore holes through the rocks of the Falls, stuff them with powder and straw and set it -- and sometimes themselves -- on fire. The Company considered such casualties unfortunate and blamed their employes, who used the black powder "Rather too Extravagently," wrote James Rumsey, the chief engineer.
"None of the engineers died," Putman said drily, comparing the black powder's wallop to that of a large firecracker. "They all dressed too finely to (want to) get their hands dirty."
Perhaps the greatest enemy was the river itself. It flowed erratically. The canal would dry up ten months of the year and flood the other two.
The Potowmack Canal, completed in 1802, was the first public improvement project the new country ever undertook, and the first time two of its newly-independent states, Maryland and Virginia, tried working together on a common plan.
The fledglings had no burning desire to cooperate with one another, but Washington was an effective lobbyist when he wanted to be. The Virginia legislature, in fact, finally voted unanimously to support the Canal by buying shares of the Company's stock, citing "the benefit of General Washington" as their main reason for doing so.
Besides, the commercial advantages of the waterway, as the dear General presented them, were certainly enticing.
"Suddenly, Americans had a whole lot of land and, potentially, a whole lot of business out west, but they didn't know how to get it back east," Putman said. Even before the official opening of the Potowmack, boats gathered above the Falls, waiting for Passage to the ports of Georgetown and Alexandria.
To accomodate the traffic going down the river, Washingotn founded the town of Matildaville near the locks of the canal and named it after the first wife of Light Horse Harry Lee, one of his trusted generals and the father of Robert E. Lee. No pictures remain of Matilda Lee, but her reputation as a beautiful, mysterious woman spread throughout the area.
"I can just imagine it," piped up a member of the walking group, as Putman spoke of the legendary beauty one recent afternoon. "I just picture a Jackie Onassis type, don't you?" Putman laughed.
Remnants of enterprise dot the grassy slope above the river.
"Here's the old grist mill," said Putman as he pointed to a rubble pile. Visitors gathered around and strained to imagine a miller busily turning out flour at the very spot. Nearby stood an iron foundry, excavated last summer.
Washington picked both businesses out of his pork barrel, along with others in the town, and handed them over to staff and friends. He owed lots of favors from the War of Independence.
Soon the group came to the high point of Matildaville, the tavern run by Widow Myers, a buxom Methodist with considerable property. A fire in the late 1940s destroyed all but the chimney. "Presidents from Washington to Theodore Roosevelt dined there," boasted Putnam.
But a rougher crowd frequented the establishment during canal construction. Indeed, an English minister, visiting the Falls on a grand circuit of the United States, praised the widow as virtue personified for distancing hereself from the boisterous customers.
Putman has pieced together the story of Matildaville on the basis of letters, inherited memories of area residents, and the old Potowmack Company records. He has never found a map of the area, although he has received dozens of suggestions about where one might exist.
"It call this the Mystery of the Lost Map," he joked, as a young woman on the hike came up with still another possibility.
The fates of Matildaville and the Potowmack Canal are intertwined. The Company issued its first, and only, dividend to stockholders the first year the Canal opened and then steadily lost money.
The venture, says Jack Sanderson, historian at the Great Falls Park in Maryland just across the river, was "George Washington's dream... the only thing he invested money in that didn't pay off."