Explore La Plata, MD's History

La Plata MD's history spans more than 350 years and includes tobacco farming, wars, gambling, fires and tornadoes.

On Tuesday, November 27, 2012 - 07:00

Charles County’s rich history includes wars, fires, tobacco, gambling and two significant tornadoes, but the thing that draws newcomers to this community near Washington, D.C., is its people – and their unfailing ability to turn adversity into opportunity.

Charles County Historic Sites

Founded in 1658, Charles County has several historic sites standing today that testify to its longevity. 

“One of the neatest sites is the [1819] Port Tobacco Courthouse,” says Wayne Winkler, a La Plata town councilman and lifelong resident. “Years ago, Port Tobacco was the commerce center and the county seat. It was where all the farmers brought their tobacco to be shipped overseas.”

An 1892 fire destroyed the main wing of the courthouse, and the county seat was moved to La Plata. The Port Tobacco Courthouse is now a museum containing tobacco, archeological and Civil War exhibits.

St. Ignatius Church, built in 1798, is one of the oldest continually operating Catholic churches in the nation.

“It is also believed to be part of the slave trail, where they stopped and received food and rested on their journey north,” Winkler says.

Other interesting sites include Christ Church in Ironsides (1732), St. Thomas Manor (1741), the Thomas Stone National Historic Site (1771), the town of Benedict (which played a role in the War of 1812), and the Samuel Mudd House Museum.

Slot Machine Alley

In the 1950s and ‘60s, Charles County became known for gambling. Route 301 from Waldorf to the Potomac River Bridge was known as “Little Vegas” or “Slot Machine Alley” and actually outpaced slot revenues in Las Vegas at the time.

“Charles County was booming,” Winkler recalls. “We had fancy restaurants and lots of entertainment. Country and blues singers like Fats Domino starred in Waldorf clubs. Highway 301 ran from Maine to Florida, and many people stopped, ate, played and spent the night. It was a great time to live here.”

But by 1968, Charles County’s gambling era was over.

“In the 1960s, there was a growing concern about the dependency of our economy on slot machine gambling, and the socioeconomic impact it had with unfavorable influences from outside the county,” says Phil McDonagh, production manager at SunTrust Mortgage Inc. and a lifelong resident of Charles County. “It wasn’t like the highly regulated, state-sponsored gambling that exists today.”

Like Winkler, McDonagh has seen the county evolve into a diverse and progressive bedroom community.

“We have nearly 148,000 residents now, as opposed to only around 21,000 back in the 1940 census,” McDonagh says. “We’ve transitioned from an agrarian community to a suburb that supports the Washington, D.C., business sector.”

Despite all that’s changed, Charles County remains connected to its heritage through preservation of historic sites and keeping stories alive among generations.

“People today are so consumed by their work and the demands of family life that our history isn’t always fully embraced,” McDonagh says. “But Charles County has an important legacy, and folks continue to move here because it’s such a wonderful place."

Celebration With a Twist

There are tales of tenacity from far more recent history, too.

If you’d have visited downtown La Plata on the afternoon of April 28, 2012, you’d have witnessed 700 local residents dancing the Twist in front of Town Hall. It wasn’t the case of a town gone haywire – it was part of a larger celebration of how far La Plata has come in the past decade since an F4 tornado nearly devastated the town.

While the tornado ruined many of the town's homes and buildings, it did nothing to dampen the town’s spirit. A new Town Hall replaced the damaged one, becoming Southern Maryland’s first LEED-certified building. And local businesses such as Facchina Construction Co. supported their neighbors.

“In many ways, Facchina kept La Plata alive,” Winkler says. “Facchina bought trailers for businesses that were destroyed to move into, and they didn’t have to pay rent for the first year if they couldn’t afford to. We also had state and federal grant money to rebuild streets and sidewalks, and businesses were given around $25,000 to build bigger and better."

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