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10 Drowned Towns You Can Visit

There are so many places lost beneath the waves around the world, you could create an alternate atlas of watery wreckages. But during the 20th century, the number of towns underwater increased exponentially as hydroelectricity projects submerged some to create power for many. These drowned towns were intentionally flooded behind new dams, their buildings removed or dismantled, and their residents displaced.

In recent years, droughts have allowed some of these towns to re-emerge. Others remain underwater. Here are 10 haunting waterworlds.

1. Villa Epecuén, Argentina

It’s now a haunting stretch of pale rubble and skeletal trees, but in the middle of the 20th century Villa Epecuén was one of Argentina’s most popular tourist spots. The once-charming village was developed in the 1920s to take advantage of the therapeutic salt waters of Lago Epecuén, some 340 miles southwest of Buenos Aires, and the population peaked in the 1970s at some 5,000 people. But in 1985, tragedy struck: heavy rains broke a nearby earthen dam, inundating the town and its hundreds of businesses.

The salty waters covered the town for about 25 years, until they began to recede as part of a long-term weather pattern, revealing salt-encrusted trees and the carcasses of vehicles and buildings. (The well-preserved town slaughterhouse is particularly eerie-looking.) In recent years, the remains of the town have been subject to a tourism push from local officials, who say it feels a bit like Pompeii. Villa Epecuén even has a single resident: the octogenarian Pablo Novak, who moved inland when the town was flooded but never entirely abandoned the place. (You can see a documentary about his amazing determination here.)

2. Shi Cheng, China

Carolyn Wang

Beneath the waters of Lake Qiando in China's Zhejiang province lies the 600-year-old "Lion City" of Shi Cheng. Flooded in 1959 to create a reservoir and hydroelectric station for the nearby city of Hangzhou, its beautiful ruins have been surprisingly well-preserved by the water, which reportedly protects the buildings better than if they were exposed to sun, wind, and rain.

The ruins were relatively unknown until a Chinese government expedition in 2001, which found a small city of wide streets, five entrance gates, and 265 archways featuring ornate stonework carvings of lions, dragons, and phoenixes, as well as historical inscriptions dating back to 1777. But although Shi Cheng gets most of the attention, it's just one of the towns flooded to create Hangzhou’s reservoir: the even more ancient He Cheng was established in 208, and also disappeared beneath the waves in 1959.

Local diving companies regularly offer tours of the Shi Cheng ruins, although since they’re not well-mapped, they dives are recommended for advanced divers only. Now’s a good time to visit the flooded jewels beneath Lake Qiando, which could see more traffic after a proposed tunnel through the lake is completed. There are rumors of other proposed developments aimed at helping tourists see the ruins. The $6.4 million submarine built for exploring the lake was completed in 2004 but has never been used, thanks to opposition from local officials.

3. Vilarinho das Furnas, Portugal

Benkeboy, Wikimedia // CC BY SA-3.0

It's like something out of a short story: a tiny but vibrant village, known for its remarkably democratic way of life, is flooded by the local power company to create hydroelectricity for the region. As they prepare for the end, villagers gather up stories, artifacts, and memories to create a museum memorializing their old town and its communal way of life.

That's what happened at the 2000-year-old town of Vilarinho da Furna in Portugal’s Minho region. According to oral accounts, the village is said to have been founded by Romans in the 1st century CE, and flourished for two millennia before being flooded by the Portuguese Electricity Company in 1972. In 1981, a museum dedicated to the submerged town opened in São João do Campo; the building was constructed using stones from some of the village’s old houses, and displays artifacts from the town. But that’s not all: remnants from the town can be seen during dry periods in the spring and fall, when water levels in the reservoir recede, and the remnants of walls, windows, and doors of the town re-emerge.

4. St. Thomas, Nevada

Located 50 miles northeast of Las Vegas, St. Thomas was established in 1865 as a Mormon outpost before becoming an agricultural community briefly known for producing cantaloupes and asparagus. In the 1930s, after the creation of the Hoover Dam, Lake Mead flooded, washing over the entire town. Today, during times of drought, the foundations of St. Thomas reappear—although each time they re-emerge, more of the structures have disappeared. In 2005, parts of 40 buildings were visible, including remnants of an old school and ice cream parlor. According to the National Park Service, much of the town is visible right now due to the current drought.

