30 Cities Around the World That No Longer Exist

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An old Norwegian legend tells of a village that was left utterly depopulated by the Black Death, forgotten, and soon overgrown by moss and trees. Years later, a hunter missed a shot and his arrow hit the bell of what is now known as Hedal Stave Church, rediscovering this abandoned village.

Whatever the truth (or otherwise) of this legend, history is filled with cities that emerged and then were abandoned or forgotten. Some have been rediscovered, and others are still out there, waiting to be found.

1. STABIAE, ITALY

Mount Vesuvius
Paull Young, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When Vesuvius exploded in 79 CE, its most famous victims were the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum, but other towns and villas were buried as well, places such as Boscoreale or Oplontis. The one with the oddest story though is Stabiae. Pliny the Elder recorded that the town had been destroyed by Sulla during the Social War in 89 BCE so completely that only a single farmhouse remained. At some point afterwards, the area was turned into luxury villas—that is, until the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed it once again.

In the mid-18th century, archaeologists discovered the ruins of both Pompeii and Stabiae. After some initial excavation work, focus was concentrated on Pompeii, and Stabiae was reburied to protect it. Eventually, the site was forgotten—until the 1950s, when a local high school principal decided to rediscover it. Working with the school’s janitor and a mechanic, they found several archaeological sites, and excavation continues today.

2. DEAD CITIES, SYRIA

Dead Cities, Syria
MEZAR MATAR/AFP/Getty Images

The Dead Cities are a group of around 40 villages in northern Syria that date to the 1st through 7th centuries CE. According to UNESCO, "the relict cultural landscape of the villages also constitutes an important illustration of the transition from the ancient pagan world of the Roman Empire to Byzantine Christianity." They were abandoned quickly, either due to shifting trade routes, weather changes, or a pattern of invasion between the Byzantines and the Umayyads.

But people are returning to the Dead Cities. In 2013, an NPR report described modern smokestacks on the landscape, as refugees began moving into the area.

3. CHAN CHAN, PERU

Chan Chan was the capital of the Chimu Kingdom, and is believed to have been the largest city in the Pre-Columbian Americas. The kingdom lasted from circa 900 to 1470, when it was conquered by the Inca. The city began a rapid decline afterwards, to the point that when the Spanish arrived the city had already been effectively abandoned.

4. HASHIMA ISLAND, JAPAN

Hashima Island, Japan
BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

Also known as Gunkanjima or Battleship Island, this small island off the coast of Japan is thought to have been the most densely populated place on the planet in the 1950s, with over 5000 people crammed onto a 16-acre island (that works out to a population density of 200,000 people per square mile; Manhattan is around a third of that). Made famous as the location of the villainous lair in the 2012 James Bond movie Skyfall, Hashima Island was operated for years by Mitsubishi as a coal mine. But when the mine closed in 1974, the island was abandoned.

5. BANNACK, MONTANA

An abandoned home in Bannack, Montana.
Edward Mitchell, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Bannack is generally listed as the first boomtown in Montana: The population rose from a few hundred to thousands of individuals in just a few years after gold was discovered in a nearby creek in 1862. Sadly, by the time it was made Montana’s first territorial capital, the city was already in decline due to crime and other gold deposits being discovered elsewhere in the territory. Less than a year later the territorial capital was moved to Virginia City. In 1954 the state of Montana acquired most of the land, and today it's Bannack State Park.

6. EASTERN SETTLEMENT, GREENLAND

Eastern coast of Greenland.
Mariusz Kluzniak, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Founded by Norse explorers around 986 CE, it's estimated that at its largest, the Eastern Settlement in Greenland had around 5000 people living in the area. By the late 15th century the community had disappeared, leaving only ruins, with the last record of life there being a 1408 marriage between Thorstein Olafsson and Sigrid Björnsdottir. By the time Hans Egede arrived in the 1720s to convert the long-lost colonists to Lutheranism, the Norse Greenlanders had disappeared.

What happened to the settlement has long been debated, but recent archaeology has indicated that Greenland’s exports had ceased being in demand, and as the community became more and more remote, people began migrating back to more centralized communities in Norway, Iceland, and Denmark.

7. CONSONNO, ITALY

Consonno, Italy
Spline Splinson, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Consonno was originally a medieval town that survived for centuries with a small population of around 300. But in 1962, an entrepreneur named Mario Bagno arrived to convert the community into a Las Vegas-style resort town. Years of construction and demolition followed, until 1976, when a landslide isolated Consonno and ended Bagno's dream of a "City of Toys." The area remained abandoned until 2016, when it hosted an Italian hide-and-seek championship.

