Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

July 16 2015 12:56 PM

The Øresund Bridge Brings Literal Meaning to the Term Bridge and Tunnel

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

Supporting both cars and trains as they pass between Denmark and the southern tip of Sweden, the Øresund Bridge (or Øresundsbron, as it is nicknamed in a mish-mash of Swedish and Danish)transitions from bridge to tunnel as the road and railway dip beneath the waves. 

The passenger travel connection was completed in 1999, connecting the Swedish city of Malmö to the Danish metropolis of Copenhagen. While building a bridge over the Øresund Strait was not a huge challenge in itself, doing so without interfering with the air traffic above or the shipping traffic on the water seemed almost impossible. Building a suspension bridge tall enough to allow ships to pass beneath it would prevent the busy Copenhagen Airport nearby from functioning. A bridge built any lower would have halted ship traffic. The simple yet unusual solution was a bridge that would descend beneath the waves halfway across the strait.

A man-made island known as Peberholm was built to support the transition point, and a tunnel was dug beneath the strait on the Danish end (known independently as the Drogden Tunnel). On the Swedish side, the sweeping suspension bridge was constructed to slowly slope right into the water, making it look from the outside as if the bridge gives up and curves into nothingness.

Today the bridge is the longest combined automobile and rail bridge in Europe, despite being half-tunnel. (The people making such distinctions do not like to be discriminatory.) With an estimated 17,000 cars passing over and under the Øresund Strait each day, this span brings a newly literal meaning to the phrase bridge and tunnel.

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July 15 2015 3:48 PM

The Stilt Village of Ukivok

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Located on tiny King Island off the western coast of Alaska, the stilt village of Ukivok was once the winter home of sea-faring natives who have left it abandoned for the last half-century.

King Island is surrounded on all sides of its squat, mile long width by steep slopes and cliffs that make inhabiting the already hostile environs an even greater challenge. However a local Inupiat population calling themselves the Aseuluk ("People of the Sea") or Ukivokmiut, built a small village on one of the slopes using a precarious arrangement of stilts and huts. The Ukivokmiut subsisted mainly from fishing and whaling during the summer which they did from the mainland, but during the winters when thick ice formed, they would migrate to the village of Ukivok to poach crabs, seal, and other game for the cold season.

The cliff village was in use until the mid-1900's when the Bureau of Indian Affairs forced the closure of the school on Ukivok, requiring all of the Aseuluk children to return to the mainland year-round. Without the support of the younger generation, the gathering of winter food became too much and eventually the entire Ukivokmiut population migrated permanently to mainland Alaska.

The stilt village remains, clinging to the seas-swept slope of King Island, essentially left as though they would return the next year. In recent years, local researchers have worked to facilitate this, allowing some members of the original population to return to the village. 

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July 14 2015 2:48 PM

The Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre in Laos Saves Bears from Gall Bladder Poachers

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

Swinging in hammocks, playing with tires, and generally frolicking in a wonderland made just for the them, the bears at the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre have plenty to be happy about—especially given they were all rescued from poachers looking to harvest their parts. 

Operated by Free the Bears, a fund set up to save imperiled ursines across the globe, the Tat Kuang Si Bear Rescue Centre caters specifically to the Asian black bear. The bile from the black bear's gall bladder is a common component in traditional Chinese medicine, and unfortunately a brutal black market has sprung up around milking the animals for their vital juices. Kept in inhumane conditions, the illegally trapped bears would be repeatedly harvested for as long as they could survive in their tiny cages. In addition, the animals are often poached to be used as food or even pets.

Tragic origins aside, the bears at the rescue center lead fulfilling lives in the open enclosures that provide enough space and stimulation to keep the animals happy and healthy.

Visitors to the refuge can stroll along the wooden paths and view the adorable (if grizzly) beasts as they lounge, play and generally look more cuddly than killer. There are also signs that inform guests of the plight of the Asian black bear. But seriously, just look at how cute those bears are.

