In the dense woods east of Richmond, Virginia is a notorious ghost town–an empty grid of grown-over streets lined by sidewalks that sprout trees and sewers choked with decades of leaf litter. An idle and rust-crowned water tower looms high above. This is the fabled Lost City. Unfortunately, too many people have found this abandoned village and dishonor the history made there.
A lot has been written about the Elko Tract, as the Lost City is known locally, much of it bunk, some credible and well-researched. If the property’s factual and compelling history is what you prefer, check out Rich Griset’s “The Lost City” from Henrico Monthly.
An old sewer on the Elko Tract
The long and short of it is this:
The federal government condemned the Elko Tract in 1942 and soldiers from the 936th Camouflage Battalion built a phony airfield there so that in the event German planes bombed central Virginia, they’d drop their payloads here, instead of on the real airport–then a military installation called Richmond Army Air Base–about four miles west.
Creating the Elko Tract’s decoy runways, hangars and aircraft was as much an exercise in psychology as anything, a page from the Army’s playbook on the matter, Camouflage Training Manual for the Air Service Command. Enemy pilots were trained to spot fakes, so the unit that constructed the decoy airfield not only had to make it look real, but also arrange all the hardware as though there had been an attempt to conceal, as would happen at genuine air base.
The Germans never made an incursion and, despite popular legends that claim otherwise, that’s where the Elko Tract’s World War II history ends–with a valiant though untested effort at deception.
The decoy airfield. Top: You can barely make out the landing strip’s flat grade in some spots.
The overgrown grid of streets at the northwest corner of the airfield is of postwar vintage but also represents a snapshot of American culture at the time. When the federal government disposed of the Elko Tract, Virginia’s state government–which still segregated public facilities at the time–planned two hospitals for African Americans there.
Construction workers completed streets, sewers, sidewalks and a smattering of other infrastructure amid howls from the NIMBY crowd concerned with the African American facilities in their community. The project stalled and the framework began a slow decay.
So there it is, two noble efforts on one 2,250-acre parcel, related only by their proximity. That’s the real story of Richmond’s Lost City. Nature’s repossession is almost finished, although you can still make out the barest fragments of the airfield’s outline from Google Maps and those long abandoned city streets peek from beneath the mature forest growing on the Elko Tract.
That seems as poetic an end as any, except that the Lost City’s transformation is far from over. The Henrico County Economic Development Authority began developing the property as the White Oak Technology Park in the late 1990s with the hopes of attracting several high-tech manufacturers. A few built factories although for a number of reasons, such as the burst of the tech bubble around the year 2000, much of the land remains wooded and undeveloped.
County officials nevertheless remain hopeful that the Elko Tract’s attributes will bring businesses to the property, and when that happens large buildings may rise on the old footprints and erase them once and for all. Many say that’s as good a use as any, bringing jobs and economic development on land that was long ago left behind. After all, the historic landscape there is far beyond its previous incarnations and there’s no effort, other than a marker near the old airfield, to preserve or interpret the history there.
For the record, the Elko Tract is off-limits and numerous signs point that out. Bear in mind that if you step foot on the property, you are breaking the law and risk a trespassing ticket or worse.
That hasn’t stopped folks from making forays there. The Elko Tract has long been known as a lovers’ lane and a spot for ghost hunters to track their quarry. Those clandestine visitors are innocent enough, but there’s another, more disturbing class of trespassers that illegally frequents the historic tract: dumpers.
Inconsiderate litterbugs have left tires, mattresses, electronics, even a boat on this piece of land where important episodes took place during a couple notable eras. That’s a sad footnote to the tales that unfolded on this ground. Apathy toward history is a regrettable if natural consequence of time and progress, but dishonoring our shared past is a symptom of a society plagued with too short a memory.
Dumped Trash at the Elko Tract
Left: Duct tape in deep woods…that’s never good. Right: I’d like to think the litterbug who drank Pepsi drove the drunk one home.