Hidden Labyrinth: England's Drakelow Tunnels

Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It was inevitable that tragedy would strike. On October 31, 1941, three men blasting through the sandstone in Kingsford Country Park in Worcestershire, England, were caught as large chunks of rock rained over them. The explosions had caused portions of the roof to collapse over their heads. By the time rescuers cleared the scene, it was too late. All three were dead.

The dirty and dangerous work of excavating well over a million cubic feet near Birmingham, England, took eight grueling months, and four more people would lose their lives. But nothing slowed their progress. The site had been earmarked as a place to house an airplane engine factory—one so well-disguised that it would be impossible for the German Luftwaffe flying overhead to identify it. Known as the Drakelow Underground Dispersal Factory, it brimmed with activity for years before taking on a series of increasingly peculiar uses. With over 3.5 miles of tunnel winding through the rock, it’s become a relic of wartime security—and for some, a place where the ghosts of the laborers who perished sometimes return to make their presence known.

 

In 1937 and with the support of the Air Ministry, the Rover car company of Great Britain began opening “shadow” factories that supplied the Bristol airplane manufacturing plants with parts for their Hercules and Pegasus engines. (The label came from the idea they operated in the shadow of the more accomplished and specialized airplane factories.) When one of the plants was bombed in Coventry in November 1940, it became clear that an additional, covert location would be needed in order to supply parts and take over production in case one of the other plants was compromised by a German assault. The British government selected Kingsford Country Park, an attractive woodland which featured a mass of sandstone that could potentially endure a blast from above.

Work began in July 1941. The government had selected the respected engineering firm of Sir Alexander Gibb and Partners to plot the underground tunnel system, which ran in a grid pattern to offer structural support in case of an attack. The four main tunnels were to measure 16 feet wide and feed several ancillary chambers that made up an area around 0.6 miles wide and 0.6 miles long.

An entrance to the Drakelow Tunnels is surrounded by trees
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

To accomplish that, workers would have to penetrate the sandstone. They used gelignite, an explosive preferred for blasting through rock, to create the entrances; after that, other explosives were used to continue boring into the site.

The work was precarious, as evidenced by the three deaths just a few months into the project. Other times, it seemed as though the chaos of the worksite lent itself to some unfortunate luck. Conveyor belts were installed to move the displaced earth. When two workers felt compelled to ride the belt rather than walk out of the tunnel after a long day, they were unable to jump off and wound up being mangled by the machinery. A woman, Mary Ann Brettel, was run over by a dump truck. Eric Harold Newman, a security officer in charge of overseeing supplies, was also hit by a motor vehicle.

The workers probably breathed a sigh of relief when work finished in 1942. From there, Rover moved in hundreds of employees to work on the airplane engine parts. It was a full, bustling factory encased in rock, with no natural light available and air supplied through ventilation systems. To help offset discomfort during long shifts, Rover offered a series of amenities to workers. They installed a games room and a billiards table for recreation; they designated one area as a concert hall, where entertainers would perform; a bar was set up so they could unwind after their shift was over. Eventually, they used the loudspeaker system to pipe in music that helped diminish the clinical sound of machinery.

The end of the war in September 1945 brought a halt to production, which restarted only intermittently for tank engines and other projects over the next several years. It was clear the effort of constructing and maintaining the tunnels should result in their continued occupation, but how best to make use of the space was open to debate. What can you do with a bomb-resistant shelter when no bombs are around?

Initially, it was turned over to the Ministry of Works in 1958 and used as a storage facility. With the advent of the Cold War, an obscured tunnel network became attractive as a location of last resort in the event of a nuclear attack, and a portion of Drakelow was converted to a Regional Seat of Government in 1961. In the 1980s, it was partially refurbished to include dorms and other additions to support a small government staff in case of a cataclysmic event.

