In Search of Lost City (or “Half a Mansion Is Better than None”)


The goal of this trip (well, one of them) was to find Lost City, West Virginia. I mean, how could any self-respecting BMW explorer fail to be intrigued by such a name? I eventually found Lost City, but it wasn’t easy and there were many other fascinating things between here and there. As the philosopher Martin Buber said, “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

Of course, any time you travel in West Virginia, you’re bound to find some intriguing abandoned houses. I’d barely entered the State when I ran across this one.

And, naturally, some of the roads leave a little to be desired. Thinking that I remembered how to get from Charles Town, WV to Winchester, VA, I ended up getting lost and having to resort to the GPS. The Zumo seems to have a spirit of adventure all its own, and before long I was on this “road.” A little farther on, the road became snow-covered, made a sharp downhill turn to the right, and ended in Opequon Creek! Apparently there used to be a ford here, but a local fisherman told me it’s been impassable for at least a decade.

No problem, especially since backtracking to another semi-nonexistent road took me right by this scene.

I’d gotten a nice early start, and it’s always a joy to see what the “horizontal light” does. This is the cemetery for the Brucetown United Methodist Church. Apparently it’s a popular place…

The temperature was 30 degrees when I started, but it promised to warm up considerably. My old friend, the Cacapon River, was hedging its bets, being iced over in some places and not in others.

In Capon Bridge, WV I chanced across this elegant mansion.

Capon Bridge is also home to one of my favorite old abandoned churches, with the intriguing initials “HHB” at the top of its tower. Sadly, it hasn’t been a functioning church for a long time.

Capon Bridge is also home to my friends the Polimeni family. Unfortunately, I went through so early in the morning that I was afraid to stop and wake everyone up—and I’d wanted to ask Ron where “Hanging Rock” was located and whether it was the same place as “Hanging Rocks.” Fortunately, I managed to figure it out on my own. Here’s the former, as seen from inside looking out. (At least I think this is Hanging Rock—right Ron??)

I’d ridden and driven through Romney, WV several times previously but had never taken the time to look around. There was still plenty of snow on the hillsides. (West Virginia is all hillsides, incidentally. I believe there are no more than 2 or 3 square feet of flat land in the entire State.)

This is the oldest house still standing in Romney. It was built in about 1760 and is sandwiched between two slightly newer buildings. Together, the three form a kitchen, home, and office. Note the unusual (and gigantic) twin fireplaces, which look entirely out of place on what is a fairly small building—it must have been the warmest place in town. The 4-room, 2-story design with a large fireplace is apparently characteristic of the houses built in Tidewater Maryland but is very unusual for West Virginia.

Here is Literary Hall, once the home of the Romney Literary Society—possibly the first such society in the U.S. when it was formed in 1819. Its original building, along with 90 percent of the Society’s library collection, was destroyed during the Civil War (not surprising, given that Romney was taken and retaken, over and over, by Union and Confederate forces). The current hall was finished in 1870, but the society disbanded 20 years later. Literary Hall is now a museum.

But what about Hanging Rocks, you ask? I’d heard that it was located a few miles north of Romney, so I set off to see what I could find. Along the way, the Potomac Eagle sightseeing train stood out in the bright sunshine. The passenger cars were parked here for the winter, but there was no sign of the engines.

A little further on, I spotted what must be “Hanging Rocks” (as it indeed proved to be, based on subsequent research). Getting there involved a narrow road sandwiched between the mountain and the South Branch of the Potomac River.

It was an impressive sight. The Z4 is not a huge car to begin with, but the 300-foot height of the cliff made it seem downright tiny.

On a warmer day, this spot would look quite inviting for a swim.

Just west of Romney, I went looking for the rumored Fort Kuykendall. The first step was climbing the impossibly steep South Branch River Road, which still carried a load of wintertime cinders and ended up hundreds of feet above the river. The view was well worth a stop.

And several other stops as well, such as this scene of a dilapidated farmhouse. The house and other buildings seemed abandoned, but there were cattle roaming around.

Speaking of farms, here’s another one. At first glance, it didn’t look too out of the ordinary. However, see the little pile of rubble at the far left of the photo?

Sadly, that’s all that remains of the 15-sided “polygonal barn” that once graced the Kuykendal-Hicks farm. The barn was built in 1906 and was the only such barn in the entire State. It collapsed under a heavy snowfall in 2005. (Historical photo from the National Registry of Historic Places.)

And we’re not done with the Kuykendall-Hicks farm. At the far right in the first picture, you can just make out a stone outbuilding. Well, it’s not just any stone building. This was a blockhouse at Fort Kuykendall, gun slits and all, built by order from Colonel George Washington to help secure the area from Indian attacks prior to and during the French and Indian War. I believe it is the only such blockhouse that still exists, in the open, in West Virginia. The farmhouse, incidentally, was also part of Fort Kuykendall. More recently it has suffered the indignity of a modern addition, with a deck. Progress strikes again.