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July 13 2015 1:14 PM

The Grim Medieval Sequence of the Dance of Death Bridge

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From the outside, Lucerne's Spreuer Bridge looks to be a peacefully bucolic Old World span, the kind where medieval lovers might have met on a warm spring day. But hanging beneath the covered roof are dozens of historic paintings of skeletons and reapers collecting souls and reminding travelers that every second is one closer to death.

The gable-roofed bridge was built in the 13th century to connect a group of mill buildings to the mainland. During its initial usage, the bridge was unique in that the mill workers could simply dump their waste into the river, since they were so far downstream. The wooden bridge survived for hundreds of years, retaining its peaked medieval style.

Then, in the mid-1600s, it was decided that the bridge would be spruced up a bit. A project was spearheaded to create a series of artworks forming a Dance of Death cycle, also known as a Danse Macabre, or Totentanz in German. The object of such works was to remind everyone that death comes for us all, whether old or young, rich or poor. In the end, 67 separate works were painted in the rafters of the covered bridge, each featuring at least one skeletal harbinger of death coming to drag people to the afterlife. Monks, knights, nuns, and beggars are all seen being taken by death no matter their life. 

Walks along covered rustic bridges are often symbolic of peaceful times of beauty, relaxation, and simple living, but the Spreuer Bridge really makes sure that people know they need to enjoy it while it lasts.

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July 10 2015 2:45 PM

Invasion of the Scarecrows: The Annual Celebration of the Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival 

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Every August since 1994, the bucolic English village of Kettlewell has been invaded by an army of whimsical straw men that establish themselves in residential yards, on rooftops, and in hidden corners.

Despite what could be the setup for a horror movie, the Kettlewell Scarecrow Festival is actually a warm-hearted event that the entire village leans into. The traditional festival began in 1994 with a fundraiser for the tiny hamlets and homesteads in the area. Surprisingly, the call for homemade scarecrows seemed to strike a chord, and more than 100 were created by the people of Kettlewell. Ever since, the festival has returned to the town every August, growing each year.

During the nine-day celebration, the locals create countless life-size homunculi, dressing them in everything from farm clothes to wedding dresses and posting them up everywhere from storefronts to rooftops. The citizens of Kettlewell put their own spin on each creation, vying to outdo their neighbors with the strange getups of their scarecrows. Many of the scarecrows are also tucked away in hidden spots just waiting to be found. Visitors can also try to solve riddles associated with some of the hollow men, which will lead them on a sort of scarecrow trail.

The thought of a whole village being overrun by dead-eyed scarecrows might be a little creepy, but as the thousands of visitors who flock to Kettlewell each August will attest, it can also be pretty fun.

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July 9 2015 4:00 PM

Chopin’s Heart Was Saved in Booze

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During his final days, celebrated Polish composer Frédéric Chopin made the gruesome request that his heart be taken from his corpse and sent back to his home country, knowing full well that his body would never leave Paris. 

When he passed, Chopin’s eldest sister, Ludwika Jędrzejewicz, complied with his request, taking the heart before his body could be buried and secreting it back to Poland in a jar of booze—most likely cognac. Jędrzejewicz hid the hearty package under her cloak—avoiding officers and agents who might ask too many questions about what she was carrying—and was able to smuggle the heart to the Holy Cross Church in Warsaw, where it was buried beneath a small monument.

Given Chopin’s popularity in his native Poland, the monument to his heart quickly became a rallying point for proud nationalists. During World War II, the Nazis, knowing the power the composer’s legacy held over the people, stole the heart (as well as outlawed his music). However, after the war they gave it back.

The heart was reinterred in the church and remains there to this day, undisturbed until recently. In 2014 a secret, Ocean's Eleven-esque crew of church officials, scientists, and medical experts dug up the heart under cover of night.

