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.

In this entry, we head out west to what is undoubtedly one of the strangest states in the Union—California. With the Hollywood flair of Los Angeles, the counter-culture allure of San Francisco, and the free spirit of everywhere in between and beyond, California is filled with dozens of odd places, festivals, and attractions—too many to count, really.  So instead, we’ll take a look at a few people who have helped make California the unofficial home of eccentricity.  

Emperor Norton I Reigns Over the Bay

Wikimedia Commons

According to the history books, there were five U.S. Presidents between 1859 and 1880. But to the people of San Francisco, there was only one man truly in charge—his Imperial Majesty, Joshua Norton I, the United States’ only emperor.

Born in about 1819, Norton came to San Francisco from South Africa at the age of 30 after inheriting $40,000 (~$1.1 million today) from his father's estate. With a number of risky but lucrative investments, his fortune grew to nearly $250,000, but a failed attempt to corner the imported rice market left Norton bankrupt. After he unsuccessfully sued to have his rice contract voided, Norton disappeared for a few years, only to resurface in 1859 in grand fashion—by sending a decree to San Francisco newspapers declaring himself the “Emperor of the United States and Protector of Mexico.”

Over the next 20 years, the self-appointed emperor submitted numerous lofty rulings, including one that declared Congress should meet in San Francisco instead of Washington D.C., another that banned the Republican and Democratic parties, and even one dissolving the United States itself. In addition, he made more modest proclamations, like telling the capital city of Sacramento to clean its streets and add more gaslights, or that the Grand Hotel should give him room and board or else face banishment. Oddly enough, one of his decrees wound up being ahead of its time: Norton called for the construction of a suspension bridge between San Francisco and Oakland, which eventually came to fruition as the Bay Bridge in 1936. 

Although the newspapers printed his declarations as entertainment, the people of San Francisco took a liking to the eccentric emperor thanks to his public persona. Every day, Norton wore a blue military uniform—complete with brass buttons, gold epaulettes, a cap, and a saber at his side—that he somehow procured from the soldiers at the Presidio of San Francisco. In later years, he sported a stovepipe hat garnished with a peacock feather and rosette. As part of his self-imposed daily duties, Norton inspected cable cars and public works projects, and stopped police officers to ensure their uniforms were clean. He even handed out his own currency issued by the Imperial Government of Norton I that was gladly accepted at most businesses in town.

Norton was welcomed at all the finest restaurants in the Bay Area, despite not having any non-Imperial currency to pay for the meals. Playhouses reserved balcony seats for him in the hopes he might attend a performance. He was often asked to speak at conferences and give lectures, and was a welcome debater among intellectuals. His room was said to have been paid for by various beneficiaries, including the local Masonic Lodge, of which he was a member. If he regularly frequented a place of business, the shop owners had brass plaques made and put on display, touting that they had received the Imperial seal of approval. And when he was once taken into custody for involuntary mental care by a naive police officer, Norton was released the next morning at the command of the Chief of Police, with an official apology from the department, and $4.75 (~$75 today) for his troubles. Norton was kind enough to grant a formal pardon to the Chief and the officer for the misunderstanding. From then on, officers often saluted when they passed him on the street.

The Emperor died on January 8, 1880, after collapsing on a street corner while on his way to lecture at the Academy of Natural Sciences. Depending upon the version of the legend you hear, his funeral was attended by anywhere from 10,000 to 30,000 people from all walks of life, there to witness the end of his 21-year reign. While his sanity can be debated, there’s no question that Norton I had an impact on the people of San Francisco.  

William “Burro” Schmidt and His Tunnel

Like many before him, William “Burro” Schmidt sought his fortune in the El Paso Mountains of Kern County, California.  Schmidt staked his claim in the early 20th century on a 4400 foot peak, and soon found small deposits of ore that contained gold. But the closest smelter to extract the gold was in Mojave, California, which required Schmidt and his donkeys to traverse a dangerous trail to get to the other side of the mountain.  After a few perilous trips, Schmidt decided the risk just wasn’t worth it.  But rather than abandon his claim, in 1906, he started digging a 6 foot high, 10 foot wide tunnel through the solid granite mountain so he could bypass the trail entirely.  

For many years Schmidt used nothing but a pick, a shovel, and a four pound hammer, carrying loosened rocks out as needed. As he got further into the mountain, he installed a railcar to help haul out debris, and resorted to notoriously short-fused sticks of dynamite to move things along a little faster. 

He continued to work on the tunnel even after a road built in 1920 would have made the trip to Mojave safer and faster than going down the other side of the mountain. He admitted that the road made little difference to him at that point, as he had simply become obsessed with seeing the project through to completion. He finally did break through to the other side of the mountain in 1938, having moved an estimated 5800 tons of granite to complete his 2500 foot long tunnel.  Oddly enough, Schmidt never even used the tunnel to haul his ore to Mojave. 

There’s a commonly told legend that Schmidt wasn’t really digging the tunnel out of compulsion, but that he was actually following a rich vein of gold that snaked through the mountain. If that’s true, no one has ever been able to find any proof that Schmidt wound up a wealthy man. In fact, experts say there are still veins of gold left untouched, seeming to prove that Schmidt had lost interest in mining over the years.

Schmidt’s cabin and other buildings still stand virtually untouched since the 1930s. In the past, tours were available at the site, but legal wranglings over ownership of the property have required the buildings be fenced off and closed to visitors. The tunnel is still open for self-guided tours, though. If you plan to visit, be sure to bring plenty of water, some solid shoes, and a flashlight with fresh batteries.  

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!

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