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. 


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)



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. 

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 facility (photograph by Ciarán Fahey)

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

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-imageView to the outside (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

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

Departing the candlelit Whitney Mausoleum (photograph by Kathryn Yu)

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With more than 1,500km (932 miles) of underground tunnels hidden beneath its streets, it’s no wonder Melbourne has grown into something of a mecca for urban explorers. Its complex network of storm water drains is often cited as one of the most elaborate in the world, and the labyrinth has drawn its own string of admirers.

In 1986, three teenagers from Melbourne banded together to form the Cave Clan, a clandestine group dedicated to recreational trespassing in the city’s hidden underworld. Today, the Cave Clan is still going strong, and larger than ever with local chapters in each of Australia’s main cities. 

Drain explorers beneath Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

A subterranean waterfall in the Melbourne storm drain network (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

Naturally, exploring urban storm drains comes with some obvious risks attached: flash floods, bad air, steep shafts and reservoirs, and of course, the hefty fines that you’ll be served should the authorities catch you in the act. And don’t forget, this is Australia, which means these tunnels often serve as prime nesting or hibernation spots for some of the world’s most deadly creepy-crawlies.

Danger aside, the complex systems of tunnels, waterfalls, gates, ladders, and reservoirs beneath Melbourne combine to create a fascinating — albeit challenging — urban assault course, which draws in visitors from all around the world.

Here’s a quick introduction to five of the Cave Clan’s favorite hang-outs in the Melbourne drain network:


article-imageEntrance to the ANZAC Drain (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

The ANZAC Drain was first charted by the Cave Clan on April 25, 1987, or as it’s known here, ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) Day. Since then this relief drain has served as a kind of local headquarters for the Clan, and it’s one of the easiest drains in the city to access.

Entering from the river outflow, a wide, red brick passage curves gently into the dark recesses — an arched tunnel which rumbles and rings with the sound of traffic passing overhead. The aliases of Cave Clan members appear on the walls like sentries, painted high in block white capitals.

article-imageAt low tide, this is one of the least challenging drains in Melbourne (photograph by Darmon Richter, via The Bohemian Blog)

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When it first opened its doors last year, this crowd-funded Paris café – based on a Japanese concept Frenchified in the heart of the trendy Marais — was rumored to have a four-week waiting list for Saturday brunch. But that had nothing to do with the food, or the coffee. Ailurophiles and Francophiles can get a double shot of sheer pleasure at the Café des Chats, where the twelve adorable live-in cats are the star attraction.

article-imageInside the Paris cat cafe (all photographs by the author)

Carefully chosen from shelters for their sociable personalities among both humans and other cats, the feline residents spend their days in the lap of luxury — or indeed in the lap of anyone they choose — imparting ronronthérapie ("purr therapy," that’s the scientific term) and relaxed vibes while you sip your café crème.

There are strict rules in place to maintain all-round hygiene and the well-being of the animals, but they basically roam free over two levels, curling up atop the piano or in plush leather seats and comfy corners of this charming rock-den; the Aristocats could have done worse.



I used reverse psychology and a dangling toy to distract the inquisitive black-and-white Orea from my tuna tarte — feeding is forbidden — while the regal Khalessi lolled like a Manet nude on a nearby canapé as an artist sketched her from life. (The names are helpfully etched on the tables and listed on a photo chart so you can try to summon your favorite.)

I'm not sure the ronronthérapie really worked wonders on me this visit. A little cat-challenged, perhaps? Rather than swooning in a state of warm, fluffy bliss, I was a little perturbed by the fact that none of my advances were met with outright enthusiasm; that the cats seemed to prefer the company and caresses of my date, and that he, at that moment, preferred theirs. I eventually sank into a velvet armchair and looked on as a group of elegantly dressed elderly American ladies and two French bearded hipsters suddenly found themselves on the same social plane, speaking the same language: cutesy-wootsey.

