Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

July 1 2015 4:55 PM

Russia's Afterthought Laika Monument

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 Russian mutt known as Laika was the first animal to orbit the Earth, doing so aboard Sputnik 2 in 1957. More than 50 years after this feat, a monument to the brave dog was finally installed near a Moscow military facility in 2008.

Laika lived a rags-to-riches story. She began life as a homeless mongrel wandering the streets of Moscow before she was selected by the Russian space program to become the first animal to orbit the planet. Laika was chosen less for her intelligence than for her literal puppy dog eyes that the rocket scientists in Russia knew people the world over could identify with. They were not wrong, and Laika quickly gained international attention. Unfortunately this meteoric rise (pun intended) was only headed towards tragedy. 

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The adorable little dog was trained up and fitted with a space suit before being launched into space on November 3, 1957. The craft carrying Laika, Sputnik 2, made over 2,000 revolutions of the Earth before disintegrating on reentry. According to the Russian government, Laika had perished in space either due to oxygen deprivation or a planned euthanization. It was not until 2002 that they revealed Laika had in actuality died within hours of launch from overheating. Nonetheless, in death she had become a hero.

Strangely, the famous mongrel did not receive her own monument in the Russian capital until 2008. The (surprisingly small) monument that now stands near a military research station is shaped like an abstract rocket that morphs into a hand, cradling Laika towards the stars. If only her actual fate had been so peaceful.

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June 30 2015 9:30 AM

Whale Bone Alley Is Pretty Much What It Sounds Like

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

Jutting out of the northern tip of Siberia’s remote Yttygran Island, giant whale ribs and vertebrae mark the area known as Whale Bone Alley, where the great sea beasts were once slaughtered and their meat stored by the local tribes.

Consisting of hundreds of whale bones, mainly jawbones, ribs, and vertebrae, Whale Bone Alley is thought to have been created about 600 years ago by a cooperative group of native tribes. Many of the bones were placed in long rows along the shore, giving the site its evocative name. In addition to the massive bones that were planted into the ground, a number of pits used for storing meat were found with fossilized whale bits still in them. The overall effect is of a haunting titans’ boneyard.  

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Researchers and archaeologists believe that the site was established as a place of mutual worship and ritual for the united tribes. There seems to be the remains of a sacred site near the bottom of the “alley,” and the meat pits were believed to store food for the gathered tribesmen. However, this high-minded history of the site may simply be a case of seeing smoke without fire. The locals in the area, many of whom are descended from the civilizations which created the site, believe that Whale Bone Alley was nothing more than a gathering place where hunters could come together and butcher their catch as a group.

Whichever reading of the area’s history is correct, one thing is currently true of the site: Tourists love it. The stunning bone formations have been luring more and more tourists from all over the world each year.

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June 29 2015 10:00 AM

The Spirit-Friendly Curves of the George Stickney 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.

While Illinois' George Stickney House is now a local government headquarters and police station, it was originally built with no sharp corners, thanks to the owners' belief that it would help spirits flow through the home without getting snagged.

The house was built in 1836 by George Stickney and his wife, Sylvia, both of whom were staunch believers in spiritualism, which roughly meant that they thought spirits not only could, but wanted to speak with and through them. As this belief was respected about as much as it would be today, the Stickneys built their dream home in the Illinois wilderness, far from prying eyes. They built the mansion two stories tall with the living and domestic quarters on the first floor and a grand ballroom taking up the entirety of the second. In the building of the structure, they made sure that there would be no sharp corners, and with every angle rounded. This was supposedly done in an effort to allow the spirits to travel unhindered through the house, as corners have often been thought to hide ghosts (or in more Christian examples, the devil).

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The couple held lavish seances in the large second-floor ballroom, inviting guests from all over to come and commune with the dead. Their fixation on talking with spirits was said to stem from the tragic fate of their children; only three of the 10 they had survived to adulthood. It's possible that they desperately wanted to reconnect with those who had died.

Since the Stickneys vacated the house, a number of supernatural tales have sprung up around the mansion, the most prevalent of which involving the death of George himself. Legend has it that George Stickney was found slumped in a corner of his home that had accidentally been built at a 90-degree angle, a look of horror cemented on his face. Since then, a number of other ghostly miscellany has also been reported by other tenants, including the current police officers.

Today the building houses the Bull Valley government and police force and the only remnants of the rounded architecture are on the outside of the building, where the corners are still gentle slopes, as are the window arches. Assumedly spirits can now get in, they just can't get out.

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June 25 2015 10:30 AM

The Skeleton of the West Pier

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 West Pier in Brighton, England, was the second of three major piers that have jutted out to sea from the city's shoreline. Much like its predecessor, the Chain Pier, it was destroyed through years of neglect, storms, and fire. However, unlike the first pier, the skeleton of the West Pier can still be seen just offshore.

