Underground America: 7 Things You Could Be Standing on

Getty Images
Getty Images / Getty Images

By Richard Faulk

You just never know what you might be standing on. We asked the author of Gross America: Your Coast-to-Coast Guide to All Things Gross to see what he could dig up.


The Embarcadero, San Francisco  The Gold Rush of 1849 made San Francisco’s population explode. Many gold-crazed argonauts sailed in on wooden ships, and hundreds of these were abandoned in Yerba Buena Cove when fortune-seeking crews jumped ship to try their luck in the mining camps too. As the land-starved city expanded by filling in its marshy coastline, many of these abandoned vessels were converted to underground store-rooms, saloons, brothels, and even jails servicing the disorderly denizens of the Barbary Coast. Ever since, construction projects have periodically uncovered these ghostly remains. As recently as 2005, a ship was discovered beneath Folsom Street.


Paisley Caves, Oregon — For decades, the 13,000-year-old Clovis spear points of New Mexico were thought to be the oldest traces of human life in the Americas. But, in 2002, anthropologists from the University of Oregon discovered 25 human coprolites—fossilized poop to the rest of us—in a network of prehistoric caves in south Oregon. Seeds, bone, and thread embedded in the fossils provide invaluable clues to the caveman culture and cuisine. Some are at least 14,700 years old, and scientists consider this to be the oldest evidence of human life in North America.


Wabaunsee County, Kansas — Ever dream of living like Dr. No, in an ultra-modern under- ground lair with intercontinental nuclear capability? You could do what Edward and Dianna Peden of Topeka did and buy your own decommissioned Cold War–era missile silo (missile not included). When the Pedens acquired the home they now call Subterra Castle, it wasn’t exactly a supervillain bachelor pad. Decades of flooding and disuse had given the former launch control center the charm of a subway lavatory. Bought for $40,000, the converted living space now vibrates with an “eclectic spirit of peace.” At press time, there was a similar 2,300-sq.-ft. silo in upstate New York available for a cool $3 million.


Crystal Falls, Michigan — Spread across 38 acres of north Michigan forest, and clocking in at up to 10,000 years old, the 100-ton colony of Armillaria bulbosa, or honey mushroom, is one of the world’s oldest and largest living organisms. It was discovered in 1988, but it took a 1992 article in Nature magazine to turn it into a sensation. Ever since, the enterprising folk of Crystal Falls have held an annual Humongous Fungus Fest. Would-be fungus spotters are inevitably disappointed that the bulk of the Armillaria are underground rhizomorphs—all that’s visible above the dirt are ordinary looking button mushrooms. But at least there’s a parade, pancakes, and an Elvis impersonator.


South Pennsylvania — Surrounded by razor wire and guard posts, bristling with communications towers, and accessed via multiple concrete-faced, iron-doored tunnels, Raven Rock Mountain Complex is top secret but hardly inconspicuous. Conceived during the Truman Administration as a backup Pentagon, the hollowed-out greenstone mountain six miles north of Camp David is rumored to contain power plants, a reservoir, and five 3-story office buildings—the facilities could shelter 3,000 people in the event of a national cataclysm. After 9/11, it was one of several secret locations where Vice President Dick Cheney was sequestered.


Arlington, Virginia — Between 1972 and 1973, reporter Bob Woodward met six times with a source known as Deep Throat, who provided inside information about the Watergate break-in, the scandal that would bring down the Nixon Administration. For 30 years, Deep Throat’s identity remained a mystery, until former FBI official Mark Felt outed himself in 2005. Woodward confirmed it—and also revealed where the two used to meet: space 32D on the lower level of an Arlington garage at Wilson Boulevard and Nash Street.


Waxahachie, Texas — Beneath the rolling prairie outside Dallas lies the Alamo of our nation’s grand ambitions in particle physics. Approved in the late 1980s with a budget of $4.4 billion, the Superconducting Super Collider was going to use magnets to accelerate protons around an underground ring 52 miles in diameter, and then smash them together with a force 20 times greater than ever before. Scientists planned to monitor the ensuing debris for exotic subatomic particles, like the highly sought Higgs boson. But in 1993, when projected costs grew in excess of $11 billion, Congress balked. The SSC was summarily terminated, but not before $2 billion was spent and 15 miles of tunnel were dug. In 2012, Geneva’s much smaller Large Hadron Collider discovered the Higgs boson, which led to a Nobel Prize in physics. Score one for Switzerland.

This piece originally appeared in an issue of mental_floss magazine. Subscribe here.