Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Feb. 12 2016 12:30 PM

A Museum That Remembers Ships Lost in the Great Lakes

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In 1975 there was an enormous storm in Lake Superior, making waves that were reported to be as high as 35 feet. The violent storm claimed the lake’s largest shipping vessel at the time, the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. The sinking of the ship was made famous a year later in a ballad by Gordon Lightfoot (and still, all these years later, kept alive by classic rock radio). Today the wreck, and many others, are remembered at the Shipwreck Museum on the grounds of the former Coast Guard station at Whitefish Point.

Here the tragedy of the Edmund Fitzgerald, which was lost with its captain and crew of 28 men, is memorialized. A combination of bad weather, bad luck, bad wave conditions, bad visibility, and bad radio communications all combined to take the big freighter down. And with less sophisticated weather modeling and no GPS or cellphones at the time, the ship and its crew were swallowed by the water minutes after their final radio communication. The reclaimed bell from the wreck, along with artifacts from other Great Lakes shipwrecks, are on display in the historic buildings.


Whitefish Point was the closest station to the Fitzgerald at the time it went down. Dating back to the mid-19th century, the lighthouse was operated as a Coast Guard facility until 1996. The whole site was then deeded over to the three entities that still jointly run it today—the Great Lakes Shipwreck Historical Society, the Michigan Audubon, and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. While all three share the running of the site, the historical society oversees the museum side, which encompasses the buildings as well as the reclaimed items and historical artifacts. There is also a busy bird observatory on-site, important in the tracking and counting of numerous hawks, owls, and waterbirds. If you play your cards right, between April and November you can even stay in the old Coast Guard barracks, which have been restored to accommodate a few overnight guests—just you and the birds.  

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor pshawraven.

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Feb. 11 2016 12:30 PM

This Artificial Ring Island Was Built to Hold Huge Amounts of Toxic Dirt

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Built into the middle of Ketelmeer Lake in the Netherlands is a ring-shaped island that was created from scratch to act as a dumping ground for huge amounts of toxic dirt. But hey, at least it looks pretty.

The problem started when Ketelmeer Lake became contaminated with toxic runoff that reached the waters from plants and factories upstream. The ecological damage went on for decades from the 1950s through to the 1980s. The solution for cleaning it up? Create a giant, natural garbage can that can be sorted through at leisure, thus retaining all the clean, good, natural elements, while extracting the contaminants.   


Otherwise known as the "Eye of IJssel," the artificial island began to take shape in 1996 and was finally finished three years later, just before the turn of the century. The new land mass consists of a ring of land that encloses a perfectly circular central basin, looking almost like a little lake within the lake. A small bay was built into a curve of the island to allow boats to dock and dump the contaminated silt into the huge cauldron. The interior of the island was designed to hold 20 million cubic meters of silt dredged up from Ketelmeer's depths, slowly removing the bad dirt, and only leaving healthy earth behind.

A processing facility was installed on the ring, which sucks in the polluted silt and cleans it, depositing it back into the environment. When the work is all completed, the IJsseloog will be converted to a public nature area. Not a bad life for an artificial dump island.  

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Feb. 10 2016 12:30 PM

The Y-Bridge of Zanesville, Ohio

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When crossing the Y-Bridge of Zanesville, Ohio, it's best to believe your GPS when it instructs you to take a left in the middle of a river.

Located at the confluence of the Licking and Muskingum Rivers, downtown Zanesville has long sought a solution to its watery woes.* Since 1814, engineers have determined that a unique, y-shaped bridge construction was the answer. So remarkable is the design that pioneering aviatrix Amelia Earhart even remarked that it made Zanesville ''the most recognizable city in the country." 


The bridge that stands today is the fifth to feature such a literally unparalleled design. In 1979, a team of consultants reported that the fourth y-bridge was too damaged to be saved, and "that it is deteriorating rapidly and becoming a serious hazard.” Stalwart as ever, Zanesville stuck to what it knew best, and built the fifth y-bridge up to spec, replete with an intersection in the middle of the water, where traffic from U.S. Route 40 (Main Street and West Main Street) meets Linden Avenue.  

Regardless of the construction, one delightful fact has remained true since the early 19th century: Zanesville's charmingly strange bridge stands among just a few bridges in the world that can be crossed without changing sides of the river.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor solarconstant.

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*Correction, Feb. 10, 2016: This post originally misspelled the name of the Muskingum River.

Feb. 9 2016 12:30 PM

The Exquisite 19th-Century Infographics That Explained the History of the Natural World 

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Today, in search of a way through a constantly expanding morass of information, people often turn to infographics—points of data, spatially arranged to help visualize the relationships between them. They're helpful and nice to look at. You probably have six in your inbox right now. 

But infographics, despite their current ubiquity, don't belong to the information age. The desire to present data in a way that emphasizes both its beauty and its interconnectedness goes far, far back—all the way to the beginning of the 19th century, when pioneering naturalist Alexander von Humboldt invented the "thematic map." 

