CG94 photos
CG94 photos

8 Underground Rivers

CG94 photos
CG94 photos

Rivers run underground all over the world. These occur naturally in cave systems, and have been known since antiquity, as evidenced in legendary myths of underground waterways such as the River Styx which forms the boundary between Earth and Hades. But this is about subterranean rivers that were once open to the sunlight and were buried by human hands (or heavy machinery). This happens when cities are built overtop, when wetlands are drained, and when existing waterways are consolidated and hidden to give people and their infrastructures more room to grow or move. In some of those places, people don't even realize there's a river running underneath their homes.  

1. The Tank Stream in Sydney

Photograph by Wikipedia user Shermozle.

When Europeans landed in southern Australia in 1788, they looked for a place with fresh water to settle into. That place was later to be called Sydney. The river that supplied fresh water was diverted into holding tanks by the convicts who were sent there, and so became known as the Tank Stream. With more and more people using it, the stream became polluted and the swamp that was its source was drained in 1850. The remaining stream was covered with stone in 1860, and became part of the city's storm drain system and flows, as it always did, into Sydney Cove.  

2. Neglinnaya in Moscow

Photograph by Wikipedia user A.Savin.

At one point in its history, the Neglinnaya River was used as a moat around the Kremlin. The river flowed through the heart of Moscow, but it impeded construction because of frequent floods. Muscovites built dams, ponds, and mills along the river route for industrial use, leading to pollution of the river. The Neglinnaya was diverted into a parallel canal in 1792 to control flooding, and the old river bed was filled in. The canal then became the carrier of industrial pollution. In 1817, the canal was covered with a vault, creating the Neglinnaya Tunnel, and the river that flowed through it became part of the city's sewer system. Still, it flooded and overflowed into city streets. Several projects since that time have added tunnels to drain excess water from the buried Neglinnaya to control its flow into the Moskva River, shown above. See pictures of those tunnels taken by brave urban explorers.

3. Minetta Brook in New York City

Minetta Brook is one of many waterways that have been paved over in New York City. The freshwater streams that allowed so many people to move into the area eventually became polluted and were incorporated into the city's underground sewers and drainage systems. The Minetta once flowed through Manhattan, providing fresh water to Greenwich Village when it was a farming community in the 1700s. In 2010, urban explorer Steve Duncan traced its route under the city, through passageways only a few feet wide in places. He found it has been "rediscovered" during occasional building projects when water flowed through basements. Tracing the course of the city's storm drains and sewers, Duncan found that the drains were in many places laid out to take advantage of the natural flow of the Minetta.   

4. The Bièvre in Paris

Photograph by Flickr user CG94 photos.

The River Bièvre flows along on the surface from its source near Versailles toward Paris. The diversion of its waters for various projects through history shrunk it to a small stream closer to Paris. Once reaching the city, however, the Bièvre disappears underground, and along its course is diverted into the city sewers. It was covered over due to industrial pollution that began in the Middle Ages. The river once flowed into the Seine within the city, but is now diverted into the main sewer, which is treated and the water released further downriver into the Seine. A restoration project was begun to open the Bièvre in places along its historic route, but a decade later they still don't have the necessary funds. Walking tours are offered of the river's current and historic routes.

5. The Senne in Brussels

The Senne was one of the main waterways in Brussels, Belgium, until the 19th century, but the quirky river was unpredictable and often overflowed its banks. The Senne, like other city rivers, became polluted with industrial and household waste and was gradually replaced by canals for fresh water supplies, which in turn exacerbated the pollution of the river. The downtown area of the river was covered over in a project that ran from 1865 to 1871, and buildings were erected overtop the buried river. The remainder of the river was covered in the 1930s. The underground waterway itself was then diverted, and the former water tunnels were converted to use by the Brussels subway system in 1976. It took until 2007 for the Senne's waters to be treated by modern sewage plants.

6. The River Fleet in London

Photograph by Flickr user diamond geezer.

The best known buried river is probably the River Fleet in London, England. The Fleet flows from a couple of springs in Hempstead Heath through the city into the Thames. The photograph above shows the source pond that feeds into the Fleet. Over the centuries, the river became an industrial sewer as the city grew. Engineers began building over the river in sections in the 1730s, gradually enclosing it in bricks and concrete. The spot where the river emerged after the first section enclosed the river became Fleet Street.

In the 1860s, the lower sections of the Fleet were covered over and it was formally incorporated into London's sewer system.

