Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

April 29 2016 12:30 PM

The Tree on the Lake

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Seventy miles from the port city of Victoria, British Columbia on Vancouver Island, a plucky arboreal wonder can be found on the quiet waters of Fairy Lake.

Living up to its name, Fairy Lake is in a remote and unspoiled landscape near the town of Port Renfrew. Sticking up out of the lake’s stillness is a submerged log. Clinging to that log for dear life is a tiny Douglas fir tree. The log itself is a Douglas fir. As the stunted tree’s only source of support and nutrients, it feels like the dead tree made a sort of noble sacrifice to the the tiny tree growing on it. Tourists, boaters and hikers come seeking it as a unique window into nature and rebirth.

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The “bonsai” tree has attracted more than a few photographers to capture its struggle of endurance, including a winner of the National History Museum of London’s Wildlife Photographer of the Year award. Award or no award, each photograph of the little guy clinging to his dead log has demonstrated its own symbolic twist on survival. You needn't even hike through the wilds to find it. You can find bonsai serenity from the road.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Repickled.

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April 28 2016 12:30 PM

Maeklong Railway Market in Thailand

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Samut Songkhram is the smallest province in Thailand but boasts the fifth-highest population density, leaving it somewhat crammed for space. The capital city—also called Samut Songkhram—in particular has little room to spare, lacking a large open space for farmers, fisherman, and artisans to sell their wares. Thus, the local market can be found in a novel and extremely narrow corridor in the center of the city, along the tracks of the Maeklong Railway.

The Maeklong Railway is only 3 feet wide, but it has 5–10 feet of clearance on both sides, giving merchants a tight but workable space in which to set up their tented displays. Market stalls line a 300-meter stretch of urban railroad, selling everything one might expect to find in any Thai market: fruits, vegetables, meat, fish, herbs and spices, clothing, flowers, and tempting street food. Six times a day, however, the hubbub has to momentarily pause in deference to a train rolling through its midst.

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A warning bell lets buyers and sellers alike know that its time to clear the tracks for an approaching train. Awnings are folded up and goods displayed near the tracks are either rolled back on wheeled tables or arranged low enough so that the train can pass right over them. The train sounds its fog horn when it draws near and everyone gives it the narrowest of berths, passing mere inches from the goods and people as it rumbles down the middle of the market.

After it passes, the whole scene immediately unfurls again, popping back to life and carrying on as if nothing had happened. This regular closing and opening has earned the market the nickname Talat Rom Hup, or “the folding umbrella market.”

Maeklong Railway Market is open daily from 7:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. and is one of the largest fresh seafood markets in Thailand.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lewblank.

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April 27 2016 12:30 PM

An American City Stranded at the Tip of a Canadian Peninsula

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 Convention of 1818 between Britain and America following the War of 1812 had a tough job to take on: determining the border between Canada and the United States. In an effort to avoid controversy and confusion caused by drawing the boundary based on watershed, the two countries agreed on a simpler solution: the 49th parallel.

There were, of course, multiple problems that arose with this solution, including the fact that Vancouver Island was split in two by the imaginary line. The debate over whether the line of latitude should split the island in two or if it should be ignored, giving the full island to Canada, was known as the Oregon Boundary Dispute. In 1846 President James Polk proposed making Vancouver Island an island of two countries, therein designating more land to America, but this was immediately rejected by the British. In the end, the British and Americans agreed to give the entire Vancouver Island to Canada, while giving the San Juan Islands to the United States.

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Problem solved, right? Not exactly. Due to limited knowledge of the region's geography at the time, there was one land area that both the Americans and the British failed to notice: the Tsawwassen Peninsula. 

This peninsula was unknown at the time, but once discovered, it was too late. The agreement had accidently cut off a tiny piece of Canada and given it to the United States.

Nowadays, at the end of this peninsula, there is a little American town called Point Roberts, Washington. The only land route out of Point Roberts is through Canada. This town of over 1,000 people has a clinic, a police station, a fire department, a marina, and a primary school.

As a result of this geographic peculiarity the town has some strange habits. Every day, a large portion of the Canadians living just north travel across the border to buy groceries and gas, which are about a third cheaper in the U.S. It is said that Canadians will also travel over for the medium-rare burgers, which are unheard of in Vancouver because of the strict Canadian health code. Point Roberts is also an unusually safe city: Because of the border security, the crime rate of Point Roberts is over three times lower than that of Washington as a whole.

