10 of the Most Heavily Guarded Places on Earth

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There are many places that are famous for being so secretive and well-protected that you can never visit them. This list is not about them. This is about the really well-guarded places — ones that are so secret that you may not have even heard about them. Let’s take a look at 10 of our favorites…

10. Iron Mountain

On surface, Iron Mountain is a nothing more than a huge storage company. However, they have one particular crown jewel in their collection: Just a few miles from Pittsburgh lies the Iron Mountain Vault of Butler County. It’s a giant underground complex built in an abandoned limestone mine, and it hosts a truly mind-boggling amount of treasure. Within its confines, the truly powerful people and institutions store the things they want to keep really safe. The company protects its clients’ confidentiality, but if you think of a really big name, there’s a good chance that they probably have some secrets stowed away here. Bill Gates stores the 27 million physical images of the Corbis Image collection here. The Smithsonian stores many of its records in the vaults, and other clients include several movie studios and, of course, the Government.

It’s easy to see why the Iron Mountain vault is such a massive hit among the wealthy and safety-conscious. The complex is harder to enter than the White House. 2,700 people work in this vast network of white corridors that look like they’re from a James Bond movie. The vault has its own five-engine fire department, and 125 massive, well-protected vaults that are artificially cooled with 50-degree water from an underground lake.  

9. HavenCo

You might have heard of Sealand, a small WWII-era anti-aircraft platform in the international waters of North Sea that became a micronation in 1967. Thanks to its lawless, grey area nature and fairly secure physical location, Sealand has been a home for all sorts of shady operators, from pirate radio broadcasters to the Pirate Bay and possibly even Wikileaks. Still, perhaps the strangest operation that has ever graced its deck is HavenCo.

Sean Hastings and Ryan Lacke founded HavenCo in 2000 to act as a safe haven for all sorts of data operators. In their own words, their aim was to create “the world’s first truly offshore, almost-anything-goes electronic data haven — a place that occupies a tantalizing gray zone between what’s legal and what’s… possible.” Creating a data haven into one of the most difficult-to-reach places on earth was a brilliant, if mildly unnerving concept that was at the time hailed as potentially revolutionary. However, there was a problem. In fact, there were many problems.

First and foremost of them was the fact that Sealand has always been on extremely shaky legal ground. It has no allies or international recognition, so although it is very isolated and well-protected by its remote location, any fool who can climb onboard is technically free to take over. In fact, it’s likely that the only reason it hasn’t been attacked a dozen times over is the fact that the United Kingdom is just 12 miles away and would probably take offense. Another difficult nut to crack was the sad fact that the only kind of content that their owners couldn’t (or wouldn’t) host anywhere else was the kind of content that was very, very illegal. This in turn meant that it would just be a matter of time before just about every country on Earth took a good look at HavenCo, and ganged up on Sealand.

Perhaps this is why Sealand quietly “nationalized” HavenCo just two years after its founding, and moved all its data hosting services to mainland UK a few years later.

8. ADX Florence

ADX Florence, aka The Administrative Maximum Facility, is the toughest and most secure “supermax” prison in the United States. It’s the sort of place that is custom designed to hold supervillains, and in a way, that’s exactly what it does. This is where the country stores the criminals it wants to completely and utterly cut away from the outside world, and its famous inmates are a truly mind-boggling parade of terrorists and maniacs. You only need to look at the “bomber” category of prisoners to get an idea of their general notoriety: There’s Ramzi Yousef, the man behind the 1993 bombing at the World Trade Center, and Zacarias Moussaoui, who carried on his work as a co-conspirator of 9/11. There’s the “shoe bomber” Richard Reid, “Unabomber” Ted Kaczynski, and even the Boston Marathon bomber.

ADX is known as the “Alcatzar of the Rockies,” and like its namesake, it’s virtually inescapable. Heavily armed patrols and massive gun towers watch the prisoners’ every move, and huge walls with razor wire do their level best to block away the mountains. And that’s just for the one hour per day when the prisoners are allowed to stretch their feet. For the other 23 hours, the vast majority of them are locked away in their tiny, 7-by-12-foot concrete cells, specifically designed so they can’t move any furniture or even see the sky from the window. Everything is designed with control in mind, and it’s so effective that one former warden describes ADX as “life after death” … and, in fact, much worse than death.

