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Exploring the Lost City

Editor's Note: In 2002, WAG reader Jake Hopping stumbled onto this article, and it encouraged him to launch his own exploration of the Lost City. The article he wrote describing his experiences can be read by clicking here.

There's three of us in the Toyota, and when we turn onto the back road, we cut the lights off and drift onto the shoulder. Outside, the woods are dark and, in the moonless stillness, they seem to form a single, impenetrable wall. The dirt road ten feet from the car is almost invisible, except for the silver ribbons of the telephone and electrical wires that run down its center. For a moment we sit and stare. Then one of us cracks open a door.

It's seasonably cold—early January—and once we've gotten the nerve to step away from the car and shuffle onto the dirt road, we're already rubbing our hands and stomping our feet.

Even if we weren't about to break at least one law (trespassing, although we see no posted signs), we'd probably hesitate. One of us alone would probably jump back in the car and come up with a good excuse over coffee at the nearest Burger King. Two of us together might do the same, but we'd probably have to get a few feet into the woods before the agreement was struck. With three of us, though, we've got to swallow our fear and trudge on.

In the woods, just about anything can sound suspicious. It's a paranoid's worst nightmare. Tiny animals scurry over dry leaves, the wind pushes at the trees and makes them moan. Twigs snap, unseen creeks burp and hiss. Robbed of sight, it's easy to become nothing but a giant ear, straining to make the sounds harmless.

Throw in the fact that, somewhere in this 53.8-acre piece of land, there's possibly a man wandering around with a loaded weapon, and you'll understand why we clotted up at the lip of the woods and came oh so close to making the agreement that would have let us drive safely back to that Burger King for coffee and collusion.

But journalistic integrity—and that absurd macho ethic—demanded that we push on. Somewhere in the center of this sprawl of swampy woods half a mile from the Richmond International Airport, we hoped to find what we hadn't seen for eleven years—a little subdivision, complete with paved roads, functioning storm drains, lamp posts, a 500,000 gallon water tower, fire hydrants and everything else you'd ever want, except for...

...the houses.


According to the few people who know anything about it, Elko Tract was created during the Second World War to serve as a false city should the Japanese ever make it to Virginia on a nocturnal bombing raid. Once the raid was detected, the story goes, the city lights would be doused and the street lamps at Elko would be kicked on. Then viola: instant city.

Like many semi-mythical stories, though, Elko Tract's just doesn't ring true. Consider these questions.


1) If the Tract's usefulness ended with the war (which, as a Japanese bombing site, it necessarily would have), why, decades later, were the streets about as smooth as a road can get this side of Switzerland? Shouldn't they have all but vanished somewhere in the last forty-five years?

2) Why does the elaborate storm drainage system still function perfectly?

3) Why did the armed guard still patrol at least into the early 1980s?


For the past year, Elko Tract has been for sale. Its neighbors have attempted to attract companies to the site, and plans for an industrial park were drawn up. But it remains on the market. And, apparently, it's untended.

But that, as many area residents can tell you, hasn't always been the case.


For East Enders who grew up around it, Elko Tract was a place to park and party; they called it simply, 'Lost City.' One woman (who prefers to remain anonymous) remembers a day in 1970 when, having skipped school and taken the family car out to Lost City, she found herself stranded in the middle of the woods after the car failed to start back up. She and her boyfriend walked back out to the main road and returned with another car an hour later only to find...

...an armed man with his foot resting on her front bumper. She described him to me as 'a forest ranger,' but when I asked if he were wearing anything on his uniform that identified him as such, she said that no, in fact his uniform was featureless. It was just a green, military-like uniform. "God knows how he got back there," she said. (I and a few friends managed to avoid this same 'ranger' or someone just like him a decade later. No words were exchanged, but he did shoot into the air when he saw us running.) Her boyfriend managed to skirt trouble by mentioning a local cop's name, and they were allowed to drive out of Lost City with the stern admonition that they never return.

Like most of the teenagers who frequented Elko Tract, the woman didn't ask herself (or anyone else) many questions about the tract's Instant City quality. "The only thing we thought," she told me, "was that it was the beginning of a community that never got finished." But why would it require an armed guard? (Forest rangers aren't in the habit of patrolling relatively small plots like Elko, and before our national forests started filling up with illegal marijuana fields, the rangers didn't carry guns either.) She now wonders what was really going on and even jokes that "under hypnosis I might recall the [guard's] slanty eyes and bubble head."