5. Potosi, Venezuela

Junctions, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

In what remains of Potosi, Venezuela, the mildewed ruins of a gothic church sit alone in a giant field. At one point, the church was part of a vibrant Andean village with 1200 inhabitants, but in 1985 the town was flooded when a nearby river was dammed to create a hydroelectric plant. For about 20 years, only the cross of the church's steeple was visible above the waters, as if marking the grave of the entire city. In 2008 the waters of the reservoir began to recede due to a severe drought linked to El Nino. By 2010 the church had been completely uncovered, joining the ruins of local houses, the town square, and a cemetery, all of which can now be seen.

6. Port Royal, Jamaica

They used to call it the "Wickedest City on Earth." For decades in the 17th century, Port Royal was known for its rum, prostitutes, and pirates, who used the town's strategic location in the middle of the Caribbean as their base for plundering Spanish treasure fleets. But in 1692 the city was hit with a massive earthquake, which destroyed some buildings and sucked others into the sand. The tsunami that followed drenched the town, swallowing up 33 acres for good. In all, at least 2000 people were killed. Today, much of the once-scandalous city lies 40 feet below water. Since the 1950s, divers have been exploring the ruins, which are said to be remarkably complete. As Atlas Obscura notes, access from the government is required to dive. For those who don’t want to get wet, many of the artifacts recovered over the years can be seen at the Museums of History and Ethnography at the Institute of Jamaica in Kingston. 

7. Catskills, New York

New York may have the highest concentration of drowned towns in the U.S., thanks to the number that were submerged to supply thirsty New York City. Between 1910 and 1928, dozens of farm villages in the Catskills were flooded to create reservoirs for the Big Apple. The creation of the Ashokan Reservoir, which began operating in 1915, required the abandonment and flooding of about a dozen hamlets alone. On the cusp of being displaced, thousands of residents were asked to help clear out their homes and businesses, and in some cases even dig up their relatives and move their bodies. Today, some claim that when water levels are low, the tops of the churches, schools, barns, and orchards drowned by the creation of Ashokan can still be seen. During a major drought in 2002, building foundations and old wells were revealed. Direct access to the reservoir has been limited since 9/11, but you can still catch a glimpse of the structures from nearby bridges.

The Catskills are also home to perhaps the most ironically named drowned town of them all: Neversink. The town was one of two flooded in 1953 for the creation of the Neversink reservoir. The other town displaced to create the new water supply was named Bittersweet.

8. Monument City, Indiana

In 2012, a severe drought  in the Midwest revealed the remnants of Monument City, including the foundations of houses and bricks from the old schoolhouse, long since demolished. The tiny town (estimated population: 30), established in 1875, was one of three flooded to create the Salamonie reservoir in 1965. After water levels fell by 12 feet in 2012, locals began flocking to the area to take remnants of the tiny town, before the Department of Natural Resources finally stepped in to offer supervised tours. The reservoir was originally created to help prevent the flooding of other towns. When water levels in the reservoir are low, the remnants of the town can again be seen.

9. Flooded Belfry, Kalyazin, Russia

In 1939, Joseph Stalin gave orders to flood the 12th-century town of Kalyazin, Russia to build the Uglich reservoir. The waters submerged several medieval buildings, including two monasteries, but the Kalyazin Bell Tower, also known as the "Flooded Belfry," is still looming above the Volga. At 244 feet high, the 19th-century campanile is one of the tallest Orthodox Christian structures in the world. (It looks a bit like a many-layered wedding cake.) Authorities have reinforced the tower and built a small artificial island around it, turning it into a popular spot for swimmers and tourists. Amazingly, Orthodox Christian services are still held inside the tower several time a year.

