article-imagePollution in the Citarum River, Indonesia (photograph by MangAndri Kasep)

It's hard to overstate the importance of rivers in human history. They incubated great civilizations, created massive, world-upending floods, are sacred to world religions, and facilitated travel, commerce, and cultural exchange. They inspired ancient poets and modern songwriters. They can be a very pleasant place to spend an afternoon on a raft.

How has humanity treated rivers in return? By abusing them in all sorts of creative ways, resulting in some of the grossest rivers in the world. Here are eight of them. 

THE CITARUM
Indonesia

article-imageRailway bridge across the Citarum, Tanjungpura (1920-35) (via Tropenmuseum)

The title of "World’s Most Polluted River" has a pathetic number of contenders, but current wisdom grants the dubious honor to the Citarum, 40 miles east of Jakarta, Indonesia.

According to an April 2014 article in the Guardian on a documentary from Unreported World, the 186-mile waterway contains a horrifying mixture of toxins and garbage, all while being the primary source of water for 30 million people. Some 200 textile plants line the river, dumping all manner of industrial waste, and garbage clutters the murky water from bank to bank. 

 

MATAPEDIA
Canada

article-imageRock snot lurks beneath the beauty (photograph by Marjolaine B.)

Human pollution can impact rivers in less obvious ways. In 2006, the bottom of the otherwise pristine Matapédia River in Quebec was found to be carpeted in squishy, green rock snot.

Rock snot, or didymo (Didymosphenia geminata), is a type of invasive algae that, in addition to being disgusting, threatens salmon and other fragile wildlife, things which are important both to the ecosystem and economy of the area. Scientists believe that global warming has encouraged the growth of this once rare algae, not just in the Matapédia River, but in rivers and lakes around the world. 

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article-imageCoins in the Aira Force wishing tree in the English Lake District (photograph by Claire1066/Flickr)

In some places people toss coins into fountains begging for a wish, but in parts of the United Kingdom coins are pressed into trees for the same purpose. These "wishing trees" or "money trees" are a strange fusion of nature and manufactured metal, and represent a tradition dating back centuries.

Much like the clootie wells we featured last week, the money trees are believed to have pagan origins. (The "wish tree" Wikipedia entry actually includes both as iterations of a similar practice, along with alcohol trees, "shoe trees," and the eclectic "other offerings.") Many of the money trees reside in the North Yorkshire forests, although they've been spotted throughout the Peak and Lake districts and other overgrown corners of the woods that remain wild. According to Wales Online, it's a deeply rooted belief that "any illness you are suffering will leave you when you force money into the wood." At the ruins of Saint Maelrubha wishing tree on the Isle Maree in Scotland, there's a coin dating to 1828, and even Queen Victoria is said to have left her own offering in 1877.

While many of the coin-laden wish trees are fallen trunks and dead stumps, others are living, which can be harmful. There's at least one report of a wishing oak dying of metal poisoning in the Highlands. Yet after its slow death the remaining wood is still where it fell full of coins, with shiny new pence pieces and euro coins appearing in the few remaining spaces. 

Below is a photographic tour of the strangely beautiful wishing trees.

article-imageMoney in a yew tree near Ingleborough Cave, North Yorkshire (photograph by David Baird)

article-imageCoins in a Tree near Janets Cave, North Yorkshire (photograph by Steve Partridge)

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Toothache Tree near Beragh, Omagh District Council (photograph by Kenneth Allen)

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article-imageProw of the Dominator in California (photograph by Adam Ness)

It's amazing how an event that captured the public's attention so much in the 1960s could be so easily forgotten in the decades that followed.

The S.S. Dominator caused a sensation in the South Bay of Los Angeles when it ran ashore on March 13, 1961 at Rocky Point in Palos Verdes Estates. Stuck there, its cargo load of wheat expanded so much it broke the hull. The captain and his crew had to abandon ship when it started taking on water, and the Coast Guard hadn't been able to tow them out. Then the thing burst into flames. The wet, gloppy, oatmeal-like wheat attracted so many flies, they became a neighborhood nuisance. The flies attracted an invasion of lobsters, which then attracted an influx of swimmers and fishermen. Scavengers tried to salvage whatever valuable materials they could before the Pacific Ocean tide washed it away.

But fascinatingly, that never happened. Over the last 50 years, people have mostly forgotten the Dominator shipwreck, and many born after the incident, or who have recently moved to the area, don't even know how to get to it.

