Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 23 2016 12:30 PM

The Strange Tale of JFK's Goat-Out-The-Vote Campaign

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

As this turbulent election season marches on, it's easy to forget that, throughout the history of world politics, a small but steady role has been played by goats.

During June's European Union referendum, something called gifgoat.party convinced nearly 10,000 people to register to vote by showing them videos of frolicking kids. One of Donald Trump's personal tax-cutting strategies includes pasturing goats on two of his New Jersey golf courses, making them, legally, large (and strangely barren) farms. And then there's President George W. Bush's favorite emergency reading material, The Pet Goat. If three's a trend, we're already there.

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Less apparent is the potential originator of this campaign staple—none other than President John F. Kennedy, who, during his very first political race in 1946, walked a billy goat around Boston and stole the city's heart.

It's tough to imagine such a storied personage walking a goat. But before he was a Democratic wunderkind, JFK was just Jack Kennedy, a young man trying to figure out what to do with his life. Both of Kennedy's grandfathers had been politicians—his dad's dad, P.J. Kennedy, served many years as a Massachusetts congressman and senator, and his mom's dad, John "Honey Fitz" Fitzgerald, was a two-term mayor of Boston. His father, Joseph, was a successful businessman with a web of political ties. He had been grooming his oldest son, Joe, to take up the family game, while Jack traveled, tried his hand at journalism, and finished up an eventful stint in the Navy.

But in 1944, Joe was killed in action in World War II, blown up in an Air Force plane over the Blyth Estuary. Suddenly, the Kennedy political mantle was up for grabs. Joseph was determined to place it on Jack's shoulders. "He demanded it," Kennedy later told a reporter. "It was like being drafted."

And so in 1946, at age 29, Jack put away his pen and began his first political campaign. If this new career felt like a war, its front lines were Massachusetts's 11th Congressional District, a swath of Boston that encompassed much of West Roxbury and Charlestown, as well as pieces of Cambridge and Somerville. The district was having a special election to replace Congressman James Michael Curley, who had just been elected Mayor of Boston. The Democratic primary, scheduled for June 18th, was the real contest—the district was staunchly partisan, and whatever donkey made it to the general was a shoo-in for the Washington seat.

Kennedy's main opponents were formidable: John F. "Spring" Cotter, a Charlestown local, and Michael Neville, a city councilman from Cambridge. Both had experience, and strong community ties. Kennedy didn't. "He was virtually a stranger to Boston," writes historian J. Anthony Lukas in Common Ground. Worse, his chief assets—his name recognition and his dad's money—counted as demerits in the largely working-class areas where he was campaigning. "[Kennedy] is registered at the Hotel Bellevue in Boston, and I daresay he has never slept there," one opponent accused. A local newspaper renamed him "Jack 'Jawn' Kennedy," calling him "ever so British."

"His patrician gloss, the elegant ease acquired at Choate and Harvard and cultivated in London and Palm Beach, was not calculated to go down well in the waterfront saloons of Charlestown, the clammy tenements of the North End, or the bleak three-deckers of East Boston, Brighton, Somerville and Cambridge," writes Lukas. The political establishment ignored him, too. "He was rich, he was young," of his staffers, William J. "Billy" Sutton, later recalled. "They figured he wouldn't catch on."

But Jack was determined to try anyway. He set up a number of offices, hired enthusiastic young people to get the word out, and hit the streets. "It was pretty much a blitz campaign," Sutton said. "One day he made thirty-four speeches, including a trip to the Navy Yard and the Revere Sugary… for a fellow who was supposed to be injured during the war, he really wore me out." He'd talk to commuters on the street, mailmen in the post offices, firemen in the firehouses, and wait staff in the restaurants where he ate lunch. As Sutton summed up, "It was a meet-the-people program... anywhere people would gather, you'd see Mr. Kennedy."

