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The World's Largest Key Collection

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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 time we head to the Centennial State—Colorado—for a taste of artistic flair on a very large scale, as well as a little hideaway in the mountains that has the key to our hearts (and to the Pentagon).  

Denver’s Mile High Animal Art Installations

Denver Convention Center

Denver, Colorado has one of the most vibrant public art scenes in the country, with murals, abstract statues, and commemorative monuments available almost everywhere you go.  But for whatever reason, one of the most common motifs is bigger-than-life-sized animals.

It’s hard to miss one of the most famous pieces of big animal art in the Mile High City, because it’s right there to greet you at the Denver International Airport.  Mustang—a 32-foot tall, cobalt blue, fiberglass horse—was installed in 2008 after being commissioned 15 years earlier from artist Luis Jiménez. Since then, the stallion, with its fiery red eyes, has been met with a mix of praise and criticism, with some passengers saying the horse causes added anxiety for those already afraid of flying. Sadly, Jiménez isn’t around to defend his work; he died in 2006, after a piece of the 9000-pound horse fell on him in his workshop. 

For anxious flyers, The Yearling at the Denver Public Library is a much more subdued example of equine art.  But what it lacks in devilry, it makes up for in oddity.  Originally created in 1997 by David Lipski for a Manhattan elementary school, the statue features a 21-foot tall, bright red desk chair like one seen in a child’s classroom.  Perched atop the chair’s seat, though, is a six-foot tall Pinto pony looking forlornly into the distance. Lipski wanted viewers to recall a time in their life when everyday objects seemed monumental, but the school felt the horse was a bit too much. Lipski refused to remove the pony, so the statue instead found its way to Denver a year later.

Speaking of giant farm animals, Dan Ostermiller’s Scottish Angus Cow and Calf statues at the Denver Art Museum have become local favorites since their unveiling in 2001.  The gigantic bronze bovines—the calf is 10 feet high and 14 feet long, while mama is 13 feet high and 24 feet long, with a combined weight of nearly 16,000 pounds—are an excellent reminder of Denver’s history as a cattle town.

If you’re looking for a new best friend, head over to the Denver Animal Shelter and adopt one of the four-legged variety. Don’t know where it’s located? Just look for the 25-foot tall dog made of shiny new dog tags. Sun Spot is the 2011 creation of artists Laura Haddad and Tom Drugan, who first built a steel skeleton, overlayed it with stainless steel mesh, and then covered it by hand in 90,000 pet tags like the kind usually found on Fido’s collar.  It’s been said that “Spot” makes quite an impression when the sun reflects off the tags as they’re blowing in the breeze, making him a good boy—such a good boy!—on the Denver public art scene.  

The last big animal to invade Denver is a big, blue bear that would make Paul Bunyan reconsider his relationship with Babe. Since 2005, I See What You Mean (above), a 40-foot tall statue of a blue bear standing on its hind legs, has been looking into the windows of the Colorado Convention Center, scaring and delighting visitors alike. The massive bear was first constructed by artist Lawrence Argent as a small, scale model, created using a computer and a 3-D printer. The bear was originally meant to be more reflective of the natural landscape of Colorado, with shades of brown and tan, but the model accidentally came out of the printer blue instead.  Argent was struck by the color of the prototype and decided “the bear had to be blue.” The statue is constructed in six segments, and made of 4000 interlocking triangles that hang on a hidden steel armature, giving him a very geometric appearance. Unlike that other big, blue beast at the airport, the bear has been embraced by Denverites, who now consider him a city icon. 

Baldpate Inn Key Collection

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There are only 12 guest rooms at the Baldpate Inn near Estes Park, Colorado, and yet they have somewhere in the neighborhood of 30,000 keys hanging from the rafters and covering the walls. The keys, believed to be the largest collection in the world, are donations from the many guests who have stayed at the inn since World War I. As the years have gone on, regular guests have started a friendly competition, with each one trying to outdo everyone else by donating ever more exotic keys to ever more exotic locations. Included in the collection are keys purported to open doors at the Pentagon, Westminster Abbey, the Vatican, the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia, and even the drawers on one of Adolf Hitler’s desks.

Recently, the management at the Baldpate started working with American History Savers, an archiving company, to document and organize the keys in the collection. Not only are they placing the most important specimens in their own section of the display, but they’re also working out a computerized system that will allow them to find any key—no matter how obscure the donor. I wonder if they could come up with a similar system for my wife’s purse.    

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 the states in the Strange States series so far here.

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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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