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article-imageThe shore of Plum Island (all photographs by the author unless noted)

Located just off the tip of Long Island's North Fork, New York's Plum Island measures three miles in length, and is only accessible by boat. The island has pristine, sandy beaches, and contains some of area's finest bird habitats. The waters around the island are home to seals and several endangered species of sea turtles. The public, however, is not welcome to visit.

article-imageA mariner approaching the island's shore is greeted by large signs announcing "U.S. Property - NO Trespassing." A group of buildings are visible on the northwest side of the island, and for decades rumors have circulated about what the United States government is doing there. The official version is that the U.S. Department of Agriculture operates the Plum Island Animal Disease Center (PIADC) on the island to protect the country's livestock population from devastating foreign diseases. Despite this seemingly straightforward explanation, conspiracy theories abound about other allegedly sinister activities, ranging from Island of Dr. Moreau-type animal breeding to germ warfare programs.

Skeptics point to strange occurrences in the area around Plum Island as evidence of government experiments run amok there, such as the discovery on a Long Island beach of the carcass of a bizarre-looking beast dubbed the Montauk Monster and the proximity of the island to the town of Lyme, Connecticut — the location of an outbreak of the tick-borne illness known today as Lyme disease.

The government has operated the research center at Plum Island since 1954, and during that time relatively few people outside of the facility's employees and visiting scientists have set foot on the island. Recently, however, the government has softened its secretive stance and begun inviting groups to tour the island, such as local Boy Scout troops, Audubon societies, and other organizations that have an interest in the island and the surrounding environment.

In October of 2014, I had the opportunity to visit the island on behalf of Atlas Obscura as part of a group tour sponsored by Mystic Seaport, a maritime museum located on the Connecticut coast a few miles from the island.

Our group began the trip to Plum Island at a marina in Connecticut, where we caught a ride on the ferry that brings government employees back and forth to work on the island. The weather conditions that day were just short of miserable: grey skies and steady, cold rain. Greeting our group was the PIADC's personable public affairs officer, who provided an outline of the day's activities, as well as a list of dos and don'ts while on the island. 

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Security on Plum Island is extremely tight, and all visitors must be screened prior to the visit by the Department of Homeland Security. As a reminder of the fact that Plum Island is a secure government facility, we were accompanied throughout our visit by armed security guards. The public affairs officer explained that while photography is permitted in certain areas, we were not to take pictures of the security guards, their vehicles, or the ferry landing area. We could bring some fruit with us as a snack, but if we didn't eat it while on the island, we couldn't take it home. Also, while we could visit the administrative building and some of the older historic structures on the island, the animal testing labs were not part of the tour.

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article-imageFrom the archives of the Waldorf Astoria (all photographs by the author)

As one of the world's greatest and most renowned luxury hotels, New York's Waldorf Astoria has been a byword in glamor, opulence, and sophistication since it opened its original doors in the 1890s. It's been host to royalty, the Hollywood elite, and every US President since Herbert Hoover; its chambers, ballrooms, and bars are as storied as they come. But a recent discovery sheds an intriguing light on the history of the grand hotel.

On the Lexington Avenue side of the building is the exclusive private Marco Polo club lounge. Next to it is the soon-to-be-closed, Kenneth's hair parlor, the salon where Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis had her famous bob cut. During renovations to the hotel in the 1990s, something extraordinary was found hidden in the walls between the club and the salon. No one knows exactly who put it there or why, but buried away was a secret treasure trove: the forgotten archives of the Waldorf Astoria.

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Comprising vintage postcards, menus, cocktail lists, ledgers, photographs, and bellhop uniforms, the archive gives remarkable insight into this most glittering of institutions. For anyone interested in the forgotten glamor of old New York, it's an incredible find. I spent an afternoon being shown round the collection for Atlas Obscura, by the hotels own resident archivist.

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The highest point in Delaware (photograph by Tony Garcia)

He ascended Mount Washington in New Hampshire, on foot not by car (elevation: 6,288 feet). He also climbed Ebright Ezmouth in Delaware, but with far less exertion (elevation: 447 feet). He plans get to Charles Mound in Illinois on one of the rare weekends where the owners of the rolling farmland allow access (elevation: 1,237 feet). For Tony Garcia of New Jersey, reaching these heights means more than just an individual achievement. It's one step closer to a goal that has informed his life for the past several years. Garcia is a high pointer, and he intends to reach the highest points in all 50 of the United States by his 35th birthday. After that, he's going for the highest peak on each continent, with Mt. Fuji or Kilimanjaro looming in his future.