Despite all of these intriguing qualities, it seems that keeping this geographically isolated town in working order is remarkably difficult. The county that this town belongs to has been slow in providing it with adequate infrastructure, considering that it took two years to install a single streetlight. Business is slow, except for in the summer, when the residency quintuples due to Canadian tourism. There's no shoe store, no veterinarian, and no dentist. There also isn't a single school that serves students from grades four through 12. To access these things, it's necessary to cross the Canadian border to Tsawwassen, circle to White Rock, Canada, and finally cross the American border to Blaine, Washington. This trip is 40 minutes there, 40 minutes back, and it requires four borders to be crossed. For students who live in Point Roberts, the bus to Blaine High School leaves as early as 6:25 a.m., which is before sunrise on most schooldays.

Regardless of the pros and cons, it is quite spectacular that places like these exist. It's a place that's almost as Canadian as it is American, where maple leaf flags fly high. (The vast majority of boats in the marina are owned by Canadians.) It's a place that is here by accident, by foolishness, a mistake that went unfixed. It also shows the ability of people to adapt and to make this strange geographical exclave a livable home for over a thousand people.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lewblank.

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April 26 2016 12:30 PM

The Forgotten Secret Language of Gay Men

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These days, very few people know what it means to vada a chicken’s dolly eek.

Vada (“look at”), dolly eek (a pretty face), and chicken (a young guy) are all words from the lexicon of Polari, a secret language used by gay men in Britain at a time when homosexuality was illegal. Following a rapid decline in the 1970s, Polari has all but disappeared. But recently it’s been popping up again, even appearing in the lyrics of a song on David Bowie’s final album.

Polari is a language of, in linguistic professor Paul Baker's words, "fast put-downs, ironic self-parody and theatrical exaggeration." Its vocabulary is derived from a mishmash of Italian, Romani, Yiddish, Cockney rhyming slang, backslang—as in riah to mean “hair”—and cant, a language used by 18th-century traveling performers, criminals, and carnival workers. Many of the words are sexual, anatomical, or euphemisms for police.

Historically, people who spoke Polari "were generally ‘the oppressed,’ the bottom of the rung,” says Jez Dolan, a Manchester artist whose work focuses on queer culture. "Polari is very much a working-class thing." During the 19th- and early 20th centuries, the language was used by merchant seafarers and people who frequented the pubs around London’s docks. In the 1930s it was spoken among the theater types of the West End, from which it crossed over to the city’s gay pubs, gaining its status as the secret language of gay men.

April 25 2016 12:30 PM

The Great Boston Molasses Flood

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In Boston’s industrial North End is a small, easy to miss plaque memorializing a very strange moment in Boston’s history: the Great Boston Molasses Flood, in which a sugary tidal wave wreaked deadly destruction on the city.

In January 1919, the Purity Distilling Company, located at 529 Commercial Street, was in the molasses business—in a nefarious way. Rather than using the sticky substance for dessert-friendly syrup, the company had taken to fermenting it to make booze and bombs. In a desperate race to turn this sweet sticky stuff into booze before Prohibition hit in January 1920, the company had filled its largest holding tank with as much molasses as it could get its hands on.

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This tank was a five-story-tall metal cylinder, 90 feet in diameter and filled to capacity. When it burst, a two-story-tall wave containing 2.3 million gallons of molasses issued forth, traveling out in all directions like a shockwave. Molasses spread across the city at an estimated 35 miles per hour. And it wasn’t just the sugary tidal wave that was so deadly; the tank was ripped into sharp projectiles and shot metal bolts from its sides like bullets.

As the wave and debris crashed down Commercial Street, buildings were smashed to bits. Some were picked up by their foundations and floated away in the tide of molasses. Electrical poles keeled over, exposing live wires. A steel elevated train support beam was torn to smithereens. The elevated train just barely missed being knocked off the tracks, and only through the quick work of the driver was the next train warned that there was no longer a track to run on. Molasses covered everything. According to a Boston Post article, “Horses died like so many flies on sticky fly paper.” It wasn’t just horses. The Great Boston Molasses Flood killed 21 people.

The disaster caused over $100 million of damage in today's money. In addition to the 21 killed, 150 were injured. Molasses made finding the dead extremely difficult. The final body wasn't found and pulled from the water under the Commercial St. Wharf for nearly four months. 

