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Arizona!

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If you want to learn about a place, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. See all Strange States entries here.

Our next strange stop is the Grand Canyon/Copper state, Arizona.

What is...The Thing?

Wikimedia Commons

Ask anyone who’s driven I-10 between New Mexico and Arizona, and they’ll testify to the sheer number of billboards touting, “The Thing? Mystery of the Desert” off Exit 322 near Dragoon, Arizona.  The roadside attraction/gift shop/gas station has been open there since 1965, and for a mere $1, you can check out three machine sheds filled with oddities and curiosities from days gone by. For example, a 1937 Rolls Royce that was (possibly) owned by Hitler, a chair (allegedly) built in China circa 1467, rifles (supposedly) made in Spain around 1680, as well as all the Thing?-branded souvenirs you never knew you needed until now.  

So what is The Thing? mentioned on all the billboards? Follow the giant yellow footprints through the museum and you’ll soon find a glass-covered, cinderblock sarcophagus where the (purported) body of a woman and her child are forever frozen in time thanks to a mysterious form of mummification.  Of course, to the savvy roadside explorer, The Thing? doesn’t appear to be the gen-u-ine article, but the artifact still has a pretty fascinating history.

The Thing? mummies are believed to be the work of artist Homer Tate. Born in Texas in 1884, his family moved around the Southwest in the early part of the 20th century, giving Tate the opportunity to hold a variety of careers, such as a miner, a farmer, and even a county sheriff in Oklahoma during Prohibition. But in 1945, he landed in Apache Junction, Arizona to open a roadside attraction, Tate’s Curiosity Shop. His museum of oddities was populated wall-to-wall with shrunken heads, petrified pygmy Wolfboys and Devilmen, the preserved remains of mermaids, and a “bamboozle bat, a bird that flies backwards to keep the dust out of its eyes.” But even in his own words, they were all baloney—and he should know, because he created them with his own two hands. His sculptures were made of a variety of found objects, but mostly old newspapers and wadded-up toilet paper, horse glue, animal bones, and clippings from the floor of the local beauty parlor, and stained with a wide range of colored shoe polishes.  Tate even sold his manufactured curiosities in a mail order catalog to provide a “gaff” (fake attraction) for aspiring roadside hucksters.

According to a 2002 interview with Tate’s grandson, Shad Kvetko, for Shocked and Amazed Magazine, Tate was forced to close up shop in the late-1950s or early '60s under dubious circumstances. The family is hesitant to talk about exactly what happened, but apparently there was some trouble with the law, and Tate’s shop was shut down by his children, who most likely threw his collection into the local landfill. Tate lived until 1975, dying at the age of 90. Today, a gen-u-ine Tate monstrosity fetches top dollar on the sideshow collectors' market.

The Titan Missile Museum

Titan Missile Museum

Over the course of the Cold War, there were 54 Titan II ICBM (Intercontinental Ballistic Missile) silos in the United States, each capable of launching a 9-megaton nuclear warhead in less than a minute, striking a strategic target as far as 6300 miles away.  Thankfully, no launch command was ever issued before the last silo was shut down in 1987. Although this nuclear standoff might be over, there are still important lessons to be learned from the era that brought us so close to mutual assured destruction.

Helping to impart those lessons is the mission of the Titan Missile Museum in Sahuarita, Arizona, the only nuclear missile silo in the world that’s open to the public. The facility, officially known as complex 571-7, was the largest silo in the U.S. until it was decommissioned in 1982. The base features living quarters for a four-man crew that would have been on-site and at the ready 24/7, as well as the communications and launch control centers, all hidden 35 feet below the Arizona desert. The equipment is a time capsule of Cold War technology, complete with dials, gauges, toggle switches, and the two-key launch system that has become famous thanks to TV and movies. But the highlight of the museum is the full-sized Titan II test rocket contained in the missile silo that reaches over 150 feet underground. 

The museum is open every day of the year except Christmas and Thanksgiving, and offers a variety of different touring options.  The most common is the hour-long tour, which gives visitors the chance to see the launch center, and view the dummy missile from the top level of the silo. There’s also the the Titan Top-to-Bottom Tour, an extensive, 5-hour journey through the entire complex, including all eight levels of the silo, the crew quarters, and the communication center. But the ultimate adventure is a Cold War slumber party, where up to four guests can stay in the silo overnight to see what life was like for the crew.  No matter what tour you take, though, you’ll witness a simulated missile launch, complete with secret codes, coordinated turning of launch keys, and a countdown to nuclear annihilation. Sounds like a blast!

If you’d like to check out the Titan Missile Museum, head over to the website for more details. 

Have the scoop on an unusual person, place or event in your state?  Tell me about it on Twitter (@spacemonkeyx) and maybe I’ll include it in a future edition of Strange States! See all Strange States entries here.

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Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Is This the Most Mysterious Grave in Virginia?
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Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1816, local legend has it that a ship dropped off an unknown couple in Alexandria, Virginia. The woman was extremely ill, possibly from typhoid fever, and couldn’t wait until their final destination to receive medical attention.

