It’s not many colleges or universities that can lay claim to having a large lake within their boundaries. But the College of William and Mary sure can, and that lake is Lake Matoaka.
Named for the daughter of Chief Powhatan’s daughter (known more commonly for her nickname, Pocahontas), the on-campus lake is a 16-hectare (the equivalent of about 30 football fields), man-made lake.
Lake Matoaka was built by colonists about 25 years after the College’s charter in 1693. Which means it’s also the oldest man-made lake in Virginia, and therefore one of the oldest in the New World.
The lake came about as a result of a dam built by Colonists along the original creek system in order to create a pond behind a gristmill (which remained in operation for more than 100 years). The College purchased the lake from a private party early in the 1900s.
The lake’s east side borders the College, while the lake’s west side is next to forest, which is one of the largest remaining contiguous forests in Williamsburg.
The lake itself is fairly shallow, with an average depth of about 6.5 feet, and about 16 feet at its deepest.
Sewage spills in the later 1980s required that the lake be closed to the public and, while the leaks were soon fixed and bacteria levels have since returned to normal, Lake Matoaka nevertheless remains closed for public use.
Students and faculty study the lake as a “model system” as they look at the lake and the impacts it receives as a result of being downstream of development upland.
Even with the comparatively poor quality of the lake’s water (it experiences summer-long algae blooms each year), the lake is home to a good variety of fish and turtles. In addition, the streams on the lake’s west side (next to the forest) are clean.
There are 10 miles of trails near and around the lake and the area known as the College Woods. Most of the trails were created by the Civilian Conservation Corps as part of the Works Progress Administration during the Great Depression. Be advised: even though the trails are popular, much of the trail system hasn’t been maintained in any significant way since their construction; walk with care.