Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

May 13 2016 12:30 PM

A Mini Castle Built by a Sewing Machine Tycoon

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Sitting in the midst of the Glimmerglass Historic District on Otsego Lake is a mini-castle built by the founder of the Singer Sewing Machine Company.

Rising from the edge of the lake, the "Kingfisher Castle" was built by Edward S. Clarke around 1876 with the intention of making the lake more aesthetically pleasing for the public. Constructed in the Gothic Revival style, Clarke's folly measures 60 feet in height and was designed in conjunction with American architect Henry J. Hardenbergh, with whom Clarke and his eponymous Singer sewing machine co-founder Isaac Meritt Singer had previously worked to create the Dakota in New York City. 

The structure was built of stone from the shores of Otsego Lake and in its earliest days boasted a drawbridge and portcullis made of solid oak. Though this feature has been lost to time, the rest of Kingfisher Castle remains as it ever was. Its diminutive base measures only 20 square feet in size, with the main floor seeming to float just five feet above the lake's surface. Ten feet above that sits the tower's first platform, from which rises a smaller, pyramid-shaped roof with a window on each side.  All throughout the castle, the windows are decorated with stained glass bearing a heraldic shield at their center.

The tower is located about 3 miles north on the east side of Otsego Lake at Point Judith and can only be reached by boat, as it is hidden in a forest with barbed wire fence. For those less drawn to wooded paths and prohibitive fences, a view of the folly can be enjoyed from land at Lakefront Park, or aboard local boat tours.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor luciditea.

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May 12 2016 12:30 PM

The Birthplace of Silicon Valley

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Who knows where we’d be without the lowly garage, the site of so many innovations. No Apple computers? No Google? No Marc Maron? Without the work that happened in this small building there would almost certainly be no Hewlett-Packard, the Palo Alto, California, company that sparked the beginning of Silicon Valley.

William Hewlett and David Packard probably would have created HP without this specific one-car garage at 367 Addison Avenue, but you can’t deny there are few buildings that have made such an outsized impact. The history of electronics, technology, and computers can be traced back to this one little shed.

In 1938, Dave Packard and his new bride moved into an apartment in the house on Addison Avenue. A year later he formed the partnership with Bill Hewlett, formalizing the company name with a coin toss. (Packard won but decided to put his partner's name first.) Hewlett ended up crashing for a time out back in the shed, and it was here that they built their first product: the HP200A audio oscillator. So good was their first venture into electronics that Walt Disney stepped up, buying eight of them so he could test the audio facilities of theaters showing his masterpiece, Fantasia.

Some famous “garage” stories have turned out to be more myth than reality, but the story of Bill and Dave forming their company in this Palo Alto garage is true. The site is now designated as a California Historic Landmark and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor hrnick.

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May 10 2016 12:30 PM

The Secrets of All Six Oval Office Desks

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Come this time next year there will be a new president in the White House. Whoever that person ends up being, he or she will immediately have to make some big, impactful decisions. Choice No. 1: What desk to use in the Oval Office?

There have only ever been six desks to pass through this room, each chosen by the president who must use it for business that could change the world. Whether it was used for one term or one century, every one of the double-wide, two-pillar Oval Office desks has a compelling story. Here are these fascinating bits of furniture—ranked.

May 9 2016 12:30 PM

The Long and Troubled History of Battleship Island

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A minuscule slip of land sitting off the coast of Nagasaki, Japan, has seen a long and troubled history. 

Hashima, an island that is less than one square kilometer, was once the most densely populated place on the planet. Today it is a ghost town, completely uninhabited for over 40 years, its hundreds of densely packed concrete buildings crumbling into the sea. 

The land was developed by the Mitsubishi Corporation as a coal mine in the early 1900s. During WWII, the labor in the undersea mine was done by Korean and Chinese prisoners of war with no regard for the safety or survival of the prisoners—leading to the death of over 1,000 POWs in the mine.

After the war ended Mitsubishi continued to run the operation with Japanese workers, effectively turning the entire island into a company town. Schools, restaurants, brothels, and gaming houses were all encircled by a protective seawall. The island, which held 6,000 people, was so densely built up with concrete structures it became known as "Midori nashi Shima," or the island without green. 

Eventually, the coal ran out. Mitsubishi closed the mine in 1974, and everyone left. Since that time the buildings have been slowly crumbling, leaving an astonishing ghost island floating in the ocean. The island was officially closed to all visitors from 1974 to 2009, but recently the site has been re-opened to tours. The site has officially been included on the UNESCO World Heritage list as of July 5, 2015.

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May 6 2016 12:30 PM

Santa Fe’s House of Eternal Return 

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When George R.R. Martin buys a vacant bowling alley in an industrial neighborhood in Santa Fe and leases it out to a 135-member group of artists known for creating elaborate interactive art installations, you can assume that the result will be pretty spectacular. Such is the case with the House of Eternal Return.

The first permanent installation created by the Meow Wolf art collective, House of Eternal Return consists of 20,000 square feet of fully explorable space centered around a full-size reproduction of a two-story Victorian house that harbors a secret. According to the backstory provided to visitors, the house was once inhabited by the Selig family, but then "something happened" that led to the family's disappearance and apparently warped the nature of time and space.

