Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

Sept. 9 2016 12:30 PM

The Experimental Nuclear Reactor Secretly Built Under the University of Chicago

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On Dec. 2, 1942, the world's first nuclear reactor was fired up in a subterranean squash court. But instead o a top-secret, sterile laboratory miles from civilization, the reactor went "critical" for the first time in a space directly beneath rows of football field bleachers at the heavily populated University of Chicago campus.

To be clear, going “critical,” in terms of a nuclear reaction, isn’t a bad thing. It is simply the moment at which a nuclear reaction reaches a point at which it reaches a critical mass and starts emitting usable energy, be it as a resource or as a weapon.

The small reactor was built at the University of Chicago as an arm of the infamous Manhattan Project, based in New York. At the head of the project was visionary Italian physicist Enrico Fermi. “He started experimenting with these things at Columbia University,” says Cindy Kelly, president of the Atomic Heritage Foundation. “He realized that the release of atomic energy on a large scale would only be a matter of time."

Sept. 8 2016 3:15 PM

Jumbo the Elephant Statue

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On Sept. 15, 1885, Jumbo the Elephant was in St. Thomas, Ontario, on tour with the Barnum & Bailey Circus. One night after the show, the world-famous pachyderm was being brought back to the circus train. Suddenly, out of the dark, came an unexpected freight train barreling down the tracks headed straight for Jumbo. With neither time nor luck on his side, he was struck and killed.

In 1985, 100 years after Jumbo’s tragic death, this life-size concrete statue was installed by the city of St. Thomas in commemoration of the great elephant, arguably the most renowned circus animal of all time. At 138 tons, it is the biggest of the big concrete statues created by a mid–20th-century Canadian folk sculptor named Winston Bronnum, known for his skill in molding wire and concrete into lifelike horses, enormous lobsters, and towering moose.

When Jumbo came to St. Thomas, he was a huge attraction for the circus (literally and figuratively) and had been setting attendance records since his early days in Paris and London. He became a circus performer via P.T. Barnum himself, purchased from the London Zoo and ferried over the Atlantic with a reputation as a gentle giant and lover of children. He joined Barnum & Bailey with enormous fanfare, was met everywhere by enormous crowds, and generated enormous profits for the famous showman.

After Jumbo’s untimely death, never missing an opportunity to make some serious box office, Barnum had the elephant’s body sent to Tufts College (now University) to have his skeleton preserved and the rest of him taxidermied. Barnum & Bailey continued to tour with a stuffed Jumbo and his articulated frame. Once retired from the circus, the stuffed Jumbo was on display for 86 years in Barnum Hall of Tufts College until April 14, 1975, when both Jumbo and the building were consumed in an electrical fire. Some of Jumbo’s ashes were recovered and remain stored in a peanut butter jar kept in the athletics director’s office. Tufts athletics adopted the mascot, and to this day their teams are known as the Jumbos.

It would be easy to assume that Jumbo was named Jumbo because he was so large. At more than 13 feet he was definitely tall for an African elephant, but it was the other way around. His name—thought to derive from the Swahili word jambo for hello, or jumbe for chief or boss—came before jumbo was a slang word for huge. The word that today is used to describe everything from giant shrimp to oversized paper towel rolls comes from the boss elephant himself.

Place entry contributed by Atlas Obscura user, hcshannonart

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. 7 2016 6:15 PM

The Galapagos Mail Drop for Lonely Sailors

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

Located on Floreana Island in the Galapagos, Post Office Bay has been acting as a sort of passive post station since the 1700s, using nothing but a barrel and the camaraderie of sailers and travelers.

The site was established by whalers in the 18th century. As whaling ships headed out from England and the United States to hunt the gentle giants of the sea, they would use the Galapagos Islands as a stop off to refill on food and water. They often feasted on endangered giant tortoises, eventually eliminating them from some of the islands. The hunting trips were long and the lonely sailors wished they had a way to send messages back home. So a barrel was placed on Floreana Island where whalers on their way out could put letters. The letters would then be picked up and delivered by sailors returning home from their trips. There was no postage fee, simply the trust that whoever grabbed your letter would get it to where it needed to go.

