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The Lost City

Henrico’s Elko Tract holds a tale of Nazis, collapsible buildings and kamikaze pilots.

A 500,000-gallon water tower, a relic from a planned mental institution, keeps watch over the lost city.
If you take a certain gravel road off Portugee Road, you might notice certain hints that something once almost existed here. The path’s forks slowly reveal paved roads, a sewage system and fire hydrants slowly being reclaimed by the surrounding forest.

It’s almost forgotten now, its roads overgrown with grass and scrubby trees. Peeking from the woods near Technology Boulevard, a ghostly water tower stands guard.

Trespassing explorers have found the abandoned development eerie, its unsettling silence the perfect stimulus for tall tales. Was it an alien detention camp, a nuclear test site, a secret presidential bunker?

Ever since the government seized the area just east of Richmond International Airport, the urban legends surrounding Henrico’s Elko Tract have grown more fantastic with time. But the true story of this supposed “lost city” beyond the pines is just as fascinating as any of these legends.

It is a tale of Nazis, kamikaze pilots, phony airplanes – and one giant government boondoggle.

With her New York accent and propensity for straight talk, Sandy Fischer might seem an unlikely expert on rural Henrico County, but in the community of Elko, she’s known as the area’s unofficial historian.

Born and raised on Long Island, Fischer was a public relations secretary for Pan American World Airways in “Mad Men”-era New York City. In the wake of the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy, Sen. Robert F. Kennedy and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Fischer decided to leave New York to become a hippie and travel the country.

“I thought the world was going to hell in a handbasket,” Fischer recalls. “I had to get out of there.”

Fischer’s parents had moved to Elko to take care of her grandparents, so she came to stay with them. In the fall of 1977, while Fischer’s stepfather was mowing the grass outside, a man named Vic Lechowicz pulled over his car to ask for advice. Lechowicz had been stationed in the area during World War II, and he was trying to find where he had camped as an engineer for the Army. As Fischer loved the area’s history, her parents volunteered her to help out.

What she found was that during World War II, the government took control of Richmond International Airport, then known as Richard Evelyn Byrd Flying Field. Renamed Richmond Army Air Base (or air field in some references), the airport was used to train pilots.

In Oct. 1942, more than 40 families nearby were notified by the government that it would acquire their property “by condemnation under judicial process, land for enlargement of Richmond Air Base.” Those families were given 30 days to vacate their land.

Worried that the Nazis might attempt to bomb a base where so many people and planes were stationed, the military used the farmland it seized to erect a decoy of the actual airfield. The 1896th Engineer Aviation Battalion used plywood and canvas to make fake buildings and cleared the ground in the exact shape and orientation of the base’s runways at Elko. At ground level, the ploy wouldn’t fool anyone, but it could pass for the real thing when viewed from the air. Lighted up at night, it looked even more convincing.

While the idea of a squadron of Luftwaffe planes bombing rural Virginia might seem farfetched, attacks on American soil were a major concern during World War II. Japanese air raids took place in Oregon, and a German U-boat opened fire on a small town in Massachusetts.

A pilot gazes out of a P-40 Warhawk at a Richmond Army Base.

To fool aerial attackers, America and other countries used camouflage and decoy techniques to throw bombers off target during the war. Using camouflage netting, the Army Corps of Engineers made the Lockheed airplane factory in Burbank, Calif., appear to be a residential neighborhood from the air. The same tactic was used to cover a Boeing airplane factory in Seattle, using chicken wire and planks.

After building their own decoy development in Henrico County, the men of the 1896th referred to themselves as either the Elko Buddies or the Elko Engineers. One member designed a distinctive “L-K-O” insignia that they used to mark their equipment. A picture from the 1945 Christmas Eve issue of Life magazine clearly shows an “L-K-O” on a vehicle dismantling large Japanese scientific equipment.

As the Elko Buddies took the train west to California for deployment in the Pacific, they came upon a serendipitously named town. “They passed through Elko, Nevada, and they all got very excited,” Fischer says. “They thought that was wonderful.”

But despite the apparent good omen, the Pacific proved deadly. On Jan. 12, 1945, 26 Japanese kamikaze planes attacked the battalion’s convoy off the coast of Bataan. All but one of the planes was shot down. That plane hit the ship carrying a company of the group’s engineers, killing more than 100 of the Elko Buddies.

After World War II, the government decommissioned many of its military installations, including the Richmond base. Deactivated in August 1945, the base was turned back over to the city of Richmond the following spring.