Interestingly, the houses around Elko Tract were originally built to accommodate military personnel, and it's only been rather recently that the area has become predominantly non-military. (Elko Tract shares a border with the headquarters of the Army National Guard's 29th Light Infantry Division, and the Air National Guard is across the street.)

But that doesn't mean Elko's neighbors are willing to discuss the neighborhood. Indeed, when I made a phone survey of the area, most people refused to discuss anything with me, including the weather. One resident, however, did volunteer the fact that he has seen vehicles travel in and out of the Tract.


Less than fifty yards down the dirt road, we find a storm drain on our right. After taking a vote, we agree to risk clicking on a flashlight. The drain's at least eight feet deep, circular and made of bricks. A iron-wrung ladder leads to the bottom. We marvel at the drain's workmanship, and watch the water trickle compliantly through the flashlight beam.

Unfortunately, our exploration comes at a cost. The moment the flashlight is turned off and we return to walking, a dog begins barking. Loudly and persistently. Over the ridge, only a hundred yards away, we know that, if things haven't changed too much in the past decade, we will reach an intersection that will lead us into the complex of streets. Among them, again assuming time has stood still, we should find a handful of strange buried structures and the water tower.

But, equally important, we know the car parked fifty yards behind us is a dead giveaway, should the dog alert the neighbors' attention. After another vote, we agree that one of us will return to the car while the other two press on. But the dog alerts two other dogs, who in turn form a network of howling alarms. Before we are able to do more than confirm the site is still intact, we are forced to return to the car. Whether the water tower still stands...whether the strange structures are still buried around the streets...whether there is still a uniformed individual patrolling the site...the answers to all these questions remain tantalizingly beyond our grasp.


So what was really going on in the Instant City?

According to a Richmond News Leader editorial published on February 15, 1954, "The federal government had acquired the land through expensive condemnation proceedings during World War II for use as a dummy air base in camouflaging nearby Byrd Airport." (Officially, Elko was part of the Army Air Base.) How exactly a 2,300-acre piece of woods (its original size) was made to look like an airport without building permanent structures isn't made clear. But it does indicate how the 'twin city-dummy city' motif began.

What it doesn't explain, though, is how the streets, the gutters, the storm drains, the fire hydrants and the water tower got there. They actually come a few years later, and, as it turns out, there's nothing secretive about their appearance.


As early as 1939, the state had expressed concern about overcrowding at the Central State hospital facility in Petersburg. In 1948, the state announced that "a mental institution / state hospital for negroes" would be built within two years on the Elko site to ease this overcrowding. In addition to accepting handicapped children, it would also serve as a tubercular ward for infected blacks. Soon afterwards $4,000,000 was discussed as an appropriate figure for expenditures.

Funding problems cropped up almost instantly. Though the Elko project was backed by both the State Mental Hygiene Department and the State Hospital Board, Governor Battle announced a plan to move the TB ward to a site near MCV. Plans for the main hospital continued unabated. In the meantime, the federal government gave the state clear title to the Elko Tract, and plans for the first buildings were approved on August 7, 1951.

A period of dormancy passed. Then, in June 1953, bids for $500,000-worth of preliminary work were opened. Immediately afterwards, a News Leader editorial called for rapid construction to ease Central State's overcrowding and to transfer "epileptic and feeble-minded Negro children" from that facility.


Two months later, work was halted because nothing had been appropriated for it in the 1954-55 budget. Only the basic infrastructure—the water tower, the sewage treatment plant, curbs, gutters, fire hydrants and several miles of gravel and asphalt roads—had been completed.

On January 26, 1956, $5,655,900 was requested for renewal work, and the State Hospital Board approved a project that would build seven "cottage-type structures" for "mentally defective Negro children." No work was done, though, and Governor Stanley announced that the Elko site might be abandoned in favor of another. Studies were conducted, and in late March, the site-switch was approved. The new hospital, it was announced, would be built near Central State. The News Leader again called for a speedy construction on the new site.


Now came the new phase: selling the skeletal Elko Tract. On January 21, 1958, the State Hospital Board pronounced its hope that the Tract would sell for $1,000,000. On February 13, the House approved a bill (88-4) to permit the land's sale. A series of rejected bids followed: $292,000 from the Thomas M. Brooks Lumber Co. (January 16, 1959); $426,000 from a New York group (September 28, 1959); $500,000 from the same New York group two months later. Eventually, the deadline for new bids was passed on February 9, 1960, without a sale.