8. LOST CITY, FLORIDA

Waterway in the Everglades.
Mike Mahaffie, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

According to South Florida's Sun-Sentinel, deep in the Everglades there was a place called Lost City, and archaeologists have found evidence of human activity, from Seminoles to hiding Confederate soldiers, stretching back hundreds of years. For some reason though, activity spiked in the early 1900s when local legend says that Al Capone had a bootlegging operation there, thanks to the area's high ground and remote location.

9. FORT MOSE, FLORIDA

Location of Fort Mose.
Waters.Justin, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY-SA 4.0

In the late 17th and 18th centuries, Florida was an area of Spanish land next to several English colonies. In order to help protect against English encroachment and weaken the nearby colonies, the Spanish in Florida offered a form of asylum to escaped slaves in exchange for converting to Catholicism and serving Spain. This gave rise to Gracia Real de Santa Teresa de Mose, otherwise known as Fort Mose, on the outskirts of St. Augustine. While it was largely established to protect St. Augustine from British attack, the site is also the earliest known European-sanctioned free black community in the modern United States. The fort was destroyed in 1740 [PDF] and rebuilt, but lost much of its importance. After the Spanish gave Florida to Britain in 1763, the community moved to Cuba.

10. KOLMANSKOP, NAMIBIA

The abandoned town of Kolmanskop, Namibia.
GIANLUIGI GUERCIA/AFP/Getty Images

In the early 20th century, Kolmanskop played host to European opera companies, an orchestra, and even the southern hemisphere's first X-ray unit. The city was built on an extremely productive diamond field (the BBC estimates that it produced a million carats of diamond in 1912, 12 percent of the world’s production that year). Eventually, World War I and the discovery of larger deposits further south led to the abandonment of the city.

11. CENTRALIA, PENNSYLVANIA

Smoke coming up from cracked concrete in Centralia, Pennsylvania.
DON EMMERT/AFP/Getty Images

In 1960, the population of Centralia, Pennsylvania was 1435 people. By 2010 it was 10. Although the city was already on the decline, it was a decades-long coal fire that killed the city. Although there are some dissenters, it's generally agreed that in 1962, some trash was set on fire and the fire spread to a coal seam. The fire continued to burn and, among other scary events, in 1981 a 13-year-old boy narrowly escaped falling into a hole that opened up in the ground. The government bought most of the remaining citizens out, but a few residents fought to be able to live out their lives there.

12. LITTLE AMERICA, ANTARCTICA

Aerial view of Antarctica.
Eli Duke, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

There were five Little Americas over the course of several decades. One of them even featured an American post office and had a newspaper documenting the goings-on. In fact, the only odd part was that it was in Antarctica. Robert Byrd set up the first Little America in 1928, expanded it in 1933-'35, and started a new Little America further north in 1940; two more would eventually follow.

As part of the 1933 Little America, Charles Anderson was sent to run a post office (the Smithsonian has his safe, labeled "U.S. Post Office, Little America, South Pole"). The purpose of this post office was entirely so that philatelists could get a cancellation mark from Antarctica. To get it they had to pay three cents for the stamp and 50 cents to the Byrd Antarctic Expedition; it was a success—anywhere from 150,000 to 240,000 [PDF] letters were stamped before the post office was discontinued in 1935.

As for the Little Americas, they've drifted out to sea on icebergs and have disappeared.

13. TRELLECH, WALES

Area around Trellech.
Andy Walker, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

According to ancient tax rolls, the second largest town in 13th century Wales was likely Trellech, which comprised about 400 buildings before being destroyed, most likely due to a combination of attacks, fire, and disease.

In early 2017, newspapers around the world reported the discovery of Trellech. The story is that in 2002 archaeology graduate Stuart Wilson, working at a tollbooth, learned of a farmer who found pottery shards kicked up by moles. Years later, the property came up for sale and Wilson bought it, hoping to find Trellech, which he claims that he did. Meanwhile, other researchers have criticized the results saying that they're overblown and archaeological work was being done in the broad area before. As for Wilson, he hopes to start a campsite at the area and continues digging.

14. HUMBERSTONE, CHILE

Abandoned town of Humberstone, Chile.
MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, saltpeter was huge business as a fertilizer, and much of it came from the Atacama Desert in South America. One of these mining towns was Humberstone, but the modern UNESCO area contained over 200 saltpeter works and dozens of towns popped up. When synthetic fertilizers began appearing, however, saltpeter lost its importance and the cities faded away.