Alas, it was too late; she died a few weeks later while boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. No one had spoken to her or, some say, even seen her face—any time anyone saw her, her features were hidden by a long, black veil. Her husband quickly arranged for a burial at St. Paul’s Cemetery, then borrowed money for a headstone from a local merchant named Lawrence Hill.

Under the circumstances, you might think the mysterious man would keep the epitaph simple, resulting in a more affordable stone and a smaller loan to repay. Instead, he went the opposite route, having a huge marker etched with this wordy tribute:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger, whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone is placed here by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

It was followed by some verses adapted from Alexander Pope and a Bible quote, adding even more to the bill. The man spared no expense, and it’s no wonder—he apparently had no intention of paying back the loan. The female stranger’s husband skipped town without paying doctor bills, lodging bills, or funeral and burial fees (he did leave behind some currency, but it was forged). And when he left, he took more than his wallet with him—he also took his wife’s identity.

Rumors ran rampant, even 70 years later: In 1886, the Lawrence Gazette reported on several theories, including the popular notion that the woman was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Alston had been lost at sea around 1812, but conspiracy theorists speculated that she faked her disappearance to escape a loveless marriage. “Why the stranger’s husband would permit no one to see her face after she was dead gives rise to the supposition that he may have feared its recognition by those who looked upon it,” the Gazette said.

Outlandish? Perhaps. But even more so is the tale that the woman was actually a man—Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in drag, to be exact, attempting to escape his exile.

Yet another story declared the woman was named Blanche Fordan, and the man claiming to be her husband had actually hypnotized her into marrying him, though she really loved another.

Sadly, if you're looking for answers, you're going to be disappointed—we still don't have any. The female stranger remains as mysterious today as she was 200 years ago, although her grave has since become a local tourist attraction.

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week, we head to West Virginia, the home of Star Wars VII co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, Barney Fife himself, Don Knotts, and Morgan Spurlock, the guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. 

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

Nestled in the mountains of southeast West Virginia is White Sulphur Springs, a small town of just over 2000 people. The main attraction in White Sulphur Springs is The Greenbrier, a 157-year-old hotel for the rich and famous, with amenities like five golf courses, a casino, tennis courts, spa treatments—and a secret underground bunker built to provide a safe haven for the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government in the event of all-out nuclear war.

Built between 1958 and 1962, under a covert project codenamed “Greek Island,” the two-story, 153-room, 112,554-square foot reinforced concrete bunker was built into a hillside around 60 feet under the West Virginia Wing of the hotel.  While it was never used as a secure location for Congress as intended, it was held at-the-ready until 1992, with 75,000 gallons of water reserves, and over 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel to run three generators that could power the facility if the main electrical grid went down. A large air conditioning unit kept the air contaminant-free and an incinerator would have been used to dispose of garbage and biological waste.

As technology advanced in the ensuing years, new equipment was brought in and installed. To keep the bunker at such a ready state, it was staffed 24/7 for 30 years by a team of government employees operating under the guise of TV repairmen for the hotel.

In order for the government to continue working after the evacuation of Washington D.C. in the event of nuclear war, the bunker was built with a professional studio for radio and television broadcasts, complete with a variety of background photos that gave the impression the speaker was still in Washington.

In addition, the House of Representatives and the Senate each had separate meeting rooms, as well as a large hall for joint assemblies. These conference rooms were hidden in plain sight—they could be booked by hotel guests for special events, under the belief that the rooms were just part of the West Virginia Wing. Little did they know there were secret wall panels that concealed blast doors as large as 18 tons that led to the rest of the compound. 

To accommodate the 1100 people that could potentially live there, bunk beds were installed in 18 dormitories, and a fully-stocked cafeteria was prepared to make meals for up to 60 days. If more food was needed, thousands of military-grade Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were stocked along the 430-foot tunnel that led into the facility from the main entrance. Complete medical facilities were on-site, including an operating room, ICU, and an infirmary that could hold 14 people, all manned by a staff of 35.  

Every one of the four entrances to the bunker was protected by a set of blast doors, including the largest that was 12 feet by 15 feet of steel and concrete, and weighed 28 tons. However, the door was so well-balanced on its 1.5-ton hinges that it could be opened and closed by a single person.

Although the bunker remained secret for 30 years, there were whispers of its existence around White Sulphur Springs and among the staff at the hotel. Contractors involved in the construction were suspicious of the 50,000 tons of concrete that were poured at the site, and workers remember the blast doors being installed, but no one could ever confirm just what they were building. Many told their story, but it wasn’t until May 1992 when reporter Ted Gup of The Washington Post wrote about the Greenbrier Bunker that these stories were given legitimacy. Shortly after Gup’s story was published, the U.S. Government verified the existence of the bunker—then promptly shut it down. By July 1995, the facility had been turned over to the hotel, which now offers daily tours of the bunker for its guests. 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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