10. Church of Mediano, Spain

 

Spain has a number of drowned towns, but one of the most notable sights is the Church of Mediano (above) in La Fueva, Huesca. The church, which dates to the late 16th century, was submerged in 1974 to create the Mediano Reservoir. The tip of the steeple is always visible, even when the reservoir's levels are full. Intrepid divers used to be able to explore both the inside and out, but the inside has been boarded up for safety reasons. Elsewhere in the country, in Catalonia, the ruins of the 1000-year-old village of Sant Romà de Sau (below) are also visible when water levels in a nearby reservoir drop, and include their own atmospheric church.

Joan ggk, Wikimedia // CC BY 2.0
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski
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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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iStock / Collage by Jen Pinkowski

How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Nicole Garner
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History
How One Widow's Grief Turned a Small Town Into a Roadside Attraction
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Nicole Garner

Like many small towns, the southwest Missouri town of Nevada (pronounced not as the state, but as Nev-AY-duh) loves to tell tales. Incorporated in 1855, the 8000-person city was once a railroad hub and a former home to the outlaw Frank James, the elder brother of the more infamous Jesse James. But the one story Nevada residents love to tell above all others isn't about anyone famous. It's about an atypical above-ground grave in the town's oldest cemetery, the man who's interred there, and how he can't get any rest.

Scan of the Nevada Daily Mail from March 4, 1897.
Nevada Daily Mail; March 4, 1897.
Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.

On March 4, 1897, the body of a young man was found near Nevada, Missouri, apparently struck by lightning. The local newspaper, the Nevada Daily Mail, printed the story of his death that evening right next to the news that William McKinley had been sworn in as president that day; a bold-faced headline declared "Death Came Without Warning," and noted “His Clothing Torn From His Body." A reporter at the scene described how the body, which was found around 11 a.m., was unrecognizable at first. Eventually the young man's father identified him as Frederick Alonzo "Lon" Dorsa, and the coroner determined that an umbrella was the cause of Lon's electrocution.

Lon left behind a widow whose name was never mentioned in newspapers; to this day, other printed versions of the Dorsas' story omit her identity. But she had a name—Neva Dorsa—and her grief led her to commission a singularly peculiar grave for her husband—one that would open her up to years worth of ridicule and also make their small town a roadside attraction.

A funeral announcement in the Daily Mail noted that undertakers had prepared Lon's body in a "neat casket" before a funeral service set for March 7. A follow-up article the next day read that Lon's funeral was widely attended, with a large procession to the cemetery and burial with military honors. His widow—whose name was determined from a marriage license filed at the Vernon County courthouse showing that Lon married a Neva Gibson on February 12, 1895—had gone from a newlywed to a single mother in just two years.

But, Lon's first interment was temporary. Neva had arranged a grand resting place for her husband, which wasn't ready in the short time between his death and the funeral. Modern newspaper retellings of Lon and Neva's tale say she ordered a large, above-ground enclosure from the Brophy Monument Company in Nevada. A large piece of stone—some accounts say marble while others suggest limestone or granite—was shipped in via railroad car. When it arrived, the stone was too heavy to move, so a local stonecutter spent more than a month chiseling away before the piece was light enough to be pulled away by horses. A wire story described the stone tomb as being "12 feet long, 4 feet wide and 5 feet high. Its weight at completion was 11,000 pounds."

Before Lon’s body was placed inside, Neva made a few key additions—specifically a hidden pane of glass that let her view her husband:

"A piece of stone, covered to represent a bible [sic], is the covering of the aperture. It can be lifted easily by the widow's hand and when Mrs. Dorsa's grief becomes unusually poignant, she goes to the cemetery and gazes for hours at a time upon the face of her dead husband."

The Daily Mail covered the second tomb's installation with morbid attention to detail on May 6, 1897, precisely two months after Lon was initially buried:

"When the grave was opened this morning the coffin looked as bright and new as when buried but it had water in it which had at one time nearly submerged the body. The remains looked perfectly natural and there were no evidences of decomposition having sat in—no odor whatover [sic]. A little mould [sic] had gathered about the roots of his hair and on the neck, otherwise the body looked as fresh as when buried."

The newspaper called the tomb a "stone sarcophagus" and noted that Neva was there to examine her husband's corpse and watch the reburial of his remains. There was likely no inkling from those present, or the community who read about it in that evening's paper, that Neva had designed the tomb with unexpected and usual features, like the pivoting stone Bible that would reveal Lon's face below when unlocked and moved.

