Atlas Obscura
Your Guide to the World's Hidden Wonders

June 10 2016 12:30 PM

French Azilum in Pennsylvania

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Despite France's crucial role in helping America win independence from Britain during the Revolutionary War, the newly born United States did not return the favor when France's own political revolution sprang up a decade later. A few influential Pennsylvanians, however, did throw a small bone to the French upper crust.

In the late 18th century, several wealthy Pennsylvania politicians and businessmen expressed sympathies with exiles of the French Revolution and built a small settlement for aristocratic refugees fleeing the war. Loyalists of King Louis XVI were hoping to escape the guillotine following the king's execution in 1793, and French exiles were also fleeing the French colony of Saint-Domingue in Haiti, where slave uprisings had broken out in 1791.

The Pennsylvania men, who included Stephen Girard, Robert Morris, and John Nicholson, saw a lucrative opportunity in the refugees' displacement, and purchased a 300-acre plot of land in Bradford County, near a river bend of the Susquehanna. The intention was to create a small slice of France for French asylum seekers, with the hope that it would become a self-sufficient community. 

On this plot of land by the Susquehanna River, the quasi-court once entertained princes and future kings—it's rumored the settlement even included a house for Queen Marie Antoinette.

The plot was laid out to look like a town, with a market square, a grid of broad streets and 413 lots for houses. About 30 long houses were built from logs. Although crude, most of these houses had a chimney, wallpaper, glass windows, shutters and porches. 

Around 30 refugees arrived at French Azilum in the fall of 1793. La Grande Maison, the grandest log structure in the settlement, was used for social gatherings and entertaining distinguished guests, such as Talleyrand and Louis Philippe, the future king of France. Rumors flew that the house was intended to be the home of Marie Antoinette and her children, should they manage to escape from France.

However the attempt to create an insular version of the French good life did not last long. Morris and Nicholson went bankrupt in the late 1790s, and money from French sources dried up. Many of the exiles left for Southern American cities like New Orleans; Savannah, Georgia; and Charleston, South Carolina.

In 1803, Napoleon allowed the exiles to return to France, and the little sliver of France had all but disappeared by the turn of the century. Some families chose to remain in Pennsylvania and settled in local communities: the LaPortes, Homets, LeFevres, Brevosts, and D'Autremonts. 

Today, none of the more than 50 original structures of French Azilum remain. The historic site retained some 20 acres of the original settlement, though most of the land was absorbed into local farmland. There is one reconstructed log cabin that serves as a museum, which displays artifacts and objects that belonged to the town's original French exiles. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor Urvija Banerji.

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June 9 2016 12:30 PM

The Forks Timber Museum

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If you are driving around Forks, Washington, and see two burly loggers hardily sawing away—motionlessly carved into wood—then you’ve arrived at the Forks Timber Museum.

Forks, Washington, is a quaint town in the Pacific Northwest built on the lumber trade, though it’s now become better known for serving as the setting for the Twilight angsty teen vampire book series. If you happen to be in town and aren’t keen on visiting Twilight-themed cafés, then you ought to give the Timber Museum a whirl. The museum's exhibits provide a close-up look at what it was like to live and work in the heart of the timber industry, tracing back to the 1870s, when Western settlers first arrived in the region.

In those days, forests were deep and dense, navigable only by trail. Settlers cleared forest to set up homesteads and farms—the first dairy cows arrived by schooner. Growth was slow: By the 1920s, the town of Forks was still barely a block of buildings, and electricity didn’t spark up until 1923. All the while, teams of loggers whiled away their hours at logging camps run by timber barons, sped up by the introduction of railroads in 1918. By the 1970s, Forks had become known as the “logging capital of the world.”

The museum, built by the local high school carpentry class of 1989, offers glimpses back into the industry’s earlier and brighter days. Its displays include outdated tools and equipment, Native American artifacts, and photos of old camp life. Outside, there’s also a restored fire lookout. The museum’s operator is very friendly and informed on all things logging if you happen to have any knotty questions.  

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor Tao Tao Holmes.

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June 8 2016 12:30 PM

The Paperclip Cottage Cafe

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In 2005, Kyle MacDonald was working at his desk when he saw a little red paperclip. He was reminded of a game he played as a child called “bigger and better,” where each player starts with a small object and tries to trade it up for something bigger and better, without spending any money. Whoever has the most valuable object at the end wins.

