The Insane 6-Day, 500-Mile Race That Riveted America

by Matthew Algeo

This story originally appeared in the March/April 2015 issue of mental_floss magazine.

It was just after midnight on Monday, November 15, 1875, and the Interstate Exposition Building in Chicago was buzzing. Spectators swarmed the auditorium, hundreds of people craning their necks to get a glimpse of the two legends on the track. One of the men wore a black velvet suit with black boots, a silk sash draped across his chest. The other looked the part of a conventional athlete in white tights and a striped tank top. They stretched their legs, then approached the line. As the crowd roared, the starter counted: “One! Two!”

On “Three!” they were off. With hips swiveling and arms pumping, the Great Walking Match for the Championship of the World had begun.

In the 1870s and 1880s, competitive walking—formally known as pedestrianism—was America’s most popular spectator sport. As cities grew and the nation industrialized, people found themselves with spare time and a little money to burn. The country’s mood had also changed post–Civil War: A stern antebellum work ethic had given way to a new appetite for simple fun. And competitive walking was certainly simple. Matches cost little to stage, and competing required no special equipment. Before long, the nation was swept up in “walking fever.”

The men on the track were Edward Payson Weston and Dan O’Leary, and what played out before a screaming fan base was more than just a race. Weston, a New England dandy who often competed in flashy outfits, was the man to beat. He’d made his name eight years earlier, when he walked the 1,200 miles from Portland, Maine, to Chicago in under 30 days, winning a $10,000 wager in the process. A blue-blooded Yankee, Weston embodied old money and an old America.

O’Leary’s story couldn’t have been more different. Born in County Cork, Ireland, he had arrived in the States, alone and penniless, some 10 years earlier. Finding opportunity in a burgeoning sport, O’Leary had jumped into pedestrianism less than two years prior to this race, walking an astounding 116 miles in under 24 hours and establishing himself as the working man’s hero. He also became Weston’s biggest rival. This was the first time the two squared off, and the public was lapping up the hype.

For Chicago’s Irish community, O’Leary wasn’t just an athlete; he was a symbol of hope. Four years earlier, another O’Leary—Catherine (no relation)—had been blamed for igniting the Great Fire of 1871 when her cow supposedly knocked over a lantern. In a city devastated by the flames, Catherine became a convenient scapegoat, an easy punching bag for an angry and xenophobic populace. Tension between the city’s Irish immigrants and its “native” population had only grown worse. And in that divide, Dan O’Leary was left carrying his community’s dream on his back—hoping to prove an Irishman’s worth by walking his way to glory.

Weston and O’Leary appeared on the front pages of London’s Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times.
Weston and O’Leary appeared on the front pages of London’s Penny Illustrated Paper and Illustrated Times.
British Library Newspapers

The rules for the walk-off were clear: The first man to walk 500 miles would be declared the winner. Running was not permitted. Each competitor was required to keep one foot in contact with the ground at all times while on the track. Also, the race would take place on two concentric tracks made of pressed mulch, more commonly known as “the tanbark.” To a generation of Americans, the tanbark was the gridiron of its day.

The men had to adhere to one more rule: Under no circumstances could the race continue beyond midnight the following Saturday. At the time, Chicago, like nearly every other city in the United States, had blue laws that prohibited “public amusements” on Sundays. Six days was as long as any athletic event could last.

To honor that law, the doors of the Expo opened at 11:00 p.m. on Sunday. Despite the late hour, between three and four hundred people filed in to watch the start of the race. The two competitors drew lots to determine track position: Weston would walk on the inside track, O’Leary on the outside. Shortly after midnight, once the Sabbath had broken, Chicago mayor Harvey Doolittle Colvin addressed the crowd in the dim light of the building’s hissing gas lamps. The mayor’s role announcing the race underscored its magnitude.

From the start, it was clear that O’Leary, seven years younger, was faster. The difference in their gaits was also immediately apparent. According to one observer, O’Leary walked with a “straight form, quick stride, and bent arms.” He held his head up and looked straight ahead. Meanwhile, Weston seemed “rather to drag than throw his feet.” Worse still, the observer bemoaned how he seemed “to carry his head on his breast and to see nothing but the dirt before him.” O’Leary’s crisp form translated into results, and he shot into the lead, completing his first mile in 11 minutes and 3 seconds. It took Weston more than a minute longer.