15. AKROTIRI, GREECE

Excavation of Akrotiri, Greece
Bruno Vanbesien, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

Today, Santorini is a picturesque tourist spot, but many visitors don't realize it is located on the remnants of one of the largest volcanic eruptions in human history. Called the Thera or Minoan eruption, it was likely around 4 times the size of Krakatoa. One of the settlements on the island at the time of the eruption nearly 3600 years ago was Akrotiri. Like Pompeii, it was buried by the volcano, but unlike that famed excavation site, there's a noticeable lack of bodies at Akrotiri, indicating that the population had enough warning to escape before the eruption occurred.

16. TAXILA, PAKISTAN

Taxila is a complex that spans 6th century BCE Achaemenian ruins. The city was conquered by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BCE, and was a major center of Buddhism. In the 5th century CE, the Ephthalites invaded and destroyed much of the city while simultaneously lessening the presence and influence of Buddhism in the region. When the Ephthalites were defeated, the city wasn't restored, and a century later a chronicler noted that the city was still desolate, soon to be abandoned.

17. PYRAMIDEN, NORWAY

A sign for the abandoned town of Pyramiden, Norway.
DOMINIQUE FAGET/AFP/Getty Images

Svalbard is an archipelago in the far north Arctic Ocean. Before 1920, it existed as an international Wild West, with no nation having ownership. This changed with the Svalbard Treaty that gave the archipelago to Norway on the condition that Norway not unduly interfere with certain rights of other signatories, such as mining activities, based on nationality.

The Norwegians had already attempted to mine coal in the area, but abandoned it, and the Soviet Union stepped in to work the land. According to Bloomberg, as an effectively Western city, Pyramiden had a very high standard of living, recruited the best minds, and served as a display for Communism to the rest of the world. After the fall of the Soviet Union, Pyramiden stopped being economically viable, and after a 1996 plane crash that killed 141 people and destroyed morale in the community, it was abandoned in 1998.

18. MERV, TURKMENISTAN

Camels grazing near ruins in Merv, Turkmenistan.
David Stanley, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

It's possible that Merv in modern Turkmenistan was the largest city in the world for a few years in the 12th century, with a population around 200,000 people. Merv's wealth came from a strategic position for trade routes and dams that provided the city with water.

In the 13th century, one of Genghis Khan's sons, Tolui, attacked, destroying the city. Although modern historians think it's exaggerated, the chronicler Ibn al-Athir claimed that 700,000 people were killed. The city never recovered, although other towns would be built in the surrounding area.

19. CAHOKIA, ILLINOIS

Cahokia mounds.
Steve Moses, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Cahokia, located just outside present day St. Louis, was the largest pre-Columbian settlement in the Americas north of modern Mexico. As the main bed of the Mississippian culture, the city grew quickly—some estimates indicate that between 1050 and 1100 CE the city grew from around 2000 people to 15,000 people, which at the time was the same population as London [PDF]. For reasons that are still debated, the population soon declined and Cahokia was abandoned circa 1350. It may not have been all bad though—some historians suspect that the population decline is what helped spread the Mississippian culture across much of North America.

20. NAN MADOL, FEDERATED STATES OF MICRONESIA

Ruins at Nan Madol.
NOAA Photo Library, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Nan Madol, off the shore of Pohnpei, is best known as the only existing ancient city built on top of a coral reef. Comprising 92 artificial islands, the city served as the center of the Saudeleur dynasty who ruled the island. According to the National Park Service, Nan Madol was built around 1200 CE. Four hundred years later, a warrior-hero named Isokelekel helped overthrow the Saudeleur, leading to the abandonment of the site.

21. MOLOGA, RUSSIA

Church ruins in the Rybinsk Reservoir.
Ylliab Photo, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

When the Soviets decided to create the Rybinsk Reservoir on the Volga River in the 1930s, there was only one problem: Mologa and over 600 smaller villages, with a population of around 130,000 people. The residents were forced out, although there is evidence that around 300 people refused to leave and were drowned when the city was flooded in 1940. In 2014, the weather caused the reservoir to drop dramatically, re-exposing parts of the city to the world.

22. NEVERSINK, NEW YORK

The Neversink Reservoir circa 2012.
rabbit57i, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Another set of flooded towns exist in New York, condemned in the 1940s to give New York City more drinking water. Among these towns are Bittersweet and the either ironically or aptly named Neversink, which was relocated.

These cities are not alone. Communities being destroyed by reservoirs are so common there's a genre of fiction called “reservoir noir” that deals with intentionally flooded towns.