The Los Angeles Obscura Society set off on Sunday morning of Fourth of July weekend, early enough to reach the site of the wreckage by low tide to see as much of it as we could without getting too wet. Below are some photographs from our exploration of this overlooked shipwreck.

All photos by the author, except where indicated.

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Group shot at the start of our journey on the cliff in Palos Verdes Estates

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Bluff Cove Trail down to the beach

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article-imageSant’Agostino, memorial to Cardinal Giuseppe Ranato Imperiali, by Paolo Posi (design) and Pietro Bracci (statuary), 1741 (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)

The dead are everywhere in the churches of Rome. Their tombs line the walls and dominate whole side chapels. Visit enough of them and you’ll come to expect the loose wiggle and hollow thunk of the marble slabs shifting beneath your feet that signal you’ve walked over a grave. If you imagine what’s just beyond every surface, the churches become mega-necropoli, Tokyos made of tombs instead of hotel rooms.

Unlike the relics of the saints, the entombed bodies of clergy and parishioners are largely hidden from the public, but the Baroque skulls and life-sized marble skeletons won’t let you forget they’re there. They speak to you. But as David Sedaris noted in When You Are Engulfed in Flames, the skeleton has a “limited vocabulary, and says only one thing: ‘You are going to die.'”

Rome’s skeletons prefer to deliver the bad news in Latin, an appropriately dead language, but even so you can’t mistake the message or the fact they’re addressing you directly. An engraved skeleton on the façade of Santa Maria dell’Orazione e Mort unfurls a banner that reads, “Hodie mihi. Cras tibi.” “Today me. Tomorrow you,” it shrugs.

Though their message is grim, the skeletons are surprisingly lively. At San Francesco d’Assisi a Ripa Grande, they climb out from behind the artwork. At Gesù e Maria, one appears frozen in the middle of a solo danse macabre, flailing so wildly it seems to be coming apart. Even in the more staid examples, it isn’t unusual for the skull’s empty sockets to convey more emotion than busts of the living. It’s this kinetic quality that’s so arresting; life seems to bursts supernaturally from these dark corners devoted to death.

The juxtaposition is intentional. Bernini popularized the use of these unusually active skeletons, and in doing so masterfully expressed a tenant of his Catholic faith. The feathered wings signal these aren’t your average corpses. They’re complex allegories for the inescapable passage of time, and the belief that death and decomposition of the body are the first stages in the transition to everlasting life (or damnation, as the case may be). Though the skeleton may only say, “You are going to die," for some that implies, “You haven’t lived yet.”

article-imageSant’Eustachio (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)

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San Lorenzo in Damaso, memorial to Allessandro Valtrini by Gian Lorenzo Bernini, 1639

article-imageGesù e Maria, memorial to Camillo del Corno by Domenico Guidi (photograph by Elizabeth Harper)

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article-imageDelmonico's on Beaver St. in Manhattan (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

Are relics from Pompeii — that Roman city wrecked by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD — embedded in the façade of one of New York City's most iconic restaurants? The answer is a wavering "maybe," but the symbolism of the two marble columns framing the entrance to Delmonico's resonates both with that ancient destruction, and one of New York's greatest disasters.

I had never heard the story that the two corinthian columns bookending the gold Delmonico's name at 56 Beaver Street were from Pompeii until this past Sunday's historic Lower Manhattan tour from Dan Veksler of Other World Tours for the Obscura Society. Veksler was careful to state that "by all accounts" the columns were from Pompeii, meaning the proof is vague, but as I touched the obviously old stone and looked at the detailed capitals, I wondered how much was true.

article-imageDelmonico's on Beaver St. in 1893 (via British Library)

The history of Delmonico's, while far from the grandeur of Pompeii, is a significant one for the dining culture of Manhattan. Started as a pastry shop in 1831 by two Swiss brothers, it eventually expanded into several restaurants. Its culinary breakthroughs included having the first tablecloths in Manhattan, the first printed menus, the first private seating, and being the first to invite women to dine alone without judgement on their character. As such a successful and stately enterprise, Delmonico's built lavish dining halls, not least the one that opened in 1891 on Beaver Street. Designed by James Brown Lord in a Renaissance Revival style, it wedges into a triangle of land with orange terracotta and brick, along with those two curious columns lodged in the doorway, clashing with the earthy colors.