Typically, the end result will be something on the level of a toy car. But this time, MacDonald wanted to go further: He wanted to trade a paperclip all the way up to an entire house, no matter how long or how far away it would take him.

So, he put the paperclip on Craigslist to see if someone would trade for it, and days later, exchanged the object for a pen shaped like a fish. That same day, he traded the pen for a doorknob with a face on it.

From there, he traveled all the way from the West Coast to Massachusetts, where he found a man who needed a knob for his stovetop espresso maker. In exchange, MacDonald received a camping stove. Months later, he traded the camping stove for an electric generator, and the generator for an “instant party” kit, complete with a neon sign, an empty keg, and an IOU to fill it up with beer.

He traded the party kit for a used snowmobile, the snowmobile for two tickets to the Canadian Rockies, and one of the tickets (he used the other for himself) for a used box truck. He traded the box truck for a recording contract, the recording contract for a year’s rent in Phoenix, and the year’s rent for an afternoon with Alice Cooper. That afternoon, he went onstage with Cooper, holding a giant, 10-foot red paperclip above his head.

A week later, he made the controversial decision to trade an afternoon with Alice Cooper for a KISS snow globe. The online community exploded: “This is probably the dumbest decision I have ever seen anyone make ... ever. Except for the people on Jerry Springer.”

What they didn't know is that MacDonald had been contacted two months earlier by Hollywood producer Corbin Bernsen, who owns the world’s largest snow globe collection—over 6,500 globes—and needed a new addition. MacDonald gave his KISS snow globe to Bernsen in exchange for a contract for a speaking role in the director's upcoming film, Donna on Demand.

At last, nearly a year after making his first trade, MacDonald traded the speaking role to the small Canadian town of Kipling, Saskatchewan, in exchange for a two-story house. The small town had a giant celebration of MacDonald’s feat, and there were live auditions for the movie role, which ultimately went to Nolan Hubbard, propelling his career from minimum-wage worker to Hollywood star.

And that's how Kyle MacDonald traded a paperclip for a house.

Since acquiring the house in 2006, MacDonald has traded it (not sold, of course) to a restaurant owner, who has converted the house into the Paperclip Cottage Cafe, which to this day sells coffee and pastries to the 1,140 residents of Kipling. Next to the cafe lies a sign claiming the world record for trades, and in the center of town sits a giant, red paperclip.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor lewblank.

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June 7 2016 12:30 PM

The Subtle Design Features That Make Cities Feel More Hostile

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There's a fearsome fence surrounding the Miles Brewton House in Charleston, South Carolina. Its wrought-iron rails are topped with a cheval de frise, a horizontal bar covered in long spikes that jut out at multiple angles. Added in response to a planned slave revolt in 1822, the spiky bar sends a clear message: You are not welcome here.

Historically, landowners and city planners have kept sections of the population at bay by incorporating defensive design features into the architecture: spiked fences; barbed wire; a castle moat. In the 21st century, however, overt deterrents like these have given way to subtler features aimed at exerting social control and keeping unwanted groups out.

In 2014, widespread outrage arose when a luxury London apartment building installed "anti-homeless spikes" to prevent people from sleeping in an alcove near the front door. The spikes, which were removed following the public outcry, drew attention to a broader urban phenomenon known as hostile architecture.

June 3 2016 12:30 PM

The Wreck of the HMVS Cerberus

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The HMVS Cerberus is a breakwater shipwreck that served as part of the Victorian Naval Forces when Australia was still a British colony and also as part of the Royal Australian Navy until 1924. It now rests just off the coast as a rusting scrap.

Named for Cerberus, the ferocious three-headed dog that guards the entrance to Hades, this 225-foot-long warship was built for the colony of Victoria in 1870. It was the first "breastwork monitor," an innovation of designer Edward James Reed. As such, the ship included a central, armored structure that contained rotating gun turrets, the bridge, funnels, and all other necessary operational pieces. This both lessened the chance that the ship would be sunk by breaking waves and placed its weapons at a strategically elevated height.

Those weapons were never tested however. Although the HMVS Cerberus was one of the jewels of the Royal Australian Navy, it never left its home port of Philip Bay or saw any action, even though it was on active duty for over half a century. By World War I, its status as a warship was revoked, and it became a guardship and munitions store. Before being permanently retired in 1924, it also had a brief stint supplying submarines. 