Photograph by Flickr user

Geographers have recreated maps of the Fleet so its existence might not be forgotten. Urban explorers venture down into the tunnels, but that's tricky, as the Fleet is still a tidal river and the lower tunnels fill to the top during high tide. See more pictures that trace the location of the buried river. The Fleet is far from the only river buried in London. In addition to the many visible tributaries of the Thames, there are dozens that now flow underground, such as the Tyburn, the Effra, the Walbrook, and the Earl’s Sluice, most of which were incorporated into the sewer system just like the Fleet.  

7. ChangPu River in Beijing

Photograph by Flickr user whirlpics.

The burial of natural rivers is often considered a shame in modern times. There are drives to restore many of the world's lost rivers, and some of those projects have yielded spectacular results. ChangPu River was a stream that flowed through the Imperial City, the outer part of the Forbidden City in Beijing. In the 1960s it was covered over and the area became a warehouse district. A restoration project was begun in 2002, and the historic river was uncovered and became the focal point of ChangPu River Park, a small but exquisitely maintained showplace in the heart of Beijing.  

8. The Cheonggyecheon in Seoul

Photograph by Flickr user Seong J Yang.

The Cheonggyecheon was once the main river through Seoul, Korea. It succumbed to the same pressures as other freshwater courses through growing cities, in that it became polluted and was buried and made into a drain. In the 1950s, a freeway was built over the river. In 2001, a group of people approached Dr. Kee Yeon Hwang about restoring the river. Dr. Hwang conducted a feasibility study and found that dismantling the highway, which had been built by a construction company he himself headed, would actually improve traffic flow through the city. With the approval of Seoul's new mayor Lee Myung-bak (who is now the president of South Korea), the restoration project went into high gear in 2003. Now, the river is exposed again, as part of a 3.6 mile park running through the middle of Seoul.  

These are just a few of the many urban rivers that have been confined to underground for many of the same reasons. Each has its own history, and each has many pros and cons to be considered before deciding whether it can be restored to its previous condition.

The Bloody Benders, America's First Serial Killer Family

In 1870, a group of new families moved to the wind-ravaged plains near what would become Cherryvale, Kansas. They were Spiritualists, a religion that was foreign to the homesteaders already in the new state, but locals tended to accept newcomers without asking too many questions. Two of the families moved away within a year, discouraged by the difficult conditions, and the others kept to themselves. But the Benders were different.

At first, they appeared be a normal family. John Bender, Sr., and his troupe settled near the Great Osage Trail (later known as the Santa Fe Trail) over which innumerable travelers passed on their way to the West. The older Bender, called "Pa," made a claim for 160 acres in what is now Labette County. His son John (sometimes called Thomas) claimed a smaller parcel that adjoined Pa's land, but never lived on or worked it. The Benders also included "Ma" and a daughter named Kate, who advertised herself as Spiritualist medium and healer. Ma and Pa reportedly mostly spoke German, although the younger Benders spoke fluent English.

The group soon built a one-room home equipped with a canvas curtain that divided the space into two areas. The front was a public inn and store, and the family quarters were in the back. Travelers on the trail were welcome to refresh themselves with a meal and resupply their wagons with liquor, tobacco, horse feed, gunpowder, and food. Kate, who was reportedly attractive and outgoing, also drew customers to the inn with her supposed psychic and healing abilities. These men, who usually traveled alone, often spent the night.

The trail was a dangerous place, and there were many reasons for travelers to go missing on their way out West—bandits, accidents, conflicts with Native Americans, disease. But over the course of several years, more and more people went missing around the time they passed through Labette County. It usually took time for such disappearances to draw attention—mail and news traveled slowly—but that all changed in March 1873 after a well-known physician from Independence, Kansas, named Dr. William York seemingly disappeared after getting off the train at Cherryvale. Dr. York had two powerful brothers who were determined to find out what happened to him: Colonel Edward York and Kansas Senator Alexander York.

Colonel York led an investigation in Labette County. When questioned, the Benders denied all knowledge of York's disappearance, although Ma Bender "flew into a violent passion," in the words of The Weekly Kansas Chief, when asked about a report of a woman who had been threatened with pistols and knives at their inn. Ma defended herself by claiming that the visitor had been a witch, a "bad and wicked woman, whom she would kill if ever she came near them again.”

Around the same time, the township held a meeting at the Harmony Grove schoolhouse; both male Benders were in attendance. The townsfolk decided to search every homestead for evidence of the missing—but the weather turned bad, and it was several days before a search could begin.