Built in 1866 as an amusement attraction—as opposed to a shipping or passenger landing—the West Pier seemed at the time like the perfect way to add the glamour and fun the Chain Pier had lacked. The West Pier was more than 1,000 feet long and built with a series of small shacks and wind-blocks for visitors gazing out to sea.

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As the years went by, the pier continued to grow, adding a large concert hall at its far end as well as some entertainment buildings along its length. During the early 20th century, the pier had grown into a seaside resort attraction where one could imagine a Gatsby strolling with his Daisy. 

The West Pier had fallen into disrepair by the 1970s, and the mounting maintenance costs made it a wholly unattractive candidate for renovation. In 1975 the pier was closed. The structure changed hands among a number of owners, each making sure that it wasn't demolished, but not improving it either. Tours of the empty structure were held despite mounting damage from storms, until wind tore the end of the pier from the mainland in 2002. The next year the water-locked concert hall caught fire, gutting the entire structure right down to its metal bones.

Since then, the eerie skeleton of the pier's glory days has sat rotting just offshore. In 2014 another storm tore away a part of the remains, endangering the remaining structure even more. But for the time being, the Victorian steel bones of a once glorious attraction will not let themselves be forgotten. 

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June 23 2015 11:46 AM

Unicorn Horns and the Throne of Denmark

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

With its exposed “unicorn” horn and life-size silver lions, the Throne of Denmark is a serious contender for the title of most ostentatious throne. 

Constructed in the late 1600s—long after unicorns supposedly missed the Ark—the physical seat of Denmark’s power is a grand throne straight out of a fantasy novel. The regal white throne was originally built as a large wooden chair with arches and an intricate canopy. Extravagant flourishes came in the form of spiraling legs and spokes, which were fabled to be made of actual unicorn horn.

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In reality, no mythical beasts were harmed in the making of the furniture. The horns were narwhal tusks, passed off as the product of a magical horse. Gilded figures who perch on the arm and backrest of the throne were eventually put in place, adding an extra level of luxury to the seat, but much of its notoriety still stems from the seemingly magical building material.  

The throne was inspired by the biblical Throne of Solomon, which was fabled to be guarded by 12 lions, and to reflect that aspect, the throne is always accompanied by three massive silver lions. The life-size sculptures are arrayed around the throne in resting positions and feature solid gold eyes, manes, and rumps. 

The Throne of Denmark was mainly used for coronation ceremonies before they were largely omitted from the country's royal practices. Now the magical seat is simply a wondrous decoration piece in the Castle of Rosenborg, even though it still acts as the representative seat of the monarchy.

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June 22 2015 11:30 AM

Minneapolis’ Marvelous Manhole Covers

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

Most visitors to new cities don't come home raving about the location's manhole covers, but the city of Minneapolis has made its underfoot sewer covers a point of artistic pride, with designs that celebrate the area's art, history, and wildlife.

In the early 1980s, Minneapolis began asking artists to design iconic manhole covers for the city. They picked 11 artists to create illustrations for the ubiquitous urban sight, and each of the chosen creators provided a different take. From David Atkinson's whimsical summer grill design to Stuart D. Kippler's introspective geography marker, each of the covers turned what was once a mundane city feature into a unique piece of art.

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In 1990 the city renovated the popular Nicollet Mall and tapped artist Kate Burke to create designs for manhole covers that would be spread across a 13-block area of downtown Minneapolis. She took inspiration from the state's many official accoutrements, and across 11 designs, Burke created sculpted images of regional icons like the Minnesota state fish (the walleye), the state fruit (Halverson apple), and the state bird (loon). The detailed pieces of steel each feature tableaus of their subject that make most municipal equipment look lazy by comparison. Some of the covers even feature small hidden details such as a worm in the state apple, or a pheasant erupting from the bronzed image of the state grain (wild rice).        

Locals and tourists alike have a tendency to literally pass over the unique manhole covers these days, but for those willing to hunt them down, they can act as a one-of-a-kind connect-the-dots of urban art.

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June 19 2015 6:33 PM

Manhattan’s Century-Old Sidewalk Clock

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

At the dawning of the 20th century, it didn't take as much effort to garner the attention of the buying public as it does today, but the core principle remains the same: novelty. The titular owner of William Barthman Jeweler had a clear grasp of this concept when he and an associate installed a working clock into the sidewalk outside their store.

Barthman, along with one of his employee, Frank Homm, created the timepiece in 1896, but not as it exists today. The original clock was a mechanical jump hour clock with the numbered tablets that would flip over on the hour. It also had a little light bulb that would illuminate the clock at night. In the beginning, as passersby trampled across the clock face, it was met with surprise and delight by turn-of-the-century shoppers. Unfortunately the fatal flaw of the original contraption was that it was custom designed by Barthman and Homm, and they were the only ones who knew how to fix it. Thus when the clock began to malfunction in later years, the attraction became an embarrassment, and the operators of Barthman's store would cover it with cardboard each day to hide their shame.