In 1924, the ship was sold for scrap at a price of £409. Its stripped-down hull was then resold for an entire £150. It was scuttled in Half Moon Bay in 1926 to serve as a breakwater, its mass reducing the intensity of the waves on the beach in front of the Black Rock Yacht Club. For many years, however, it remained valuable as an attraction. The wreck is only about 10 feet from the shore, so for the period of time when the upper decks remained exposed, visitors would come out for picnics, exploration, and scuba diving. Following a structural collapse in 1993, things are now more precarious. Although HMVS Cerberus has started to sink under the water, the tough old broad remains visible from shore. A flag on top of its smoke stack still proudly waves in the sea breeze.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor BakerCompany.

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June 2 2016 12:30 PM

Museo del Objeto del Objeto

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Food packages, vintage pharmaceuticals, soda bottles, stationery, clothing, cosmetics, toys, advertisements, old electronics, shoe polish—you name it, the Museo del Objeto del Objeto probably has it. As intriguing as it is, though, MODO's collection of almost 100,000 objects is almost secondary to the museum's primary goal of serving as an homage to the collector in all of us.

The foundation for the museum was provided by the private collection of Bruno Newman, whose interest in beautiful, rare, obscure, or otherwise interesting items led him to amass 30,000 such objects over a period of 40 years. His curios first decorated his coffee table, then a full room in his home, and eventually a warehouse. The collection included everything from turn-of-the-century French lotion to shaving implements to old bouillon cans. Ultimately, he decided to make his collection available for the public to study and enjoy, converting his 1906 Art Nouveau mansion into an exhibition space and naming it the Museo del Objeto del Objeto ("Museum of the Object [as in purpose] of the Object"), which opened in 2010.

MODO was established not only to showcase the fascinating and curious objects collected by Newman and others but also to chronicle the history and culture of commercial, promotional, and advertorial design in Mexico and elsewhere. It also celebrates Mexico's thriving collecting scene—whether the collectibles are sneakers, skateboards, or postcards.

The oldest object in the museum dates back to 1810, and taken together, the collection provides an intriguing look at the design of the relatively mundane items people have interacted with on a daily basis over the past 200 years. Given the large size of the collection and the comparatively small exhibition space available, all exhibits are temporary and rotate regularly.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor alleywaykid.

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June 1 2016 12:30 PM

The Chattanooga Choo Choo Hotel

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At the turn of the 20th century, Chattanooga was a bustling hub of transportation. Industrial growth in the city led to overcrowding in its train stations, and in 1909, Terminal Station was opened to handle passenger rail service needs.

Built in the Beaux-Arts style and sporting an 85-foot central dome and the “largest brick arch in the world” at the time, Terminal Station was the essence of luxury. At its peak, the station serviced 50 passenger trains a day, and several presidents are said to have walked through its doors.

After World War II, however, passenger rail began to decline in favor of automobiles and airplanes. Fearing that Terminal Station would meet the same fate as many demolished stations around the country, a group of Chattanooga businessman banded together to save the station. Inspired by the 1941 song made famous by Glen Miller, they turned the station into a hotel and entertainment complex and called it the Chattanooga Choo Choo. The new hotel opened its doors in 1973 and in 1974 was added to the National Register of Historic Places.

Today, beautiful rose gardens dotted with fountains, gazebos, and koi ponds fill the space where passengers used to board their trains. Shops and restaurants line the courtyard, and an operational trolley from 1924 gives educational tours of the grounds. Most notable are the Pullman train cars where guests can spend the night (though the Choo Choo also features more standard accommodations for the less adventurous).

In 2014 the hotel began another round of renovations, hoping to kick off a second century as grand as its first.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor sulliii.

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May 31 2016 12:30 PM

The First Woman to Put Her Face on Packaging Got Trolled Like Crazy

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As every single person on the Internet knows, women who dare to enter the public eye are regularly pilloried. Message boards are rife with misogyny. Trolls lurk under every tweet. "Don't read the comments" has become a necessary mantra.

But as 19th century apothecary Lydia E. Pinkham might attest, none of this is particularly modern. In the late 1800s, Pinkham's face became among the most recognizable in the world—and this brought consequences. Until she came along, the only woman whose image showed up regularly in public was Queen Victoria.

When Pinkham first put herself on a bottle of her bestselling Vegetable Concoction, men sent her hate mail, harping on her haircut and her "cast-iron smile." Journalists mixed her up with other famous women. College choirs made fun of her in song. All because she dared to put her portrait on a label.