Eventually, a neighbor noticed starving farm animals wandering the Bender property. When he investigated the inn, he found it empty: The Benders had fled. The volunteers who later arrived for the search noted that the Benders' wagon was gone; little else had been taken from the home besides food and clothing.

Though the house was empty, all else seemed normal—until someone opened a trap door in the floor. What they found beneath it was chilling.

The trap door, located behind the curtain in the Benders' private quarters, led to a foul-smelling cellar, which was drenched with blood. Horrified, the group lifted up the cabin from its foundations and dug into the ground, yet found nothing. The investigation then turned to the garden, which was freshly plowed; neighbors recalled that the garden always seemed freshly plowed.

Working through the night, the volunteers first unearthed York's body. The back of his head had been smashed, and his throat slit. Soon, they found more bodies with similar injuries. Accounts differ about the number of bodies excavated from the site, but totals hover around a dozen. In all, the Benders may have committed as many as 21 murders. Their terrible work garnered the family only a few thousand dollars and some livestock.

Investigators later pieced together the group's modus operandi. It's believed that guests at the inn were urged to sit against the separating curtain, and while dining, would be hit on the head with a hammer from behind the curtain. Their body was then dropped into the trap door to the cellar, where one of the Benders slit their unfortunate victim's throat before stripping the body of its valuables.

One man, a Mr. Wetzell, heard this theory and remembered a time when he had been at the inn and declined to sit in the designated spot near the curtain. His decision had caused Ma Bender to become angry and abusive toward him, and when he saw the male Benders emerge from behind the cloth, he and his companion decided to leave. A traveler named William Pickering told an almost identical story.

The crimes created a sensation in the newspapers, drawing journalists and curiosity-seekers from all over the country. "Altogether the murders are without a parallel," read an account reprinted in The Chicago Tribune. The Minneapolis Star-Tribune reported over 3000 people at the crime scene, with more trains arriving. A book published in Philadelphia soon after the murders were discovered, The Five Fiends, or, The Bender Hotel Horror in Kansas, described how "large numbers of people arrived upon the scene, who had heard of the ... diabolical acts of bloody murder and rapacious robbery. Hardened men were moved to tears." The house in which the murders took place was disassembled and carried away piece by piece by souvenir seekers.

1873 stereographic photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders
An 1873 photo of the excavated grave of a victim of the Bender murders

Senator York offered a $1000 reward for the Benders, and the governor chipped in another $2000, but the reward was never claimed. In the years following the sensational crimes, several women were arrested as Ma or Kate, but none were positively identified. A number of vigilante groups claimed to have found the Benders and murdered them, but none brought back proof. The older Benders were allegedly seen on their way to St. Louis by way of Kansas City, and the younger Benders were supposedly seen heading to an outlaw colony on the border of Texas and New Mexico, but no one knows what ultimately became of them.

Investigators were likely hampered by the group’s deceit: None of the Benders were actually named Bender, and the only members who were likely related were Ma and her daughter Kate. "Pa" was reportedly born John Flickinger in the early 1800s in either Germany or the Netherlands. "Ma" is said to have been born Almira Meik, and her first husband named Griffith, with whom she had 12 children. Ma was married several times before marrying Pa, but each husband before him reportedly died of head wounds. Her daughter Kate was born Eliza Griffith. John Bender, Jr.'s real name was John Gebhardt, and many who knew them in Kansas said he was Kate's husband, not her brother.

Today, nothing remains to indicate the exact location where the Bender house stood, although there is a historical marker at a nearby rest area. Though rumors still surround the case—some say Ma murdered Pa over stolen property soon after they fled, others that Pa committed suicide in Lake Michigan in 1884—after 140 years, we will probably never know what really happened to the Bloody Benders.

A version of this story originally ran in 2013.

Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
8 Legendary Monsters of Christmas
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Wolfgang via Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

The customs of the holiday season, which include St. Nicholas Day, New Years Day, and Epiphany, as well as Christmas, often incorporate earlier pagan traditions that have been appropriated and adapted for contemporary use. Customs that encourage little children to be good so as to deserve their Christmas gifts often come with a dark side: the punishment you'll receive from a monster or evil being of some sort if you aren't good! These nefarious characters vary from place to place, and they go by many different names and images.


As a tool to encourage good behavior in children, Santa serves as the carrot, and Krampus is the stick. Krampus is the evil demon anti-Santa, or maybe his evil twin. Krampus Night is celebrated on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas Day in Austria and other parts of Europe. Public celebrations that night have many Krampuses walking the streets, looking for people to beat. Alcohol is also involved. Injuries in recent years have led to some reforms, such as requiring all Krampuses to wear numbers so they may identified in case of overly violent behavior.

