Places I've been: the Big Well (and meteorite!)

January 29, 2010 in News

Deep in southwestern Kansas, surrounded by miles and miles of absolutely nothing, is a giant stone-lined hole in the ground.

It's not just any old hole, though -- it's the largest hand-dug well in the world. And according to the WSJ, it's about to acquire a world-class museum:

The citizens of Greensburg are planning a $3 million Big Well museum and this month announced a contract with a high-profile design team, Ralph Appelbaum Associates Inc. of New York. The firm has designed exhibits at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Bill Clinton's presidential library in Little Rock, Ark., and the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

Greensburg has been hit by hard times recently. A 2007 tornado devastated the city's downtown area and tourism has traditionally played a significant role in the local economy. Lately that support has been lacking:

In the 1970s and '80s, as many as 75,000 visitors a year would stop by Greensburg to peer into the murky water. They'd drop a coin (or, oddly, a shoe) for good luck, maybe even buy a $2 ticket and descend 105 steps to the claustrophobic depths.

In recent years, however, drivers whizzing past on Highway 400 have been less prone to pull over, despite a series of promotional billboards stretched out over 50 miles to build excitement.

It's easy to laugh at this seemingly ridiculous tourist attraction -- it's just a hole in the ground, after all. But I have to reserve judgement.

You see, I have been to the Big Well.

I've driven across Kansas. Twice. I've seen the billboards. And let me tell you, when you're faced with nothing but bland prairie for hours, those ads look amazing: "Stop and see the giant well! Have a cold drink! Forget that you're in Kansas, most boring state of all!" After all, your choices for stopping are the various McDonalds scattered along the highway median... or the GIANT WELL! And you probably stopped for a burger when you were only a third of the way across the state, which leaves only one option...

But here's the kicker. Greensburg isn't just the home of the world's deepest human-dug hole; it's also the home of the world's largest pallasite meteorite! (No longer - now it's just the world's second largest pallasite meteorite.) One town, TWO record-setting objects which conjure immense vertical images, from the heights of space to the depths of the Earth. Moreover, under one roof (at least, until the tornado came through). And I ask you: after trekking endlessly toward Kansas' uninterrupted horizon, how can you pass up this opportunity to transcend flatness?

For years, my brother and I have laughed privately at the odd-couple billboards we once saw (and obeyed): "See the world's largest hand dug well... and meteorite!" Maybe now we can share that amusement with other cross-country drivers.

Oh, and just in case you still harbor some concern that the Big Well (or Kansas more generally) can't compete in this plugged in, Disneyfied world, let them go:

In 2008, a popular vote online tabbed Greensburg's Big Well as one of the Eight Wonders of Kansas, on par with the Underground Salt Museum in Hutchinson (and a cut above the town of West Mineral's star attraction—"Big Brutus," an enormous electric coal shovel).

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