With no grandstands to watch from, the audience pressed close to the tracks, jockeying for position. Some crossed over to view the action from within the concentric ovals, to the chagrin of the walkers. On several occasions, police had to clear the way for the pedestrians. Even the Chicago Tribune, despite its breathless coverage, seemed stumped by the frenzy. “Walking,” the paper observed, “is at best not an absorbingly entrancing sport.”

But the Tribune was forgetting a basic fact: People were bored. It’s hard to fathom now, but in the 1870s, Americans were desperate for entertainment. As leisure time boomed, most Americans spent their idle hours reading and storytelling, often by candlelight. Live entertainment outside the home—a play, perhaps, or a musical performance—was too pricey to be anything more than an occasional indulgence. (In Chicago, a theater ticket usually cost a dollar, twice the price of a ticket to this weeklong world-class walking match.) Watching people walk in circles for days was, if not “absorbingly entrancing,” at least an unobjectionable way to kill time.

By the end of the first day, Weston trailed O’Leary by 19 miles (110 to 91). Still, he exuded confidence. His strategy was simple: slow and steady. Weston was convinced that fatigue would overcome O’Leary before the race ended. After all, the men got only three to five hours of sleep a night in small rooms in the Expo. For the most part, the two didn’t even stop for meals; more often they ate as they walked. Weston was partial to rare beefsteak; O’Leary preferred mutton and sipped hot tea and Champagne on the move.

When the two pedestrians retired on Tuesday night, O’Leary had added three miles to his lead. By the end of Wednesday night, he had stretched his advantage to 26 miles. It was starting to seem obvious that O’Leary would not wear out as Weston had expected, but Weston was too proud and stubborn to alter his strategy, and he continued to plod forward.

As O’Leary’s lead steadily increased, the Expo overflowed. The audience was packed with Irish immigrants shouting themselves hoarse in thick brogues as they cheered for their compatriot. Those unable to afford the 50-cent admission tried to barter for entry, offering to guard the building’s marble statues in exchange for free admittance.

Finally, as Saturday morning dawned, the outcome no longer felt like a question: O’Leary was ahead, 425 miles to Weston’s 395. By 3 o’clock that afternoon, the line for tickets snaked around the building. That the competitors were by now practically wilting from exhaustion only added to the excitement.

By 9 p.m., 6,000 people had packed into the Expo. “The crowd was motley, but largely respectable,” the Tribune wrote. “It represented wealth, standing, and brains, and thieves, gamblers, and roughs. Ladies were there in large numbers, some with husbands and some with lovers, but all had a terribly hard time of it in the ceaselessly moving and noisy throng.” Small boys crawled through the forest of legs to get close to the action. The older, more adventurous ones clambered up the Expo’s trusses and took seats on the beams near the roof, more than 100 feet above the floor.

As O’Leary neared his goal with each passing mile, a tense murmur moved through the building. Around 10:15, he completed his 495th mile, and it seemed clear that he’d reach 500 well before midnight. Weston, for his part, plodded wearily on.

Edward Payson Weston’s idiosyncratic stride was sometimes described as “wobbly.”
Edward Payson Weston’s idiosyncratic stride was sometimes described as “wobbly.”
Library of Congress

At 11:15, O’Leary completed his 500th mile. The Expo erupted in delirious cheers. Men threw their hats in the air. The band played a celebratory tune. O’Leary’s wife greeted him at the finish line in front of the judges’ stand with a large basket of flowers. O’Leary paused, caught his breath—and then continued walking. When the hands on the big clock reached midnight, he had completed 503 miles. Weston had clocked only 451.

Both Weston and O’Leary would take home serious winnings: After expenses and a cut for the promoters, each walked away with more than $4,000—nearly $90,000 today. But it was O’Leary’s triumph that was celebrated by every class, from the businessman to the bootblack, as a city that had spurned his people now embraced him as a native son. Newspaper editorials sang his praises. Poets composed verses in his honor. O’Leary’s victory helped the Irish gain some acceptance, if not equality, in Chicago.

O’Leary wasn’t the only outsider who managed to use pedestrianism to break into society. The sport also opened doors for African-Americans and women. After Frank Hart, a Haitian immigrant from Boston, won a prestigious race in 1880, headlines heralded his name from coast to coast, a remarkable achievement at a time when blacks weren’t afforded full citizenship. And people like Ada Anderson (see sidebar) proved that pedestrianism could help women, too, achieve new status levels.

But in some ways, the sport’s greatest legacy was on sports itself: Walking matches marked the beginning of modern spectator sports in America. Never before had so many people attended, and wagered on, athletic events. Never before had the media devoted so much feverish attention to them. The top walkers of the 1870s earned fortunes, not just in prize money but in endorsement deals. O’Leary even shilled for a brand of salt. And men like O’Leary and Weston became celebrated heroes, seeing their images immortalized on some of the first cigarette trading cards, a precursor to baseball cards.