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Unable to make the clock work without Homm's special touch (Homm passed away in 1917), the only solution they could come up with was to replace the clock entirely. The new clock was a more traditional analog dial, ringed with a classy brass compass rose. With the installation of the new clock, and the lucky popularity of a photographer's snapshot of the timpiece, the sidewalk novelty that had vexed them for years had once again become a popular feature for Barthman's. 

The sidewalk clock still sits outside of Barthman's on the corner of Broadway and Maiden Lane in lower Manhattan, just as it has for a century. It is estimated that over 50,000 people walk over the timepiece each day, not once stopping to ask the time.  

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June 18 2015 1:04 PM

The Devil’s Slide Bunker Teeters on the Edge

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

High atop California’s coastal peak known colorfully as Devil’s Slide are the crumbling remains of a squat cement building that looks as though it is about to tip off the edge of the summit and slide into the sea. 

The bunker on Devil’s Peak was built during World War II as a triangulation and observing station and was once part of a much bigger set of buildings and facilities. When in service, a watcher equipped with a set of binoculars would keep a lookout at sea. If he spotted any enemy ships, he radioed a massive, 6-inch gun, which would fire at the vessels to sink them before they got close to shore.

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With the advent of more modern missile defenses, the station became obsolete and the entire site was abandoned in 1949, leaving an empty bunker atop Devil’s Slide. The land was eventually purchased by a private owner, but the bunker remained on its lonely perch.

The earth at the top of the peak was removed for a construction project sometime before 1970, but the project was never completed. The bunker now looks as though it is teetering precariously on the summit. The private owner has fenced off the site.

Today the Devil’s Slide Bunker still sits on private property and is not open to the public, yet that has not stopped graffiti artists from covering most of its surfaces with tags. By the looks of the bunker’s base, it seems like it is only a matter of time before some unlucky artist actually ends up taking the Devil’s Slide right along with the bunker.

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June 17 2015 2:07 PM

The Church Beneath the Sands

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

Rising out of the sands in Skagen, Denmark, the remaining tower of a once prosperous chapel, now known simply as the Sand-Covered Church (or Buried Church, or Old Skagen Church) is a testament to the unstoppable power of nature.

Neither man nor God could save the church that was originally dedicated to St. Lawrence of Rome. First built in the 14th century, the brick chapel was the largest church in the region during its heyday. However, about 1600, increasing desertification began taking its toll on the building. Rising levels of sand began to bury the foundations faster than they could be dug out. Sand also found its way to the interior of the aging church through every crack and crevice. By the late 1700s, the door was almost completely covered and had to be dug out regularly just to hold services.

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Despite the increasing issues with the church as the sand claimed more and more of it, the owners of the church refused to let it be closed down. The tapestries and furniture were removed from the interior lest they be buried, but it was not until 1795 that the Sand-Covered Church was finally closed. Most of the church was demolished and quickly wiped from the landscape by the shifting dunes, but the tall main tower was left to jut from the sands. It is this brick monolith that remains to this day.

The Sand-Covered Church has been whitewashed over the years and ownership transferred to a historical society, but the tower remains otherwise unaltered. It can no longer be entered, but windows still peek out of the sand—a reminder of the building that lies beneath.

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June 16 2015 2:30 PM

The Ape Canyon Sasquatch Attack 

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

Ape Canyon is a narrowing gorge sitting just to the northeast of Washington’s Mount St. Helens, where one of the most famous Bigfoot attacks in the cryptozoological canon is said to have taken place in 1924, eventually giving the nature spot its name. 

According to a story that was widely run in Washington and Oregon newspapers at the time, it was on a summer night in July 1924 that a small cabin housing a group of miners came under attack by a gang of wild “apemen.” The five miners, all of whom survived the incident and seemed convinced of its facts, were asleep when the attack started.

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Seemingly out of nowhere, the cabin they had hand-built began being hit by huge stones that were being thrown by “mountain devils” on all sides. The men began to shoot at the monsters, and the attacks would cease, only to start back up again minutes later. At one point one of the supposed Sasquatches reached into the cabin through a hole in the construction and took hold of an ax but was stymied before he could pull it out of the building.

The siege continued until daybreak, when the men finally inched their way out of the cabin. One of the men, Fred Beck, saw one of the Bigfoot creatures standing in the distance at the edge of what is now Ape Canyon. Beck fired on the creature, supposedly watching it tumble into the gorge.

Beck would go on to write a book about their experience that night, speculating that the apemen were in fact extradimensional beings, but some more grounded theories have also been posited. The most popular explanation for the sensational story is that it was a gang of local youth that were bombarding the cabin with rocks as youths are wont to do. Thanks to the acoustics of the canyon, it is possible that their voices were made to seem beastly—or extradimensional, as it were.

The site of the cabin is no longer known, but Ape Canyon continues to be a popular hiking destination despite being significantly altered by the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980. It seems that neither hordes of otherworldly Bigfoots nor active volcanos can keep people away from this lovely spot.

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