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
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
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...
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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
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.")
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
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
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
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.
underground resort / bomb shelters set aside for
Washington's elite aren't novel. They're reality.
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.)
could Richmond have a safe haven tucked away for
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
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
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.