Still, it’s amazing how much history is present at an otherwise unobtrusive farm in the middle of rural West Virginia.

Working my way back to Route 50, I saw a sign for public access to the South Branch of the Potomac, and I thought I’d give it a try. Imagine a wide, flat area (I know, I know—I said there weren’t any flat areas in WV). Imagine that up until a few days ago, it had a couple feet of snow on it, but the snow had recently melted. Imagine how muddy and slushy such an area would turn out to be… I didn’t imagine any of this in advance, but I found out soon enough. Here’s where I gave up and turned around.

Having found one fort from the French and Indian War, I was anxious to find another, namely Fort Pleasant. But before reaching Old Fields, WV, I happened across the missing engines from the Potomac Eagle Scenic Railroad. Small world, eh?

The area at Old Fields was settled by Isaac Van Meter and his family in about 1744. They built a fortified log cabin on land originally called “Old Indian Fields.” At the start of the French and Indian War, Colonel George Washington ordered two new forts built in this area near the North Fork of the South Branch of the Potomac River. Fort Van Meter, as it was originally known, was constructed in 1756 and served as a refuge for local settlers during Indian attacks. It didn’t save Isaac, who was killed and scalped in 1757 while working in his fields. This sketch of the fort was made by James Wilt in 1774 and probably represents a later version of the fort (courtesy of Scott Van Metre’s very interesting website).

Isaac’s son, Garrett, built an ungainly but very strong brick blockhouse-style structure, half of it below ground. As I understand it, this blockhouse still exists within (or possibly next to) the present-day Fort Pleasant mansion, and is connected to the mansion “by a series of enclosed steps.” Garrett’s son, Isaac, married Elizabeth Inskeep and in the late 1700s built her the beautiful mansion that still stands—sort of. It has (had) 18 rooms and was built in the Federal style.

I say “sort of” and “had” for reasons that are apparent in this photo. The southernmost section of Fort Pleasant apparently suffered catastrophic damage, which, I hope, is in the process of being rebuilt. It’s a very sad sight, and certainly not one that you see every day.

Here is what this section of the mansion looked like in 2008 (photo by Dixon Marshall). I’ve written to Scott Van Metre in hopes of learning more about what happened.

Elsewhere on the grounds of Fort Pleasant there were signs that this is still a working farm.

And speaking of farms, off in the distance I noticed this extraordinary barn, seemingly built in the Emerald Palace Style (although “Gothic Revival” is the correct terminology, according to the National Registry of Historic Places). I’d never seen so many gables, towers, and so forth. I later learned that this is the Buena Vista Farm barn, built in 1904.

And then, within shouting distance, I re-encountered the Willow Wall plantation, an historic home built in 1811-1812 and featuring 38 rooms. (I had previously passed by this mansion on a motorcycle adventure in 2007.) The property was first settled in about 1760 by Daniel McNeil, a sea captain who built a large log home in the same configuration as the current Willow Wall. After the Revolutionary War, McNeil and his family became prosperous and built the current brick mansion. During the Civil War, Daniel’s nephew, John Hanson McNeil, led McNeil’s Rangers on devastating raids throughout this region, capturing Romney several times, seriously damaging the B & O Railroad on numerous occasions, and generally causing havoc for the Union forces. The Rangers participated in the Battle of Moorefield near Willow Wall, and the mansion was used as a hospital by both Union and Confederate doctors. The mansion was still owned by McNeil’s descendants as recently as 1973 but has changed hands at least twice since then.

Captain John Hanson McNeil was a dashing fellow, but ultimately lost his life after being wounded in one of his hundreds of Ranger skirmishes. (Photo courtesy of Dickinson College.) His son Jesse led McNeil’s Rangers for the rest of the war.

By now it was time to find some gas, so I migrated over to the Sheetz in Moorefield—only to stumble upon this customized 1953 Buick. The owner had done all the work himself, including chopping the top, enlarging the wheel wells to hold 20″ wheels, installing the lo/hi-rider hydraulic system, and so forth. I’m glad that in this day and age of modern cars that owners can’t even work on at all, there are still for-real hot-rodders out there.

Fully topped off, I left Moorefield on Old Route 55 in search of Lost City. Now, you have to understand: West Virginia probably has more “lost cities” per square mile than any place in the country. But I was looking for the town actually named “Lost City.” And according to one of the Evil Twins, Garmin, it was near the intersection of Mill Gap-Thorn Bottom Road and Settlers Valley Road, just past Moonshine Hollow Road. (Honest, I don’t make these things up.)   Easy, right? So off I went.

The first faux lost city that I came to was as lost as they come. Here is all that’s left of Fabius, WV—an old house and the little Fabius Post Office on the right. (Honest!) Moreover, I couldn’t find out anything at all about what Fabius might have once been. Some history is destined to be lost altogether.

