Rotting Americana: A Town Quietly Dying – Lynchburg, Virginia

Since Gores Truly is femme-driven – we’re big advocates for chicks and horror and want to give our XX-chromosome readers a chance to contribute to the horror-fest we adore. The following article chronicling Nightshade Nash’s Darker Adventures has been Murder-Her approved.

1 Empty Building Dowtown Lynchburg

Abandoned downtown Lynchburg building

“A Town Quietly Dying”

2 Deserted Streets

Deserted Lynchburg streets

With a history that can trace itself back to the very origins of the country, I had high hopes for the small town of Lynchburg, Virginia. Its sloping hills and riverside landscape are home to Thomas Jefferson’s summer estate (Poplar Forest) and one of the largest concentrations of historic Victorian homes I’ve seen in a very long time. Everything about this town is antique and I was looking forward to exploring its local legends and hidden past. What I found was a fascinating history lesson comingled with stark disappointment.

Upon first impression, the historic downtown sector of Lynchburg seems to be decaying from the inside. This, like so many others in small town America, is a dying city that looks more like the set of the next apocalyptic zombie movie than a functioning city.

4 Monument Terrace

Monument Terrace

This unique stairway is known as Monument Terrace and, if you ever find yourself in this small city, I highly recommend you take the time to walk up its steps. There are ten terraces  and each one is a war memorial. The very bottom begins with World War One and continues up, each landing representing a war in sequential order.

Each tier has etched in stone the names of the local men who gave their lives in each of the conflicts. I stopped at each tier to read every single name, to run my hands along the stones that they were etched upon, and to reflect on the sacrifice they and their families made. In my studies of the darker side of humanity and into the unexplained, between all of the infamous and the twisted, it is easy to become jaded. As my fingers touched the quiet beauty of the carved stone memorializing the names of Lynchburg’s honored dead, I am reminded that in every generation there have been those who hold their torches high and answer the call to sacrifice themselves for a greater purpose. Each of them had a story and all that remains now is just a name carved into stone. They did great and terrible things that we as a modern society sometimes have difficulty connecting with. The poignancy that they are immortalized in the terraced staircase of a crumbling city, their monument kept pristine amongst the decay, is in its own way quite poetic.

Most trade has crept outward and into the suburbs where the usual assortment of chains and big box stores are found. There are sporadic signs of life close to the river in the form of kitschy restaurants and a small smattering of antique shops that specialize in colonial and local area antiques.

Overall though, this town is quite literally falling apart. The hollowed out shells of industry with their boarded up windows and vacant street level shops whisper of a once booming city that was rich with trade and ferry services for the local plantations. Thomas Jefferson himself used to have his tobacco and goods ferried through here on their way to market. Once a bustling trade center and shipping throughway for the bateau barges, the river has long since gone quiet. Where you would expect the standard bustle of business and traffic to be taking place on its streets, there’s an eerie silence. What stands in place is a largely abandoned and desolate grid of decaying brick buildings tiered into the side of the hill, slowly crumbling back to the ground which they were built upon.

At the top of the hill, sitting upon its throne of cement, is the old courthouse.   A rather small building next to an old stone church, it held neither the hint of dark secrets nor the hope of some wicked scandal. Many criminals saw the inside of its walls, so I entered with hopes that something – or someone – might speak to me.In my quests to give voice to the echoes of the past, I often speak to people. I’ve learned to ask them about local scandals from decades past and local legends in their small corner of the world. Nearly every time, locals are practically bursting at the seams to tell me stories. Especially when they learn that I’m a writer with a specialty in the macabre, horrific, and bizarre.

7 Lynchburg Museum

Lynchburg Museum

But here in Lynchburg they are strangely silent. A docent lowers her voice and tells me that they sometimes see dark shadows on the video screens when no one is there. And that sometimes people feel as though they are being watched. Well, I’ve heard that before. The museum is full of Native American, Civil War era, and both World War artifacts, so in many ways, it’s not terribly surprising that the residents sense presences. Yet there aren’t any clues as to who or what they may be. And then just a comment that a lot of criminals have been through the building. That the museum director doesn’t like them to talk about it. No local legends? No rumors of mysterious figures that wander the banks of the river looking for their lost love? What the hell, Lynchburg? Was I still in Virginia? This is a state that boasts of some of the most historical sites in the country. AND NOTHING? Well, almost nothing.  There is a very, very old cemetery, several historic homes, and a man named Ed Tinsley.

Ed Tinsley witnessed one of the worst natural disasters Virginia has ever seen. When hurricane Camille blasted into Virginia in 1969, it left in its wake destruction on a scale that had never been seen before. At the time, Mr. Tinsley was a Virginia State Trooper. To this day, he remains the longest serving state trooper in the department’s history. In 1969, he was a young man. He recorded all that he did and saw in the days following one of the worst natural disasters in Virginia’s history. As I spoke to the docent about dark hidden histories and the forgotten dead, I saw his face light up just as my frustration began to manifest.

“You write about the darker side of history?” he asked. His face was beaming like an 8-year old on Christmas morning.

“I do, sir.”