A clock hangs inside the Drakelow Tunnels
Alex Lomas, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

By the time tensions eased in the 1990s, the British government saw no need to continue tending to the tunnels. The site was decommissioned and sold to private owners in 1993, who initially planned on using the land as a residential and commercial property and sought to demolish the network of tunnels. Lobbying by the newly formed Drakelow Tunnels Preservation Trust helped bury those plans. The trust believed the tunnels were of historical significance, having been utilized during a war and remaining ready in the event of an unthinkable nuclear disaster. And so the chambers remained standing, though perhaps not totally empty.

 

In 1993, a caretaker walking the grounds of Drakelow claimed he heard a slow and melodious song reminiscent of the 1940s. He searched everywhere for a possible source of the music but found nothing. The only thing capable of producing sound was the loudspeaker system, which hadn’t worked in years.

In 1996, another watchman accompanied by guard dogs alleged his canine companions began barking without provocation. Before long, a mist began to rise in the tunnel. The man searched for a possible fire in and out of the area. When he attempted to go back in, his dogs whined and dug their feet in. They didn’t want to return.

Such stories have been enticing for paranormal enthusiasts, who take guided tours of the tunnels provided by the trust. The area has also been the site of training for the military and law enforcement as well as some filming for movies and television. The trust is still hoping to raise funds for further restoration work, but thus far it’s been little more than painting.

Tourists at Drakelow today might see computers, radios, and other amenities put in during the Cold War scare of the 1980s. They may experience sudden drops in temperature or strange noises. If they think they smell something odd, however, it might not be their imagination. In 2016, a caretaker was convicted of allowing dealers to grow marijuana in some of the tunnels.

Hard Sell: A History of the Pet Rock

Amazon
Amazon

You may have heard the story of the Pet Rock, the Mexican beach stone that could be purchased in bulk for less than a penny, retailed for $3.95, and made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire during a kind of novelty gift hysteria in late 1975. But Dahl didn’t really get rich off of the rock.

He got rich off of a cardboard box.

Dahl was working as a freelance advertising copywriter in California that year when, while having drinks at a bar with friends, the conversation turned to the destructive nature of pets. Dogs and cats ruined furniture. Worse, they required constant attention, from being walked to being fed to cleaning up after them. Dahl said that he didn’t have to worry about any of that because he had a “pet rock.”

It was, of course, a joke. And it got a laugh. But Dahl decided there could be more to it than that. He went home and began writing an owner’s manual for this hypothetical pet rock, which detailed how best to handle it, the tricks it could perform (“play dead” being the most popular), and how it could remain a faithful companion due to its “long life span.” The gag was not so much the rock itself but the way it was presented. In addition to the manual, Dahl conceived of a cardboard box with air holes that resembled the kind used by pet shops. It also bore a passing resemblance to a McDonald's Happy Meal container.

 

Dahl's motivation in making a serious effort to monetize his pet rock idea was due in large part to his precarious financial situation at the time—he was struggling to keep up with his bills. He recruited George Coakley and John Heagerty, two colleagues, to come on as investors. They both signed on, with Coakley investing $10,000—a not-inconsiderable sum in 1975, especially when the intention was to sell virtually worthless rocks.

The Pet Rock packaging is pictured
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Dahl, however, knew what he was marketing. Like chattering teeth, the Hula Hoop, and other fads, the Pet Rock was the beneficiary of good timing. Vietnam had ended but Watergate was still fresh; the country’s mood was slightly downcast, and Dahl believed people would see the inane nature of the Pet Rock and recognize the humor of it. He boxed the rocks with the manual and packed them in excelsior, which may be best known as comic book legend Stan Lee’s catchphrase but also means a softwood shaving pile meant for protecting fragile items. The rocks were purchased from a local sand and gravel company, which sourced them from Mexico’s Rosarita Beach. Dahl debuted the rock at a gift show in San Francisco in August of 1975, then waited for a reaction.

He got one. People understood the appeal right away and he began taking orders. Neiman Marcus wanted 1000 rocks. Bloomingdale’s later signed on. Newsweek did a story with a picture, which spread the word. Dahl had retail and media credibility for what was superficially a nonsense product. His bar joke was turning into a national phenomenon.