23. SAN JUAN PARANGARICUTIRO, MEXICO

Abandoned church in San Juan Parangaricutiro, Mexico.
Matthew Fuentes, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

San Juan Parangaricutiro used to be the principal town in its region of Mexico, a thriving city of 4000 people centered by an 18th century church. But on February 20, 1943, around two kilometers away, a volcano started forming on a farmer's land. After a day it was 150 feet high, and by the end of that year it was over a thousand feet.

Ash began covering nearby villages, and everyone was evacuated. There were only three recorded fatalities, all due to lightning from the eruption. Eventually, the lava reached San Juan Parangaricutiro and the church was partially buried. Today, it's a tourist site.

24. HALLSANDS, UK

The remnants of Hallsands, UK.
steve p2008, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

On the night of January 26, 1917, the fishing village of Hallsands in Devon fell into the sea. Amazingly, no one died, but the majority of the town's 128 people were left homeless (only one house survived the storm). And the cause was entirely human.

Twenty years earlier, the British government had decided to expand a nearby naval dockyard, and in 1897 began dredging the area for sand and gravel—the same material that was protecting Hallsands from the rough waters. In 1900, part of the sea wall was destroyed by a storm, and dredging was soon stopped. But in 1917, a combination of gales and high tides destroyed the city. While the government strenuously denied responsibility, recent research has uncovered a report that showed the dredging conclusively caused the collapse.

25. LUKANGOL, SOUTH SUDAN

A burned house and bicycle in South Sudan.
Arsenie Coseac, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

Lukangol was a city of 20,000 in South Sudan that was completely destroyed in late 2011 due to ethnic clashes. According to an MSF spokesperson in the area, the town had been reduced to ashes, thought most of the population was able to escape before the attack.

26. ARAVICHY, BELARUS

Old war memorial in an abandoned town in Belarus.
Ilya Kuzniatsou, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Much of the discussion of abandoned cities following the Chernobyl disaster is focused on Pripyat in Ukraine, but across the border, 70 percent of the radioactive fallout fell on Belarus, causing an estimated 470 villages and towns to be evacuated. Today, these communities, such as Aravichy and Dronki, exist in the Polessye State Radioecological Reserve, which has turned into a large scale nature preserve.

27. PLYMOUTH, MONTSERRAT

Sign prohibiting entrance into Plymouth, Montserrat.
Chuck Stanley, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

In 1995, the Soufrière Hills volcano began erupting, and in 1997 a pyroclastic flow destroyed the city of Plymouth, once home to 4000 people, and the surrounding area of Montserrat, a British territory in the Caribbean. Today, around 60 percent of the island is an exclusion zone that can only be visited with special permission, including Plymouth. What makes Montserrat odd is that Plymouth is still technically the capital of the island, although in reality the capital is Brades.

28. SURVIVAL TOWN, NEVADA

A building built to test a nuclear reaction in Survival Town, Nevada.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Only a nickname, Survival Town is an odd city because no one ever actually lived there. It was built expressly to test the damage resulting from the Apple-2 nuclear test in 1955. According to Archaeology, the town was fitted with utilities, industrial buildings, cars, fully stocked kitchens, and even a propane tank farm alongside dozens of mannequins. Today, a few buildings survive from the site, but according to Colleen Beck of the Desert Research Institute, something more fashionable may also have survived. She told Archaeology in 2014 "There’s a J.C. Penney page—it must be from this test—that shows mannequins before and after…You have this 'before' picture of the dressed mannequin, and afterwards sometimes an arm's gone, or whatever. But the J.C. Penney clothes survive fine."

29. AKKAD, IRAQ

Map of Akkadian Empire.
Patrick Gray, Flickr // CC BY-NC 2.0

The Akkadian Empire took its name from the capital city, Akkad (or Agade). And apart from that, very little is known of the city. Legend says that Sargon built the city (or possibly restored it) and created an empire in the 24th century BCE. The Akkadian Empire lasted around two centuries before collapsing over reasons that historians still debate. Today, the location of the capital city of the empire remains unknown, as do many of the details of its rise and fall.

30. PAITITI, PERU

The Andes Mountains.
icelight, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

Paititi is a legendary lost city somewhere in the Andes said to be rich with gold. Some scholars dispute its existence, saying that it was a metaphor instead of a city, or that it was created to distract invading Spaniards. Other scholars insist that it's real, and in 2008 officials in a Peruvian town announced that they discovered it along a heavily forested section of the mountains. Soon after, experts denounced their find as a natural formation, meaning the real Paititi remains lost.