Three years later, on October 10, 1963, the State Hospital Board rejected an offer of $131,000 for Elko's timber. And with that rejected bid, after appearing in fifty-five articles in fifteen years, Elko Tract disappeared from local history, never to be mentioned again.

Almost immediately, the encounters with the mysterious man (or men) in uniform began.


Is it possible that the federal government bought Elko Tract back from the state in 1963 and began using it for some sort of top-secret activities? One librarian I spoke with did acknowledge that records of classified activities wouldn't appear in the media, and it would be convenient for the federal government to buy into a package in which much of the dirty work (i.e., constructing a functioning infrastructure) had already been done. If nothing else, it would mean less attention would be drawn to their appearance.

But what would the federal government want with Elko Tract?

Many possibilities present themselves. Some are, on the surface at least, outlandish. For example, if this were an episode of The X-Files, we might want to consider the Tract as an alien detention center.

Aliens confiscated from around the country are flown in on cargo jets and hustled through underground roads to the buried trailers.

Anyone who's seen The Man Who Fell To Earth can tell you the rest: electrodes stuck everywhere, eyelids pulled back, subject set in a chair loaded with metallic extensions and spun like a kid's toy gyro.

But why would you fly the aliens all the way across the country?

Well...to be near the President, of course, and any congressmen who might be skeptical about giving the secret agency more money for the program. Beltway bigwigs could take the red-eye, hit the Richmond International runway at dawn and be driven down the very same underground roads used to transport the drugged and drooling aliens. ("If you'll look to your right, Senator, you'll see where one of the subjects tried to ram his way through the tunnel walls. It took thirty darts to bring him down." "Oh my. Oh my Lord.")


Other possibilities are more realistic.

The FBI / CIA is using the Tract for high-tech training.

The CIA does have a massive compound this side of Williamsburg, and it's not impossible, I suppose, that they might be interested in expanding their operations. As for the FBI, well, they purportedly use safe houses in the Fan District to train agents on such things as investigating breaking and entering cases.

But why would either of these agencies want to conduct training next to a busy airport? Anyone with a few bucks and a camera could hire a pilot to fly them over the training grounds for snapshots.

The Tract is a command and control center to be used by the President in the event of nuclear war.

Scenario: Hard-liners in Russia, led by a psychotic but suddenly powerful Vladimir Zhirinovksy, successfully overthrow Yeltsin and demand that Alaska be immediately returned to the Motherland. Scoffing, U.S. diplomats refuse. Fifteen minutes later, an assortment of Soviet-built ICBMs are threading their way calmly toward the States.

After placing a final, tearful order for large fries and a Big Mac, President Clinton is hustled into a National Emergency Airborne Command Post (NEACP; actually a 747 modified to shield radiation) and sent aloft. Cruising at 35,000 feet, the president is relatively safe, barring the random who-would-have-guessed collision with a White House-seeking ICBM.

But there's a glitch: the viscosity of the oil in the plane's engines will break down within eighteen hours, thereby setting a rigid outer limit to the president's air time.

The solution: bring the NEACP down at a site safely removed from the first-target lists (e.g., not Norfolk, Washington, D.C., New York, etc.).

Richmond, by all accounts, would not be among the first targets of a nuclear assault.

Once Clinton is down, of course, he can't waste time scarfing down fries in a VIP lounge. He's got calls to make, decisions to pass on. And they're not the sort you can summarize on a cocktail napkin.

This is where the tax dollars (and the doubting Thomases) come in. Secret havens and command-and-control centers that can operate successfully during an all-out, nuke-em-till-they're-Red assault don't come cheap. And frankly, from the road, Elko doesn't look like much money's gone into it. But consider Elko's proximity to the airport. Any such haven would have to be near one, to minimize the president's exposure to such dangers as wind-blown fallout, insurrection and the random ICBM direct hit. The most you'd want to risk is a quick dash off the tarmac to a waiting car, then zip...


And underground havens are like a miser's clothing: you never know what's concealed in the pockets.


Secret underground resort / bomb shelters set aside for Washington's elite aren't novel. They're reality.