When the holiday season arrived, Dahl estimated he was selling up to 100,000 Pet Rocks a day. Ultimately, he would sell between 1.3 and 1.5 million of them within a period of just a few months. Coakley made $200,000 back on his initial $10,000 investment. Dahl gifted both Coakley and Heagerty with Mercedes. Making 95 cents in profit on each Pet Rock sold, Dahl earned over $1 million. He launched his own firm, Rock Bottom Productions, which was itself another joke. “You’ve reached Rock Bottom” is how the receptionist answered their phone.

 

The fad did not last—by definition, they’re not designed to—but Dahl was satisfied. His two investors were not; they "claimed they had received too small a share of the profits" and later sued Dahl for more revenue. After a judgment in the investors' favor, Dahl wrote them a six-figure check.

The Pet Rock is pictured
Amazon

There were attempts to prolong the life of the rock by offering a Bicentennial version in 1976—it had the American flag painted on it—and mail-order college degrees for them. Dahl sold Pet Rock T-shirts and Pet Rock shampoo. There were also copycat gifts, since Dahl could not really patent a rock. (He might have been able to obtain a utility patent because of the rock’s particular purpose as a companion, but he did not.) The humor was transient, however, and people had moved on.

Dahl had other ideas. There was the Official Sand Breeding Kit, which claimed to provide guidance on growing sand, and Canned Earthquake, which consisted of a coffee can that had a wind-up mechanism that caused it to jump around on a table. Neither was particularly successful. Dahl’s real passion, though, was buying and renovating a bar in Los Gatos, which he named Carrie Nation’s Saloon.

This was not without its problems, as people who believed they had the next Pet Rock would often stop by the bar to try and secure an audience with Dahl for his insight. Many times, their idea consisted of packaging bull or elephant excrement. There were also proposals to market a pet stick. Dahl had no patience for these inventors, believing the Pet Rock could not be duplicated. Later, he went back to advertising after taking what he described as an “eight-year vacation” following the success of his project.

The Pet Rock can still be found online, though it’s no longer Dahl’s business. He died in 2015. Of the unsold rocks he had left over at the end of the fad, he was indifferent. If they didn’t sell, he said, he would just use them to repave his driveway.

Submarine Expedition Reveals Parts of the Titanic Have Fully Decayed

NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island
NOAA/Institute for Exploration/University of Rhode Island

In 1985, oceanographers Robert Ballard, Jean-Louis Michel, and their crew located the wreck of the RMS Titanic at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean. Images of the shipwreck have since become as iconic as photographs of the ocean liner taken before the 1912 tragedy. But the ruin's time in the ocean is limited. As part of an upcoming documentary, a crew of scientists carried out the first manned expedition to the wreck in 14 years and discovered the Titanic is rapidly decaying, BBC reports.

After it sank, the Titanic settled in two parts on the seafloor about 370 miles off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada. Most of the wreck is still intact, but a lot has changed since 2005, when it was last visited by a human-occupied submersible.

While working on a film for Atlantic Productions London, an exploration team from Triton Submarines visited the wreck five times over eight days and discovered that entire sections of the ship have disappeared. The starboard side of the officer's quarters has deteriorated, and the captain's bathtub is totally gone. The deck house on the same side and the sloping lounge roof of the bow are also on the brink of collapse, according to the crew.

Unlike other artifacts and historic sites, there's no way to preserve the wreckage of the Titanic for future generations. Churning ocean currents, corrosive salt, and metal-eating bacteria will continue to break down the steel behemoth until it becomes part of the sea. Some experts estimate that by 2030, it's likely that no part of the wreck will remain.

Whether that projection is off by years or decades, these findings suggest that every new team that visits the Titanic may find something different than the team before them. On this most recent expedition, the Triton Submarines exploration team was able to film the wreck in 4K for the first time. That footage may end up being some of the last ever captured of many elements of the ship.

[h/t BBC]

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER