Lost Richmond: Exploring Elko Tract, Richmond's "Lost City"

[Disclaimer: I am about to pull the plug on my old blog. This is on of my favorite posts from that blog so I thought I would move it over to TWIF to keep it alive.]

Richmond is a town of history. Everything is historic… the streets, the buildings, the canals, the houses.. its almost overload to the point where there’s so much history no one really pays attention to it on a daily basis because it's just there.

About a decade ago, I began hearing stories out of Richmond East-enders about Richmond’s Lost City. Although no two stories were alike, the basic gist of it was that during World War II, Richmond created a fake city a few miles east of the airport and during potential air raids, they would blackout the actual city and airport and turn the lights on at the decoy in hopes that from the air, the bombers would unknowingly bomb the decoy and Richmond would be saved.

At one point, years ago, someone actually drove me out near that area, showed me the starting point of the road which was barricaded and explained to me the “dangers” of going back there. This is where everything gets interesting. Among the stories, there’s accounts of a range of odd things that happened beyond that concrete barricade: armed guards with machine guns, a government secret bunker, CIA and/or FBI secret training center, Nuclear Testing area , and people have even claimed an alien detention center.

The oddest thing about all of this is Richmond’s lack of information about it. We are so rich and full of history yet no one seems to know the truth about what it is, what it has become, etc.. There appears to be nothing about it in the Richmond history books – only stories and legends passed down over the last sixty years. So, after years of hearing these stories about this mysterious piece of land, I couldn’t take it anymore, I had to see for myself even if it meant braving armed guards with machine guns, aliens and the possibility of a trespassing ticket.

Before leaving the city, I did my homework and signed up my friend Tasha as an accomplice. I read everything I could possibly find on the internet (which wasn’t much) and planned the trip accordingly. I did find a couple of accounts of people going out there and while they we’re walking in the woods beyond the barricades, their car was towed away. I used Google Maps to survey the area and create a plan for where we could park and the best way to enter the area. The Infineon micro-chip plant borders the area so I knew if we went in or came out in that area we would surely get a trespassing ticket. After realizing that other than Infineon there was really no place to park for miles, I decided we would ride mopeds out there which would allow us easy access, beyond the barricades and the evidence our presence would not be sitting along side the road. Prepared with a map, a flashlight (mind you it was in the middle of the day), and some bug spray we headed out.

I have to admit, the suspense of what might happen was a little thrilling. Could we get away with this or would we be caught? What would we find?

The ride out there turned out to be an adventure in itself. I guess I should have looked at Google Maps for the entire route because unannounced to us, the road we took turned into a stretch of highway, without warning, once we got just passed the city. Riding a moped on a four lane highway all of a sudden began to seem much more insane than our plan to explore the wilderness so by the time we arrived at our location, all of the suspense was kind of over shadowed.

We drove down the street past Infineon, which is now named Qimonda, and found the road entrance with the welcoming concrete barricade and we quickly hopped the curb and maneuvered around it. Things instantly became weird and eerie most likely because it seemed almost too easy for us to get back there and the thought of some stranger hopping out from behind a tree with a machine gun sat restlessly in the back of my mind.

Some of the internet account that I had read talked about trees being down across the roadway “as if they were deliberately placed there.” We did notice several trees down that crossed the road at various places but it was clear that the trees had fallen there. Trees were down all over, not just blocking the road, and if you take into consideration the damage this area received just in recent years from Hurricane Isabel and Gaston, it makes sense.

The roads weren’t so much roads anymore – as to be expected. A sixty year old unmaintained road becomes a pathway overgrown with weeds over a half century. It was a good enough surface that we could ride our mopeds and maneuver around fallen trees and other obstacles but it certainly wasn’t a place I would recommend for skateboarding.

The first thing we noticed were the curbs and drainage system. Every road we went down was properly lined with a curb and an occasional fire hydrant and at parts a pedestrian sidewalk. We rode around and explored for awhile just to get our bearings and see what we were getting into. I knew from the other web accounts and Google Maps that there was a water tower so after getting a feel for the area, we decided to seek it out. The water tower was recognizable on Google Maps although at first glance it appeared as a white dot easily confused with a bad pixel. A couple of the web accounts said that the water tower served as a good reference point and you could see it just past the tops of the trees. We did not find this to be true. Its possible they were there in late fall or early spring but in the middle of the summer, the water tower cannot be seen until you are just about at it. Keep in mind this area is over 2000 acres.

We walked around for a bit, found a few disheveled buildings that appeared to be more maintenance sheds than habitats. We found the water tower and a lot of evidence of improper trash disposal and an occasional wilderness party spot. We were able to cover a lot of the road territory pretty quickly via moped and we spent sufficient time on foot to see if there was anything we could unearth that hadn’t previously been mentioned.

After a few hours and seeing everything we needed to see (or perhaps I should say NOT seeing everything we needed to see) we headed back to the city without incident. No armed guards, no aliens, not even a little nuclear contamination.

Our final conclusion: Its more like a lost sidewalk than a lost city. Sure it was kind of neat to explore it and see it first hand but all and all, there are plenty of places in America where roads were paved and then abandoned. We have experienced much more interesting things – there’s really not much there besides chunks of concrete, a few fire hydrants and an old water tower. For this reason, I didn’t take a whole lot of pictures – the woods looked like woods and the fire hydrants looked like fire hydrants – all pretty self explanatory and uninteresting.