One popular gathering place was the local Knights of Columbus chapter, the Bunker Hill Council. Smack in the middle of Charlestown, pretty much every Irish Catholic in town was either a Bunker Hill Knight or related to one (the organization was, and is, literally an old boy's club, inducting only men over 18). Kennedy's advisors counseled him to join up, and quick, and so Kennedy put himself forward for the annual induction ceremony.

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The Bunker Hill Monument, rising about Charlestown.

Library of Congress/LC-DIG-det-4a17971

The induction parade was, fittingly, on St. Patrick's Day. As Lukas tells it, the 50 or so candidates seeking inclusion were told to march a prescribed route to the Knight's Hall, each carrying a symbolic "relic," like a key or a cross. Kennedy, though, didn't get off so easy. "Jack was assigned a special burden," Lukas writes, "a live, frisky billy goat which the future President hauled on a leash past hundreds of amused spectators." While other relics symbolized certain of the group's core attributes—authority, mercy—the goat stood for something different: humility."

The candidate might think he was leading it," Lukas explains, "but as would eventually become clear, the goat was leading him."

The young candidate spent a couple of hours getting goat-yanked three miles around the streets of Charlestown. The only known photo from the event, above, shows him gamely holding the bearded animal by the tether, flanked by campaign staffer Sylvester Colbert and Grand Knight Warren McCully, and with a few new giggling fans in the background. That and a secret oath, and he was an official Knight of Columbus.

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The Bunker Hill Knights of Columbus visiting the White House in 1961.

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum/Public Domain

Maybe it was the goat, or maybe it was the hours spent hitting the pavement, or maybe it was the charisma and talent that would power him through increasingly high-stakes contests, but Kennedy won the primary by a landslide, doubling Neville's vote total and more than tripling Cotter's. "Almost overnight," writes Lukas, "Jack Kennedy had become an honorary Townie." He proceeded to beat his Republican opponent in the general election, and, eventually, everyone else he ever ran against, bringing him from Congress into the Senate and eventually into the Presidency.

Kennedy never forgot his goaty roots. In 1961, when he was snug in the White House, he invited the Knights of the Bunker Hill Council and their families to a lawn party, inviting them to parade around his new place, huge and elegant and distinctly livestock-free.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 22 2016 12:30 PM

The Spiral Tower of Krásno

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The Spirálovitá Rozhledna ("Spiral Lookout") in Krásno is one of the most unusual lookout towers in Czech Republic, a country with no shortage of lookout towers. Situated 777 meters above sea level, this twisty tower offers not just a beautiful view of the surrounding area but also some unique architecture.

During the economic crises between 1933 and 1935 the village of Krásno wanted to provide work to it's citizens and attract people to town by building an observation tower. Legends tell that the designers—local sculptor Willy Russ and the local architect Fritz Hoffmann—had been inspired by the story of the Tower of Babylon.

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A staircase with 120 steps leads up the tower, arranged spirally around the outside of the tower. The work was done by unemployed citizens of Krásno only. To save money the stone used for construction was collected in the near area.

Up until the end of WWI, Krásno was called "Schönfeld" and was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire. With the expulsion of German-speaking people from the Czech Republic after the war, the population diminished greatly and the view tower was not tended to. It slowly decayed, until 1997 when it was renovated and partly reconstructed.

During the renovations porcelain plaques were added on top of the tower, explaining what can be seen. The tower offers great views in far areas around the year. Many events are organized around the tower by the people of Krásno during the year, among them a traditional burning of an effigy of witches.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 20 2016 5:45 PM

The World’s Wonders, in a Convenient Hardcover Format

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Today, our first book, Atlas Obscura: An Explorer's Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders, is released into the world. Inside this 480-page tome you'll find 700 strange, wondrous, and awe-inspiring places to inspire your travels and imagination.

We spent five years planning, researching, and writing this book, and we can't wait for you to read it. It contains our most treasured wonders, from Galileo's middle finger to everyone's favorite giant flaming hole in the Turkmenistan desert. There are new maps and illustrations, gorgeous photos, and useful information on everything from preventing premature burial to not getting killed by one of Australia's many deadly animals.