It wasn’t long, however, before America’s new pastime faced some stiff competition. In 1885, the “safety bicycle,” boasting two similar-sized wheels, emerged. The sleek rides made for faster-paced, more riveting races. Around the same time, baseball was on the rise. The National League, founded as a ragtag enterprise in 1876, became a profitable business after team owners reorganized. Spectators who had once flocked to walking matches now filled spacious new wooden ballparks.

By the mid-1890s, pedestrianism was foundering. Charges of race fixing and doping tarred the sport. The great Weston himself was caught chewing coca leaves during a race—a practice many considered unsportsmanlike, if not outright cheating. Public sentiment began to turn, and people realized that six-day races, the most popular form of pedestrianism, were absurd. Instead of being seen as feats of athleticism, they were looked down on as freak shows.

Great walkers like Weston and O’Leary, though, didn’t stop walking, even as pedestrianism faded in popularity. In 1913, a 74-year-old Weston walked from New York to Minneapolis, selling a 10-cent souvenir program along the way. O’Leary became a traveling “baseball pedestrian,” staging exhibitions before games in ballparks across the country. He would challenge one of the ballplayers to run around the bases twice while he walked around them once. More often than most expected, O’Leary won. Afterward, he would pass through the stands, hat in hand, collecting nickels and dimes to subsidize his winters in Southern California.

O’Leary stayed true to the sport till the end. When asked for exercise suggestions for “weakly men and women,” O’Leary’s response was as quick as it was inevitable: walk. “Do not take strolls,” he admonished. “Vigorous breathing is what builds up a healthy life.” He seemed to be on to something: The Irish hero lived well into his late 80s. Old-timers swore that, even as an old man, he still walked “like a piece of machinery.”

Adapted with permission from Pedestrianism: When Watching People Walk Was America’s Favorite Spectator Sport (Chicago Review Press), by Matthew Algeo.

20 Surprising Facts About King Tutankhamun

The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
The burial mask of Egyptian King Tutankhamun.
Hannes Magerstaedt/Getty Images

If you can only name one Egyptian pharaoh, it’s likely King Tut. Born around 1343 BCE, Tutankhamun made history as the youngest known monarch to preside over the ancient Egyptian empire. But that wasn’t his only claim to fame. In life, King Tut made important political decisions; in death, he captivated the public’s fascination and ignited their interest in mummies.

The discovery of King Tut's pristine tomb in 1922 remains one of the most important moments in all of Egyptian archaeology. From his confusing lineage to his impact on pop culture, here’s what you need to know about King Tutankhamun.

1. King Tut’s parents were related.

Tutankhamun was likely inbred—something that wasn’t uncommon with royal families trying to maintain a “pure” bloodline throughout history. Around 2010, an analysis of DNA taken from the mummies of King Tut and his relatives revealed that the boy pharaoh’s parents had been brother and sister, but that discovery has since been disputed.

Tut’s father has been identified as the heretic Akhenaten, but the identity of his mother remains unknown. At least one archaeologist believes that Tut’s mother was actually Queen Nefertiti—Akhenaten's cousin, and one of his wives.

2. King Tut had an incestuous relationship of his own.

King Tut was married to a woman named Ankhesenamun, who was the daughter of Akhenaten and Nefertiti. That made her Tutankhamun’s half-sister—or his full sister, if the theory about Nefertiti being his mother is true.

King Tut fathered two daughters with his wife, but unfortunately, both children were stillborn. Their bodies were mummified and eventually interred in King Tut’s tomb with him. Ankhesenamun outlived Tutankhamun and possibly got married to the pharaoh Ay (Tut’s uncle) after Tut’s death.

3. King Tut became pharaoh at age 9.

As the grandson of the pharaoh Amenhotep II and the son of pharaoh Ankhesenamun, Tutankhamun was destined for the throne. He assumed his position as Egypt’s leader at the young age of 9, and ruled until his death 10 years later around 1324 BCE. It is believed that King Tut is the youngest pharaoh ever to rule over the ancient Egyptian empire. Because he was so young when he came into power, his uncle Ay was likely in charge during those early years.

4. King Tut reversed his father’s religious reforms.

King Tut didn’t need to do much to impress his subjects—his father, pharaoh Akhenaten, had been a disastrous ruler. Akhenaten changed the established religion to focus on the worship of one god, the sun deity Aten, which left him branded as a heretic. Akhenaten also moved the holy capital from Thebes to Amarna.