Would we do it again? It was great to be able to finally see the legendary land and today was a great sunny day for a 35 mile moped ride but no, we would not go out there again because there’s really nothing to see.

I have drawn some conclusions and gathered some facts about the area that I will share below for any of you still interested in knowing more. To clarify, I will write the facts in blue text. The other stuff is heresay, unconfirmed, or my opinion (which at times happens to be the most logical explanation).

The 1940′s:

During World War II, Virginia became one of the most prosperous states in America. The ship yards east of Richmond in Norfolk provided the war ships and a very busy port for combat soldiers and the areas numerous military bases made it a hub for military operations. Richmond, at the time, played a very important role. The Richmond airport, then named the Byrd Airport served as a landing for many military operations. I find this funny because Richmond is such a small airport today.

It makes sense that Richmond would want to protect its city. The 1940′s would have been the first time that Richmond really started to prosper since that time we burnt our own city down during the Civil War. To protect against a nocturnal air raid by the Japanese or Germans, they built a decoy airport and put a system into place that would blackout Richmond while simutaneously lighting up the decoy. However, I do not believe they built an entire fake city at that time. First of all, with as many remanants of streets, curbs, gutters and fire hydrants, there is really no sign of buildings aside from the small cinder block sheds. Secondly, city and state decision makers may not be the smartest bunch of people but I highly doubt if they were making a fake city for the sole purpose of it being destroyed by the enemy they would go through the time and expense of creating a sewer/drainage system and put in sidewalks. A decoy airport and city would only work at night – so details wouldn’t be important… lights and buildings would be.

Here is a picture of a post war map that declares the area “for bombing practice.”

The 1950′s:

It has been said that after the war, the state was ready to use some of the land and a proposed hospital was slated to take it. This hospital was supposedly needed to fix the problem of overcrowding in the then segregated black hospitals and prison hospitals. I think this is a much better explanation for the roads, water tower, sidewalks and sewage system. This area of land would have been way outside of Richmond by 1950′s standards and the government would need to do something to entice the development to happen. For whatever reason that deal fell through. This information is supported by the fact thatCentral State Hospital in Petersburg added five buildings in the mid 1950′s – one of which, according to the Central State Hospital website, was a Maximum Security Forensic Unit was built for the evaluation and treatment of patients referred by the courts.

Its also important to mention that the year 1953 is clearly cast into all of the fire hydrants that were present.

Once the deal fell through, the land was again put up for sale by the state but in an attempt to recover their development expenses, they did not accept any of the bids they received and the after the last rejected bid came arrived in 1963, Elko Tract fell from the new headlines.

The 1960′s – 1980′s -

This is the time when stories became weird. No one seems to really know what transpired here during this time and aside from teenagers trying to park or party there, it became a largely ignored piece of land.

My theory… some of the internet accounts and things I noticed included strange landscaping. There appeared to be dirt walls built up in places, strange holes dug in the earth and other things that were clearly not natural occurances in dirt. I think its very possible that the government or military used the land for reasons we may never know as it is obviously classified.

The CIA/FBI theory: I don’t have reason to believe that it was a CIA or FBI training facility as again, aside from the maintenance shed type buildings and the decoy airport hanger, there really isn’t anything there. Besides, the CIA and FBI have actual training centers really close to this area.

The Nuclear Testing Theory: Nope, I don’t think so. It may be outside the city of Richmond but its still too close for setting off bombs unnoticed.

The Armed Guards: Yes, I believe these stories are true. If there was military activities taking place in that area that were unclassified, do you really think they would let people walk up to it?

Aliens: The X-Files may have wrapped their plot around strange things happening in Virginia but if we found aliens would we keep them out in the woods? Wouldn’t we be better off “storing” aliens someplace with a fence or in places where there are at least a lot of accounts of alien activity? I don’t believe Richmond is high on that list… we’re too busy talking about historic ghosts.

An Underground bunker: Ok, this one could be true. We know there are bunkers around the country and with Richmond’s close proximity to DC, its possible. They could fly into Richmond airport and quickly get to this location.

In all honesty, I have my own theory. I know that Virginia had many Missle Silos during the cold war. Missle Silos are underground vertical cylindrical containers for the storage and launching of intercontinental ballistic missiles. They typically have the missile some distance under the surface, protected by a large blast door on top. These areas would have been protected and the governement certainly wouldn’t want to announce their locations. It would only alarm the public and put us in danger should the Russians somehow attack these sites. This theory explains the mysterious holes in the ground and the armed guards.

The 1990′s

In 1995, Virginia Governor, George F. Allen, announced that Virginia would be selling off surplus land in Virginia to raise money for more state prisons. Interestingly enough, this is just a few years after the end of the Cold War. In 1996, the decoy airport hanger was demolished and by the end of the 90′s things were in place for Infineon Technologies to take a portion of the land.

It has been said that the government spent millions of dollars developing the land so Infineon could build there. Tearing down an old airport hanger and paving a new road shouldn’t require that much money. Especially considering the sewage system was at least somewhat already in place.

I am sure that if there was something hiding below the surface, it was thouroughly removed before the land was brought back into the news. Perhaps, someday, there will be a declassification of information and we will know exactly what took place on this infamous chunk of land. Until then, we are only left to speculate but I can certainly say, the legendary stories are much better than the bits of concrete and forest that remain today.

The Water Tower

The Water Tower

Some other internet accounts from Elko Tract:

Portugue Road – Ghost Town

WAG: Lost City Found


-Amy Faulkner