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Long before concrete, the highways of the globe were water, and the crafts that glided through them brought people and goods to new markets, new opportunities, and new worlds. The modern use of passenger and commercial ships swung open doors of transport, commerce, and tourism, but like any opportunity there was chance for catastrophe. Thus our maritime history is dotted with disasters and memorials to those lost, and now often forgotten. Here are five maritime disasters lost to time, and the obscure monuments preserving their memory. 

P.S. GENERAL SLOCUM

article-imageThe P.S. General Slocum Before the Disaster (via National Archives General Slocum Disaster)

Standing inside New York City’s Tompkins Square Park is a quiet nine-foot tall fountain in pink Tennessee marble carved with a relief of two children looking over the water, alongside an inscription reading "They were Earth's purest children, young and fair." Additional inscriptions of “In memory of those who lost their lives in the disaster to the steamer General Slocum June XVMCMIV” and “Dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies the year of our Lord MCMVI” reveal that the monument is a memorial to over 1,000 lives lost on the East River. What should have been an afternoon excursion instead became a tragedy that up until the attacks of September 11, 2001, was the deadliest peacetime disaster in American history.

On June 15, 1904, over 1,300 excited passengers boarded the excursion ferry boat P.S. General Slocum that was docked at a pier on Third Street for the purpose of spending the day on Long Island's North Shore. The boat had been chartered by the St. Mark's Lutheran Church in the East Village, and the passengers, all members of the tightly knit community of Kleindeutschland (Little Germany), were looking forward to spending the day on their annual picnic. As the boat departed the dock, flags waved in the breeze and bands played as everyone on board, including nearly 300 children under the age of ten, waved their goodbyes, and Captain William Van Schaick, a captain with a perfect safety record, began to guide the boat and its passengers into the East River.

This idyllic atmosphere was shattered as the boat approached 97th Street. Members of the crew noticed smoke rising from under the wooden deck and upon running below to investigate, found themselves confronted with what one crew member described as “a blaze that could not be conquered.” Prior to the excursion, the boat had been cleared by the fire inspector as being in good condition. However, no fire drills were ever conducted and the fire hoses and life jackets had fallen into disrepair. Van Schaick attempted to speed the boat to North Brother Island, hoping to beach the boat sideways, allowing passengers to escape, but the winds only fanned the flames.

Soon the entire boat was engulfed in an uncontrollable burn. Mothers and children flew into panic and hurled themselves overboard, with some becoming trapped in the massive paddle wheel, while others clustered together hoping for rescue, only to be overcome by the fire.

article-imageThe P.S. General Slocum burning (via Wikimedia)

North Brother Island was the site of Riverside Hospital, used for the care of typhoid among other diseases, and the staff watched as the burning vessel approached their shores and prepared their fire systems for the inevitable. Approximately 25 feet from the island, Van Schaick beached the Slocum on its side, and the staff of Riverside Hospital dashed into the water to save those still trapped on board.

However, the fire was too intense, and they were only able to throw debris into the water for people to cling on to. Within an hour, 150 bodies were laid across North Brother Island, and by time the horrific incident came to a close, 1,021 people were dead. The boat was carried away by the current before hitting land at Hunts Point in the Bronx, where it would remain for several weeks. The crew and safety precautions were scandalized in the press, and Van Schaick, escaping the boat blinded and burned, was sentenced to ten years in prison (he would be pardoned four years later).

article-imageVictims of the P.S. General Slocum disaster washing up onto the shores of North Brother Island (via Wikimedia)

article-imageThe wreck of the P.S. General Slocum (via Wikimedia)

The Slocum Memorial Fountain in Tompkins Square Park was dedicated by the Sympathy Society of German Ladies and installed in 1906. Now faded from exposure to the elements, this monument stands as a reminder of a greatly forgotten disaster that shook New York City, and devastated an entire population of German immigrants which would never recover from their loss. 

article-imageSlocum Memorial Fountain (photograph by Allison Meier/Atlas Obscura)

 

 S.S. EASTLAND

article-imageThe S.S. Eastland in the days before the disaster (via Detroit Publishing Company)

Standing along the Chicago River where West Wacker Drive and North LaSalle Street connect is a black plaque, approximately five feet tall, lost amid the bustling city around it. Although it does not announce itself to those passing by, the plaque tells those who stop of a horrific accident on the river that was big enough to be coined by some as “Chicago’s own Titanic,” and happened while the passenger ship S.S. Eastland was only feet from dry land.

