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Story by Kathy Warren
Indian Head, Maryland seems an unlikely spot for providing our nation with state of the art military might, but over the years this tiny town has done that and much more. A small peninsula located on the northwestern side of Charles County, with the Potomac on one side and Mattawoman Creek on the other, it was once the home of Algonquin Indians. A mix between marshlands and heavily treed forests, this was a perfect location for these peaceful people to fish, hunt, and live off of the fertile land. The area would later give way to one of the countries largest ordnance testing grounds.
Legend has it that the Indians who once lived on this land are responsible for its name in more ways than one. The story told is that of an Indian Princess from the Algonquin tribe who was betrothed to the son of the chief from a neighboring tribe, but before a wedding could take place she fell in love with another. After she and her young warrior from a Virginia tribe made plans to meet and escape together, their plan was discovered and he met an untimely death as he came ashore. His head was then mounted on a stake to warn others not to make the same mistake. Though meant to scare other tribesmen, the head was discovered by Europeans who then named the area Indian Head. More fiction than fact, as charts from the 18th and 19th Centuries call the area several names from Indian Point to Indian Headlands, the tale continues to be passed down from generation to generation.
Though overlooked by the earliest English settlers to America, it didn’t take long before land in Charles County was being granted to early landholders from St. Mary’s County. Once such landholder was Captain Thomas Cornwallis who in the 1630s received a grant of 5,000 acres known as Mattawoman Neck. Over the years, the land was parceled out but remained largely agrarian, producing tobacco and other cash crops of the time. Had it not been for the Civil War, the area may have remained a farming community. In 1890, that all changed. It was then that the decision to move the Naval Proving Ground, which was located in Annapolis at the time, to a location closer to the Naval Gun Factory in Washington, D.C. was made. Ensign Robert Brooke Dashiell was appointed to find a suitable location along the Potomac River that would be close enough to the gun factory yet remote enough to perform the dangerous testing of munitions.
Using local farmers to help construct the facility, it was up and running just one year later in 1891. Having been deemed an ideal location for this type of work, a smokeless powder plant was built on the property in 1898. The extra income generated by the plant helped to foster the sagging Charles County economy following the Civil War.
By the early 1900s, the demand for the smokeless powder was great enough that the facility was expanded and additional acreage was purchased bringing the total to over 1,000 acres. With the onset of WWI, the plant began producing torpedoes (later moved to Dahlgren, Virginia), and by 1917 a railroad had been established to help transport the munitions via rail as opposed to the earlier reliance on water transportation.
Along with the growth of the powder factory, came the growth of the town with the incorporation of Indian Head in 1920. Steamboats from nearby Glymont Wharf connected the developing town to Washington and Alexandria so that gunpowder and other farm goods produced in the county could be transported to their northern destinations. In turn, wares from D.C. and Virginia were also brought back to Charles County. All of this would help make Indian Head an important economic center for the county. Government houses and barracks were built to house workers and soldiers, and by the early 1920s, services such as stores, churches, a town hall, a post office, and even a hotel had sprung up to meet the burgeoning town’s needs. Though a school had already been established in Indian Head in the early 1900s, Lackey High School was constructed to handle the growing population, and would later become the county’s first four-year high school.
During the late 1920s and into the 1930s, the town would suffer like most small towns did during the Great Depression. The railroad was no longer operating, and had been shut down shortly after the end of the First World War. The steamboats were also fading with the increase of automobiles and improved roadways. Jobs and money brought to the area by WWI were no longer plentiful, but it would not stay that way for long.
By 1940, Route 210 which connected Indian Head to Washington D.C. was a paved highway and the new 301 Bridge, connecting Virginia with Charles County was open to traffic. All of these improvements would be just in time for Indian Head’s next important wartime role during WWII. It was during this time that an explosive ordnance disposal school was built across the creek on land called Stump Neck, adding to existing facilities such as the naval propellant plant. Soon the base would be referred to as a Naval Ordnance Station or NOS Indian Head. The base and town became more developed than ever with numerous churches of various faiths, including a chapel on the station, and expanded housing to accommodate the influx of workers to the area.
Under the Lanham Housing Act of 1940, ten different contracting companies began erecting homes in an area known as Potomac Heights, located just outside the incorporated limits of town. Built supposedly to last just as long as the war, 586 units in all were built by contractors from as far away as Kansas City, Missouri and Cleveland, Ohio. The first workers and their families took up residence on Glymont Road in December of 1941. Just a few years later in 1943, another demand for housing came for the many African American workers at the base and so 100 of the original homes were relocated to an area known as Woodland Village. Both housing developments still exist today, with the Potomac Heights Tenants Association being formed in 1947 to begin the process of purchasing that part of the old base housing from the government.
Bernice Rison, whose father came to work at Indian Head during the ‘40s, remembers life in the small but bustling town. She and her family lived on the base until 1953 when housing on the base was no longer provided. “It was such a wonderful mix of cultures,” she recalls about growing up onboard the naval station. “We had a movie theater, skating rink, and even a pool,” she adds. After 1953, her family, like many, built a home off of the base in the incorporated town, while others relocated to the newly built Riverview Apartments.
Life long residents Joan Willoughby and Janice Willett also have fond memories of those times in Indian Head. Joan’s father, Joe Mattingly, was postmaster of Indian Head for 35 years and her grandfather, Frank Mattingly, owned Mattingly’s store that housed the old post office. Woody Wheeler, married to Betty Willett from Indian Head, recalls their time at Lackey High School when they participated in the Victory Corps. In school, once a week, the boys and the girls would march and practice cadence in preparation for war. During that time the high school only went to the 11th grade so girls such as Joan and Betty often went to Baltimore, or in their case to St. Mary’s Academy to finish up their last year of high school.
Teenagers, soldiers, and other workers from NOS could visit Slavin’s Drugstore, Charlie Wright’s Drugstore, or get a malt and listen to the jukebox at D & H Grill on the corner of 210 and Raymond Avenue. The USO held dances, and a movie theater out in town, along with a bowling alley all provided the locals with plenty of fun. “We had everything when we were young,” Joan remembers describing a town that sounded like it landed right smack in the middle of a Happy Days episode.
By the late ‘40s and into the 1960s Indian Head was a self contained and self-sufficient town, providing prosperity to the entire county. It had its own volunteer fire department and was continuing to play a vital role in developing important military weaponry. In the late ‘60s and in the ensuing years, the county as well as Indian Head would suffer from the loss of slot machine revenues as well as a decrease in commercial development.
Today, the Ordnance Station continues to be a viable and important part of the military, developing and testing weapons which protect our troops everywhere, but its employees are now living and shopping in the more developed parts of the county such as nearby Waldorf, La Plata, and even Virginia. This once active community is in the process of reinventing itself once again, and if history is any indication, we have not heard the last of this important Charles County town.
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