During World War 2, the government was afraid of enemy incursions onto the US mainland; Japanese bombers had already attacked Oregon, and in the First World War, a German u-boat had opened fire on the Massachusetts town of Orleans. In 1942, soldiers from the 936th camouflage battalion came to the Elko Tract and laid down a fake airstrip, built buildings made of canvas stretched over plywood, and wired a system of working lights, in case German or Japanese bombers made it to the east coast. If German bombers appeared in Virginia, the plan was for the real Richmond to turn out all the lights, while the fake Richmond would light up like a Christmas tree. Nazis would then drop their bombs on the fake Richmond – Elko Tract – and then go home, none the wiser. These tactics had proved successful in Europe, where Britain had diverted German bombers and successfully concealed planning for the Normandy landing by using inflatable tanks and fake military installations to fool German spies.
Of course, no Nazi bombers ever crossed the Atlantic, and after the war, the state of Virginia found themselves with a fake, empty city on their hands. After some debate, they decided to build an African-American hospital on the site. (Hospitals were still segregated in Virginia at this time.) By 1956, the local government had built all the necessary infrastructure – sewers, roads, sidewalks, even a water tower – when the hospital plan was derailed by local opposition from people who didn’t want black employees living nearby.
At this point, Elko Tract was abandoned. Or was it? Area teenagers, who used the overgrown streets and alcoves of Elko Tract to do teenager things, reported being run off by mysterious armed guards. One woman claims that, in 1970, she skipped school and borrowed the family car to go “park” in the abandoned city with her boyfriend, only to encounter a gun-toting man in a military uniform bearing no identifying marks, who told the couple to leave and never come back. Another man claims that he and his friends crossed paths with a similar guard a decade later, who fired his gun into the air to drive them off. On top of that, people who live close to the tract report vehicles regularly driving in and out.
These anecdotes gave rise to a variety of conspiracy theories: that aliens were being held prisoner at a hidden base, that the FBI or CIA was using the fake city as a training area for a takeover of American cities (there’s a CIA training facility just outside Williamsburg, VA), that there were underground bunkers there to shelter government bigwigs in case of nuclear war. Some brave explorers reported areas of overturned dirt, and mysterious holes in the ground, which led to theories that nuclear missiles might have been housed there in underground bunkers.
Of course, the truth might be less interesting. In a Henrico Monthly article titled “The Lost City,” a local man who’s interviewed says his father was employed by the Capitol Police as one of those mysterious armed guards. His duties apparently consisted of running off people having sex in cars, turning the water system on and off to keep it in working order, and replacing burned-out light bulbs on the water tower so planes wouldn’t collide with it at night.
At any rate, whatever was happening there had wound down by the Nineties, and in 1996, Henrico County turned the site into White Oak Technology Park, an office facility for tech companies that’s currently home to Hewlett-Packard and Bank of America, among others. There isn’t much left of the original fake city other than the old water tower, curbs and overgrown roads that lead nowhere, and fire hydrants stamped “1953” for the year they were installed.