{"feed":"Atlas-Obscura-Latest-Articles-and-Places","feedTitle":"Atlas Obscura","feedLink":"/feed/Atlas-Obscura-Latest-Articles-and-Places","catTitle":"Histoy","catLink":"/cat/histoy"}

Fertile meadows of bee balm, purple aster, meadow prairie dropseed, orange butterfly weed, and wild strawberry plants overlook the scrap yards and factories of one of Brooklyn’s most heavily industrialized areas. The once bare rooftop that overlooks the Newtown Creek Wastewater Treatment Plant’s massive egg-like digester tanks is now home to 22,000 square feet of native plants, birds, bats, and insects.

The green space, called Kingsland Wildflowers, is located on the roof of Broadway Stages film studios on Kingsland Avenue in Brooklyn's Greenpoint neighborhood. It's a collaboration of landscaping group Alive Structures, New York City Audubon, the Newtown Creek Alliance, and, rather indirectly, ExxonMobile.

The idyllic array of local flora and fauna that fills the sky-high meadow was bankrolled by the Greenpoint Community Environmental Fund, an environmental grant program created with money from the $25 million settlement with ExxonMobil over its Greenpoint oil spill.

The story of Kingsland Wildflowers starts around the 1950s when three Exxon Mobil tankers out on Newtown Creek started leaking oil into the 3.5-mile estuary. The leak wasn’t discovered until 1978 when a Coast Guard helicopter on a routine flight over the East River discovered the plume of a 400 gallon oil slick floating on top of the water. Exxon spent the next year pumping 90,000 gallons out of the creek.

A considerable amount of the 17 to 30 million gallons of oil that...

How do you solve a problem like ... a broken, priceless church organ? The sisters of Santa Ines, a convent in Seville, Spain, had been wrangling with this conundrum for some three decades. The estimated cost for the repair was an eye-watering $177,000—well beyond the means of a convent that runs mostly on the sale of pastries. This income barely covers their bills and health benefits, the abbess Blanca Cervantes told ABC de Sevilla newspaper. Then, salvation. A local charity, the Alqvimia Musicae Foundation, agreed to cover the costs, and make the pipes of the organ carol and call once again—just in time for Christmas.

But the regional government of Andalusia saw this blessing as an unauthorized attack on the historic instrument. Dating from the 17th century, the organ was built and designed by the master Perez Valladolid, and was recognized as an Item of Cultural Significance by the regional Ministry of Culture in 1983. The authorities have slapped the nuns with a hefty 170,000€ (around $200,000) fine for the unlawful restoration. Speaking to the Spanish newspaper, a representative said: "We have simply done what the law obliges us to do." Still, that fine could be reduced to a hardly merciful 103,000€ ($120,000) if the nuns agree to settle out of court. (The regional authorities, in their wisdom, seem happy enough that the restoration has been done and might net them a profit.)

The fate of...

I'm in the Hyde Room of Harvard's Houghton Library, and I'm biting my nails. Leslie Morris, the curator of modern books and manuscripts, and Carie McGinnis, the preservation librarian, are doing their darndest to pry open a two-hundred-year-old locket. They take turns, passing it between their gloved hands, bringing it under a lamp to get a better look at the clasp. Eventually, they give up, fearing they'll break it. Morris turns to me: "You'll just have to imagine that there are two little hairs in here," she says.

Houghton Library, a stately brick building in the southeast corner of Harvard's campus, is where the university keeps many of its oldest and rarest books and manuscripts. The collections have a little of everything: there's a roughly 2,000-year-old poem written on papyrus, a playbill for the Ford's Theatre production during which President Lincoln was assassinated, and a sheaf of private letters Marcel Proust wrote to his lover, Reynaldo Hahn.

I'm not here to see any of this, though. I'm here for the famous hair. Houghton has a lot of it—specimens attributed to everyone from Napoleon I to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow—and McGinnis and Morris have kindly laid out a small selection for me. The two strands stuck in the locket, and which I have now been tasked with imagining, came from the head of John Keats. Luckily, there's another sample of his—a light-brown whorl appended to the corner of...

Toledo, Spain is known as the City of Three Cultures, as Christian, Jewish, and Muslim communities have coexisted within its stone walls. The fortified city in Castilla-La Mancha was also the site of fierce persecution during the Spanish Inquisition. On an unassuming corner on the labyrinthine streets of the old city, the Museo de la Tortura displays artifacts from this dark period in the nation’s history and that of other European powers.     

The exhibit is spread across five rooms, with insight on the Spanish Inquisition’s origins as well as its methods for torture and execution. Plaques throughout the museum offer descriptions of the tools in both English and Spanish, and provide some historical background for the brutal practices of the Inquisition.

While the museum is home to infamous medieval devices like the rack and the iron maiden, it boasts a collection of lesser known instruments of torture. Pieces like the choke pear and chair of Judas demonstrate the sadistic inventiveness at work within the Inquisition, with many contraptions designed to punish specific offenses or prolong suffering before death.     

Tools like the thumb vice were often used to force a confession or repentance, inflicting pain without risking death of the victim. The interrogation seat was lined with spikes that could be heated before a prisoner was locked into place. Some pieces like the garrote vil were used long after the Inquisition had ended. The neck-crushing collar was used in Spain...

In mid-19th-century France, a single marshmallow was a confectionary miracle to be savored. Made from the sap of the mallow plant, whipped egg whites, water, and sugar syrup, each one was individually formed—only high-end confectioners need apply. This sticky and time-consuming task was near-impossible to reproduce at home. So marshmallows were correspondingly expensive, dainty treats. But in 1895, Joseph Demerath of Rochester, New York, managed to disrupt the time-consuming tradition and bring marshmallows to the masses. Within 30 years, Americans would be turning them into mayonnaise (!), salads, and the famous sweet potato casserole.

Instead of costly mallow gum, Demerath used gelatin. With this recipe and the recently invented whirling steam marshmallow machine, he could make mass quantities of white fluff quickly and easily. The Rochester Marshmallow Works inspired fleets of copycats and, by 1900, the confections were everywhere. At first, they were cast into domed squares. By 1911, according to the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture, you could buy them in the shape of cones, pears, bananas, rolls, blocks, fish, slabs, and (troublingly) babies. America had gone marshmallow-mad, and the mold was their oyster. (You could get them in the shape of clams, too.)

Marshmallows first made their way onto Thanksgiving tables as delicacies in their own right. In 1901, the New York Times described “marshmallow baskets,” which put the treats at center stage, as a...

When you think of healthy, trendy food, avocado toast or artificial meat may come to mind. But 120 years ago, Michigan’s Battle Creek Sanitarium was ahead of the curve. Health-seeking patients ate meat-free, grain-filled meals designed by the wealthy, influential inventors of Corn Flakes.

Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother William Keith Kellogg invented breakfast as we know it. The Kellogg cereal empire started in Battle Creek, Michigan, at the Sanitarium, a health spa run by the Kelloggs and backed by the Seventh-Day Adventists, a Christian denomination. Both brothers were Seventh Day Adventists, and their health theories dovetailed with Adventist strictures limiting meat, alcohol, and caffeine consumption. But these limitations didn’t bother famous Americans such as Amelia Earhart, Henry Ford, and future President Warren G. Harding. All three of them flocked to Kellogg’s health facility to eat what the doctor ordered.

The Sanitarium was a booming business. Thousands of patients came in search of a cure for the painful indigestion caused by heavy, meat-filled diets—a near epidemic at the time. For those who couldn’t make it to Michigan, Dr. Kellogg published cookbooks and manuals promoting the Sanitarium’s exercise and nutrition guidelines, as well as products such as his wheat-based, flaked cereal Granose. Kellogg intended this bland diet to fight both Victorian digestive troubles and the “problem” of sexual arousal. (He believed that food could cause impure thoughts.)...

There are countless model warships on display at the U.S. Navy Museum, ranging from wooden paddlewheelers to World War II flattops, but none of these miniature marvels could trade broadsides with the 19-foot-long model of the USS Missouri.

The little “Big Mo” was produced by the Gibbs & Cox naval architecture firm and depicts the ship’s appearance on September 2, 1945, at 9:02 a.m., the moment of a Japanese surrender ceremony on its deck that brought World War II to an end. According to the Curator of Navy Ship Models, “Special attention was to be devoted to flags and to detailing the table and chairs with the surrender documents in place.”

Gibbs & Cox had a team of 16 expert model makers working on the Missouri and finished it in 23 months, well ahead of the three years required to build the full-sized, 887-foot-long battleship! They achieved a level of detail that in places verges on the preposterous, and even the thickness of the gray coat of paint is to scale.

Started in 1983, the Port Townsend Bay Kinetic Sculpture Race in Washington is an annual race of movable sculptures, or as the race organizers like to call them, "kinetically inspired dream machines." The race, one of several held around the world, is the third oldest in the United States and is part of a long tradition of kinetic sculpture races.

The first race happened almost by accident. In 1969 Ferndale, California artist Hobart Brown decided to make a few adjustments to his son's tricycle. The "fix" resulted in a brand new vehicle, a pentacycle, which Brown parked in front of his gallery. Another local artist, Jack Mays, spotted Brown's work, decided to make his own moveable sculpture, and then challenged Brown to a race.

Word spread, several other artists joined in, and the race was on. Neither Mays nor Brown won, but they'd started something big. Over the years, race courses have evolved from the early days and now include water and mud elements.

The rules of the Port Townsend race are pretty simple. Racers must construct a "human powered, artistically enhanced vehicle that must go through sand (Kwick Sand), mud (The Dismal Bog), float on water (The Great Bay), and...

The forecast "cloudy with a chance of meatballs" takes on an entirely different meaning when you find yourself facing several metric tons of spherical meat.

Drivers in southwest Sweden faced this unusual obstacle last Wednesday. Ice covering a small road near the E20 motorway caused a truck's trailer to swerve into a ditch. The truck, on its way to pick up potatoes, stayed on the road. But the trailer rolled on its side and unleashed a cascade of meatballs—20 tons total—according to Skaraborgs Läns Tidning. Thankfully, no one was injured.

Officer Tommy Emriksson told a local TV outlet that smaller roads, much like where the accident occurred, often do not have salt on them. Drivers should proceed with caution during icy conditions, especially when carrying enormous shipments of meatballs.

Rescue teams said that the rest of the meatballs had to be unloaded before they could dig the trailer out of the ditch, which would take some time. No word, however, on whether a crowd of hungry revelers, forks in hand, could be seen on their way to help clean up.

Upon entering the Macy’s Center City store from the street, it seems like a perfectly nice early 20th-century department store. Walk in a bit farther, and the main hall opens to reveal a soaring space seven stories high with an ornate ceiling and balustraded galleries at each level. But what truly defines this space is the magnificent pipe organ.

The Wanamaker Grand Court Organ is world’s largest single organ chamber. It’s also the world’s largest fully functioning regularly played organ. It boasts nearly 29,000 pipes and was built to be an imitation of an entire full-sized orchestra.

The behemoth instrument was first played on June 22, 1911 and has been played regularly since. Nearly every day, a professional plays it once in the morning and once in the evening. At those moments, the sounds of Bach, Handel, and other composers fill the great hall. People specifically pop into the store to hear the organ in action, though there are some shoppers who carry on as if they aren’t being treated to a free concert.

The organ was built by the Los Angeles Organ Co for the 1904 Saint Louis World's Fair. John Wanamaker purchased it in 1909 for his department store, which Macy’s eventually took over. Moving the instrument from Philadelphia required 13 freight cars and installing it took two years.

The Charlton House is one of the best-preserved Jacobean mansions in the London area. In addition to boasting beautiful Jacobean architecture, the estate also contains one of England’s oldest mulberry trees.

The royal family built the massive brick building in the early 17th century for Sir Adam Newton, Prince Henry’s tutor. Sadly, Sir Newton died before its completion. Nevertheless, construction on the mansion continued.

Extravagant rooms, complete with intricate ceilings and grand fireplaces, fill its interior. Little details within the interior architecture, such as James VI and I’s royal cypher and the Stuart coat of arms, are relics leftover from its former royal glory.

Outside, you’ll also find another surviving feature installed at the request of the Stuart family. Sometime around 1608, James VI and I decided he wanted the estate to be a place where people could cultivate silkworms. So, at his command, a mulberry tree was planted within the Charlton House grounds.

However, the king mistakenly ordered a black mulberry tree, not realizing that silkworms only breed in white mulberry trees. Despite the error, the tree was allowed to remain in place. It’s still there, making it one of the oldest mulberry trees in all of England.

People can see the tree while wandering around the estate. If you happen to go on...

What you are looking at, in the photo above, are dental phantoms. They are not meant to be ghoulish; they are meant to train dentists. But there’s no denying that they are striking, memorable objects. Which is exactly what attracts Mariano Chavez to them.

Chavez is the founder and proprietor of Agent Gallery Chicago, a collection of medical tools, dental mannequins, and other unique objects. As an artist, Chavez is drawn to these vintage medical devices both for their sculptural qualities and for their particular uses. While his initial attraction to a piece is always based on its appearance, he says, “I like that people apply some sort of training and understanding to these objects.”

Chavez started gathering these medical oddities after graduate school, when he was working with a friend on architectural salvage. Often, they’d go through hospitals, and little by little Chavez started collecting pieces of medical history.

“Initially I was more into collecting. I would keep a lot of the pieces,” he says. “Now I keep them for a little bit, I document them, I make catalogues.”

Eventually, though, he offers most of the items for sale. His customers are divided, roughly, into two groups—people who collect art and sculpture and see his finds as beautiful objects and people who collect medical objects.