As much as this situation sounds like a caper, the group was actually just checking the container preserving the heart—they feared it might have cracked, allowing the heart to dry out and decay. Knowing how beloved Chopin still is among the Polish people, they simply wanted to avoid causing a public outcry at the exhumation. Luckily, Chopin’s heart isn’t beating, but it is still in great condition.

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July 8 2015 12:11 PM

The American Pigeon Museum and the Defense of the Dirt Bird

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

Many people, especially in big cities, view pigeons as flying rats whose primary profession is taking a crap all over the place. Yet pigeons are incredibly intelligent and the relationship between humans and these often shimmering birds has an extensive history.

The American Pigeon Museum honors this long-standing interaction and the simple majesty of the birds themselves. First forming in 1973 as the American Homing Pigeon Institute, the organization was initially devoted to the sport of training pigeons. In 1993, the organization expanded, purchasing ten acres in Oklahoma City where they opened the pigeon museum and the affiliated "World of Wings" pigeon center. The museum gave the institute a place to house and display the ever increasing number of artifacts and memorabilia that it was accumulating from practitioners of the sport and other collectors.

In 2013, the museum was expanded into its new facility where it remains today. Among the displays, many of which are named after pigeon researchers and enthusiasts, there are a number of statues, paintings, clocks, ads, and even mounted wings. Most engagingly are the extensive displays on the role of homing pigeons in World Wars I and II. The exhibits honor specific hero birds and there are also a number of military artifacts related to the use of the trained couriers, such as message pouches. 

The museum and library also hold an extensive collection of live pigeons of various breeds, so that visitors can see the wide and colorful variety of the birds. They even have flight shows. One visit to the American Pigeon Museum and you'll start thinking of the term "dirt bird" as a slur. 

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July 7 2015 1:45 PM

The Homegrown T. Rex Memorial

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

Father of the glam-rock trend during the 1970s along with his band T. Rex, Marc Bolan was tragically killed, like so many rock stars, far too young, in a car accident in London in 1977.

Despite his influence on the pop cultural landscape of the 1970s, the site of Bolan's death was never officially recognized with a memorial. However, thanks to the musician's devoted fans, a shrine has been erected that continues to grow to this day.

The tribute to the musician began when lovers of Bolan's music began making pilgrimages to the site where the car in which he was a passenger collided with a tree. Visitors began hanging notes and trinkets from the sycamore tree the car had hit, which eventually spread to a posting board next to it. After years of devotional offerings being placed on the "Bolan Tree," the branches started to give under the weight of the love hanging from its limbs, and the tree began to die.

Since the site was never officially recognized or cared for, no one knew what to do to save the tree, until a group of ultra-devoted fans formed the awesomely named "T. Rex Action Group." TAG, as it came to be known, began caring for the spot and was eventually given ownership of the land in perpetuity. The group continues to look after and improve the site to this day.

Today a stone plaque has been added in addition to a bronze bust of the flamboyant performer. Bolan's musical influence continues to live, and new fans are born every day, assuring that the site of his death will continue to accumulate devotionals for another four decades.    

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July 6 2015 10:00 AM

The Morbidly Patriotic Wonder of The National Eagle Repository

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

Here is a strange-but-true American fact: It is a crime to be in possession of eagles and eagle parts other than for the purposes of Native American tribal ritual, down to a feather.

But, you may be asking, what if I just happen to come across a dead eagle in the wild?

Good question! This is where the National Eagle Repository, the federal government’s official dead eagle processing center, comes in.

Part of the Rocky Mountain Arsenal National Wildlife Refuge near Denver, Colorado, the National Eagle Repository is the one place in the nation where deceased symbols of American freedom are sent, as well as the place you can look to for all your legal eagle part needs.

First created in the 1970s, the office as it exists today was established in 1995 as a result of a presidential mandate designed to create a legally regulated method for Native American tribes to obtain eagle parts for use in various cultural pastimes. The fierce protection of bald eagles in America made the procurement of eagle parts a thorny issue for many Native American tribes who them, especially the feathers, as components of their legally protected cultural rites. With the repository in place, obtaining eagle parts is now a perfectly legal process that both helps to protect the animal and the rights of the people who use them.