His words came fast as his excitement of sharing his story bubbled within him.

“Did you know that in 1969, 150 people across Virginia died in the storm and ensuing mudslides and aftermath of Hurricane Camille? I documented it. Every patrol I took, every person that we recovered. I was there. I recorded my thoughts on tape and then transcribed them into a diary. I have it, if you’d like to see it.”

When the tour of the museum was complete, I sat down with this old Marine and State Trooper. He handed me a CD with the audio of the original tape recordings and a typewritten, copied many times, transcript of everything he saw and did during the hurricane.

8 Point of Honor

Point of Honor

His story was impressive. Tinsley spent a total of 27 days assessing damage and searching for survivors. In the end, 125 people in his area of operation were officially lost or found dead. It remains the worst flooding in Virginia’s recorded history. No doubt their restless spirits roam the area, and their memory kept alive by a volunteer docent at the Lynchburg Museum.

Following the Lynchburg museum visit, we took the tour of Honor’s Point, a Victorian home built in the early 1800s by the Cabell family. A beautiful restored home, but again, no one eager to discuss anything close to any kind of paranormal experiences or wicked scandals. The most notable thing on the historic Daniels Hill was the fact that, while Honor’s point has been beautifully restored, the surrounding homes are slowly crumbling back to the earth.

My last hope was the cemetery. As it was a Sunday, I had only the pamphlets at the gate and my own musings to accompany me on the tour though this dormitory of the dead. At last, here were some true gems. Built in 1806, The Old City Cemetery boasts final resting places of an estimated 90% of Lynchburg’s free and enslaved African-American population. There are over 2,200 confederate soldiers from 14 different states dead buried in their own section . Row after row of men who died for their cause. At one time, there were Union soldiers buried there, but they later exhumed all the Federals’ remains and relocated them so as not to have them be buried side by side with Virginia’s Confederate dead.

There’s a row of tiny gravestones belonging to children, all from the same family, all dead before even reaching one year of age or at birth. Life was hard then and death was no stranger. Lynchburg’s first hospital, the Pest House, is located here, along with several funereal museums that were regrettably closed during my visit.

9 Graves of children

Graves of children

11 Cemetery

Lynchburg Cemetery

11 Weeping Angel

Weeping Angel

Additionally, there’s a tale of buried treasure. Legend says that a man named Thomas Jefferson Beale buried a treasure worth over $63 million (in present day terms) somewhere in Virginia. He gave a box containing three cipher texts detailing the location and contents of the treasure to an innkeeper before disappearing. The innkeeper gave the ciphers to a friend before his death and that friend in turn spent the next twenty years trying to decode it. For a time in the mid-1900s, the treasure was thought to be buried in the old town cemetery in non-other than Lynchburg, Virginia. A small plaque in the cemetery marks the treasure craze era when an official dig was sanctioned in the old cemetery after convincing evidence from a partially decoded cipher and metal detector readings indicated that it was possible the treasure was buried close by. Excitement quickly escalated into a frenzy as the city was to receive half of any treasure found. However, disappointment followed when all that was found were some rusty coat hangers and old horseshoes.

10 Old family Plot

Family plot in Lynchburg Cemetery

A truly beautiful park-like setting, this cemetery offers family plots outlined with wrought iron fences and gates long since rusted off their hinges. As I ran my fingers along the engraving of the stones in the oldest part of the cemetery, I noted most of them had etched words which were unreadable; names and lives weathered away by time. Then I saw it, tucked away in the corner by the exit – an anonymous grave of a man, dying of consumption, who went to the Mayor’s court to request train fare to Norfolk. When he was told private charity was his only option, he left the court and walked immediately across the street to throw himself into the James River, his name forever lost to the pages of history. His is only one numerous unnamed or unmarked graves in this cemetery. Souls lost to the sands of time and buried beneath waves of flowing grass.

Overall, the cemetery is a beautiful and peaceful place. A dark shining gem in a crumbling city. A quiet testimony to the lives long gone and lost, woven throughout beautiful carved marble and granite that’s slowly weathering back into the earth. I learned more from the pamphlets available at the entrance than I did from the docents at the museum. In the fall, the offer candlelit tours to visitors. Perhaps fall is the time of year when locals open up and tell the stories they are so closed mouthed about the rest of the year.

There really no reason to take a detour for a visit. Though, if you find yourself in the Lynchburg area, you could go visit Poplar Forest. And if you decide to stop and linger, take a walk up Monument Terrace and seek out Ed Tinsley. Spend some time amongst the dead in the old cemetery. Visit Point of Honor and the Ann Spencer house to see her well-kept gardens where she wrote some of her best Harlem Renaissance poetry. Pause for a moment to take in the final breaths of this small dying city and marvel at how it will slowly rot away without so much as a whisper of protest.


NightshadeNash

About the Author: A multi-medium artist, Nash is as at home with her glue gun and sewing machines as she is communing with the dead. As an avid wanderer, she enjoys seeking out the lost and forgotten in the dark corners of the world in her travels. In her off time she can be found honing her riding and shooting skills because when the zombies come? She’s going to be ready. With a shotgun and a horse.


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