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We aspire to climb to the summit of Mount Rainier in Washington, as well as Charles Mound, at the top of a family’s driveway in northwest Illinois. We wish to ascend to the highest peak in the Rocky Mountains — Colorado’s Mount Elbert — as well as Panorama Point, a low rise on a bison ranch in Nebraska. We want to climb the very pinnacle of the continent — Denali in Alaska at over 20,000 feet above sea level — as well as Britton Hill, at 345 feet above sea level in a park in the Florida Panhandle. We are highpointers.

article-image Highpointer convention on Mount Mitchell, North Carolina, in 2006

As a kid, I would read my father's Rand McNally Road Atlas. Mountaintops were designated by a hollow triangle with the name and elevation. One mountaintop, however, was filled in and had some extra text to it, saying it was the highest point in the state.

Some time later, I needed to hit the road, and bought a road atlas. Looking for a destination, I found Pennsylvania's highest point, Mount Davis, and then found directions. It was an easy drive up, with a tall observation tower, a surrounding forest, and unique geology. Then, I was hooked. I discovered there were guidebooks for the highest points of the 50 American states, and a club for those interested in this quest.

The Highpointers Club

In October 1986, climber Jakk Longacre wrote to Outside magazine to see if anyone else was as interested in climbing the state highpoints as he was, after seeing familiar names in summit registers. Thirty climbers wrote back, and the Highpointers Club was born. The club now has grown to over 2,000 members, holds a yearly convention in a city near a selected state highpoint, and sponsors a foundation to make improvements to highpoints. 

article-imageView from Mount Mansfield, highest point in Vermont

Mount Sunflower, the highest point in Kansas

The Journey Through, and Up, the United States

With most highpoints away from well-known tourist destinations, the journey brings travelers to parts of the country few tend to visit. Not many people I know would put southwest North Dakota or the Oklahoma Panhandle on their itineraries. Through going to the highpoints, one sees the whole variety of landscapes the country offers: the desert and salt flats of west Texas; forests and hilltops in the South and East; the suburbia of Wilmington, Delaware; Midwestern prairie and badlands; and remote mountains of New England and the West.

To take part in the journey, one does not have to be an expert mountain climber or outdoorsman. Of the 50 state highpoints, 30 are simple drive-ups and/or require a hike of less than two miles. However, since most of the points are “off the beaten path,” a guidebook or article and a good sense of direction are necessary.

Reaching the loftier and more remote highpoints, though, requires longer hikes. However, most of them can be done in one day by someone in good shape. For people getting fit, these hikes make great goals to measure one’s progress. While climbing Mount Marcy in New York’s Adirondacks, I nearly gave up at mile 6 of the 7.2 mile hike, but I saw the summit just one mile away and 500 feet up. I did say to myself, “You should have eaten more vegetables.” Now 30 pounds lighter from that day, I wish to conquer even more challenging peaks.

The hikes clamber through badlands, wilderness, and alpine terrain, allowing for great photography of pristine landscapes and maybe even wildlife. Moss-covered trees surround the summit of Mount Rogers, Virginia. A tree grows on a rock on the Van Hoevenberg Trail up Mount Marcy, New York. Lucky hikers might see mountain goats on Mount Elbert, Colorado. Incredible sunsets are de rigueur on Mauna Kea, Hawaii. Views from the top over the surrounding land give a personal sense to how vast the country really is.

Here are some of the intriguing and beautiful highpoints of the United States, and you can find even more on the map below:

5,343 feet above sea level; Keene Valley, New York
Climbed by then-Vice President Theodore Roosevelt just before he found out President McKinley wasn't likely to survive his assassination attempt


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article-imageAerial view of Mecca in 2010, showing new construction alongside the Kaaba (photograph by Fadi El Benni, via Al Jazeera English) Mecca is one of the "unruly places" featured in a new book by Alastair Bonnett. 

With Google patrolling the streets and even far flung locales like Mount Everest, and the proliferation of geotagged documentation of the planet on social media, it can feel like every corner has been catalogued and confirmed. Yet it was only two years ago that Sandy Island, illustrated on maps for over a century, was proved fictional, and even some of the world's most iconic locales like Mecca are in a rapid state of flux with new construction paving over the old. In Unruly Places: Lost Spaces, Secret Cities, and Other Inscrutable Geographies by Alastair Bonnett, published this month by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, these "feral" destinations are explored.