When Tut became pharaoh he undid his father’s changes and declared Thebes to be the religious center once again. This helped him earn the trust of his people during his brief reign.

5. King Tut changed his name.

Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Profile of a wooden statue of King Tutankhamun.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

King Tut went by many names during his lifetime. He was born with the name Tutankhaten, which translates to “living image of Aten.” After he become pharaoh, he changed his name to Tutankhamun or “living image of Amun.” This change was a reflection of Tut’s devotion to the god Amun, whom his father had neglected in favor of the god Aten. Today, Tutankhamun is most commonly known as King Tut.

6. King Tut had health issues.

King Tut had a severe bone disease that left him disabled. He had a clubbed left foot, which made it hard for him to move around. In ancient art he is regularly depicted sitting down when engaging in physical activities like archery, whereas other pharaohs were always shown standing up in similar scenarios. It’s believed that Tut’s inbred lineage contributed to his physical issues. CT scans of his mummy showed that his left leg had been broken and infected, which may have contributed to his untimely death.

7. Experts used to suspect that King Tut had been assassinated.

King Tut’s mummy was discovered with a hole in its skull, leading some people to believe that the young pharaoh had been assassinated with a blow to the head. This theory has since been widely debunked by experts. It’s now suspected that the hole was either put there by embalmers when King Tut was being mummified or it was created when archaeologists first removed the mummy’s gold mask. It’s much more likely that the infection in his leg was the cause of his death.

8. A chariot accident may have contributed to King Tut’s death.

King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
King Tutankhamun's burial chariot, which was discovered in the pharaoh's tomb.
Art Media/Print Collector/Getty Images

If King Tut did indeed die from a broken leg, the question still remains of how he broke his leg in the first place. According to one theory, the teen king died in a horrible chariot accident, which is why one side of his body—including his leg—was found crushed. The chariots used by royalty in ancient Egypt were small and light, allowing them to reach high speeds. Although there’s no evidence that chariots were used for racing during this period, they were used during war and for hunting rides.

9. King Tut wasn’t history’s only young pharaoh.

King Tut was likely the youngest pharaoh to lead Egypt, but not my much. Cleopatra became co-regent with her younger brother (and husband) Ptolemy XIII in 51 BCE when he was just 10 years old. Looking beyond ancient Egypt, there are many young monarchs from history who shave years off Tut’s age record. China, Russia, England, Spain, and France are just a few countries that have crowned “rulers” when they were babies.

10. King Tut’s successors tried to erase him from history.

While King Tut did a lot to reverse his father’s unpopular reforms during his lifetime, none of it did much to protect Tut’s legacy in the long run. His successors did their best to remove his wife, Ankhesenamun, from history—and the memory of Tutankhamun along with her.

Tut was buried quickly and in a small tomb normally reserved for private citizens, not one of the grander tombs meant for pharaohs. Because his tomb was out of the way, it remained untouched for centuries until it was rediscovered in 1922. Now King Tut is the most famous Egyptian pharaoh of all time.

11. King Tut's tomb was robbed—twice.

Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Crates are carried out of King Tutankhamun's tomb in 1923.
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before King Tut’s tomb was discovered by Howard Carter in 1922, it was visited by grave robbers. The first break-in took place shortly after Tutankhamun was laid to rest. Following that initial incident, there was rubble blocking the burial chambers, but it didn't take long for a second set of intruders to tunnel their way in. Carter found the tomb in shambles with entryways blocked off to provide further protection to Tutankhamun.

12. King Tut had three coffins.

Inside King Tut’s stone sarcophagus were three coffins: The outermost pair were made of gilded wood and the inner coffin was crafted out of solid gold. Over the head and shoulders of the mummy was the ornate gold death mask that many people associate with Tutankhamun. The mummy was placed inside the Russian nesting doll-style coffins, and everything was put inside a large quartzite stone sarcophagus with a pink granite top.

13. Some people think King Tut’s tomb is cursed.

King Tut’s tomb has inspired many legends since it was discovered decades ago. Because many people associated with the site have subsequently met with misfortune, stories have spread about its supposed curse. Some of the victims of this so-called curse include George Jay Gould, a financier who got sick after visiting the tomb in 1923, and George Herbert, 5th Earl of Carnarvon, who died of blood poisoning after funding the dig. This so-called curse has been blamed for more than a dozen deaths.

14. King Tut was entombed with a meteorite dagger.

The tomb of Tutankhamun contained many extraordinary objects, one of which was a dagger carved from a meteorite. The dagger was found on the body of the mummy when he was discovered, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that portable x-ray fluorescence spectrometry revealed that the materials came from space. The iron in the blade contained 10.8 percent nickel and .58 percent cobalt. Such a high nickel percentage indicated that the iron came from a meteorite, not Earth.

15. There are no hidden rooms in King Tut’s tomb.

Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Archaeologists surrounding sarcophagus in King Tut's tomb.
Ben Curtis, AFP/Getty Images

Even after it was excavated, King Tut’s tomb continued to capture the imaginations of archaeologists. In 2015, a British archaeologist put forth a theory based on laser scans that a second room was hidden behind a wall of the tomb and waiting to be explored. He even suggested that Tutankhamun’s stepmother, Queen Nefertiti, might be entombed there. That idea was put to rest when a comprehensive ground-penetrating radar survey showed there were no hidden rooms or corridors adjacent to the tomb.

16. DIY repairs were made on King Tut’s burial mask.

After surviving 3000 years in a tomb in Egypt, King Tut’s iconic gold death mask was badly damaged when, around 2014, the mask’s braided beard broke off, and museum curators used epoxy glue to reattach it. This improvised solution may have ended up causing more lasting damage than the accident itself. Epoxy glue is hard to remove, and attempts to scrape off the adhesive resulted in permanent scratch marks on the artifact’s priceless gold face.

17. King Tut was buried with an ancient board game.

The ancient board game senet.
The ancient board game senet.
Dmitry Denisenkov via Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

One of the world’s oldest board games was discovered inside King Tut’s tomb. Senet, or “passing,” had been played in Egypt for 1800 years prior to Tutankhamun’s death. It was played by people of all class levels, and though the exact rules have been lost to time, it’s believed to have something to do with life and death. It even may have been an early version of backgammon.

18. King Tut rocked pop culture.

When his tomb was discovered in the early 20th century, King Tut had a massive impact on pop culture. The Egyptian aesthetic infiltrated the 1920s, appearing in fashion, home design, and architecture. Americans especially were so fascinated by King Tut that president Herbert Hoover even went so far as to name his dog after the young monarch. Tut’s impact was felt for decades after his discovery. The historical figure has been depicted countless times in movies, songs, and television shows.

19. King Tut’s tomb recently received a makeover.

English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
English Egyptologist Howard Carter examines the golden sarcophagus of King Tutankhamun in Egypt in 1923.
Harry Burton/Apic/Getty Images

After years of traffic from tourists, King Tut’s tomb closed to visitors in 2009 to undergo a long conservation project. At the beginning of 2019, the archaeological site finally reopened to the public. Today, the attraction features an air filtration and ventilation system, restored wall paintings, a viewing platform, and new barriers to protect precious artifacts from viewers. King Tut’s tomb is one of the most popular destinations for tourists visiting Egypt.

20. We may finally know what King Tut really looked like.

By conducting a virtual autopsy of his mummy with CT scan data, scientists were able to build a 3D model of what King Tut may have looked like when he was alive 3000 years ago. The computer-generated image looks much different than the striking face depicted on Tut’s iconic gold mask. Rather than the god-like figure that’s been shown countless times in pop culture, Tutankhamun was a frail, ordinary teenager in reality.

10 Enchanting Places That Align with the Vernal Equinox

A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
A shadowy serpent appears at Chichen Itza on the equinox.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

On Thursday, March 19, the vernal equinox heralded the first day of spring in the Northern Hemisphere. Ancient civilizations built calendars and observatories to track the movements of the stars and mark this monumental time. Now, people still partake in a variety of traditions and rituals to honor the day when light and dark become equal. To take your celestial celebrations to the next level, here are 10 places that align with the spring equinox.

1. On the vernal equinox, a massive snake appears on the temple at Chichen Itza.

Legend says that on the spring and fall equinoxes, the Maya city of Chichen Itza receives an otherworldly visitor: Kukulcan, the feathered serpent deity. On these days, a shadowy snake slithers down the side of the god's namesake pyramid. As the temple darkens, a single strip of light stretches from the top of the northern staircase to the snake head resting at the bottom, creating the illusion of a wriggling reptile.

2. A beam of light illuminates a petroglyph within Arizona’s Boulder House each vernal equinox.

The Boulder House in Scottsdale, Arizona, looks like a strange home wedged amid a jumble of rocks. But it’s actually a modern house built around a sacred Native American site. The Empie family, who bought the parcel of desert land in the 1980s, commissioned architect Charles Johnson to transform the cluster of 1.6-billion-year-old boulders into a functional house. Johnson crafted a unique structure, incorporating the rocks into the house’s foundation and preserving the prehistoric carvings. On the equinox, sunlight pierces between two boulders in the unusual abode, striking a spiral petroglyph on the wall to create a dazzling piece of home decor.

3. On the vernal equinox, a group of Moai on Easter Island stare directly at the sunset.

Seven Moai gaze face toward the horizon
On the equinox, these Moai stare directly at the setting sun.
abriendomundo/iStock via Getty Images

People aren’t the only ones who pause to watch the sun slip beneath the horizon on the first day of spring. On Easter Island, at a sacred site called Ahu Akivi, a line of seven Moai—the island’s giant, mysterious heads—gaze directly at the point at which the sun sets in the sky on the equinox.

4. Each vernal equinox, light drenches a petroglyph-filled cairn at Loughcrew.

The hills of Loughcrew, one of Ireland’s four main passage tomb sites, are crowned by 5000-year-old megalithic structures. At dawn on the equinox, sunlight fills Cairn T, a passage tomb carved with astoundingly well-preserved examples of Neolithic art. As the light dissolves the darkness, the cup marks that dimple its walls and the symbols adorning its back stones blaze into view. The illumination lasts for about 50 minutes, giving observers ample time to take turns squeezing into the cairn.

5. On the vernal equinox, light streams through one of the Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples.

The Mnajdra Prehistoric Temples on Malta’s southern coast are archaeological wonders. They were built between 3600 and 2500 BCE and are believed to be among the world’s oldest freestanding stone buildings. Not much is known about the people who created these megalithic masterpieces, though it’s clear they constructed one of the temples with an eye to the heavens. On the equinox, the sun streams through the South Temple’s main doorway, flooding the structure’s major axis with light.

6. On the vernal equinox, the sun sits directly atop the main temple at Angkor Wat.

Watching the sun rise over Angkor Wat would be a magical experience any day. Crowds hush as colorful hues paint the world’s largest religious structure with a gilded glow. Dawn at Angkor Wat is even more special on the equinoxes. Then, the sun rises behind the main temple before briefly seeming to balance on its tip like a fiery halo.

7. On the spring equinox, the sun rises through the entrance to Stonehenge Aotearoa.

Stonehenge has inspired replicas around the globe—including as far away as New Zealand. Stonehenge Aotearoa, which opened in 2005, was built by the Phoenix Astronomical Society. The structure is an astronomical tool for observing the local skies, and blends modern astronomy with ancient starlore. If you stand in the center of the circle on the Southern Hemisphere's vernal equinox, you can watch the sun rise directly through the Sun Gate, two carved pillars that flank the entrance to the henge.

8. The shadow of the intihuatana at Machu Picchu disappears at noon on the equinox.

A curious stone structure stands atop a temple at Machu Picchu. It’s one of the rare surviving intihuatanas that wasn’t demolished by the Spanish conquistadors. This “hitching post of the sun” is believed to have been an astronomical tool. At noon on the equinox, the granite pillar’s shadow briefly vanishes. Unfortunately, the invaluable object now looks a bit battered. In 2000, a crane toppled into the intihuatana during the filming of a beer commercial, smashing part of it.

9. At sunrise on the spring equinox, the sun bursts through the door of a temple at Dzibilchaltún.

Sunrise at Dzibilchaltún
Each equinox, the sun appears within the door of the Temple of the Seven Dolls.
renatamsousa/iStock via Getty Images

Though now reduced to a medley of ruins dotting the jungle, Dzibilchaltún was once the longest continually inhabited Maya administrative and ceremonial city. The star attraction here is the Temple of the Seven Dolls, a building named for the mysterious human-like figures discovered inside. At dawn on the equinox, the sun shines through the temple’s main door. It’s believed the sacred structure was aligned with the equinoxes to mark the beginning of the planting season and the end of the harvesting season.

10. The 'Woodhenge' at the Cahokia Mounds aligns with the sunrise on the equinox.

During the Mississippian cultural period, Cahokia's population exceeded that of London. In addition to giant pyramids, the North American city also featured circles of wooden posts, since dubbed “Woodhenge.” The wooden markers were likely used to track the sun’s movements. One of the posts aligns with the equinoxes, as well as with the front of Monks Mound. On sunrise on the equinox, it looks as though the sun is emerging from the enigmatic earthwork.