High Pointers (previously covered for Atlas Obscura by high pointer Thomas Harper) are a specific kind of geographical collector, a person with the goal to travel long distances or up great heights, or sometimes to strangely ordinary points, to complete a goal. Some geographical collectors are part of a community, people united in their collective obsession; others fixate on highly personal goals.

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Mount Washington, the highest point in New Hampshire (photograph by Tony Garcia)

For Mark Weyer, another high pointer, collecting is about finding a challenge, bonding with others, and becoming part of a community. Weyer, who only started collecting in 2013, isn't quite at the mountaineering level, but he's learning gradually and relishes the challenge, having already has ascended 17 points. An avid hiker, he climbed to the highest point in his home state of Pennsylvania, and thought "If I can do one, I can do the other 49." 

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article-imagePhotograph from the 1917 "The National Parks Portfolio" (via Internet Archive Book Images)

Trees are fascinating — if left undisturbed by humans and our axes, they can grow to incredible sizes, and live for thousands of years. Around the world, there are trees that have been growing for a much longer period of time than famed arbors like Methuselah or General Sherman. Some of these beautiful ancients may not look like much — some appear to be mere saplings, compared to the gigantic redwoods.

article-imagePando aspen grove at Fishlake National Forest (photograph by J Zapell/Wikimedia)

Take Pando, for instance, also known as "the Trembling Giant." Pando is a forest of Quaking Aspens growing near Fish Lake in Utah. Pando, whose name is Latin for "I spread," is a clonal colony. This means that all the trees in the forest are genetically identical, and are believed to have one combined root system. Pando covers more than 106 acres, and is estimated to weigh in the region of 5,900 tons. More than 40,000 trunks (which look like individual trees) make up the forest, and the roots are believed to be at least 80,000 years old. Yes, 80,000. That's not a typo. In fact, some scientists challenge this dating, and are trying to confirm their own estimates of Pando's age, which would push it back to approximately 1,000,000 years old. One million years old.

For perspective's sake, the Great Pyramid of Giza was begun around 4,500 years ago. The city of Sumer was founded 7,000 years ago. Neanderthals lived and walked alongside Homo Sapiens 250,000 years ago. Pando could be four times older than the first-known Neanderthal fossils.

In the western United States, it is believed that there are very few non-clonal Quaking Aspens, as around 10,000 years ago there was a climactic shift in the region, which changed the soil conditions, making saplings less able to survive, and also making it more difficult for adult trees to flower.

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Photographer Will Ellis is the author of Abandoned NYC, which is out today. In conjunction with its publishing, he shares with Atlas Obscura some of his favorite lost New York ruins.  

When you're photographing ruins in New York City, you can’t get too attached — they'll either meet the wrecking ball, fall apart on their own, or in the best and rarest cases, attract the wandering eye of developers and be put to use again. No matter the outcome, it's always hard to say goodbye to these places as I knew them. Here’s six sites I’ve loved and lost over the past three years of exploring this ever-changing metropolis.

DOMINO SUGAR REFINERY
Williamsburg, Brooklyn

article-image The raw sugar warehouse of the Domino Sugar Refinery, which hosted a blockbuster Kara Walker exhibition prior to demolition

Certainly the most high-profile abandonment on this list is the Domino Sugar Refinery — controversy over the mixed-used mega-development currently underway at the site has been making headlines for years. While the original (landmarked) refinery building will be saved, the packaging plant and raw sugar warehouse already met the wrecking ball late last year.

All told, Domino and its predecessors operated on the Williamsburg waterfront for 148 years. Though it was only abandoned for a little over a decade, the factory quickly became a sought after destination for NYC explorers.

article-imageThe packaging plant of Domino Sugar Refinery, now demolished

 

MACHPELAH CEMETERY OFFICE
Glendale, Queens

article-imageThe eerie abandoned office of Machpelah Cemetery in Queens, pictured in 2012.

An admittedly minor entry in the canon of NYC abandonment, this creepy-looking office at the run down Machpelah Cemetery in Queens was best known for its proximity to the gravesite of Harry Houdini. It certainly made for a more atmospheric visit for Halloween revelers making an annual pilgrimage to the final resting place of the famed magician, who died on October 31st.

An interior characterized by wood paneling and bad wallpaper was littered with old burial records; I doubt they were salvaged before the place was torn down in 2013.

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