Recently I spent a week at the Outer Banks of North Carolina with my family. In addition to enjoying the beach, we visited some of the area’s historic sites. One of those was Kill Devil Hills, where — because of the right conditions of wind and elevation — Orville and Wilbur Wright launched the world’s first mechanically powered flight in 1903. Although their first flight lasted only 12 seconds, subsequent developments in aviation transformed the world. As National Geographic writer Willie Drye concluded, this was the place where “the past and the future separated, and the world started shrinking.”

As we walked along the actual flight path of the Wright brothers’ prototype airplane, I started thinking about places that once were obscure dots on a map, yet they became famous or infamous because of significant events that occurred there. In 1903, hardly anyone in the world had heard of Kitty Hawk, yet only 66 years later, men left footsteps on the moon because of what the Wright brothers did there.

Or take Andersonville, Ga., for example. Until the mid-1850s, Anderson Station was a small, obscure agricultural hamlet that got its name from a director of the railroad that ran through it. The U.S. post office name designation was changed to Andersonville to avoid confusion with the post office in Anderson, S.C. During the Civil War, the Confederate army established a prison there to house captured Union soldiers. Located in southern Georgia, the camp was chosen in part because of its remoteness from invading Union armies.

Designed to hold no more than 10,000 inmates at one time, by the summer of 1864, it contained more than 30,000 who existed in almost unimaginable squalor. Men died by the thousands. Andersonville was finally shut down when Union troops liberated it in the fall of 1864. Although there were other prison camps on both sides that were as reprehensible as Andersonville, the name would be forever the one most associated with perhaps the Civil War’s darkest chapter. Still a small town, Andersonville is home of the National Prisoner of War Museum administered by the National Park Service.

Another example of the shift from relative obscurity to notoriety is a town in southern Poland. It became an important center of commerce in the late Middle Ages and changed hands among various contending factions numerous times. By the late 19th century, it had turned into an important rail junction, which would lead to its name becoming infamous — Auschwitz.

When Adolf Hitler’s Nazi regime came to power Germany in the 1930s and adopted a strategy of destroying Europe’s Jewish population, more than a dozen camps were initially set up to remove Jews from the mainstream German population. In 1940, the Nazis established several concentration and labor camps, some of which, including Auschwitz, were designated as extermination camps. All German concentration camps were evil places, but Auschwitz — with its estimated 1.1. million people killed, 90% of whom were Jews — was the nadir of human depravity. It is little wonder that Steven Spielberg’s powerful movie “Schindler’s List” was set in this small Polish town that most people had never heard of until it was turned into a charnel house.

Memphis, Tenn. was long known for its barbecue, Beale Street blues and Graceland, the home of Elvis Presley. But the city had another site that was little known until an assassin’s bullet ender the life of the leader of the civil rights movement — the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. An upscale overnight lodging that served an African American clientele, the Lorraine Motel traced its origins to 1925. Later named for its owner’s wife, the Lorraine attracted such musical artists as Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles and Lionel Hampton, who came to Memphis to perform concerts or make recordings at Stax Records. The Lorraine garnered international notoriety, however, when King was shot while standing on the balcony near his room.

The Lorraine never fully recovered from this tragic event. At one stage, it served as a home for low-income workers; but it was eventually purchased by a foundation that converted it into the National Civil Rights Museum, which opened in 1991. With more than 50,000 motels in the U.S. in 1968, the Lorraine became one with the most melancholy history.

These are only four examples of obscure places that suddenly became well known far beyond their immediate confines. Can you think of others that suddenly were recognized worldwide for better or worse? A number come to my mind.

  • Waterloo, Belgium, a quiet, rural village that would be forever associated with one of the great battles of all time when French forces under Napoleon Bonaparte were defeated by a British-led coalition army under the Duke of Wellington in 1815.
  • It is hard for me to comprehend that many people at the time did not know where Pearl Harbor was before it was attacked by Japanese carrier launched planes, thereby resulting in America’s entry into World War II. In fact, a significant percentage of Americans in the 1940s did not know that it was on American soil.
  • Hiroshima, a relatively small Japanese industrial city that few people had heard of until it became the target of the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6, 1945, thus hastening the end of World War II and ushering in the atomic age.
  • Gettysburg, Pa., was a small farming community that had existed peacefully since its founding in the 1780s, but during the Civil War, it became the site of the largest battle fought on American soil. Its name also became attached to one of the greatest speeches of all time — Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address.

I wonder about those obscure places on earth today that will suddenly gain notoriety for events that will make them household words.

Charles F. Bryan Jr., Ph.D., is president and CEO emeritus of the Virginia Historical Society. Contact him at cbryan1969@aol.com.

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