Mathews County was an established shipbuilding center for the Chesapeake Bay when it broke away from Gloucester in 1791 to become a separate county.
About that time, 12 sailing ships over 20 tons each were built in a single year in Mathews, which the Chiskiake Indians had called Werowocomico.
Between 1790 and 1820, approximately a third of the ships built in Virginia came from Mathews. The sharp, fast vessels, popularly known as Baltimore Clippers, were built throughout the Chesapeake Bay region. Before the War of 1812, these fast ships were simply known as “Virginia built.”
From 1802 to 1844, Mathews was an official port of entry for the registration and enrollment of ships. During this period, 10,000 vessels called at the “Port of East River.” The customs house stood at Williams Wharf (marker 13), which was a center of maritime activity until the steamers quit running in the 1940s.
Cricket Hill, near Gwynn’s Island, was the site of one of the last naval engagements of the Revolutionary War. In June 1776, Continental forces bombarded the British fleet and encampment on Gwynn’s Island. Lord Dunsmore, the last royal governor, was driven from the colony, ending British rule in Virginia.
When water was the highway, boats were the standard means of travel. The arrival of steamships at Williams Wharf with cargo from Norfolk, Newport News or Baltimore was a daily highlight.
World War II put most of the steamboat lines out of business. In 1942 the government requisitioned most of the bay and coastal steamers for service in the war effort.
The last remaining steamboat line, the Old Bay Line, stopped its York River to Baltimore run in 1942. About 20 years later, the Old Bay Line dropped passenger service between Baltimore and Norfolk. The steamers stopped for good in the spring of 1962.
Today Mathews has a population of 9,200 people. While it is the smallest county in the Northern Neck and Middle Peninsula with only 87 square miles, it has some 367 miles of shoreline and some of the area’s best public access.
Most county government offices are in Liberty Square at 10604 Buckley Hall Road, Mathews, 725-7172 or co.mathews.va.us. The sheriff’s office can be reached at 725-7177.
Mathews Memorial Library, 251 Main St. 725-4123.
The Mathews County Visitor and Information Center is in historic Sibley’s General Store at 239 Main St. 725-4229.
May 2-30: Arts Speaks on the Bay exhibition, Bay School Community Arts Center, Mathews Court House.
May 9: TOGA Middle Peninsula Oyster Fair, Gwynn’s Island Civic Center.
May 16: Tour de Chesapeake Party, Williams Wharf, East River.