When Theodore Roosevelt's Antique Gun Was Stolen From Sagamore Hill

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Shortly before hitting the battlefield on July 1, 1898, Theodore Roosevelt had a decision to make. He was about to lead a volunteer cavalry known as the Rough Riders in the Battle of San Juan Heights in Santiago, Cuba, during the Spanish-American War. In protecting both his life and the lives of his men during combat, what sidearm should he choose?

Roosevelt, an avowed arms enthusiast, had an arsenal in his personal collection as well as numerous firearms issued by the U.S. military. The gun he chose to holster on his waist was a Colt Model 1895 .38 caliber double-action revolver with six shots, a blue barrel, and a checkered wood grip. While it may not have been the most formidable weapon at his disposal, it was the most emotionally resonant. The gun, a gift from his brother-in-law, had been retrieved from the wreck of the U.S. battleship Maine, whose sinking had claimed the lives of 266 men and helped usher in the war. He considered the gun a tribute to the sailors and Marines lost in the tragedy.

Now it had become an instrument of that war. In the conflict, Roosevelt aimed his revolver at two opposing soldiers. He missed one. The other was struck—and the wound was fatal. “He doubled up as neatly as a jackrabbit,” Roosevelt later wrote.

Just a few years later, Roosevelt would be president of the United States. The gun remained in his possession until his death in 1919, and eventually came into the care of Sagamore Hill, his onetime home and later a historic site. The Colt occupied a place of honor in the property’s Old Orchard Museum, behind glass and next to the uniform that he wore during the charge.

In April of 1990, a museum employee walked past the display and noticed something unusual. The Colt was gone. The weapon used by the 26th president to kill a man would go missing for 16 years, recovered only under the most unusual of circumstances.

“This poor gun has been through a lot,” Susan Sarna, the museum’s curator, tells Mental Floss. “It was blown up on the Maine, sunk to the bottom, resurrected, goes to San Juan Hill, comes here, then gets stolen—twice.”

 

According to a 2006 article in Man at Arms magazine by Philip Schreier [PDF], the senior curator at the National Rifle Association’s National Firearms Museum, the Colt has indeed had a hectic life. Manufactured in Hartford, Connecticut, in March 1895, the firearm (serial number 16,334) was delivered from the factory to the U.S. government and wound up on board the USS Maine when the ship was first commissioned in September of that year. The gun was considered ship property and remained on board until February 15, 1898, when the Maine exploded in Havana, Cuba. Many blamed the Spanish for the explosion, and hundreds of men lost their lives.

At the time, Roosevelt’s brother-in-law, William S. Cowles, was heading the U.S. Naval Station. He and his team were sent to the site to inspect the scene. Divers retrieved bodies and other items, including the Colt. Knowing Roosevelt—at the time the Assistant Secretary of the Navy under President William McKinley—was fond of weapons and a genial warmonger, Cowles gave it to him as a gift. While it was perfectly functional, it's clear Cowles intended the Colt to serve to honor the memory of those who had died.

The Colt revolver that once belonged to Theodore Roosevelt is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Colt revolver on display at Sagamore Hill.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

Roosevelt later took it into battle, using it to shoot at enemy forces. (He would earn a posthumous Medal of Honor in 2001 for his actions that day.) Shortly after, the weapon was inscribed to represent its participation in two exceptional events. On one side of the handle:

From the sunken battle ship Maine.

On the other:

July 1st 1898, San Juan, Carried and used by Col. Theodore Roosevelt.

Following Roosevelt’s death in 1919, the Sagamore Hill estate in Oyster Bay, New York, was home to his wife, Edith, until her death in 1948. The property was later donated to the National Park Service in 1963 and became Sagamore Hill National Historic Site. The gun went on display along with many of the former president's other personal effects, eventually settling in the Old Orchard near the uniform he wore during the Battle of San Juan Heights.

In 1963, the Colt came up missing for the first time. With no guard or contemporary security system in place, someone nicked it from the building. Fortunately, it was soon found in the woods behind the museum, slightly rusty from being exposed to the elements but otherwise unharmed. The perpetrator may have gotten spooked after taking off with it and decided to abandon the contraband, but no one had a chance to ask—he or she was never caught.

By April of 1990, the gun and uniform were in a display case borrowed from the American Museum of Natural History. While somewhat of a deterrent, it didn't offer much in the way of security. “The case could be lifted and the lock just popped open,” Sarna says.

Sarna had just started at the museum back then. According to her, the case had either been disturbed by a thief or possibly left open by someone cleaning the display, inviting a probing set of hands. Either way, the gun disappeared—but it wasn’t immediately obvious.