Visitors are turned loose to piece together the non-linear narrative on their own, rifling through the clothes, furnishings, books, and personal papers of the family members and stumbling through cosmic portals hidden throughout the house (like in the refrigerator, fireplace, or toilet) into strange and engrossing other worlds. House of Eternal Return has a total of 70 distinct interconnected spaces including (but not limited to) enchanted forest tree houses, a tiny Old West ranch powered by hamsters, luminescent caves, space-age corridors, mastodon skeleton xylophones, laser harps, and the study where Grandpa Selig labored to unravel a mind-boggling conspiracy of interdimensional proportions.

The space also includes a music venue called Fancy Town as well as Chimera, a nonprofit center that offers classes to children on skills as diverse as sewing, sculpture, and computer programming. Summer camps, after school programs, and internships are all offered on-site.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor caitlinrinn.

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May 5 2016 12:30 PM

The Wild and Untamed Estate of William Faulkner

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Built in Oxford, Mississippi, by planter Colonel Robert Sheegog in the 1840s, this primitive two-story Greek Revival home is where William Faulkner wrote many of his most legendary Southern gothic tales.

Faulkner and his wife, Estelle, bought Rowan Oak, then known as “the Bailey Place,” in 1930. Its new name was Faulkner’s homage to the mythical rowan tree, considered a tree of peace and security.  Though the house itself was a rundown mess, the couple saw its potential and were enchanted with the four acres of red cedar, magnolia, and cypress trees that surrounded it. Over the next few years, Faulkner would renovate much of the house himself.  However, he refused Estelle’s wish to tame the wild grounds. “Only new money would ruin a garden like that,” he said.

The Faulkners lived in the home until his death in 1962. During that time, they raised three children, and Faulkner won a Pulitzer Prize, a National Book Award, and the Nobel Prize for Literature. He considered his lush, unwieldy home, which he called his “postage stamp of native soil,” one of his prime inspirations. It is said the dense forest of Rowan Oak helped develop his sense of multi-layered time, where the “past is never dead. It isn’t even past.”

In 1972, the Faulkner’s daughter, Jill, sold the house to the University of Mississippi. Today, visitors can tour the house and grounds, just as beautiful and untamed as they were in Faulkner’s time. Of special interest is an outline for his novel A Fable, which he wrote on the wall of his study. The home was renovated most recently in 2005. The renovation was partially funded by author and Old Miss (School of Law) alumnus John Grisham. Many writers continue to visit Rowan Oak to pay homage to the great writer and maybe to draw just a fraction of the inspiration he did from this magical place.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor garycascio.

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May 4 2016 12:30 PM

The Story of the Mojave Phone Booth

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This is the story of how a desert icon became, against all odds, a point of convergence for the masses, bridging the gap between the real and digital worlds. 

It was by pure happenstance that a man by the name of Godfrey Daniels even discovered the Mojave phone booth's existence. A casual mention of a telephone deep in the middle of the desert, miles from any paved roads, accompanied by its number, caught his eye in a zine one evening.

The concept that a phone serving a mysterious clientele stood in the Mojave's moonscape, its ring echoing off into nothing, transfixed him. For over a month, he dialed the phone with increasing frequency. In his words, "I was just imagining making a phone ring out where presumably no one could hear it except the coyotes. But then there was also in the back of your mind, the thought—what if? Like, what if somebody is wandering by? Who would be out there? Who would pick up?"

Then, one day, against all odds, Daniels got a busy signal. In a frenzy, he called until the busy signal gave way to a ring, and a woman answered on the other end, solving the mystery of for whom the phone rang. Lorene, a cinder miner who lived off the grid, used the esoteric Mojave phone booth for her calls. Rather than ruining the mystery, Lorene's existence further delighted Daniels, providing crucial details to fuel his obsession. 

Now he knew the phone was real. And he could visit it. 

The Mojave phone booth was located between Baker and Vegas at the turn off for Cima, surrounded by Joshua trees in the middle of the Mojave National Preserve. In person, it was exactly as it had appeared in Daniels' fantasy. With the desert's unrelenting vastness expanding in every direction, he made a call from it, to his friend, completing the cycle.

But he didn't stop there—Daniels returned home and built a website dedicated to the Mojave phone booth, publishing its number (760-733-9969) so all the world could enjoy his finding. In 1997, this was the best thing the internet had ever seen. All of a sudden, people were making pilgrimages to the phone in the middle of nowhere, and the line rang off the hook. Visitors would take turns answering calls from the farthest corners of the Earth, having conversations with strangers when language barriers allowed. 

Unfortunately the phone's unbridled popularity became its undoing. Heretofore its location in the midst of the Mojave National Preserve had been a nonissue for the National Park Service. The sudden increase in traffic—one of the earliest examples of a real-world location going viral thanks to the internet—was a problem. 

One day, in May of 2000, the Mojave phone booth was there. Then the next it had been leveled, leaving only a concrete pad as a makeshift grave where that mysterious bridge between the digital and real worlds had once been.  

Admittedly, the pay phone itself had always been an outlier in the world. The fact that it was a little too good to be true is what drew so many to it over the years. So not long ago, a white-hat hacker and phreak by the name of Jered Morgan aka Lucky225 decided to resurrect the spirit of the Mojave phone booth. Anyone can now call the disembodied phone at its original number, where he or she will enter a conference call; much like calling the desert, someone may be waiting on the other end, or the caller may find only the sound of his or her own voice echoing in a vast (digital) emptiness. 

Back in the real world, the (physical) booth itself remains gone, and even the concrete pads have been demolished. Nonetheless a pilgrimage to the site of the former Mojave phone booth at the coordinates provided still seems honorable, given its historic virality and continued, disembodied existence out in the ether. 

For a fantastic podcast version of the story check out this 99% invisible episode.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Natsuba.

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May 3 2016 12:30 PM

The Quest for LARP Insurance

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

"It's dangerous to go alone!” —Old Man, The Legend of Zelda

"You’re in good hands” —Slogan, Allstate Life Insurance Co.

Questing is treacherous business, and no one knows more acutely than the heroes and villains taking part in fantasy live-action role playing, or LARP, events. Luckily for their fictional personas, there are healing spells and potions in case of injury. But should their real-world selves get hurt during the game, these miracle salves have no effect. Fortunately, the real world has LARP insurance.

Fantasy LARPing has been around since the 1970s. It grew out of the popularity of tabletop games of Dungeons & Dragons, when players began looking to add a deeper level of realism and experience to their adventures. Since then, LARPing has slowly grown in popularity and complexity. Now there are countless games and organizations in America alone, bringing to life worlds of fantasy, horror, and war, in which players risk fictional life with their real limbs.

No matter what system they’re a part of, players will generally decamp to a campground or a rented field, and exit our world for theirs—if only for a weekend at a time. With these increased numbers comes increased liability, and that’s where the insurance companies come in.

“Generally you have two plans. You have to have a liability plan, and then you have to have a health/accident plan,” says Joseph Valenti, owner and ruler of NERO LARP, the most extensive LARPing organization in the U.S.

With around 50 chapters spread across the country, NERO LARPs host hundreds of simulated battles and adventures each year. Players equip themselves with custom-made foam weaponry (calledboffers) and wade into (untrained) fantasy combat, creating what seems like a potential litigation nightmare.

“If you have a liability plan, you’re really covering burning down one of the cabins or the main kitchen hall/tavern,” says Valenti. Accident insurance covers any medical costs that might arise from a warrior breaking his or her ankle or a ranger falling down. It also makes sure the organizers have representation in case they get sued over such mishaps.

May 2 2016 12:30 PM

The Secret City of the Cosmonauts

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From the 1940s to the 1990s, the secretive USSR created a massive constellation of ghost geography. Hundreds of cities. Over a million people living off the map. Not "off the grid"—towns were literally left off of Soviet maps, kept from prying eyes. If you lived there, your city had no public name and as a citizen you were a nonperson. 

In one of these secret cities, established in 1960 and known as "Military Unit 26266 in closed townlet number one," young Russians were trained to be launched into the skies and beyond. Star City, located just east of Moscow, became the home of the cosmonauts.

During the 1960s the Soviet Union planned extensively for a lunar landing and trained over 60 cosmonauts. Star City blossomed into a real town with its own post office, movie theater, railway station, and a couple of schools—all very, very secret. Its citizens were given special passports so they could enter and leave. Star City was a small world onto itself, kept hidden not just from other countries but from fellow Russians. 

The space program was once a powerful point of pride within the great communist dream, but in 1991, when the Soviet Union collapsed, it left Star City and the cosmonauts in serious trouble. At the time, cosmonaut Sergei Krikalev was on board the Mir space station, with the landing site in Kazakhstan suddenly no longer part of the USSR. Sergei was left on board Mir for months as Russia struggled with the Kazakhstan government. 

Star City adapted and began working more closely with NASA. By the mid-1990s, the curtain of secrecy of Star City had lifted slightly. For the first time, visitors could catch a glimpse of the tank where cosmonauts practice their space walks underwater, or the gigantic centrifuge where the soon-to-be space travelers are swung around at dizzying speeds under eight times the force of gravity.

In 2008 control of Star City was officially handed over from the Russian military to space agency Roscosmos, making it a civil rather than military organization. It marked the first time since its establishment in 1960 that Star City became open to the general public, though still only with permission. Among the many travel packages currently available is a 10-day "Cosmonaut Overview Training" experience, a $90,000-per-person package that includes centrifuge simulator training, use of a space suit, spacewalk simulation in a buoyancy tank and dinner with a cosmonaut. 

Cosmonauts and their families, both past and present, still live in Star City, including Valentina Goryacheva, the wife of deceased cosmic pioneer Yuri Gagarin, and Valentina Tereshkova, who was the first woman in space. The town has recently built a new Russian Orthodox church, added a museum of space travel and human exploration, and established a monument to Laika, the first dog in space.

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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.

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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