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Here are a few more views on the book from people who are not us:

I thought I had seen most of the interesting bits of the world. Atlas Obscura showed me that I was wrong. It's the kind of book that makes you want to pack in your workaday life and head out to places you'd never have dreamed of going, to see things you could not even have imagined. A joy to read and to reread.”
—NEIL GAIMAN, author of Sandman and American Gods
Atlas Obscura is a joyful antidote to the creeping suspicion that travel these days is little more than a homogenized corporate shopping opportunity. Here are hundreds of surprising, perplexing, mind-blowing, inspiring reasons to travel a day longer and farther off the path. ... Bestest travel guide ever.
—MARY ROACH, author of Stiff and Gulp
My favorite travel guide! Never start a trip without knowing where a haunted hotel or a mouth of hell is!”
—GUILLERMO DEL TORO, filmmaker, Pan’s Labyrinth

We hope you'll pick up a copy at your local bookstore or online. We'd adore it if you came to party with us on our 12-city book tour. And most of all, we love that you're a part of Atlas Obscura. Thank you for coming on this adventure with us. Let's keep exploring.

Sept. 20 2016 5:30 PM

The Magic Owl of Dijon

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

There is a small stone owl carved into a corner of the oldest church in Dijon, France. His face has seen better days, and he’s less than a foot tall, but for over three centuries he’s had a big job: granting wishes to all who reach up and stroke his little face.

This is the Owl of Notre Dame de Dijon, the city’s symbol and unofficial talisman. The carving sits about 6 feet off the ground on an otherwise unremarkable corner of the church, and as the tradition goes, if you touch him with your left hand and make a wish, your wish will come true.

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The original Gothic structure of Notre Dame dates to the 13th century, but the owl isn’t nearly so old. He was added—no one knows why or by whom—during construction of a more modern chapel (and by European church standards, modern means early 16th century) on the north wall. Here the narrow pedestrian street is called Rue de la Chouette, "Owl Street."

Dijon is no out-of-the-way place, and the church is dead center, so you can imagine how many left hands have touched the carving over the course of more than three hundred years. His face, probably once well-defined, now looks more like a melted wax candle of an owl.

The pint-sized bird has come to symbolize Dijon, capital of the region of Burgundy (as in wine country—it’s not all mustard here). Owls represent everything from the local football team to official tourism destinations, marked with brass plaques of cartoon owls that form a trail of sites around the city.

The history of the owl as a symbol of wisdom goes back to Athena, the ancient Greek goddess of wisdom who was represented as one in her animal form. Right up through the old Tootsie Pop commercials, the bird has been associated with stolid and steady smarts. In Dijon, they’ve added a touch of magic.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 19 2016 5:15 PM

The U.S.-Canada Border Slash

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

The U.S.-Canada border is the longest in the world. Stretching 5,525 miles from Maine to Alaska, traversing land, sea, and untouched wilderness, this colossal border is one you’d assume would be left untouched by mankind, merely an invisible line on a map. You’d be wrong.

Every year, the average American taxpayer pays half of a cent to the International Boundary Commission, or IBC, for the sole purpose of deforesting every inch of the U.S.-Canada border. With an annual budget of $1,400,000, the IBC ensures that the boundary will never be just an imaginary line.

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Known as “the Slash,” this treeless zone is 20 feet wide and covers everything from narrow isolated islands to steep hillsides. Spanning national forests and towering mountains, the vast majority of The Slash is so remote that it will never receive any visitors (aside from a handful of bears), yet it is still painstakingly maintained every six years with countless hours of exhausting manual labor.

The Slash was initially deforested for the sole purpose of, according to the IBC, making sure that the “average person ... knows they are on the border.” It all started in the 1800s, when the U.S.-Canada border line was set at the 49th parallel. The Slash was cut and over 8,000 original border markers were laid down, all of which are still standing along the Slash to this day. Unfortunately, there was no GPS at the time, so the border markers were inadvertently placed in a zig-zaggy fashion, straying north or south of the official 49th parallel border by an average of 295 feet. The lack of sufficient cartography also led to irregular border cutoffs such as Point Roberts and the Northwest Angle.