It took weeks to remove the molasses from the surrounding streets and houses, and the area was said to have remained sticky to the touch for years afterward. While the molasses flood took many lives and destroyed a neighborhood, you would never know it today—save for the flimsy little sign on Commercial Street. Despite its lack of grandeur, it is worth seeking out, for no other reason than to stand and contemplate what was once America’s strangest disaster scene.

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April 22 2016 12:30 PM

A Roadside Attraction From the Future

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On the road? Thirsty, but not sure for what? Feel like deciding based on color? Then Pops is the place for you! And you won't have any trouble finding it, thanks to the giant, neon statue of a soda bottle stationed outside.

Established in 2007, the Route 66 restaurant is designed like a classic roadside attraction straight out of the future. The restaurant building itself is designed in an ultra modern style, all angular steel and glass. It is purposefully reminiscent of old-style gas stations (it is also a gas station!) with a large overhang out front that juts over the entrance. Inside, the restaurant is decorated with a huge wall of soda bottles that are stunningly arranged, not by flavor or brand but by color. Pops sells around 700 different kinds of soda and drinks. 

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The jewel in Pops' crown is the massive soda bottle statue standing out front of the restaurant. The 66-foot-tall bottle looks like it's made of rings of neon, but it is actually lit with LEDs, set into the metal rings. Each night, the bottle lights up in an impressive light show, worthy of Route 66's sensational heritage. The abstract bottle claims to be the largest in the world, but given that it's not really able to hold so much as a drop of Coca-Cola, that's debatable. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lucrown1.

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April 21 2016 12:30 PM

The Center of the Nation Monument Is Not Located at the Center of the U.S.

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While the center of the contiguous United States is marked by a small plaque and plinth in Kansas, the actual center of the United States (including Hawaii and Alaska) is off in a field in South Dakota. Oh, but the actual monument is about 20 miles away from that.

Hawaii became the last U.S. state to join the union in 1959. Previously the middle of the nation had been mapped as a spot in Lebanon, Kansas, but this point moved over 200 miles with the addition of the island state. The new spot was determined to be out in the middle of some South Dakota farmland, where a metal pole was driven into the ground to mark the location.

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This seemed like kind of a weak way to honor the very middle of America, so the city of Belle Fourche, a little over 20 miles south of the makeshift marker, decided to do it up right. In 2008, the city installed a large granite compass rose and dubbed it the "Center of the Nation" monument. There is even a metal disc in the middle that looks like an official geographic marker for people to stand on and take pictures.

Sure, it might not be on the exact center of the country, but let's face it, this lovely granite compass makes a better photo op than some pole in a field.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor arc459.

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April 20 2016 12:30 PM

See the Inside-Out World in Perfect Scale at Boston’s Mapparium

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

Ever notice how big Greenland is on most maps? There is a problem with flat maps. Due to the distortion that happens when you plaster a sphere onto a flat surface, the sizes of things at the top and bottom tend to get all wonky.

Globes offer a much more accurate view of the world, but even they are not perfect. When you look at the sphere, its curvature distorts relative size because the countries curve away from you. If you want the best view of what our world really looks like, there is only one place for you: standing in the center of the Mapparium.

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In the Mary Baker Eddy Library in Boston is a three-story stained glass globe, flipped inside-out so the left-right orientation is correct. A 30-foot-long glass bridge runs straight through the globe. Standing in the center of those 608 stained glass panels, you can see the inside-out world in perfect scale. And It. Is. Weird!

It is fascinating to view Earth this way. Africa is huge. North America, Europe, and Asia are all jammed way up against the North Pole. You have to look nearly straight up to see them. Sizes and locations of continents and countries you’ve always taken for granted are suddenly unfamiliar.

The Mapparium was completed in 1935, meaning that while the relative size of its land masses is correct, some of the country names and boundaries are decidedly out of date.

In 1930, Boston architect Chester Lindsay Churchill was commissioned to design the new Christian Science Publishing Society headquarters to compete with the other grand newspaper headquarters of the day. He had seen the 12-foot globe in the lobby of the New York Daily News building and wanted to do one better.

