in Hardy County, WV
by Gary Smucker
Driving into Lost City from the south, motorists can glimpse the charming small US Post Office building on the left and two beautiful white church buildings on the right. Almost no one slows down to the recommended 35 miles-per-hour on State Route 259, so vehicles and 18-wheelers roar through the village, so it is hard to view the charm of Lost City from the highway.
Ivanhoe Presbyterian Church, 2020. Photo by G Smucker
But, if you stop and stand on the front steps of the Valley Baptist Church and turn to look at the village and out over the countryside, the beauty of the place becomes apparent. Looking over Lost City today, it is not obvious that it was once a thriving industrial town.
Before it was settled by Europeans, the Lost River Valley was deeply wooded, both on the mountains and on the flat plain, right up to the banks of Lost River.
The Lost River. The Lost River headwaters are located south of Mathias near the West Virginia/Virgina border. The river was so named because it disappears under the mountains near McCauley and reappears as the Cacapon River near Wardensville.
Early Inhabitants. There is plenty of evidence that Native tribes passed through the area, but only hunting and fishing camps have been identified with no permanent towns.
The Lost River Valley was settled by white settlers following the Native trails from the Shenandoah Valley. In 1749 Lord Fairfax hired a young George Washington to survey the area, and today many farms still follow the boundaries established by Washington.
Initially, the rich bottom land was cleared and farms were established. Families settled in the coves and flat areas on mountaintops and built family farms. Businesses such as blacksmiths, saddleries, and wagon makers were built along the road that followed the river and supported the farmers’ work.
In 1768 a log church building was built next to Cove Run. It served as a school, a church for various groups, and a meeting hall. The church no longer stands, but a historical marker along SR 259 records its location.
Civil War Era. The Civil War had a big impact on the area. The Lost River Valley was too small to have major strategic importance, but both armies used the Lost River Valley for travel and plundered the farms for supplies. Hardy Country became part of the new state of West Virginia in 1863 although many people who lived there had sympathies with the South.
After the War. Farming thrived but much of commerce was on a barter system, trading farm products for goods and services.
In 1892, life in Lost City made a big change. A post office opened that year and Thomas Cover built a tannery southeast of the current village.
The Tannery. A tannery is a factory that changes animal hides into leather. In true global trading transactions, hides were shipped from Argentina and, with local hides, went into the tannery at Lost City.
US Post Office in 2007. Photo by G Smucker
Finished leather was shipped to New England and Europe. The industry thrived.
The company built 17 houses for workers families to live in and a boarding house for single workers. The identical houses that remain in a row are still visible in Lost City west and southwest of the Post Office.
Other houses were built in the area by people who worked for the tannery or had jobs related to the work of tanning hides. At one point 80 families depended on the tannery for their livelihood.
Ground tree bark, boiling water, caustic lime, and sulfuric acid were needed for tanning. The hides soaked in the tanning vats for six months.
Houses in Lost City, 2020 Photo by G Smucker
Then they were bleached and dried and packed for shipment. It was difficult and potentially dangerous work.
Raw hides, shipped from Argentina, arrived at the train depot in Broadway. Teamsters with teams of mules and wagons picked up the hides in the morning and headed toward Lost City. It was a two-and- a-half-day trip with overnight stops in homes that kept travelers.
Mule teams and Wagons traveling between Broadway and Lost City. One wagon has finished leather, the other has raw hides from Argentina. Date unknown. Photo: Lena Albrite Turner Collection by permission
The wagons arrived in Lost City and unloaded the raw hides. Then finished leather was loaded on the wagons and the mules, wagon, and driver headed back to the train station in Broadway.
A sideline for the teamsters was hauling freight on the wagons.
Ethel Strawderman Ritchie,
who was born in 1902, wrote down many fascinating stories of Lost City.
She reported that her father ordered a pump organ for the house and it arrived on the hide wagon.
The tannery whistle blew at the start of work, for lunch, and at six in the evening for quitting time. The people of Lost City were proud of the tannery. They felt they were part of a large enterprise that supplied leather for the world.
The village of Lost City grew with businesses to serve the tannery workers. Three stores, a barber shop, a hotel, even a movie house and Riley’s Dance Hall and Riley’s Funeral Parlor opened. A stage coach from Broadway to Winchester passed through the Lost River Valley and stopped in Lost City.
In the fall of 1927, the Lost City Tannery closed. The last day of operation the fireman who operated the boiler tied down the whistle so it blew on and on until it was a low moan as the steam diminished. It was a sad day for the people of Lost City because they depended on the tannery for their livelihood, for their social community, and even the churches were built with large donations from the tannery.
Buildings of the Lost City Tannery, Unknown date. Photo: Lena Albrite Turner Collection with permission.
But the question might arise: Why was a tanning factory built in Lost City—a place without a railroad and far from a port?
The answer is that Lost City met three important requirements for a tanning operation. A large steady supply of water, an enormous amount of wood for the furnaces, and the tannin from the bark of chestnut oaks were the resources needed for a tannery.
After the Close. Life has changed much since the tannery in Lost City closed. Most people returned to farming as a way of life. The Lost River ran pure again without the chemicals emptied from the tannery. The Great Depression hit the U.S. soon after the closing. Residents of the Lost River Valley were thankful to have their gardens and animals to see them through hard times.
World War II meant that many people left the Valley to work in the cities or join the military. After the war new highways and faster cars allowed people to travel to Moorefield or the Shenandoah Valley for work and shopping. Farming changed too with new and better farm machinery. The poultry industry brought prosperity and work to some farmers who raised chickens and turkeys.
The Present. Today Lost City families are connected to the world from home with fiber optic cable from HardyOneNet. Lost City is a nice place to visit today. Evidence of its history is still visible. On SR 259, the Lost City Post Office still stands. You can still see the row of houses that were built for the workers in the Lost City Tannery.
Visit the nearby Lost River Educational Foundation and Museum, which features artifacts that tell the story of the farming families of the Lost River Valley.
Stop by the Lost River Grill for a bite to eat.
Drive off SR 259 onto Lower Cove Run Road and you can see the pretty and well-maintained churches. You can also see the building that was Lost City School. Today it is The Lost River Clothing Center, which distributes clothing to families in need.
Further along Lower Cove Road you can see the narrow gap where the water for the tannery flowed and that opens to the Lower Cove.
While travelers may know Lost City as only a blip in the road from I-81 to Corridor H, it has a rich history and continues to be home to several farm families. It has also become a second home for city-dwellers and retirees who enjoy the quiet, wooded, peaceful Lost River Valley.
I am very grateful to the book Lost City—Its People and Their Heritage for most of the information in this article. I recommend it for a more complete view into the history and people of Lost City. Wendell E. Funkhouser and Nancy H. Powell collaborated to write and publish the book. They included a number of writers from earlier times especially Ethel Strawderman Richie (1902-1976) who wrote many amusing, touching, and captivating tales of life in Lost City in its heyday.
I am also thankful to Pat Turner Richie for sharing from her family’s collection of photos.
Map of Lost City at the time of the tannery. Credit: Lost City--Its People and their Heritage, Page 12.