Krampus may look like a devil, or like a wild alpine beast, depending on what materials are available to make a Krampus costume. In modern times, people can spend as much as they like to become the best Krampus around—and the tradition is spreading beyond Europe. Many cities in America have their own Krampus Nights now.


Jólakötturinn is the Icelandic Yule Cat or Christmas Cat. He is not a nice cat. In fact, he might eat you. This character is tied to an Icelandic tradition in which those who finished all their work on time received new clothes for Christmas, while those who were lazy did not (although this is mainly a threat). To encourage children to work hard, parents told the tale of the Yule Cat, saying that Jólakötturinn could tell who the lazy children were because they did not have at least one new item of clothing for Christmas—and these children would be sacrificed to the Yule Cat. This reminder tends to spur children into doing their chores! A poem written about the cat ends with a suggestion that children help out the needy, so they, too, can have the protection of new clothing. It's no wonder that Icelanders put in more overtime at work than most Europeans.


Flickr // Markus Ortner

Tales told in Germany and Austria sometimes feature a witch named Frau Perchta who hands out both rewards and punishments during the 12 days of Christmas (December 25 through Epiphany on January 6). She is best known for her gruesome punishment of the sinful: She will rip out your internal organs and replace them with garbage. The ugly image of Perchta may show up in Christmas processions in Austria, somewhat like Krampus.

Perchta's story is thought to have descended from a legendary Alpine goddess of nature, who tends the forest most of the year and deals with humans only during Christmas. In modern celebrations, Perchta or a close relation may show up in processions during Fastnacht, the Alpine festival just before Lent. There may be some connection between Frau Perchta and the Italian witch La Befana, but La Befana isn't really a monster: she's an ugly but good witch who leaves presents.


A drawing of Belsnickel.
Lucas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Belsnickel is a male character from southwestern German lore who traveled to the United States and survives in Pennsylvania Dutch customs. He comes to children sometime before Christmas, wearing tattered old clothing and raggedy fur. Belsnickel carries a switch to frighten children and candy to reward them for good behavior. In modern visits, the switch is only used for noise, and to warn children they still have time to be good before Christmas. Then all the children get candy, if they are polite about it. The name Belsnickel is a portmanteau of the German belzen (meaning to wallop) and nickel for St. Nicholas. See a video of a Belsnickel visit here.

Knecht Ruprecht and Ru Klaas are similar characters from German folklore who dole out beatings to bad children, leaving St. Nicholas to reward good children with gifts.


Hans Trapp is another "anti-Santa" who hands out punishment to bad children in the Alsace and Lorraine regions of France. The legend says that Trapp was a real man, a rich, greedy, and evil man, who worshiped Satan and was excommunicated from the Catholic Church. He was exiled into the forest where he preyed upon children, disguised as a scarecrow with straw jutting out from his clothing. He was about to eat one boy he captured when he was struck by lightning and killed—a punishment of his own from God. Still, he visits young children before Christmas, dressed as a scarecrow, to scare them into good behavior.


The French legend of Père Fouettard, whose name translates to "Father Whipper," begins with an evil butcher who craved children to eat. He (or his wife) lured three boys into his butcher shop, where he killed, chopped, and salted them. St. Nicholas came to the rescue, resurrected the boys, and took custody of the butcher. The captive butcher became Père Fouettard, St. Nicholas' servant whose job it is to dispense punishment to bad children on St. Nicholas Day.


The Jólasveinar, or Yule Lads, are 13 Icelandic trolls, who each have a name and distinct personality. In ancient times, they stole things and caused trouble around Christmastime, so they were used to scare children into behaving, like the Yule Cat. However, the 20th century brought tales of the benevolent Norwegian figure Julenisse (Santa Claus), who brought gifts to good children. The traditions became mingled, until the formerly devilish Jólasveinar became kind enough to leave gifts in shoes that children leave out ... if they are good boys and girls. 


All the Yule Lads answer to Grýla, their mother. She predates the Yule Lads in Icelandic legend as the ogress who kidnaps, cooks, and eats children who don't obey their parents. She only became associated with Christmas in the 17th century, when she was assigned to be the mother of the Yule Lads. According to legend, Grýla had three different husbands and 72 children, all who caused trouble ranging from harmless mischief to murder. As if the household wasn't crowded enough, the Yule Cat also lives with Grýla. This ogress is so much of a troublemaker that The Onion blamed her for the 2010 eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano.

A version of this post originally ran in 2013. See also: more Legendary Monsters


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