Originally called “the Glass Room” or “the Globe Room,” the Mapparium gets its name from the Latin words mappa (“map”) and arium (“a place for”). Built by Old World craftsmen who were fleeing an emergent Nazi Germany, the Mapparium opened to the public May 31, 1935. It cost $35,000—which was a lot of money back then.

Based upon Rand McNally political maps published in 1934, the Mapparium put the politics of the era on view. Colonialism was still in full effect, with huge swathes of Africa divided among the European powers. Much of Southeast Asia is still French Indochina, and don’t go looking for Israel or Pakistan, as they didn’t exist yet. Some countries are there but with their earlier names like Siam or Persia. Germany looms ominously large.

Renovated in 1998 and lit from the outside with LEDs, the Mapparium is now able to put on a short light and sound show. To clean the interior of the three-story glass globe, workers have to use a cherry-picker that is set up in the middle of the bridge. Workers go out on the machine’s arm and clean each panel with a gentle solution.

The Mapparium also has another unusual quality, one that was almost certainly unintentional. Like the dome in Grand Central it is a whispering gallery, but being a sphere, its acoustics are even stranger. People whispering privately in India can be heard quite clearly in Mexico. And if you stand in the center, you will find yourself speaking to yourself in surround sound.

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April 19 2016 12:30 PM

Why Only Apple Users Can Trash Their Files

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No individual part of computing delivers the satisfaction of the trash can.

Drag in your junk, command-click, and with an amiable rustle, all those files you don’t need anymore just disappear. No need to lug anything to the curb, or wait for the city to come around.

But the trash isn’t just a useful tool. A garbage-eye-view of computing reveals three decade's worth of compelling history for the humble can—complete with a protracted lawsuit that brought the rivalry between Apple and Microsoft to new, garbage-filled heights. It may be that no icon better embodies the development of modern computing quite like the representation of virtual rubbish.

As Apple developer Andy Hertzfeld relates in an online history of Apple's first user interface, the trash was born in the early 1980s, during a five-year burst of creativity that also brought us desktop windows, text highlighting, scroll bars, and other bits of computing infrastructure most users now take for granted. When the team realized that users needed a way to delete files permanently, they called this new feature the "Wastebasket." And when the company switched over to an icon-based graphical user interface, or GUI, they drew up an old-school can to represent it. “The initial trashcan was this beat up old trashcan you’d expect to see in an alley, with the lid half open and flies buzzing around it,” said software engineer Dan Smith in an 1986 interview with Semaphore Signal. "We had actually talked about putting in some sound effects."

April 15 2016 12:30 PM

A Painting Recreated in Topiary Form

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If you like post-impressionist painting, landscape architecture, gardening, horticulture, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, or just things that look like other things, then you’ll love Topiary Park.

Located in downtown Columbus, the seven-acre Topiary Park is, well, a topiary park that fully recreates the scene depicted in Georges Seurat’s famous painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. The unique project was the brainchild of Columbus sculptor James T. Mason, who had the idea when his then-wife Elaine asked him to make a topiary sculpture for their backyard. Ultimately spiraling well beyond backyard-project scale, the couple pitched the idea to the city of Columbus, and work on the installation began in 1989 with the creation of artificial hills and the digging of a pond to stand in for the River Seine. James shaped the bronze frames and planted the associated greenery, and Elaine served as the original topiarist.

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The site selected for the park had previously been the home of the Ohio School for the Deaf, which was founded in the 19th century and was, at the time, one of only five such institutions in the United States. The school grew so rapidly that by 1953 it had outgrown its constrained downtown location and moved to a larger property in the city’s North Side. The original buildings remained intact, though abandoned and decaying as the surrounding neighborhood went through a period of decline in the ensuing decades. A community revival in the late 1970s saw efforts to preserve and landmark the school buildings, but a suspicious fire in 1981 destroyed all but one of them, which was finally designated a historic site in 1982. The rest of the newly vacant property was turned into a park which is today still officially known as Old Deaf School Park, but has come to be known popularly as Topiary Park.

The art installation was officially dedicated in 1992 and consists of 54 people, eight boats, three dogs, a monkey, and a cat, all in the form of topiary sculptures made of yew trees. Visitors can take in this peculiar garden from a bronze plaque that marks the point of view of the original painting or wander among the living sculptures, joining them in their picnicking, sunbathing, and general reverie. Topiary Park is—fairly specifically, and somewhat surprisingly—the only topiary representation of a painting in the world.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor alisoni.

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