Tunnel (by Piranesi )At a minimum of fifty-five sites, members of Congress have reserved their spot among the Elect, should the end-times come. Two among them are exceptional for both their size and notoriety. The first is hidden under the Greenbriar Resort; the second is at Mount Weather. Both are in West Virginia. (An essay in the January / February 1994 issue of Mother Jones claims that "A television studio inside the [Mount Weather] shelter was once equipped with prerecorded addresses by Eisenhower and celebrity Arthur Godfrey assuring survivors that the government was alive, well, and continuing to function.") Whether all 535 members of Congress actually deserve those spots more than you or me is irrelevant, because they make the rules.

Or rather, they pay the bills for the people who do. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, is actually responsible for making the rules for the sort of operation that would entail protecting a president (and Congress) in the event of a nuclear assault.

Known these days mostly for its failure to respond rapidly enough to the chaos following Hurricane Andrew, FEMA is in fact a highly secretive agency, and it's difficult to know anything about what it wants to keep secret. According to a review conducted by the National Academy of Public Administration, twenty-seven percent of FEMA's budget is off-record. Even the titular heads of FEMA are kept in the dark. (In fact, George Bush's FEMA director learned just enough to find that he didn't have a reservation in the safe havens.)


So could Richmond have a safe haven tucked away for the apocalypse?

Possibly. Recent cuts in FEMA's budget could explain the Tract's current demise. (Officially, its classified budget dropped from 1993's $100 million to just $7.5 million in 1994, though there are indications that some of its operations are now funded by the Department of Defense.)

But here's a major problem: Elko Tract is small, given the scope of comparable sites like Mount Weather and Greenbriar. Is it really big enough to hold the command-and-control center from which a beleaguered president might rule the free world?

It seems unlikely.

Still, there are enough oddities to affirm that something did happen out there. The uniformed men, the well-maintained streets and drainage systems (so necessary for maintaining underground structures in a swampy region), the vehicles going in and out of the woods...but what exactly happened?

Don't expect an answer soon. One of Jimmy Carter's top priorities upon entering the White House in 1976 was to declassify all documents pertaining to UFOs. While serving as governor of Georgia, he'd reported seeing a UFO, and for once, it seemed like we'd get some answers. Twenty-two years later, we're still waiting for the files to go public.

As for Elko, a psychic we consulted says she feels strongly that military trucks have moved the operation (whatever it was) to another location. In fact, she says, it's already built and is identical to the airport's. Where? South of Midlothian, she says, near a landing strip that's nothing more than a black tarmac lit only when an aircraft is coming in. Underneath, the landing strip is hollow. But what about the aliens? No sign of them, she says.

But she could just have been having a bad day.

—Review by Charlie Onion

Posted May 1, 1999



Does He Know More Than He's Telling?

"WAG" the dog profile

Editor's Note: The man with the loud dog in the following phone conversation once served as the mayor of Richmond, Virginia. We've deleted his name to protect his privacy.

Ex-mayor [dog barking in the background]: Hello?

WAG: Hello, is [name deleted] in, please?

Ex-mayor [dog barking in the background]: Yes, this is Mr. [name deleted].

WAG: I'm trying to reach a Mr. [name deleted] who served as a mayor in Richmond.

Ex-mayor [dog barking in the background]: Yeah—hold on just a minute, will you?

WAG: Of course.

Ex-mayor [away from phone, yelling at barking dog]: Go on, get out of here. [returns to phone] My dog was making too much noise.

WAG [laughs]: Yeah. I was saying that I'm trying to reach the Mr. [name deleted] who served as a Mayor in Richmond.

Ex-mayor: Yeah. I'm the one.

WAG: A friend suggested that I might be able to call you and ask you for some information about an article I'm doing for a magazine called WAG. W-a-g. The article is about a place called Elko Tract. Right near the airport, around Beulah Road. She thought you might know something about it.

Ex-mayor: Know something about what? I didn't hear you.

WAG: It's Elko Tract.

Ex-mayor: Elko Tract?

WAG: Yeah. It's a little area that was a bombing site—a false-city bombing site—in case the Japanese flew over in World War II.

Ex-mayor: I'm sorry. I won't be able to help you a bit.

WAG: So you don't about anything out there?

Ex-mayor: No, I do not.

WAG: Hmmm. When were you Mayor of Richmond?

Ex-mayor: [year deleted].

WAG: [year deleted].

Ex-mayor: Yeah.

WAG: Right. So you know nothing about that, whatsoever?

Ex-mayor: No, I do not.

WAG: OK. Thank—

[Ex-mayor hangs up.]





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