“No one was sure what day it had happened,” she says; the best guess was that the theft had occurred between April 5 and 7. “You’d have to walk into the room it was in and look in the case. If you’re just walking by, you’d see the uniform, but not necessarily the gun.”

It was chief ranger and head of visitor services Raymond Bloomer Jr. and ranger John Foster who discovered the theft one morning. The lock had been popped but the glass was not broken. Sarna and the other employees conducted a search of the property, believing that perhaps someone had taken the Colt out for cleaning. When that failed to produce any results, they notified the National Park Service, which is the first line of investigation for theft on government-owned park property. The NPS, in turn, contacted local authorities in Nassau County and Cove Neck, New York. Soon, the FBI was involved.

Predictably, law enforcement looked at museum employees with a critical eye. “There were all different types of people here interviewing us,” Sarna says. “In museums, the majority of thefts are an inside job.”

Theodore Roosevelt is pictured in uniform
Roosevelt in uniform while leading the Rough Riders.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Park ranger and museum staffer Scott Gurney, who was hired in 1993, tells Mental Floss that the suspicion cast over employees—none of whom were ever implicated—remained a sore spot. “I found an old police report about it in a desk and asked a ranger about it,” Gurney says. “He got really mad at me and told me not to bring it up again. It was kind of a black eye for the people working there.”

As Sarna and the others set about installing a security system in the museum, the FBI started casting a wide net to locate the weapon, which was uninsured. “It was basically a shoplifting incident,” Robert Wittman, a retired FBI agent in their art crimes division who worked on the case from the mid-1990s on, tells Mental Floss. “It wasn’t all that unusual. In the 1970s and 1980s, lots of small museums were getting hit.” Worse, one of the museum staff working the front desk within view of the display was, according to Gurney, legally blind. The lack of security, Wittman says, was in part because pieces weren’t initially all that valuable on the collector’s market.

The Colt was unique in that it was so readily identifiable. Thanks to the inscriptions, it would invite questions if the thief attempted to sell the weapon. Any attempt to alter it would destroy its cultural value and defeat the purpose of taking it. The FBI sent notices to gun dealers and monitored gun shows in case it turned up. Nothing seemed promising.

“We heard things constantly,” Sarna says. “Someone said it was seen in Europe. Someone else said it was in private hands, or that a collector had it.” Later, when the museum was able to start receiving emails via the burgeoning world of the internet, more tips—all dead ends—came in. Another rumor had the gun being bought during a gun buyback program in Pennsylvania and subsequently destroyed. This one looked promising, as it bore the same serial number. But it turned out to be a different model.

A reward was offered for information leading to the gun’s retrieval, with the amount eventually climbing to $8100. But that still wasn’t sufficient for the gun to surface. “We really had no lines on it,” Wittman says.

Then, in September 2005, Gurney began receiving a series of calls while working in the visitor’s center. The man had a slight speech impediment, he said, or might have been intoxicated. Either way, he told Gurney he knew where the gun was. “He told me it was in a friend’s house, but that he didn’t want to get the friend in trouble.”

The man continued calling, each time refusing to give his name and ignoring Gurney’s suggestion to simply drop the gun in the mail. The man also spoke to Amy Verone, the museum’s chief of cultural resources. He was certain he had seen Theodore Roosevelt’s gun, wrapped in an old sweatshirt in DeLand, Florida. He described the engravings to Verone, who hung up and immediately called the FBI.

 

After more calls and conversations, including one in which Gurney stressed the historical importance of the weapon, the caller eventually relented and gave his information to the FBI. A mechanical designer by trade, Andy Anderson, then 59, said he had seen the gun the previous summer. It had been shown to him by his girlfriend, who knew Anderson was a history buff. She told Anderson her ex-husband had originally owned the firearm. It had been in a closet wrapped in a sweatshirt before winding up under a seat in the woman’s mini-van, possibly obscured by a dish towel. Presumably, her ex had been the one who had stolen it back while visiting the museum as a New York resident in 1990.

Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform is pictured on display at Sagamore Hill
Roosevelt's Rough Riders uniform sits on display at Sagamore Hill next to his Colt.
Courtesy of Sagamore Hill National Historic Site

After Anderson contacted Sagamore Hill, FBI agents were dispatched from the Daytona Beach office to DeLand to question Anderson. He obtained the revolver from his girlfriend and handed it over, though he apparently tried to convince the FBI to let him return the weapon without disclosing the thief’s identity. The FBI didn’t agree to an anonymous handoff, however, and in November 2006 the ex-husband, a 55-year-old postal employee whom we’ll refer to as Anthony T., was charged with a misdemeanor in U.S. District Court in Central Islip, New York.