Despite its errors, witnessing the Slash is still on the bucket list of hundreds of geography nerds worldwide. Seeing the Slash can be as simple as going to Google Maps, zooming toward the U.S.-Canada border, and switching to satellite view. Those looking for a more up close view can travel to Newport, Vermont, and hop aboard North Star Cruises, which will take you right alongside the Slash.

Place contributed by lewblank

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 16 2016 5:00 PM

New York’s Bensonhurst Statue House

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

And you thought gnomes were bad. It's hard to miss what has come to be known simply as the Bensonhurst Statue House on 85th Street in Brooklyn, since dozens of superheroes, vampires, wizards, and more are standing sentinel in the middle of an otherwise unremarkable neighborhood.

While it might seem like a lawn art oddity to many, former marine Steve Campanella simply calls it "home." And he has made damn well sure that people know that it is his home by outfitting the public-facing facade with dozens of pop culture statues. As of 2008, there were at least 32 of the life-size figures propped up against the walls of the home and garage, and despite each one costing hundreds of dollars, the collection has likely continued to grow.

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Almost all of the figures in the collection are of pop culture characters. The Blues Brothers can be seen sitting on a bench by the garage, while Superman bursts out of the wall above the front door. Another Superman figure, Clark Kent in midtransformation, stands in a reclaimed phone booth nearby. Dracula and Frankenstein stand next to an indian and a pirate above the garage door.* Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Betty Boop look on. The figures go on and on. In any of the spots that aren't inhabited by a fiberglass figure, vintage signs have been posted up ranging from road signs to instructions for good Brooklyn etiquette.

Campanella is an inveterate collector, and his garage is also full of artifacts and finds that he has been known to show off to curious visitors. Since this is a private residence, privacy should be respected, but feel free to drop by and take a look at one of the last lingering examples of old New York idiosyncrasy.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

*Correction, Sept. 19, 2016: This post originally misspelled the name Frankenstein.

Sept. 15 2016 4:15 PM

A Homemade Speedboat Has Held the Deadly Water Speed Record Since 1978

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on ;Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Boating can be dangerous. Trying to be the fastest boat ever recorded is insanely dangerous.

Getting boats up to speeds in excess of 200 miles per hour using rockets and aerodynamics is about as hazardous as it sounds, but the story of the craft that broke the record back in 1978, and which still holds the world record today, is truly remarkable.

Ultra-fast boats pose a number of dangers to the pilots, ranging from hydroplaning out of control, to colliding with a small swell that can send the boat flipping end over end, to a malfunction of whatever powerful engine of choice is riding inches from the pilot’s head. Since 1940, there has been about an 85 percent mortality rate among water speed competitors, making it not only one of the most fatal world record categories out there but setting the bar for beating it unusually high.

When you think of the kind of sleek, perfectly balanced craft one might attempt to break such a record in, the last thing you would imagine is that it would be built by an amatuer in the backyard of his home, using parts salvaged from random resellers. But that is exactly how Australian dreamer Ken Warby built the amazing speedboat that set the world water speed record.

Sept. 14 2016 5:00 PM

Chile’s Montaña Mágica Lodge Looks Like a Hobbit Mansion

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Nestled in the thick jungles of Chile's Huilo Natural Reserve (home to the Huilo-Huilo Falls, Pudu, the world's smallest deer species, and the longest zip line system in South America), the Montaña Mágica Lodge is a fantastical waterfall/hotel/volcano that looks like it was built by ambitious hobbits.

The otherworldly hotel looks as though it was dug into a natural stone spire, but the Montaña Mágica Lodge was in fact man-made. Using locally sourced lumber and stone, the creators of the lodging built up a tall cone. Water pours from the top down the sides in between the guest windows, running under rich layers of jungle foliage growing on the exterior. Adding to the magic of the site is the rope bridge that leads to the entrance near the top of the volcano-like structure.