“There are little doctor collector groups that have their own mini-museums,” he says. A...

Frank Lloyd Wright's largest public project was California’s Marin County Civic Center. The ambitious complex, which includes an 11-acre lagoon and 20-acre park, is sometimes referred to as the "Big Pink" for its pink stucco walls.

Wright was selected to design the center in 1957. But groundbreaking for the structure didn’t happen until 1960, one year after the modernist architect’s death. His work wasn't restricted to just the building’s plans—he designed the doors, signs, and furniture in the center. 

Wright's protégé Aaron Green oversaw construction of the main building, which was completed in 1962. The Hall of Justice was added in 1969; the Veterans Memorial Auditorium in 1971; and the Exhibit Hall in 1976. The accompanying post office, one of several accessory buildings on the site, is the only federal government project of Wright's career.

The main building is a State and National Historic Landmark. It has been nominated by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Its distinctive blue roof, pink walls, and scalloped balconies lend a whimsical air to the structure, which was used as a filming location for George Lucas's film THX 1138. Lucas was also inspired by Wright’s designs while creating the structures on Naboo in the Star Wars films.

Lucas wasn't the only one to cement the center's place in pop culture history. Parts of Peter Frampton's album Frampton Comes Alive! were recorded there...

It all began with a milkshake.

After the Arab conquest of Persia in the mid seventh century, adherents to Zoroastrianism, which may be the world’s oldest monotheistic religion, fled their ancestral home. Piling into boats and carrying their sacred fire with them, they landed on India’s west coast, in the state of Gujarat.

According to lore, the local king eyed the newcomers with suspicion. Not speaking their language, he presented the Zoroastrians with a jug of milk, filled to the brim, in an effort to communicate that there was no room for them in his kingdom. In response, the Zoroastrian high priests dissolved sugar in the milk without spilling a drop from the jug, demonstrating how they would enrich the local community without displacing anyone.

The sweetened milk won over the king—and eventually the rest of India. Thousands more Zoroastrians came to India, crossing present day Iran, Pakistan, and India on foot, on camel, and by boat.

Known as “Parsis,” or “Iranis” for later waves of Zoroastrian migrants, this small and tight-knit community has since built impressive businesses and charitable institutions in India. But their most well-known legacy remains culinary.

“People are crazy about Irani food,” says Sarosh Irani, the co-owner of B. Merwan & Co, a Parsi-style bakery and cafe in Mumbai. Waking up every night at midnight, he takes the train into work and arrives by 3 a.m. to...

Hōnen-in is located just off the Philosopher’s Walk, a canal-flanked pedestrian path lined with cherry trees in east Kyoto’s Higashiyama district. After entering through a moss-covered gateway and passing between two purifying sand mounds, visitors will immediately notice a coziness not found at many of the city’s grander and more popular temples and shrines.

An unassuming dirt pathway through the trees leads to a wooded cemetery, which is even more serene than the temple itself. The graves are adorned with traditional flowers, incense, and water. Most have beautiful sotōba (offertory strips of wood) to examine. Lovers of Japanese literature will want to pay their respects to the illustrious Jun’ichirō Tanizaki, whose unique grave is set off on its own.

Tanizaki was one of Japan’s most popular novelists. His work, which was at times controversial for its frequent erotic themes, left a lingering mark on modern Japanese literature. Tanizaki also had a brief stint with silent films, where he was a pioneering figure in integrating modernist themes with Japanese filmmaking.

The Tanizaki Prize, one of the country’s most coveted literary awards, was named after the author. He was even shortlisted for a Nobel Prize in 1964, the year before he died of a heart attack. The author’s fans still visit his grave,...

Emerald Valley is a beautiful turquoise waterway hidden behind the parking lot of Guam Power Authority, a power plant in Piti, a village located on the western shore of the island of  Guam. The village contains the commercial port of Guam at Apra Harbor, as well as several of the island’s largest power plants. 

Emerald Valley offers a short but narrow walk through the waterway that stretches out to the Philippine Sea. It lays in between two land masses filled with green lush jungle and boulders along the coast.

As you walk alongside, you can see through crystal clear views of the ocean floor. It is filled with many fish, few water snakes and a lot of sea urchins. It is safe to swim, but the abundant of sea urchins makes it very intimidating. Strong winds and the smell of the ocean intensifies as you reach the coast.

Deep within Green-Wood Cemetery, a hulking apple tree curves over Samuel Morse’s grave like a crooked arm. Morse, who died in 1872, is one of the most famous residents laid to rest in the Brooklyn cemetery. Yet the storied inventor of the telegraph also unwittingly gave life to something else: Boozy cider.