Feb. 8 2016 12:30 PM

The Man Who Survived Doomsday

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In 2009, an Airbus A130 went down near the Comoros Islands between Africa and Madagascar. Over 150 people were killed in the crash. A 14-year-old girl, Bahia Bakari, clung to a piece of aircraft wreckage for over nine hours before being rescued. 

In 1942, Poon Lim was serving aboard a British merchant ship when it was struck by a German U-Boat's torpedo. Lim spent the next 133 days at sea surviving on fish, bird blood, and rainwater before being rescued by Brazilian fishermen. He still holds the record for time spent on a life raft. 


In 2006, an explosion blasted through the Sago Mine in West Virginia. Thirteen miners were trapped. They attempted to create a barricade to keep out the deadly methane gas that was leaking in. It took 41 hours for a rescue crew to get to them. Only Randal McCloy, Jr., a 27-year-old miner, was left alive. 

All of these are cases of disasters that left only one person alive. Called sole survivors, the term is most commonly associated with airplane crashes. While often touted as a kind of miracle, sole survivors are left with a very heavy burden. They often suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and intense guilt over why it was them that survived and not others.

However, no instance of sole survivorship comes close the scale of what happened to Ludger Sylbaris in 1902. One day, he was a drunk in a town of 30,000, and the next day, he was the only person left alive. As Barnum and Bailey would one day call him, he was "the man who survived doomsday."

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Feb. 5 2016 12:30 PM

U Bein Bridge in Myanmar

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Stretching across Taungthaman Lake in Myanmar, the U Bein Bridge might look like just another rickety wooden crossing (which it is), but this historic span is actually made of the remains of a royal palace.

Construction on the wooden bridge was completed in 1851 after three years. The bridge was built at a slight curve and is supported by over a thousand wooden pillars that were hammered into the bottom of the shallow lake. The planks of teak that make up the surface of the bridge were taken from the old royal palace of Inwa, a former Burmese capital, that had been razed a number of times. The resulting bridge might not look very royal, but its history certainly is.  


Reaching three-quarters of a mile in length, the ramshackle span is surprisingly long for a wooden bridge with no rails, but it cuts a striking figure. The bridge has become one of the region's most popular tourist attractions and most photographed features. It is especially striking in the evening when the colors of the sunset paint the scene in natural color. This of course means that the bridge becomes more crowded during those times. 

All the attention has taken its toll on the span. Some of the pillars have been replaced with concrete, and many of the original planks will need to be replaced or refurbished, lest they come off completely. Nonetheless, the bridge is still a beautiful and popular place to capture the beauty of Myanmar.  

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor leiris.

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Feb. 4 2016 12:30 PM

Australia’s Shell Beach

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Shell Beach is one of only two beaches in the world composed entirely of shells and was created by a unique combination of geography, climate, and marine vegetation.

Shell Beach sits on a narrow isthmus within Shark Bay, a peculiar inlet on the coast of Western Australia. Shark Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, thanks to the proliferation of unique marine life found in and near its waters, including dugongs (relatives of manatees), Indo-Pacific bottlenose dolphins (who use tools, specifically sponges, to protect their noses while they scour the seabed for food), various whales and whale sharks, and the largest seagrass bank in the world. That last one might seem underwhelming, but it contributed to the formation of Shell Beach.


Shell Beach wraps around the southern end of L'Haridon Bight, one of the more interior precincts of Shark Bay. As a bay in a climate with more evaporation than precipitation, located within a larger bay featuring a massive seagrass bank blocking tidal inflow, L'Haridon Bight boasts a salinity level twice that of the ocean. This is known as "hypersalinity," and it is favorable to the survival of some marine animals—like, say, cockles—and is unfavorable to others—such as, I don't know, animals that eat cockles.

Thus, L'Haridon Bight has been a veritable cockle paradise for thousands of years, allowing the little bivalves to propagate, flourish, die, and have their shells wash up on shore over and over and over and over again, enough times to create a dazzling snow white beach 110 kilometers (68 miles) long and 10 meters (33 feet) deep.

The volume of cockle shell matter produced here is so great that it becomes compressed into a special form of limestone called coquina, which was mined around Shell Beach for the construction of buildings in nearby Denham until the UNESCO protection began in 1991. Today, special licenses are still granted to mine the shells as a source of calcium for mulch and poultry feed. The hypersalinity of L'Haridon Bight keeps out predators of humans as well as cockles, making Shell Beach a popular place to go for a swim.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor ahulk242.

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Feb. 3 2016 12:30 PM

The Philippines Skipped a Day in 1844

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One of the marvels of modern civilization is that, for the most part, humans all around the globe have agreed on one system for counting days and hours. This is a recent development. While people have generally relied on the cycles of the moon, Earth, and sun to measure time, at least 80 different calendars have been used, some more closely aligned than others.