Wittman remembers that the split between Anthony T. and his wife had been acrimonious and that she had no involvement in the theft. “We were not going to charge her with possession of stolen property,” he says.

Wittman went to Florida to pick up the Colt and brought it back to the Philadelphia FBI offices, where it was secured until prosecutors authorized its return to Sagamore Hill on June 14, 2006. Schreier, the NRA museum’s senior curator, arrived at Sagamore Hill with Wittman, FBI Assistant Director in Charge in New York Mark Mershon, and Robert Goldman, the onetime U.S. assistant attorney and art crime team member who was himself a Roosevelt collector and had doggedly pursued the case for years. When Schreier confirmed its authenticity, the gun was formally turned back over.

There was no reasonable defense for Anthony T. In November of that year, he pled guilty to stealing the Colt. While he was eligible for up to 90 days in jail and a $500 fine, Anthony T. received two years of probation along with the financial penalty and 50 hours of community service. According to Wittman, cases of this sort are based in part on the dollar value of the object stolen—the weapon was valued at $250,000 to $500,000—not necessarily its historical value. “The sentencing may not be commensurate with the history,” Wittman says.

From that perspective, the Colt takes on far greater meaning. It was used in a battle that cemented Roosevelt’s reputation as a leader, one credited with helping bolster his national profile. It was used in commission in the death of a human being, giving it a weight and history more than the sum of its metal parts.

“It’s looked at as one of his greatest triumphs,” Sarna says of the Rough Riders and the U.S. victory in the 1898 conflict. “It brought us into a new century and out of isolationism.”

It’s once more on display at Sagamore Hill, this time under far better security and surveillance. (Though the museum is still vulnerable to heists: a reproduction hairbrush was recently swiped.) Sarna, who wasn’t sure if she would ever see the Colt again, is glad to see it where it belongs.

“Thank goodness they got divorced,” she says.

It’s not publicly known why Anthony T. felt compelled to take the Colt. Wittman describes it as a crime of opportunity, not likely one that was planned. After the plea, Anthony T. was let go from his job, and his current whereabouts are unknown. Prosecutors called it a mistake in judgment.

Anderson, the tipster, lamented any of it had to happen. “We’re talking about a mistake he made 16 years ago,” Anderson told the Orlando Sentinel in November 2006. “I have no regrets, but I never meant to cause trouble. I wish Anthony the best.”

If Anthony T. was an admirer of Roosevelt’s, he might find some poetic peace in the fact that he pled guilty to violating the American Antiquities Act of 1906, which was instituted to prevent theft of an object of antiquity on property owned by the government.

That bill was signed into law by Theodore Roosevelt.

15 Amazing Facts About the Washington Monument

iStock/Sean Pavone
iStock/Sean Pavone

It's the tallest building in Washington, D.C. and it honors the first U.S. president, George Washington. Here are a few more Washington Monument facts to celebrate the anniversary of its completion on December 6, 1884.

1. Building a monument to George Washington was not a unanimously supported idea.

Today, trumpeting George Washington as a hero and a symbol of national pride isn’t going to start any arguments. In the 19th century, however, Washington’s approval rating was far from 100 percent. The very idea of constructing a monument to honor the former president felt like an affront to the Democratic-Republicans—the opposing party to the Washington-aligned Federalists—who both favored Thomas Jefferson over Washington and decried such tributes as unseemly and suspiciously royalist.

2. It took almost 40 years to complete the Washington Monument's construction.

After decades of deliberation about where to build a monument to George Washington, what form it should take, and whether the whole thing was a good idea in the first place, the foundation for a great stone obelisk was laid at the center of Washington, D.C.’s National Mall on July 4, 1848. Although the design looks fairly simple, the structure would prove to be a difficult project for architect Robert Mills and the Washington National Monument Society. Due to ideological conflicts, lapses in funding, and disruptions during the Civil War, construction of the Washington Monument would not be completed until February 21, 1885. The site opened to the public three years later. 

3. A coup within the Washington National Monument Society delayed construction.

In 1855, an anti-Catholic activist group nicknamed the Know-Nothings seized control of the 23-year-old Washington National Monument Society. Once in power, the Know-Nothings rejected and destroyed memorial stones donated by Pope Piux IX. The Know-Nothing affiliation cost the project financial support from the public and from Congress. In 1858, after adding only two layers of masonry to the monument, the Know-Nothings abdicated control of the society. 

