UNION LEVEL — There is a certain beauty that washes over the stillness of an abandoned place. Situated at a humble corner in a rural community sits the ghost town of Union Level, Virginia. This is a place that holds true to its former existence as sun-bleached boards and the scattered remains of what it once was lay in a sort of frozen repose as nature attempts to reclaim what man built.
As photographers, we all have our muses. Mine just so happens to be abandoned and historic architecture and sites. It is a sadness caught in a wonderland of sorts that begs questions which hang from the broken front porches and rotted out window frames left forgotten.
On Monday, July 5, my husband and I decided to venture out into the wilderness to find Union Level. It is one that he and I have read about but have never seen. And this blistering 90 degree day just so happened to be the best one chosen for just such an adventure.
The road to Union Level is a somewhat long one. We went up towards Richmond, then southwest. It was a beautiful drive; a wonderful reminder of some of the natural beauty that exists in the Commonwealth.
After about two and a half hours in the car, we stumbled into a town called South Hill. It is a very modest town with a handful of businesses, generational homes, and a high school that looks smaller than the elementary school my children attended.
After turning down a couple of roads, we were driving through sprawling cornfields and large swaths of tobacco crops. At a small corner, the abandoned street that used to house the bustling town of Union Level popped up. We parked near a couple of dumpsters directly adjacent to the town and got out of our car, cameras in hand.
Union Level is billed as the most photographed ghost town in Virginia. While there are many of these places throughout the state, there aren’t many quite as well preserved as this.
In the early 19th century, Union Level was a place to see and be seen. The town was perfectly situated along the horse and carriage line for travel. Visitors would come into town needing a clean place to sleep, a warm meal and to purchase supplies. In the marriage of needs meets opportunity, businesses began to open throughout this not so sleepy town.
Union Level grew so much so that, in 1836, resident James Bridgeforth applied to become the town’s first postmaster; an application that would solidify Union Level’s official standing as an incorporated township.
A large challenge faced by those living in this small town near the North Carolina border was one of a geopolitical reality. The tobacco farms that helped fund Union Level had a reliance upon chattel slavery which inhumanely held Black Americans in bondage.
Following emancipation, farmers struggled to keep up with the demands of their fields. Tobacco investors made offers to the farmers to use their land, forcing these farmers to move elsewhere. Many moved just the short distance to South Hill.
While the town seemed to hit hard times, another boom would come in the form of steam. Namely, Southern Railroad. This new boom also meant the 1915 establishment of the Bank of Union Level, started by A.F. Drumwright, Ashby Thompson, and C.P. Jones, who worked as a seed dealer and was co-owner of one of the town’s general stores.
Historians have recorded that, by 1920, Union Level had four general stores, two barbers, a railroad depot, boarding house, pharmacy and even a motorcycle dealer.
Despite this rebirth, Union Level could not avoid the fate that was to come when the Great Depression hit in 1929. In sucession, the bank, general stores, and barber shops began to shutter.
This was a hit that Union Level would never recover from. With the population dwindling over the decades,, the train that once led to the town’s rebirth stopped coming there in the mid-1980s. In 1990, the post office founded by James Bridgeforth 154 years prior was closed and all mail was rerouted to South Hill.
Today, the remains of Union Level sit in a sort of tormented limbo. The laughter of the children who used to run through the streets of this town have been replaced by the familiar cadence of summer cicadas. The sight of neighbors catching up with one another at the general store and excited passengers boarding the train to ride to far off destinations have disappeared into the ghosts of Virginia’s past.
It is the silence here that caught me. The walls of the town’s buildings that held so many stories that could not be told. All of the lifetimes that once resided here, who made homes, raised their families, lived, breathed, and died here have almost been erased from what Union Level once was. Now, a lone shoe, a rusted oil can, a building with the roof collapsing are all being reclaimed by the natural life that grows here.
If you have about two and a half hours, I encourage you to travel to this far off, otherworldly place to pay respects to the lives that once were and the saddened state as to what was left behind.