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Inside, each of the cozy suites is named after a local species of bird, and all feature a selection of modern amenities that rival even fancier hotels in less remote parts of the country. And if the strangeness and beauty of the hotel itself fails to impress, it offers a number of other attractions. Among the offerings are hot tubs "made out of huge trunks of trees, dug out, and then filled with hot water perched on a deck overlooking the forest." There is also a mini golf course built into the forest itself, using the natural world as the obstacles, and there are various outdoor activities such as horseback riding, rafting, and hiking.

Of course, getting to such a magical place takes a bit of doing. The ride to Montaña Mágica Lodge is at least two hours from the nearest airfield. It is a small price to pay to experience a location that looks like it belongs in Middle Earth.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 13 2016 4:45 PM

The Deceptively Deadly Depths of Bolton Strid

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Part of the raging River Wharf, the Bolton Strid is a picturesque stretch of river that looks like the type of place one might find fairies frolicking in the heath. But just beneath the surface is a natural booby trap that has claimed a number of lives.

Around the area of the Strid, the River Wharf runs between two banks of mossy boulders, looking more like a stream or a creek than a rushing river, but travel just upstream of the spot, and you will see that the waterway expands into a proper river, some 30-feet across with frothing currents and waves. The reason the Strid is so thin is not because they’ve ended up running off course of the river, but because the waters simply change orientation. Instead of flowing in a wide horizontal course, the waters begin to flow vertically in the tight shaft created by the natural rock.

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This change in orientation has created a deceptively deep and powerful current, even carving out some area beneath the shore rocks to create a void where debris (and people) in the water can be trapped. Indeed, while there do not seem to be any hard numbers about exactly how many people have perished in the Strid, the local legend is that no one who has dared enter the waters has ever made it out alive. The caves and naturally carved traps laying just under the surface of the photo-ready river have been claiming lives for centuries.

Nonetheless, the hiking trail that takes people near the Strid is still a popular place to stroll. Today there are signs up all around warning of the river’s hidden dangers. Even with these in place, it seems unlikely that the bloodlust of the Bolton Strid has been sated.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

Sept. 12 2016 5:45 PM

Pena National Palace’s Jumbled Architecture

Atlas Obscura on Slate is a blog about the world’s hidden wonders. Like us on Facebook and Tumblr, or follow us on Twitter.

Perched high atop a lush hill in São Pedro de Penaferrim, Portugal, the Pena National Palace is a popular national landmark that looks as though it was created by mashing up towers, facades, and architectural flourishes from a bunch of different castles.

Built in the 19th century by King Ferdinand II, the palace was meant to be a summer home for the Portuguese royals. Ferdinand's opulent tastes were imposed on the builders and designers, creating a schizophrenic manse that, at least from the outside, seemed to indulge any and all of the king's passing tastes. One portion would resemble a medieval European castle complete with ornate parapets, then the portion directly next to it would be modeled after an Islamic tower dome. Each section of the facade was also presented in a different color; a long purple wing is flanked by a red clock tower, and a yellow minaret and so on. It is said that Ferdinand wanted the palace to look like an opera. It is now seen as one of the grandest examples of Romantic architecture.

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The interior of the palace was no less opulent or eclectic. Many of the rooms were designed to reflect a certain cultural influence ranging from Middle Eastern to baroque European.

When the royal family fled Portugal during the Revolution of 1910, the palace and its grounds were abandoned and fell into disrepair. However the site was restored later in the 20th century and is now classified as a UNESCO heritage site. The palace can now be visited by any peasant willing to make the trek, and it is well worth it since visitors essentially get to experience a whole world of architecture in one stop.

If you liked this, you’ll probably enjoy Atlas Obscura’s new book, which collects more than 700 of the world’s strangest and most amazing places: Atlas Obscura: An Explorer’s Guide to the World’s Hidden Wonders.

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