Monday, October 13, 2008

A Ghost Town Behind the Sands

The top of a church steeple and a tiny graveyard are all that remain of Wash Woods, a lost town south of Virginia Beach. In the center of the False Cape State Park, the site is just west of the sand dunes. It lies in a strange forest landscape of pine and sand on a narrow spit of land between the Atlantic and Back Bay. Visitors leave small piles of seashells at the graves instead of floral bouquets.

False Cape got its name because it sailors mistook it for Cape Henry at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. They would bring their ships into the shallow waters here and many would wreck. Some call these waters the Graveyard of the Atlantic, although there are other contenders for that name in places near Cape Cod and Nova Scotia.

According to news reports it was these shipwrecked sailors in the 17th or 18th century who established the town, which swelled with farmers, fishermen and hunters. By the end of the 19th century, the town had a population of about 300 people and included a schoolhouse, grocery store, two churches and a lifesaving station. A park official told the Virginian-Pilot that the name "Wash Woods" came from the fact that storms washed past the dunes and over the town, but also from the name of a ship that literally built the town.

From the Coastland Times:
About 1895, during a winter storm, the three-masted schooner, John S. Woods, was shipwrecked when it ran aground off the coast between False Cape and Wash Woods life saving stations. The crew stayed on board, taking refuge in the rigging for several days, until the waves subsided and the men from the life saving station could rescue them. All on board were saved but the sailing vessel was lost and the cargo of cypress lumber washed up on the beach.

Its cargo of cypress wood was used to build the Methodist church, including the remaining steeple.

The town reached its peak early in the 20th century, and it was known as a spot for hunt clubs and religious revivals. But the storm damage washed the town's topsoil into Back Bay, making it more and more difficult to eke out a living in that harsh place. By the 1930's it was abandoned.

My photo album contains almost 50 pics of the area, including the remains of the church steeple build with wood from the wreck. A list of the people buried in Wash Woods is available here. It's not an official news source, and I don't know if it's complete, but it seems to contain some good information.

The National Parks Service site on the Graveyard of the Atlantic is here. And an official state agency listing on the park at False Cape is here; it includes information on Wash Woods.

I will continue to investigate the history of the families who lived here, the story behind the shipwreck and construction of the church, and any other leads I can find about this fascinating place. Stay tuned.
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