Ruins and Race in a World War II Ghost Town
Perhaps the most distinctive ruins of the Cold War lie east of Richmond, Virginia. In 1943 a decoy airfield was constructed by the 1896th Engineer Aviation Battalion to confuse potential aerial attacks on the US Army Air Corps based at nearby Byrd Field in Henrico County. The battalion constructed a series of artificial structures and a fake runway arranged much like that at Byrd Field. Yet a compelling if somewhat more complicated story is provided by the tract’s post-war history and its interpretation in the subsequent half-century.
In February, 1947 the state bid to purchase the decoy airport tract in Elko from the War Assets Administration with the intention to build an African-American mental hospital. A streetscape, drainage, fire hydrants, and a water tower were erected, yet by June 1954 the Richmond paper had reported that “$500,000 of utilities are rusting at Elko.” In October 1955 the Fredericksburg Free-Lance Star reported that the state was beginning training of “the grounds and buildings department of the proposed Negro training school and hospital at Elko near Richmond,” but in February, 1957 the Governor approved a switch of the hospital’s site from Elko to Petersburg. The unfinished ghost landscape left behind remains an overgrown empty grid today attesting to measures of arrogance, racism, and distorted historical memory that distinguish Cold War America.
Interpretations of the space in the subsequent half century reflect the vagaries of popular memory. The apprehension of a Nazi assault on central Virginia seems somewhat absurd in hindsight, but the American anxiety of Nazi and then Soviet attack was certainly genuine if overblown. There is a certain naïve arrogance (in the midst of the war and today alike) in the assumption that foreign powers hoped to capture places like Richmond, which had little appreciable military presence or strategic value. It also seems unlikely that the Nazis or Soviets would mistake the decoy airfield for the neighboring city, so the suggestion the decoy landscape would confuse attacking pilots may reflect misplaced American confidence in our enemies’ foolishness.
The most popular local legend about the circa 2200-acre “Elko tract” suggests it was a simulation model of Richmond itself. One typical observer notes that “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” (compare a similar analysis on Ghost Towns and on a Henrico County history). However, there is no evidence the expanse was intended to be a decoy beyond wartime.
The anomalous decoy airport and subsequent vacant street plan are curiosities that tug at our consciousness more than the typical architectural ruins surrounding much of urban America; that is, ruination in cities and factories is simply part of what we expect to find in contemporary landscapes. The void of streetscapes and absence in Elko seizes our attention as an anomaly outside normal architectural space and decline, since there were never buildings to actually lapse into ruin (ironically, urban renewal intentionally leaves comparable voids in its wake). The Elko property is so incongruous and without any obvious functional explanation that it unleashes observers’ imaginations. A 2008 local TV report on the property mused that it might have been reserved for alien research or housed a bunker for the President; while most observers do not take such stories seriously, they can be publicly entertained because there is not an otherwise clear explanation for the ghost tract.
Rather than reduce Elko to a curious wartime defense, there is instead a familiar story of anti-Black racism to be told by the Elko landscape. In February, 1947 the Richmond Afro American reported that the “location of the hospital in the Elko area has been fought bitterly by Henrico County residents” (a charge the paper repeated in September), suggesting there was resistance to the segregated asylum from the project’s very outset. In a 2013 article, Rich Griset reports that by 1956 Richmond’s paper reported “hot opposition” to the proposal from local legislators and neighbors.
The Elko project unraveled at nearly the same moment that the 1954 Brown vs. the Board of Education decision wrote the death rites to state separation. Within a month of the Brown decision Virginia was among the Southern states to respond with a new wave of segregation codes spearheaded by Virginia Senator Harry Byrd (the Richmond airport bore his brother Richard’s name). Byrd referred to the movement against integration as “massive resistance,” including measures such as a September 1956 state law forbidding any integrated school from receiving state funds. In Virginia some schools were even closed in 1958 to prevent integration before state and federal courts determined such moves were illegal.
In the midst of this renewed racism, Governor Thomas Stanley told a news conference in February 1957 that “plans were underway to halt any additional construction at the Elks [sic] site in Henrico County near Richmond,” with a newspaper decrying that “an estimated $500,000 has been spent at the Elko tract for installation of a water system, sewage disposal system, streets and curbs.” Resistance to an African-American hospital at the decoy airfield was apparently influenced by the lack of Black housing near Elko and the likelihood African Americans would move into White communities. In March, 1957 a newspaper concurred that the decision to place the African-American hospital in Petersburg was influenced by “the fact that the Petersburg site is close to a large Negro population.”
A historic marker now sits on the boundaries of the property, and a semiconductor plant occupies much of the tract. The ghost town will inevitably be erased as Richmond expands eastward into the Elko suburbs, and the outlines of the decoy airstrip are now nearly entirely engulfed by forest while the curbs and fire hydrants melt into the Chesapeake underbrush. The curiosity for the decoy airfield makes an interesting if idiosyncratic historical tale; the possibility that a foreign power would set its sight on Richmond is perhaps symptomatic of American over-confidence; and the ruin of the abandoned cityscape may be consequential as another example of the ways landscapes meet unintended ends. Yet the amnesia that the vacant tract is a material product of racism is symptomatic of many popular and scholarly pictures of the post-war American landscape.
The Free-Lance Star
1957 Va. Health Board Eyes New Issue: Hospital Switch. The Free-Lance Star 14 February:1.
1957 Hospital Switch Okay Forecast. The Free-Lance Star 20 March:14.
1957 Patients’ Shift from Eastern Due by 1964. The Free-Lance Star 16 August:7.
1959 Elko Tract Sale set for Sept. 28. The Free-Lance Star 25 April:5.
1959 $426,000 is Bid for Elko Tract. The Free-Lance Star 29 September:12.
1959 Effort to Sell Elko Tract Set. The Free-Lance Star December:1.
1967 New Urban University Proposed. The Free-Lance Star 24 November:1.
1947 Government Approves New Site for Central State. Richmond Afro-American 6 September:7.
Images are courtesy of Ben Swenson’s Abandoned Country blog