And no system is perfect. The most common timekeeper, the Gregorian calendar, is filled with eccentricities. February is so short, random months have 30 days, and the formula for leap years defies logic. (It is a lot more complicated than “every four years.”) This all has to do with keeping Easter in the right place; there’s no good reason, on the other hand, for the seven-day week. But, however messy the system, it’s our system, and most of Earth has agreed to stick with it.


But in 1844, that’s exactly what the Philippines did. The governor-general at the time, the well-named Narciso Claveria, declared that Jan. 1, 1845, would come directly after Dec. 30, 1844. Dec. 31, 1844, would not happen in the Philippines.

The governor-general had his reasons for this decision. Because of the islands’ colonial history, the Philippines used the date to the east, the American date. To the west of the Philippines, though, in Asia, the date was one tick ahead. This difference is the result of a mind-bending principle of navigation, in which ships gain ground on or lose time, depending on what direction they go. The practical result of the Philippines adopting the date of ships coming from the east, as Avraham Ariel and Nora Ariel Berger explain in Plotting the Globe, was that it was a different date than its geographical peers, oriented to the west. "Sunday in Manila was Monday in Batavia (now Jakarta), just 1700 miles due south,” they write.

By 1844, the colonial trading patterns that had put the Philippines on the American date had shifted—its trade was now coming from the west—and it made sense to switch to the Asian date. To catch up, the Philippines had to skip a day. This was well before the International Date Line was officially established, and some cartographers had no idea the islands had made the switch. For decades, they put the Philippines on the wrong date.

Countries have shifted over the International Date Line only a few times since the it was established in 1884. In 1993, one atoll of the Marshall Islands flipped to the Asian side of the date line, skipping a Saturday in August. And, most recently, in 2011, Samoa and Tokelau made the same switch.

Samoa had actually switched once before. In 1892, American trading partners convinced the king to flip to their side of the date line, and the country lived through July 4, 1892, twice. But 119 years later, the economic geography of the island had changed, and most business was being done with Australia and New Zealand. To make the jump back to the Asian date Samoa and Tokelau skipped Dec. 30, 2011.

This time, unlike with the poor Philippines, the rest of the world went along with their choice: If you're reading this in America, it’s already tomorrow in Samoa. 

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Feb. 2 2016 12:30 PM

New York’s Gardiners Island: Still in the Family After Almost 400 Years

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In 1639, this island in what is now New York State was settled by a man named Lion Gardiner. The island was made a proprietary colony, granted via a royal decree by Charles I that gave Gardiner “the right to possess the land forever.”

As far as forever goes, that remains to be seen. But the descendants of Lion Gardiner still hold the 3,300-acre island, making Gardiners Island the oldest estate in the United States and the only royal grant from the English Crown still intact in the country.


Over the last 400 years, the island has been embroiled in a series of contemporary flashpoints. In 1657, Gardiner’s first daughter Elizabeth would initiate the first witch hunt in an American colony when, at 15, her accusations of witchcraft led to the arrest and persecution of a farmhand's wife. In 1699, pirate Captain Kidd buried $30,000 worth of treasure—in rubies, diamonds, and bars of silver—on the island. He was kind enough to ask permission to do so but also threatened to murder the family if the treasure wasn’t still there when he returned. Mrs. Gardiner, the island's proprietor at the time, was later ordered to deliver the booty to the court in Boston where Kidd sat trial. It was pretty compelling evidence for piracy—Kidd was executed.

In more recent years, the island has primarily made headlines for its strict no-trespassing policy and a contentious legal battle between two possible heirs. As of now, the island is unilaterally owned by Gardiner-descendant Alexandra Creel Goelet, who intends, predictably, to keep it in the family.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor The Minx.

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Feb. 1 2016 12:30 PM

Thomas Edison Gave Henry Ford His Last Breath in a Test Tube

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True friendship can be hard to find. For industrial titans bent on dominating the world, finding someone who understands you is nearly impossible.

The friendship that formed between Thomas Edison and Henry Ford, therefore, was genuinely special to both of them. They even bought houses together in Florida, and when Edison was confined to a wheelchair in his later years, Henry Ford bought his own so they could race around their estates together. Edison was nearly brought to tears when describing his friendship with the younger inventor at a 1929 celebration of the 50th anniversary of the lightbulb. 


Though celebrated as heroes in midcentury histories, both Edison and Ford's negative sides have since been exposed—Ford fought unions and exhibited anti-Semitism, whereas Edison electrocuted animals, screwed over Tesla, and generally stole inventions. Today both of them are often cast as villains rather than heroes. However, even if what united them was their utter domination of their respective empires, their friendship shows a more human side of the two men.  Nowhere is this affection more clearly demonstrated than in unusual and deeply personal gift of Edison's Last Breath to his best friend Henry Ford. 

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