On the morning of July 24, 1915, employees of the Western Electric Company of Hawthorne (present-day Cicero) were boarding the S.S. Eastland for a Lake Michigan cruise to Michigan City, Indiana, for their fifth annual employee picnic. The ship docked at the Clark Street Bridge that morning was modified in previous years, fitted with additional lifeboats and life rafts following changes in maritime law after the sinking of the Titanic, but maintained its slender design for speed. Its nickname was “The Greyhound of the Lakes.” 

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article-imageClootie Well, Munlochy, Scotland (photograph by Davie Conner)

In scattered sites around Scotland, England, Ireland, and other places where the pagan roots still show through the modern landscape, you may catch a glimpse of a spooky sight: trees weighed down with rotting clothing and rags clustered around a spring. Known as clootie wells, the ritual dates back to Celtic belief in the cures of water spirits, and continues as a source of spiritual healing.

While the ritual varies around the different clootie wells — named for the Scottish word "clootie" referring to cloth — the principle is that by leaving a rag on the tree, before or after cleansing a tortured part of your body with it using water from the spring, you will receive some relief from illness or pain as it disintegrates in the forest. The sites were historically visited before sunrise, and on sacred festival days. As Lizanne Henderson and Edward J. Cowan explain in Scottish Fairy Belief: A History: "The efficacy of such curing processes varied but might not be complete until the rags had completely deteriorated."

In some places, human hair, coins, whole items of children's clothing, and other offerings join the ripped bits of fabric, sometimes marked with written messages. It's considered very bad luck to take any of the offerings, although there's been concern that the quantity of rags is hurting the trees. 

The clootie wells are not as numerous as they once were, but several survive, many now dedicated to Christian figures like St. Boniface. For example, in Scotland there's one near Munlochy and another on the Black Isle, while in Cornwall there's Madron Well, Alsia Well, and Sancreed Well, and in Ireland one at Loughcrew. And they still have a draw in troubled times, as in the summer of 1940 when the clootie well in Culloden, Scotland, was draped with colorful rags during the loss of the 51st Highland Division to the Germans on the beaches of Saint-Valéry-en-Caux.

Below is a video from the Black Isle of Scotland clootie well, as well as some images. Even if you're not superstitious, it is haunting to know that each of the mouldering rags represents some scrap of hope left behind to rot away a pain. 

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The Black Isle Clootie Well (photograph by Amanda Slater)

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article-imageThe Honecker Bunker (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

Buried under sand and rubble in a nondescript forest north of Berlin lies a massive Cold War treasure with its secrets sealed shut, locked up and destined to stay hidden forevermore.

Bunker 17/5001 was the most sophisticated facility of its kind among members of the Warsaw Pact outside the Soviet Union. It was built some 24 meters (79 feet) underground to harbor East German leaders and top military staff even in the event of nuclear annihilation.

At a time when the maxim was, “Whoever shoots first, dies second,” the threat of catastrophe was very real and tension was understandably high. The Cold War adversaries were eying each other suspiciously over the precipice, and Berlin, divided between the superpowers, was on the battlefront in the line of fire.

East Germany’s top brass had plans drawn up for what was to become known colloquially as the Honecker Bunker, after the country’s leader Erich Honecker. 

It was to be built near the motorway, making it easily accessible from Berlin. Honecker would have shared the facility with other members of his National Defense Council (Nationaler Verteidigungsrat der DDR, or NVR). If necessary, the bunker could have operated entirely independent of the outside world to keep some 400 people alive for up to two weeks. After that, they’d have to take their chances.

article-imageThe three-story administration building (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

article-imageInside the dilapidated gym (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

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Panorama of the Honecker during construction (courtesy Bunker 5001)

Construction began in 1978 and was completed just five years later. It was an astounding achievement considering its scale and the secrecy needed to ensure its security. More than 85,000 tons of reinforced concrete was used to construct the three-story facility, which has a ground floor area of 48.9 by 66.3 meters. Altogether it had (and still has) a usable floor area of just over 7,750 square meters. It’s covered by a 4.2-meter thick protective shield of reinforced concrete. That’s now covered by another six meters of sand. The structure itself is two meters below the protective shield. Its outer walls are 1.65 meters thick. The bottom plate is 2.4 meters thick. Concrete, reinforced concrete, and all covered with 8 mm steel plates to neutralize the electromagnetic pulse of a nuclear weapon.