Before becoming a well-known medicine maven, Pinkham had led a relatively quiet life. She was a schoolteacher, mother, and dedicated abolitionist in her hometown of Lynn, Massachusetts. She got into preparing medicines at the age of 56, through knack and necessity: The economy was tanking, her family needed money, and she happened to have a great recipe for a much-needed drug.

Nineteenth-century pharmacies were full of patent medicines—mixtures that, though dodgy by modern standards, helped citizens through illnesses and complaints, often by slyly dosing them with cocaine or opium. Pinkham had spent years concocting a menstrual cramp-soothing mixture that all the neighborhood women swore by. In 1875, hoping local appeal would translate, she brewed up the first commercial batch of her "Vegetable Compound"—some roots, some seeds, and a generous amount of alcohol, all stirred together on the stove.

May 27 2016 12:30 PM

Curaçao’s Sand-Floored Synagogue

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Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue—often referred to as the Snoa, another term for synagogue—is the oldest surviving synagogue and Jewish congregation in the Americas. This is more than enough to make it a place of historical significance, but it has another element that makes it unusual. The floor is entirely covered in sand.

Founded in Curaçao in 1651, the congregation’s original name translates to the Hope of Israel. The Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue itself began construction in 1729, was completed in 1732, and has been in continuous use ever since.

The synagogue is tucked into a quiet street in the Punda neighborhood of Willemstad, the historic capital city of Curaçao. Though it has an inconspicuous exterior, once you step inside, you’ll find rows of pews, towering chandeliers, and a shining mahogany bemah. As you walk around, your feet sink softly into the floor of sand.

Spanish and Portuguese Jews from the Netherlands and Brazil were early settlers in the Caribbean islands, taking on influential roles in the local communities, and the Jewish community in Curaçao was notable among those in the New World. (Nearby, the Hendrickplein Jewish Temple, built in 1865, is also well worth a visit.) 

The reasons for the Jewish migration to the islands and the reason for the sand floor may be connected—an attempt to avoid persecution. As Jews made their new home in the Caribbean, fears of persecution lingered. The sand floor is said to have been there to muffle the sound of steps as a reminder of the secret Jewish services performed in the recent past. While that is one interpretation, the true origin of the sand-floored synagogue is largely mysterious. Nonetheless, the tradition has carried on in other far-flung Jewish communities. Sand-floor synagogues can be found in four other locations, in Jamaica, in Suriname, in Saint Thomas, and in the Portuguese Synagogue of Amsterdam. 

The building is in very good condition, and guests can attend the regular services. You can also check out their Jewish Cultural Historical Museum, which contains information on the island’s Jewish community and history as well as artifacts such as old scrolls and spice boxes.

The city of Willemstad, a designated UNESCO World Heritage Site, looks at first glance like an Amsterdam lookalike, though it has a population of only around 150,000. Curaçao, an island in the Caribbean just off the coast of South America, only gained autonomy from the Netherlands on Oct. 10, 2010, which was the first time since the arrival of the Spanish in 1499 that the islanders regained political control.

Submitted by Atlas Obscura fellow and contributor Tao Tao Holmes.

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May 26 2016 12:30 PM

A Local Prank Turned Town Icon

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Located in the Dauphin Narrows stretch of the Susquehanna River stands a mini Statue of Liberty that is a 25-foot-tall replica of the original. Technically it is a replica of a replica. The current statue is the second little Lady Liberty to hold her torch high above the old railway piling in the middle of the river.  

The first was 18 feet tall and made of plywood and venetian blinds. It was erected in 1986 as a patriotic prank to commemorate the centennial of the original Statue of Liberty. No one knew who made it or how it got there, and no one would come forward to take the credit/blame.

This first replica was blown off her pedestal and destroyed in 1992, a surprisingly long run considering its construction materials. However, in the six years since she had first appeared, the people of Dauphin Township had grown rather fond of her. Money was raised to erect a heavier, sturdier 25-foot version of the statue, this time constructed from metal. This one was put in place in 1997 by a helicopter and lashed to the piling. It still stands today. 

It wasn't until years later in 2011 that local lawyer, Gene Stlip, finally owned up to not only orchestrating the making of the statue but also taking the daring trip into the dangerous river water to climb the piling and help erect the statue. Little did he know his prank would become a permanent monument for the people of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Being a lawyer, Stlip also pointed out that the statute of limitations for prosecuting the crime of illegal statue placement has long since passed. 

Submitted by Atlas Obscura contributor Jane Weinhardt Goldberg.

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