When we think of ghost towns, we picture windblown wooden buildings in the wild west with broken, swinging shutters and boarded up windows. Or perhaps we envision archaic ruins with moss covered stones and ivy choking out what little life is left in the crumbling ruins. Virginia doesn’t have anything quite so dramatic, but we do have towns that have been abandoned – left to be reclaimed by nature. It’s hard to say why an entire community would leave an area. Oftentimes, the economy that drove the creation of the town dries up, or conditions just become too difficult. In the case of these 7 sites in Virginia, reasons ranged from harsh living conditions to economic downturn, but they all hold one things in common — and that is their fascinating histories. While the people that once breathed life into these areas may be long gone, their presence can still be felt in what remains.
1. Matildaville, Great Falls National Park
When Henry Lee III, a.k.a. Light Horse Harry Lee, signed a 900-year lease on the land that was to host a booming community on the newly constructed Potomac Canal, he may have gotten just a wee bit ahead of himself. Named after his late first wife, he had high hopes for the town. And for a while, it seemed he was right.
Founded in 1790, Matildaville was a planned community that first began as a central site for canal construction. As a featured trade and tourist destination along the canal, Matildaville thrived with a gristmill, forge, homes, stores, and an inn that once served Theodore Roosevelt.
But after the canal failed to live up to its promise and closed c.1828, the town declined and today, only ruins remain along the Matildaville Trail in Great Falls Park.
2. Wash Woods at False Cape State Park, Virginia Beach
This small seaside fishing community in the farthest southeastern corner of the state was once 300-people strong. Although no one really knows, legend says the community began 300-400 years ago when sailors shipwrecked off the coast.
While it's origins are uncertain, the village thrived, despite being cut off in densely forested terrain with no roads in or out. Villagers lived off the land, growing crops, hunting, and fishing. By the late 19th century, many of the local men served with the United States Life-Saving Service, a precursor to today's Coast Guard. However, in the 1920s and 30s, repeated storms hammered the small community and all but the most loyal left. The Ash Wednesday Storm of 1962 was the final straw for the remainders, and by the mid-60s the area was abandoned.
Today, all that remains is overgrown cemeteries, a church and steeple, and a handful of ruins. Tours are available through the park services of False Cape State Park.
3. Pocosin Mission, Shenandoah National Forest
Near the turn of the 20th century, Frederick Neve, an Episcopal minister, set out on an ambitious religious quest. He vowed to build a mission at every 10-mile mark along the Blue Ridge Mountains. He saw the primitive "mountain folk," with their superstitious beliefs and wild behavior, to be in desperate need of ministering.
In 1902, the Towles sisters, Florence and Marion, took up the newly appointed mission post at Pocosin, or Far Pocosin, as it was known. The women resided in a small mission house and maintained a schoolhouse that also served as a chapel. For years, the Towles Sisters lived amongst the people, ministering to them, teaching them, and evangelizing.
Although Pocosin Mission only lasted 20 years after the Towles sisters left, and most of the native Appalachian families were forced out of the area in the 1930s as the park system developed, traces of their lives linger - not just in the ruins, but in the very air.
Today, visitors can take a fire road off of Skyline Drive one mile into the forest where the Towles sisters did their work. Old barns, crumbling walls, and an overgrown cemetery serve as reminders of the lives once lived there.
4. Renaissance Faire, Fredericksburg
I know I'm cheating a little bit here, as this is not a PROPER town. But its eerie emptiness is irresistible. The thought of a ghost town conjures up images of a once bustling, busy area that now sits in decay. And this site most certainly fits that description.
This elaborate faire site was only open from 1996 – 1999. Bad weather, swampy grounds, (read, BUGS) and poor ticket sales are said to be the things that thwarted this Renaissance Faire’s merry existence.
Fortunately, The Virginia Renaissance Fair began operations at Lake Anna Winery in 2004 and they have seen much more success than the Renaissance Entertainment Corporation’s ill-fated fair in Fredricksburg. All the same, it’s sad to see a place like this fade into the mist.
5. Lignite, Botetourt County
Once a lignite coal mining town, Lignite was abandoned in the late 19th century when the demand for ore dropped. Although the small town had stores, churches, and a main street theater, very little remains today.
Shown here are remains of a nearby truss bridge across Craig Creek and the ruins of old chimneys.
6. Elko Tract, Henrico County
Considering that Elko Tract is one of the most famous ghost towns in Virginia, mainly because of its dubious history, tracking down photographs of this site is surprisingly difficult -- or not so surprising considering it is mostly gone. This site just outside of Richmond came about during World War II when fear of enemy attack was high. To preempt damages from such an attack, the government had an idea. Why not build a false city - a decoy - complete with commerce buildings, homes, and roads? The idea was that, should word of attack come, the actual city of Richmond would cut power to homes and businesses, while the decoy lights in Elko would come on - including those of a fake airstrip that was intended to replicate the nearby Byrd airport. Fortunately, the war ended without such an attack and the the land was passed along to the state. Little remains of the town today, but as recently as 15 years ago, visitors could walk through the empty town with its movie-set details and eerily empty streets.
7. Sweet Chalybeate Springs Resort, Allegheny County
While the community of Sweet Chalybeate, located in Allegheny County, is not abandoned itself, I found the Sweet Chalybeate Springs Resort too hauntingly beautiful not to include. As early as the 1700s, people would come to the Sweet Chalybeate Mineral Springs to soak in the legendary healing waters. The Sweet Chalybeate Hotel and Sweet Chalybeate Springs Lodge accommodated the visitors. Built in the 1850s, it was constructed around naturally flowing springs that stemmed from the base of a small bluff. After a series of economic downturns, the resort closed permanently in 1918 and was added to the National Register or Historic Places in 1974, at the time this photo was taken.
I can’t help but be fascinated by the histories of these locations. I would love to know about more ghost towns or abandoned areas in Virginia. Tell us about any that you have visited – or better yet once lived in, in the comments below.
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