Inside, its suspended ceilings are 60 cm thick while the fortified structure’s ceiling is 70 cm thick. The protective shield extends up to 20 meters beyond the outer walls. Even if it took a direct hit from a conventional weapon, a layer of sand beneath would have cushioned the impact and theoretically saved the structure below.

In short, it was designed to withstand atomic, chemical, and biological weapons in the event the Cold War escalated to boiling point. It was deemed capable of surviving an atomic bomb 80 times more powerful than the one that devastated Hiroshima, at a range of 750 meters. (Any closer and there would have been trouble, but missiles were not as accurate at the time as they are now.)

article-imageWhat's left of the ancillary canteen (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

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There’s a figure of an unusual woman on the cathedral in Worms, Germany. She’s just above the south portal on the right hand side.

article-imageThe front of the statue at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)

She’s beautiful and there’s something about the luxurious folds in her dress and the crown sitting on top of her perfectly coifed hair that instantly tell you she’s rich, too. She smiles serenely into distance while a tiny knight clings to the hem of her dress. He gazes at her adoringly. She doesn’t seem to notice. He’s hierarchically scaled so his small stature lets you know this piece isn’t about him. It’s all about her. She doesn’t have any religious attributes, the symbols shown with saints that clue you in to their identity. So who is she?

She’s Ms. World, Frau Welt.

article-imageThe back of Frau Welt at Worms (photograph by Jivee Blau/Wikimedia)

Take a look at her back and you’ll find her identifying feature — she’s covered in toads, an allusion to Revelation 16:13.

And I saw three unclean spirits like frogs come out of the mouth of the dragon, and out of the mouth of the beast, and out of the mouth of the false prophet.

Her body is being eaten alive by snakes and worms. She’s an allegory for vanity, a symbol for all that’s evil and sinful in the world hidden behind a seductive façade. She was a favorite character in German morality tales and sermons around 1300, just after the cathedral was constructed.

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article-imageClay McLeod Chapman reading at the Pierrepont monument in Green-Wood Cemetery (photograph by Mitch Waxman)

Robert Suydam sleeps beside his bride in Greenwood Cemetery. No funeral was held over the strangely released bones, and relatives are grateful for the swift oblivion which overtook the case as a whole. The scholar’s connexion with the Red Hook horrors, indeed, was never emblazoned by legal proof; since his death forestalled the inquiry he would otherwise have faced.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Horror at Red Hook

It was with those strange words in mind from the the late H. P. Lovecraft's lexicon of unfathomable horror that Atlas Obscura staged a candlelit reading in Brooklyn's historic Green-Wood Cemetery. Lovecraft lived in Brooklyn Heights near Red Hook at 169 Clinton Street from 1925 to 1926, rather unhappily, and is said to have roamed the lush grounds of Green-Wood. It's during this time that he wrote "The Horror at Red Hook," which, while heavy on his outright xenophobia, tapped into an unsettling urban anxiety. 

This Monday we invited an intimate group of Atlas Obscura followers to Green-Wood Cemetery to hear the story read in its entirety, responding to the real presence of the Suydam family interred in the 19th century burial space. Respecting the grounds as a place of memorial, we visited the Whitney mausoleum, paused beneath a weeping beech tree, stopped amongst relocated 18th century tombs, and ended at the Pierrepont memorial, a monument to one of the prominent Brooklynites who helped establish the cemetery in 1838. Readers Clay McLeod Chapman, Bess Lovejoy, and Mitch Waxman each gave the stages of the sinister narrative of occult mysteries a distinct and resonant horror. 

Our final destination was the Suydam mausoleum (usually closed to the public), where the eerie notes of the Saw Lady, aka Natalia Paruz, accompanied the serving of drinks along the cemetery road from the Lovecraft Bar (opening next week in the East Village). 

Below are some photographs from the evening by Kathryn Yu and Mitch Waxman. Many thanks to all who joined us for the adventure, to readers Clay McLeod Chapman, Bess Lovejoy, and Mitch Waxman, as well as the Saw Lady and Lovecraft Bar for making it a success. And of course, thanks to the Green-Wood Historic Fund for collaborating with us on an event that was able to showcase the beauty of the cemetery and link in this literary history. To join us on our next event, sign up for the NYC Obscura Society mailing list

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Clay McLeod Chapman reading in the Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)

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Departing the candlelit Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)

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