In 2015, Jeremy Hammond, a local resident, “stopped going to work.” During a mind-clearing walk through the cemetery, he found a mysterious pile of apples. “Not an apple tree in sight, it was odd,” he says. “So I kind of looked up the hill, and I saw an apple. Another apple. I followed it up like an Easter egg hunt, and it was the biggest fucking tree filled with apples. And that’s where Samuel Morse’s grave is.”

Soon enough, Hammond and Joy Doumis, his girlfriend, were making hard cider from several of Green-Wood’s apple trees. The two have partnered with the cemetery for a series of events including cemetery walks and an appearance at Atlas Obscura’s Into The Veil. Each event mixes history with hard cider—they aim to teach visitors the role of cider-making in American history, as well as the drink’s infinite possibilities.

“That’s part of our story with the cemetery,” Doumis says. “The place can connect with people who are interred there ... While they drink the cider, [people] can think, ‘Holy shit, this is the same stuff that people from the 1700s drank.’"

The lush vineyards of Martinborough, New Zealand, sit upon a thick crust of limestone. At one time, a few thousand years ago, the rocky landscape was entirely covered with thick native bush, and was home to countless reptiles and flightless birds, carousing and careening beneath the canopy, with nary a human in sight. The forest also concealed the limestone's pits and troughs—presenting a fatal risk to clumsy or unwary kakapo or takahe. Thousands of these birds met their demise in one particular hidden limestone cave, known technically as a "pitfall trap." Once they fell in, there was no way out without flight-functional wings. Over the last century, enthusiasts and scientists have collected fossils from as many as 1,000 individuals from this cave, making it the richest site in the whole country for avian and reptilian fossils.

From the outside, the cave seems unspectacular, but no one knows quite how deep it goes. A deer hunter first stumbled across it in 1914, without imagining the vast paleontological treasures within. Beginning in 1920, regular expeditions have been made, with several tons of earth and bones excavated so far. Most recently, New Zealand's national museum, Te Papa, sent vertebrate curator Alan Tennyson in as part of a digging party. It is thought that the first 1,000 skeletons barely scratch the surface. There could be thousands more.

In this last dig, so...

Just outside the desert oasis of Djanet, Algeria, there’s a national park brimming with pieces of the past. A trip through the alien-like landscape of Tassili n'Ajjer is like stepping into an open-air art gallery, where the sandstone rock formations become canvases for more than 15,000 prehistoric carvings and paintings.

According to UNESCO, the park holds one of the world’s most important clusters of prehistoric rock art. The paintings and carvings offer a fascinating look at the animal migrations, changes in climate, and human life that helped shape the area’s history.

The artwork is from the Neolithic period, back when this slice of the Sahara was a savanna teeming with wildlife like antelopes, giraffes, and crocodiles. You’ll find images of these creatures etched or painted onto the rocks.

You’ll also find images of humans which act like a historical snapshot of daily life. In these, you’ll see people doing a range of activities like dancing, hunting, or handling their livestock.

In addition to the art, Tassili n'Ajjer is worth exploring for its unique environment. The wind has sculpted the sandstone structures into beautiful, abstract shapes that tower above swathes of sand.

Because of the nearby oasis, this part of the Sahara still boasts a considerable amount of life. Here, you’ll find endangered species of vegetation like Saharan Myrtle and Saharan Cypress. You may even catch a glimpse of a mouflon, a type of wild sheep that’s depicted...

German zoologist and botanist Georg Wilhelm Steller, after an epic journey riddled with brutal storms and the looming threat of death by scurvy, was the first European to set foot in Alaska—on Kayak Island, in 1741. His leg of the Great Northern Expedition, led by Vitus Bering (of strait fame, who did, in fact, die of scurvy along the way), explored the Kamchatka Peninsula, and was shipwrecked for nine months in the Commander Islands, 100 miles offshore.

Among the many new species—including sea otters and hoary mugwort—that Steller skillfully documented on the journey was a massive sirenian (related to dugongs and manatees) that became known as Steller's sea cow, or Hydrodamalis gigas. The massive aquatic mammal—between 5 and 10 tons in weight and up to 30 feet in length, with the face of a walrus and the tail of a dolphin—had once ranged across the North Pacific but was by then relegated to a relic population in the Commander Islands kelp beds. Steller was the first and last scientist to document the slow-moving sea creature—they were hunted to extinction less than three decades later.

This week the surpassingly rare bones of a Steller's sea cow were discovered and excavated on Bering Island, the larger of the two Commander Islands. As explained in a statement by from the Commander Islands Nature and Biosphere...