As it was separate from the airport, the state purchased the Elko Tract from the federal government and made plans to build two different health facilities for African-Americans. By placing a tuberculosis hospital and a children’s mental-health facility on two separate campuses on the same plot of land, the state hoped to save money on infrastructure costs. Some estimates in the early 1950s put the planned project’s cost at $15 million – equivalent to $128 million today.

Eventually the location for the proposed tuberculosis facility was moved to the Medical College of Virginia, but a 2,000-bed mental health site for African-American children was still in the works for Elko.

Construction began, with the government putting in tar and gravel roads, a sewage system, a 500,000-gallon water tower and a sewage-treatment plant. Curbs and gutters were built, and two wells were drilled and capped. But then the General Assembly cut off the money.

A soldier emerges from water during a training drill.

Though the State Hospital Board revised its plans to make the facility more cost-effective, and the 1956 General Assembly appropriated $5 million for the project, the funding never appeared. One of the concerns raised was where employees would be quartered, as Sandston had few places that rented to African-Americans.

For their part, the Henrico Board of Supervisors, Sandston residents and Henrico Delegate Joseph J. Williams had displayed “hot opposition” to the proposal to locate a mental-health facility for African-Americans so close by, according to an article in The Richmond News Leader dated Jan. 26, 1956.

After spending half a million dollars on construction in 1950s money, the plans for Elko were scrapped and the mental facility was added to Central State Hospital in Petersburg. That development, now reclaimed by the forest, is the true origin of the legend of the lost city.

“Everyone thinks it was a lost city from World War II, but there was nothing there,” Fischer says. As she points out, the buildings at the decoy airfield “were canvas put on walls made of plywood.”

Up into the 1990s, Fischer says the outline of the decoy airfield was still visible. But after a tree sickness caused the state to cut down the surrounding forest, the dirt runways became indistinguishable from the surrounding fields. Little remains from the World War II era, but the roads from the unfinished hospital are still visible in the woods.

“The lost city is from where the state started building,” Fischer says. “Same area, wrong decade. It’s not from the ’40s, it’s from the ’50s.”

Like a game of telephone, the story has become ever more distorted over time. Websites and oral retellings of the story contend that the government was using the land for other purposes. One of the most popular versions claims that the lost city was a scale replica of Richmond to fool the Nazis, complete with its own Monument Avenue in miniature. Fischer finds the legends laughable and says the only truly interesting thing that has taken place since World War II at the Elko Tract was its use as a lovers’ lane.

Elko native Bill Fisher’s father Willie worked for the Capitol Police guarding the Elko Tract for many years after the development was abandoned.

“His main job was to keep people out of there,” says Fisher, a retired school teacher and auto repair shop owner. “He got to know a lot of the neighborhood people because husbands and wives would go up there with people who wasn’t husbands and wives to have little affairs.”

Part of his father’s job included serving as the tract’s caretaker, running the water system and keeping up the place. As his son, one of Fisher’s chores was to ride at night on horseback to make sure the aircraft warning lights of the water tower were still in operation.

“A lot of kids would climb the tower to unscrew the light bulbs and throw them off,” says Fisher, who admits to practicing donuts in his car on the red clay of the decoy airfield. “It was the ideal place for teenagers to park and have parties.”

Soldiers pose on a fashioned bridge
in the middle of the woods.

For decades, the Elko Buddies organized reunions roughly every five years in the area, and Fischer helped as a liaison between the veterans and the local community. Lechowicz coordinated the reunions, and for many years, the Virginia Air National Guard loaned the group a bus to travel the remnants of the decoy airfield and their camp down the road. Fischer joined them.

“They knew exactly where the plywood shacks and tents were,” Fischer recalls, adding that some of the brick ovens they used to cook still existed. Some of the men still carried scars from the kamikaze attack. To honor those who perished in the attack, the Elko Buddies built a monument outside the Elko Community Center. Roughly 50 years after their first reunion, the group met for the last time in 1997.

In 1996, Henrico County Economic Development Authority began developing the Elko Tract land into White Oak Technology Park. Current tenants include Hewlett-Packard and Quality Technology Services Data Center. The water tower of the lost city can be seen from Technology Road on the QTS property.

But the legend of the Elko Tract lives on. Earlier this year, the county erected a historical marker for the decoy airfield on Portugee Road. Late last month, Richmond’s Legend Brewing Company released its “Lost City Saison” in honor of the mythic city beyond the pines.

“I think that’s cute,” Fischer says. “I mean, there is a lost city, and it had more than the airfield had.” ■.