4. Early ideas for the Washington Monument included statues, Greek columns, and tombs. 

Before the society settled on building an obelisk, several other ideas were suggested as the visual representation of George Washington’s grandeur. Among them were an equestrian statue of the first president (which was part of Pierre L’Enfant’s original plan for Washington, D.C.), a separate statue situated atop a classical Greek column, and a tomb constructed within the Capitol building. The last idea fell apart when Washington’s family was unwilling to move his body from its resting place in Mount Vernon.

5. Later design plans included an elaborate colonnade ...

Even after Mills’ obelisk model had been accepted, a few flashier design elements received consideration as possible additions to the final project. Mills had originally intended to surround the tower with a circular colonnade, featuring not only a statue of George Washington seated gallantly atop a chariot, but also 30 individual statues of renowned Revolutionary War heroes. 

6. ... and an Egyptian sun.

Mills placed a winged sun—an Egyptian symbol representing divinity—above the doorframe of the Washington Monument’s principal entrance. The sun was removed in 1885. 

7. The monument originally had a flat top.

It has become recognizable for its pointed apex, but the Washington Monument was originally designed to bear a flat top. The monument's design was capped with a pyramid-shaped addition in 1879.

8. The engineer who completed the Washington Monument asked the government to supply his workers with hot coffee.

Several years after the 1855 death of Mills, Col. Thomas Lincoln Casey Sr., chief of engineers of the United States Army Corps of Engineers, assumed responsibility for completing the Washington Monument. Among his most memorable orders was an official request to the U.S. Treasury Department to supply his workers—specifically those assigned to the construction of the monument’s apex—with “hot coffee in moderate quantities.” The treasury complied. 

9. Dozens of miscellaneous items are buried beneath the monument.

On the first day of construction, a zinc case containing a number of objects and documents was placed in the Washington Monument’s foundation. Alongside copies of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence are a map of the city of Washington, publications of Census data, a book of poems, a collection of American coins, a list of Supreme Court justices, a Bible, daguerreotypes of George Washington and his mother Mary, Alfred Vail’s written description of the magnetic telegraph, a copy of Appleton’s Railroad and Steamboat Companion, and an issue of the arts and leisure magazine Godey’s Lady’s Book, among many other items.

10. Some of the Washington Monument's memorial stones bear strange inscriptions.

The vast majority of the 194 memorial stones lining the Washington Monument are not likely to inspire confusion. Common inscriptions celebrate George Washington, the country, and the states they represent. However, a few of the monument’s stones bear engravings of a more curious variety. A stone donated by a Welsh-American community from New York reads (in Welsh), “My language, my land, my nation of Wales—Wales for ever.” Another stone from the Templars of Honor and Temperance articulates the organization’s rigid support of Prohibition: “We will not make, buy, sell, or use as a beverage any spirituous or malt liquors, wine, cider, or any other alcoholic liquor, and will discountenance their manufacture, traffic, and use, and this pledge we will maintain unto the end of life.” 

11. The apex was displayed at Tiffany's before it was added to the structure.

The men who created the Washington Monument, though reverent in their intentions, were hardly above a good publicity stunt. William Frishmuth, an architect and aluminum magnate connected to the project, arranged for the pointed aluminum top of the monument to enjoy an ornate two-day display at New York City’s luxury jewelry store Tiffany’s. The apex was placed on the floor of the storefront so that shoppers could claim to have walked “over the top of the Washington Monument.” 

12. Opening ceremonies attracted several big-name guests.

Among the 20,000 Americans present for the beginning of construction in 1848 were then-President James K. Polk, three future presidents (James Buchanan, Abraham Lincoln, and Andrew Johnson), former first lady Dolley Madison, Alexander Hamilton's widow Elizabeth Hamilton (John Quincy Adams' widow was too sick to attend), and a bald eagle.

13. The Washington Monument was the tallest structure in the world for about six months.

Upon its official opening on October 9, 1888, the Washington Monument—standing an impressive 555 feet high—boasted the superlative of tallest manmade structure on Earth. The honor was short-lived, however, as the following March saw the unveiling of the Eiffel Tower, which topped out at 986 feet. 

14. It is still the tallest of its kind.

As of 2019, the Washington Monument still reigns supreme as both the world’s tallest all-stone structure and the tallest obelisk. (The stone San Jacinto Monument in Texas is taller, but it sits on a concrete plinth.)

15. A few decades after construction, the monument caught "tuberculosis."

Wear and tear had begun to get the best of the Washington Monument by the early 20th century, prompting an exodus of the cement and rubble filler through the structure’s external cracks. The sweating sensation prompted John S. Mosby Jr., author of a 1911 article in Popular Mechanics, to nickname the phenomenon “geological tuberculosis.”

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