Instead, the newspaper suggested that the "costly mousoleum [sic] provided for the reception of his remains is the tribute of her affection."

Lon Dorsa's grave.
Lon Dorsa's grave at Deepwood Cemetery in Nevada, Missouri.
Nicole Garner

Following Lon's re-interment, Neva managed her grief by visiting her deceased husband regularly. Her home was near his grave—the 1900 U.S. Census listed her as a 25-year-old widow living on south Washington Street in Nevada, the same street as the cemetery—and three years after her husband's death, she was employed as a dressmaker, working year-round to provide for their young children, Beatrice and Fred.

By 1905, a new wave of public scrutiny hit the Dorsa (sometimes spelled Dorsey) family when the details of Neva's specially designed, above-ground grave began circulating. It's not clear who reported the story first, but the Topeka Daily Capital, published across the Kansas border 150 miles from Nevada, published a piece, which eventually spread to The St. Louis Republic. Early that spring, the same story was printed in the Pittsburgh Press, a Chicago church publication called The Advance, and in the summer of 1906, a description of Lon Dorsa's crypt had made it nearly 1000 miles to the front page of the Staunton Spectator and Vindicator in Staunton, Virginia:

"The strangest tomb in America, if not in the world, is that which rest the remains of Lon Dorsa in Deepwood cemetery, Nevada, Mo. It is so constructed that the widow can look upon her deceased husband at will, by the turning of a key in a lock which holds a stone Bible just above the remains."

Articles at the time noted that Lon's remains were in an airtight tomb and that scientists supposedly told Mrs. Dorsa that her husband's body would be well-preserved in those conditions, but decomposition had already taken place: "It [the body] has turned almost black, but the general outline of the features remains unchanged."

According to a 1997 walking tour pamphlet of Deepwood Cemetery, it wasn't long before community members caught on that Neva visited the cemetery all too often: "Fascinated children hung about to watch the lady arrive in her buggy. If she saw them, she'd go after them with a whip, shrieking like a madwoman …" the guide stated. Eventually, "her family had the pivot removed and the Bible cemented down."

Local lore suggests that the publicity and Lon's deterioration drove Neva to insanity. Some say she ended up in an asylum and died soon after—a fairly believable tale, considering Nevada was home to one of the state's hospitals for mental illness. However, a list of Deepwood Cemetery lot owners, found at the Vernon County Historical Society, doesn't have a burial space for Neva.

A more likely explanation—based on a listing on Find a Grave, a website that indexes cemeteries and headstones, and which matches Neva's personal information—suggests she simply remarried and moved to California. The California Death Index, 1945-1997, shows that a Neva (Gibson) Simpson died Dec. 30, 1945 in Los Angeles. The birth date and place match those of Neva (Gibson) Dorsa.

Newspaper clipping featuring a picture of a skull.
Nevada Daily Mail, Nov. 30, 1987. Courtesy of the State Historical Society of Missouri.
State Historical Society of Missouri

Wherever Neva ended up, Lon's body didn't exactly rest in peace. In July 1986, vandals broke into the town's most famous tomb and stole his head. It was recovered the following year in a Nevada home, but law enforcement and cemetery caretakers noted that the stone Bible, which had been cemented down for some time, was periodically ripped off the tomb.

Talbot Wight, the Deepwood Cemetery Board’s president at the time, told the Daily Mail in 1987 that Lon's hair, skin, and clothing were well preserved until vandals broke the encasing glass. "Evidently, he was still in pretty good shape until July," Wight said.

But when Lon's skull was photographed for the newspaper's front page, it featured no hair or skin, both of which likely decomposed quickly after being stolen if not before. The skull was buried in an undisclosed location away from the body so as to not tempt new grave robbers, and the tomb was re-sealed with marble in an attempt to prevent further damage.

Still, the story of Neva Dorsa and her husband’s remains hasn't died away. It circulates through southwestern Missouri, drawing visitors to Deepwood Cemetery to gaze at the stone plot—just not in the same way Neva had intended.

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