Surprisingly the mailbox and its honor system are still in use today. While the letters are no longer the missives of lonely sailors just trying to get messages to their loved ones any way they could, thousands of letters still pass through the barrel each year. Nowadays the postcards and letters are generally left and delivered by hopeful tourists, but many still seem to make it to their destination.

As described in an article in the Washington Post, groups of visitors (often tour groups or cruise patrons) will stop by the barrel and pull out the available mail, hollering out destinations to see if any of them are near enough to deliver. After the existing mail has been divvied up, people then leave notes and letters of their own for future visitors to take.

Today the site is surrounded by debris and driftwood, much of it covered in stickers and graffiti. Post Office Bay now resembles the fantasy of a remote island post spot more than it did when that was its true purpose.

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. 6 2016 12:30 PM

Church of the Jacobins’ Crushed Figure

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 Church of the Jacobins is in the center of the city of Toulouse in southern France. It is a Gothic mass of brick and stone, decorated inside with elaborate trompe l’oeil and soaring pillars. Most famously, it houses the remains of St. Thomas Aquinas. A lot less famously, it has this strange little carving of a man trapped under one of the pillars.

The remains of Thomas Aquinas are entombed in a golden reliquary along the side wall of the nave. Just behind it to the left there is a double column that sits on a square base. Look down towards the floor and you’ll see, sticking out, a peculiar pair of bony hands and chubby crossed feet, their meaning and origin unknown. Some of the church tour guides don't even know the crushed little man is there.

The church dates to the early 13th century, founded by the French Dominican order of the Jacobins. It has weathered a complicated history, beginning with the Dominicans being outlawed in France during the Revolution. It then began a journey that included everything from a takeover by Napoleon (who used it as barracks and an armory for the military), a period as a school gymnasium, an exhibition hall, and, during World War I, a safe haven for art treasures from the Paris museums.

The later decades of the 20th century saw enormous efforts to bring back the majesty of the church. After periods of major restoration—including the reveal of medieval paintings that had been whitewashed by Napoleon—it has emerged as an important museum and cultural center for Toulouse. But the little carving remains a mystery, the only one of its kind in the church. Posted, you might say, without comment.

It's a little hard to find the little man, but look behind the St. Thomas Aquinas golden altar. You'll see his little squished hands and little squished feet at the bottom of the pillar to the left.

This entry contributed by Atlas user, nopizzanocry

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.

Aug. 31 2016 12:30 PM

Bon Echo Walt Whitman 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.

Everyone has a favorite writer, but few take their love of literature as far as Flora MacDonald Denison, an Ontario-based inn owner who had her favorite poet's words etched forever (well, sort of), into a granite cliff.

Denison was already a successful Toronto business woman when she took over ownership of the Bon Echo Inn in 1910. An early feminist, Denison had started the Canadian Suffrage Association with a number of like-minded female activists and was also a staunch proponent of the arts, especially writing. When she and her husband took over the Bon Echo Inn, she turned it into a haven for artists and thinkers, a quiet place in the Ontario wilderness where they could work and relax.

Her true passion, however, was the work of poet Walt Whitman. She started the Walt Whitman Club of Bon Echo around 1916, but in 1919 she put her fandom in stone, literally. Employing a pair of Scottish stonemasons, Denison had some of Whitman's words etched into the granite cliff face near Mazinaw Lake in 1919, the 100-year anniversary of Whitman's birth. The monument was dedicated to his "democratic ideals," carrying the following passage:

"MY FOOTHOLD IS TENON'D AND MORTISED IN GRANITE
I LAUGH AT WHAT YOU CALL DISSOLUTION
AND I KNOW THE AMPLITUDE OF TIME."

Today, nearly a hundred years later, the etching is almost completely weathered out of the stone, but it can still be found, a near immortal tribute to one of the greatest poets in history.

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.

Aug. 30 2016 2:45 PM

Haute-Isle’s Troglodyte Church

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

Haute-Isle has been settled since the prehistoric age, and for most of that time its inhabitants lived in caves. Right up to the 19th century, in fact, most people in this rare troglodyte (that is, cave-dwelling) village lived in what they called “boves,” which were homes hollowed out of the white chalk cliffs rising above the Seine river valley.

Thus, when the town became an independent parish in 1670, it didn’t take long to decide how they would build their parish church.

The construction—or rather, excavation—of the Church of the Annunciation was financed by one Nicolas Dongois, a local bigwig and bureaucrat who was instrumental in elevating the status of Haute-Isle. Finished in 1673, the church has a main body roughly 20 meters long and 20 meters wide, an arched ceiling about 8 meters high, four simple windows carved into the exterior “wall,” and a small steeple built on top of the cliff.

While generally light on ornamentation, the interior contains a richly detailed, carved wooden screen (dividing the nave and the choir) and altar that are remarkably beautiful. Made in the late 17th century, these two lovingly adorned pieces were originally intended for the Palais du Justice in Rouen. The interior also features a tondo above the altar from the same time period.

Due to significant deterioration, the Church of the Annunciation had to close in 1999. Thanks to a considerable restoration effort, it is once again in use as parish church today; however, there is much work yet to do, which will take a long time for a commune of only 330 inhabitants to finance and complete.

The original cave houses of Haute-Isle can still be seen today, but virtually none of them are used as living quarters anymore. Conventional houses finally came into use in the little town, and now the old boves are mostly used as sheds or garages. Many of them are simply abandoned.

Contributed by Atlas User, Christine Williamson

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.

Aug. 29 2016 12:30 PM

EVE Online’s Player Monument

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Most video games honor their players with monuments created in their virtual worlds, but the makers behind EVE Online created a real life tribute to its players to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the game.

Erected in 2014, the trio of stone monoliths look not unlike something that would have been made by the futuristic society in the game. The monument is located in Reykjavik, Iceland, where the game was actually created. Standing over 15 feet tall, the monument consists of three differently shaped spires, two made of stone flanking a shining metal center pillar. The obelisks stand on a wide base that is engraved with the names of every single player registered for the game as of March 2014.

Buried beneath the statue is a laptop containing video messages, files, images and other data from the game as a digital time capsule. There are plans to unearth the laptop on May 6, 2039, 25 years from the statue's dedication.

Of course a bit of the sometimes toxic world of online gaming spilled out into the real world along with the monument when it was defaced just days after it's unveiling. The symbol of one of the game's largest factions was plastered to one of the pillars and the name of one of the players was scratched out. The culprits were eventually found out and banned from the game. Apparently the game world–real world connection goes both ways.

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.

Aug. 25 2016 12:30 PM

I Made a Shipwreck Expert Watch The Little Mermaid and Judge Its Nautical Merits

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

If I were asked to picture a shipwreck, a clear image would pop into my mind. I’ve never seen a shipwreck in real life; most of us haven’t. My imaginary shipwreck has a very clear source, though, one that was influential on my young mind. I'm imagining the shipwreck from Disney's The Little Mermaid.

For me, the shipwreck that Ariel explores was iconic. But, if this is the vessel that defines shipwreck for me, how much of my idea of a sunken ship is pure Disney magic? Is there any truth to it?

Kevin Crisman, the director of the Center for Maritime Archaeology and Conservation at Texas A&M University, immediately knew the genre of ship I was talking about: maritime archaeologists joke about “Hollywood shipwrecks” all the time, he says. One of the shipwrecks they “love to hate to watch" is the 18th-century ship that Nicolas Cage finds frozen in Arctic ice, at the beginning of National Treasure. (It’s very shortly blown to pieces with centuries-old gunpowder.)

The Little Mermaid shipwreck was not one he had considered closely before, but Crisman graciously agreed to watch a few clips from the movie and give me his professional opinion about the wreck where Ariel famously finds a dinglehopper (also known as a fork). Now that I write about real shipwrecks, I wanted to know: What type of ship were we looking at? What made internal sense? And what was total fantasy?

Aug. 24 2016 12:30 PM

The Day the Music Died Memorial

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Some call it "The Day the Music Died" thanks to a reference in Don McClean's song "American Pie," but no matter what it is called, the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and J.P. "The Big Bopper" Richardson marked a dark day in American history. This tragic accident is still remembered by a couple of unique memorials.

It was on Feb. 3, 1959, that the small Beechcraft Bonanza aircraft carrying the musicians crash landed in a farmer's field in Clear Lake, Iowa. Holly and the others had been on a taxing road tour that gave Holly the flu and some of the other bandmates frostbite from the freezing cold bus rides. Having had enough, Holly charted the small plane, which was unequipped to handle the severe weather they were flying in. The weather was poor and wintry, and unfortunately the pilot lost control of the plane, which crashed, killing all aboard, including the pilot himself.

The trio of musicians were returned to their respective home states and buried there, but the spot where the plane went down was not forgotten. In 1988, a guitar-shaped memorial to the tragic crash was installed on the spot where the plane went down, still a private cornfield. Later on, another permanent monument to the crash was put up just off the highway. This memorial is a bit simpler, just a giant pair Buddy Holly's iconic glasses, sitting on pillars.

Even today, people pay their respects to the memorials, leaving little tokens to their dearly departed musical idols. The glasses can be found on the roadside, but the actual crash site is set back from the road a bit, and can be harder to find. However, people have reported that the locals, including the farmer on whose property the memorial resides, are more than happy to help.

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.

Aug. 23 2016 5:45 PM

The Bats of Monsted Kalkgruber

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If the walls of Monsted Kalkgruber could talk, they could say a lot about the thousands of people who have come through the mines over the centuries but probably even more about the thousands of bats that currently live there.

The caves are very, very old. When Denmark was becoming an increasingly Christian nation around the 11th century, limestone mining was a profitable industry because the stone was used in cathedrals. From this time up until the 19th century, the miners used practically the same technique of assembly line–style limestone ferrying. Machinery was introduced in the mid-1800s, individual mines merged together, and the tunnels were mined more extensively. Limestone remained profitable until the mid–20th century. The mines closed in 1953.

The caves changed hands many times in the years following the quarry's closing. At one point they were property of Anker Buch, a concert violinist who staged performances in the acoustically accommodating caves, a practice that continues even now. In addition to cultural events in the caves, a museum dedicated to showcasing Denmark's oldest industry also operates within the mines.

Sixty kilometers (about 37 miles) of underground paths comprise the caves of Monsted Kalkgruber, though only two kilometers of that are electrically lit. The tunnels vary wildly in size: Some are cathedral-height, some are low enough that an adult can't walk through upright. These tunnels open up into various cave "rooms," some of which contain entire underground lakes. Visitors to the Monsted Kalkgruber museum can wander through the caves on their own or take a train-ride tour throughout.

The train rides are only available between May and August however, out of respect to the caves' inhabitants: some 18,000 bats. In spring and summer the bats fly all over Jutland, eating insects to their hearts' content. In the fall and winter months the bats retreat to the caves, when they need quiet for hibernation (hence no trains). During the beginning of the cold season, they tuck themselves into crevices in the caves, out of view from the museum visitors. In the latter half of the season though, the bats emerge from hibernation to test the climate. They fly about and hang from the ceilings as they wait for spring. The Monsted Kalkgruber museum is intent on preserving the bat population, so much so that they feature a bat counter, noting each bat's entry and exit from the caves.

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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