Bonnett is a professor of social geography at Newcastle University in England, and also was the editor of Transgressions: A Journal of Urban Exploration, a psychogeography magazine. Throughout Unruly Places, whether it's the town of Baarle chopped through with Dutch and Flemish enclaves, the Manila cemetery that has turned into a community, or Gordon Matta-Clark's Fake Estates that claimed the gutter spaces of New York City, Bonnett emphasizes a sense of discovery in geography, even if it's experiencing the world of the traffic median in your own town. This is a concept Atlas Obscura wholeheartedly embraces — that the world is much stranger, and unknowable, than you think. We asked Bonnett a few questions about Unruly Places and the myth of a fully-documented world. 

We at Atlas Obscura love places that don't fit neatly into geography. But sometimes it feels as if these crooked sites are all being straightened out, and the world made less interesting. How can people fight the good fight of keeping a sense of place?

No one should pretend this is easy: the forces flattening out the world, and making everywhere seem similar, are colossal. But equally powerful are our need for and love of place; it’s an important part of what makes us feel human. I think that most people understand this, that’s why so many of us invest so much of our time and energy fixing up and making special our own, private, places — our homes, cabins, even our vehicles.

The challenge is to expand that sense of care. Every time we go on vacation, or go traveling, and search out unique and authentic places, we are part of a quiet resistance movement. Another form of resistance is seen when we protest about the way our town is sliding into the mire of non-place banality. In my adopted home city of Newcastle, in the far north of England, I’m just one of thousands who’ve tried, many times, to stop an endless succession of "executive housing" schemes being built on the margins of town, drawing out in the innards of the city. It’s perverse: finding anyone who actively wants this kind of development is almost impossible, yet they nearly always get built.

Maybe we need a pro-place protest movement, a bit like the "occupy movement" (which was, in its own odd way, a place making movement), but one that makes the pro-place case and shouts out that, when it comes to place, the concerns of the great majority, the 99%, just aren’t being heard.  Because place is fundamental to our freedom and well-being. Indeed, I have come to think that living in a "real place" should be thought of as a human right. It is that important and should be in UN declarations of rights and in national constitutions.  

In a world of floating islands and ever shifting borders how do you define “place”? What then makes it "unruly"?

It’s a question that a lot of people are wondering about. For me, a place is somewhere distinct and somewhere that has its own story: the richer and deeper that sense of distinction, and those stories are the more likely it is to feel like a "real place."

An "unruly place" is somewhere that disrupts the usual and conventional stories we tell about place.

But I don’t just use the term "unruly places" to talk about quirky or quaint places. Many of the places in my book are very dark, and a look at the map of Syria or Iraq today shows shifting multitudes of unruly places that are anything but cute. The destitute enclaves and tribal pockets that now scatter those countries are both fascinating and appalling: they remind us that our relationship to place is a very fierce thing and how quickly and easily ordinary-looking and "boring" places can mutate into places with strange and disturbing stories to tell. 

Ordos, China's biggest ghost city (photograph by Uday Phalgun)

article-imageThe new city of Kilamba in Luanda Province (photograph by Santa Martha)

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article-imagephotograph by Darmon Richter

This underground realm in London is rarely accessible, but Sunday, July 20, it's opening to the public. No, it's not some sort of secret druid lair; it's a marvel of 19th century ingenuity.

The Ice Wells at King's Cross Station were constructed in 1847 by Italian-Swiss immigrant Carlo Gatti to hold ice imported from Norway. Impressive in size, they stretched 42 feet deep and 30 feet in diameter. At the time, ice was an incredible luxury, and Gatti quickly became rich, dying a millionaire in 1878. The wells continued to be used until 1904, but new technology for artificial ice production then made them obsolete.

Over the 20th century they were built over and forgotten. Now, however, the London Canal Museum has them illuminated and viewable from an observation platform. Once a year they're opened to visitors. So stop by this Sunday for the annual event, as these are the only ice wells of their kind still in existence. 

photograph by Darmon Richter

article-imagephotograph by Darmon Richter

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