The late eagles themselves can flow to the Repository from a number of avenues. According to Coleen Schaefer, the Supervisory Wildlife Repository Specialist, eagle corpses usually come from state and federal wildlife officers who find the dead birds in the wild, as well as eagle rehabilitators who end up with birds that just couldn’t pull through. However zoos and even private citizens could (and, technically, are legally obligated to) send eagles to the facility. While the website calls for all eagle parts, regardless of condition to be sent to the repository, Schaefer says they mainly get whole eagles. The Repository is refreshingly non-discriminatory in its desire for dead eagle parts, although as their website also makes very clear, they should not be sent eagles who have died from the West Nile Virus. Which, surprisingly and tragically, is a real problem.

Birds who have been poisoned are also problematic as the Repository will only accept them after an necropsy has been performed, just like if it was a human murder victim.

Schaefer says that in addition to the more standard cases where the bird died of disease or some other natural cause, they also get birds that were killed in illegal shootings. Once the investigation is over, the “victim” is shipped out to the Repository to be used for parts, then necropsied. Sometimes they even come in still carrying their last meal. “We have received eagles where prey are still gripped in their talons, e.g. fish, ducks, etc., and that's always interesting,” says Schaefer.

The National Eagle Repository may not be picky about what birds come to them, they are incredibly fastidious about the parts they send out to others. When the eagles come to the Repository, they are assessed for their usability to the Native American population, as damaged parts are not acceptable for many of their uses. Schaefer estimates that 30-40 eagles a day are evaluated. “If the bird is best suited to be used for feathers, we hand pluck the feathers from the wings and tail to provide to the applicant,” she says. (Usable or no, that is a staggering amount of dead eagles and there are only three staff members working on the eagles full-time.)

If you happen to come across a dead eagle, you should contact a wildlife officer. But in case you decide to take care of that national treasure corpse yourself, the Repository suggests that you wear gloves to protect yourself from disease, place the bird in a sturdy plastic bag to prevent “leakage,” and get it into a freezer as soon as possible. All good rules for handling any dead thing, really.

They also suggest that you transport the carcass in a separate area from yourself in a vehicle. Specifically, the back of a pick-up. During both handling and packaging the eagle, it’s important to remember to be extra careful with the feathers, because if they are damaged, turning in your grimly-patriotic find will all have been for naught.

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July 2 2015 12:53 PM

The McDonald’s First Store Museum Is a Fast-Food Time Capsule From the Heyday of Drive-Thrus

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 McDonald's fast-food chain may be one of the most well-known brands to ever exist, but its slightly complicated ownership history is not widely known. Illinois' McDonald's First Store Museum sets out to rectify that with a period replica of its (oddly) ninth store.

McDonald's was established in 1940 as a barbecue joint owned by a pair of brothers, Richard and Maurice McDonald. It was not until the mid-1950s that the man more formally recognized as the innovator behind the McDonald's franchise system, Ray Kroc, came in and turned the restaurant chain into the brand we know today. It is this legacy that the McDonald's First Store Museum looks to pass on.

The McDonald's restaurant where the museum is housed was actually the ninth in the company's history, but it was the first to fully realize Kroc's fast-food vision. With a huge sign bearing the original mascot, a moon-faced chef named "Speedee," the iconic building was meant to lure drivers in for a quick, uniform bite to eat. The original restaurant was opened in 1955 and featured a number of period flourishes including the now iconic golden arches.

The museum that stands today is actually a fully rebuilt replica of the original restaurant, which was torn down in 1984. It is a pristine time capsule with mannequins working a never-ending shift behind the spotless grill, dressed in the original 1955 uniform. The museum does not serve food, but given McDonald's ubiquity it is unsurprising that there is a fully functioning franchise location right across the street.

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