Still on Old Route 55 (which is well worth a visit by bike or car), I stopped to photograph this sweeping vista with its interesting clouds.

As I focused in on the buildings, I realized that this town, too, was well and truly lost. Neither of the Evil Twins, Garmin and Google, has even a suggestion of a name for this area. But almost all of the buildings are long-abandoned.

Walking back to the patient Z4, I spotted another abandoned house in a stand of trees on the hillside behind where I’d parked. I tramped through the snowy underbrush and discovered … another half mansion! In fairness, this dwelling was far more modest than Fort Pleasant. Nonetheless, something awful had happened to its right side as well. (A peak through the window on the remaining side indicated a number of jugs of vile-looking liquid, some tubing, and other possible signs of a (gasp) still. It’s not inconceivable that the damage was done by a moonshine-making explosion.

A very large abandoned farm probably doesn’t qualify as a lost city, although there were enough buildings there to come close. (It was certainly larger than Fabius.) The farm was located just past the town of Lost River and had clearly once been a prosperous and well-tended operation—but those days are gone.

Lost River itself still had some going concerns, including the Lost River General Store and this well-tended, active home (although something—perhaps the Wizard Clip?—had done a number on the snowman’s head…)

Turning off of Route 259 and onto Mill Gap-Thorn Bottom Road at last, I was confident that I would be arriving in Lost City within a few miles. But within a few miles, this is what MG-TB Road looked like. Yes, I was in the exact Middle of West-by-God-Virginia Nowhere.

Nonetheless, I soon arrived at the Garmin-specified location of Lost City—only to find a couple of old barns and a sign to a trendy new vacation home community. Could this be Lost City? I had my doubts and continued on, thinking it must be just another mile or so up the road. (“Up” was the operative word, incidentally. Mill Gap-Thorn Bottom Road just kept going farther and farther up the mountain.) Soon, I encountered a wooden sign indicating that Lost City was another 9 miles. I was on the right track!

Halfway there, and following the wooden signs, I turned onto Mill Gap-Orkney Springs Road and promptly headed back down the mountain that I had just scrabbled up. When you’re traveling at 10-15 mph on a rutted, bumpy, uneven dirt road, even going 4 or 5 miles takes a while. Along the way I saw pretty ice formations on Lower Cove Run…

…a moribund school bus…

…and, finally, the actual town of Lost City! This is a view from the, uh, heart of town.

There were a number of houses, some occupied and others not so much.

However, there were two thriving churches, the Lost City Baptist Church and the Ivanhoe Presbyterian Church, respectively. Ivanhoe Presbyterian still uses its original, hand-made wooden pews from 1898 and still has its original pump organ—which still works.

So, after driving many miles up and down mountains on craggy dirt roads, I’d found Lost City. Which turned out to be located right on Route 259. If I had just stayed on 259 from Lost River, I would have been there in a few minutes, rather than after almost an hour of Garmin-induced rural exploration! But it was an adventure. And besides, it was a lot more fun to think that I’d found Lost City tucked away in the remote hills of West Virginia, accessible only by the most daring of adventurers.

Ironically, to get back onto my planned route, I had to (i) return to Lost River, (ii) re-take Mill Gap-Thorn Bottom Road, and therefore (iii) repeat the first half of my unnecessary, roundabout route to Lost City. Go figure. But there wasn’t any traffic, and the sights were inspiring … as the sun began to set; while I was in the Middle of West-by-God-Virginia Nowhere; with many miles to go before reaching home; and facing an unknown number of said miles on this sort of dirt road:

But the occasional views made it all worthwhile. Note the whitish rock outcropping in the middle distance. After another million years or so of erosion, we’ll have a whole new Seneca Rocks formation.

Further on, I discovered that a tree had fallen across the road, blocking any further progress. Fortunately, a young fellow and his girlfriend were there, cutting it up with a chainsaw. I helped them haul the remaining sections of the tree out of the road—and learned in the process that they were there to get firewood and had cut this tree down in the first place, only to have it fall across the road! (At least it didn’t fall on their truck or themselves.) (Or, heaven forbid, moi.) I continued on and realized from the GPS that this mountain road was crossing and recrossing the Virginia-West Virginia border multiple times.

Eventually, as the sun was about to disappear, I made it back to some semblance of civilization—in this case, the bridge over the North Fork of the Shenandoah River. It’s not often that you see water level gauges posted above the level of a bridge…

With the last of the light, it was time to put the top back up and head for home by the fastest route. But not before enjoying one more look at rural Virginia at its finest.

All told, getting there, touring, and getting back added up to about 400 miles and a 13-hour day. But for touring and history buffs like me, it was a wonderful journey, complete with a multitude of “secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware.”

Rick F.

PS: The damaged Fort Pleasant mansion, with its missing section and scaffolding, kept reminding me of something else. I finally figured it out: The unfinished “Death Star” from the original Star Wars movie…


Written by Rick

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