Perhaps the nastiest trick ADX pulls on its prisoners is the very first one. They arrive in prison buses or helicopters, taking in the beautiful landscape of the Rocky Mountains. And then, they get inside the concrete hell that blocks all of that beauty from their view, and realize: That was the last time they’d ever see such scenes again.  

7. Bank of England Gold Vault

Everyone knows about Fort Knox, where the US stores its gold reserves. The Bank of England gold vault is basically that, but for the United Kingdom … and with far more style. A classy, imposing structure in the middle of London’s Threadneedle street, this 1734 building has guarded a significant chunk of the country’s gold bullion for literal centuries. The bank building is known as “Old Lady,” and it’s considered to be so difficult to break into that there’s a popular saying: “Safe as the Bank of England.” The building’s walls are 8 feet thick, its safety measures are top-notch, and even its keys are foot-long monstrosities… which are used in conjunction with ultramodern voice activation lock technology, naturally.

Although generally considered impossible to enter without permission, the Bank of England has been breached once. In 1836, the bank’s directors received a mysterious letter that told them to meet its writer in the gold bullion room at night. They decided to see what this was all about, and were extremely surprised when the writer dislodged a few floorboards and casually appeared through the floor, right at the agreed hour. He was a sewer worker, and had noticed that a certain drain ran directly underneath the vault. Fortunately for the bank managers, the man didn’t use his knowledge for evil, and instead chose to warn them about this security issue. The bank rewarded the man with £800 (roughly $100,000 in today’s cash), and presumably blocked the drain immediately afterward, just in case.

6. Tumen River

On paper, Tumen River is a pretty poor excuse for a river. Its 320 miles are mostly pollution-tainted water and sad, swampy marshland. However, its geopolitical location has made it one of the most important, well-guarded bodies of water in the world. It happens to be the border river to not two, but three countries that are not exactly known for their easy-going attitudes: North Korea, China, and Russia.

Instead of the usual “thalweg principle” of drawing the country borders by the deepest point of the border river, a number of treaties, disputes and Russia’s acute need to maintain direct access to the Sea of Japan have turned Tumen River into a strange layer cake of criss-crossing borders. There’s one particularly odd stretch where the Chinese border extends as a tiny sliver in the middle of the river, while Russia and North Korea hold the shores. So if you were to swim across, you’d first go through a mile of North Korean waters, then a 300-foot channel of Chinese water, and then enter Russian waters.

Tumen River’s eccentric borders, tactical location and the fact that many North Koreans use it as an escape route from their country have made it one of the most guarded rivers in the world. Of course, being a body of water, it’s still one of the less fortified sections of the North Korea-China border, and escapes across the river are so common that the nearest Chinese city is now one-third Korean-speaking. North Korean officials are trying to fight this by guarding the river even more ferociously. In 2017, Pyongyang reportedly banned all citizens from going within 500 feet of the river, regardless of the fact that many of them do need water for things like laundry and living.

5. Bold Lane Car Park

In 2003, a science magazine published a study that determined the safest places in the world. Most of the list was what you’d expect: Fort Knox, Air Force One, and other famous places like that. However, one entry made even the most experienced science list connoisseurs do a double take: A humble car park in Derby, UK, known as Bold Lane Car Park.

Bold Lane Car Park was designed by Ken Wigley, an agricultural engineer who had a chip on his shoulder from the time his car window was smashed and his stereo was stolen in an airport car park. This is why he designed Bold Lane to be a very hostile place for car thieves and vandals. The multi-story car park has all the usual frills, such as CCTV cameras, barcode tickets, panic buttons and controlled entry doors. However, it also has a very clever, computer-controlled motion sensor system that spots if a parked car moves, and if the computer determines that this should not be happening, the site goes into full lockdown. Not that this happens a lot, because at Bold Lane, the cars that should be staying put will stay put. In fact, drivers are specifically requested to secure their parking bay with a numerical code that the system links with their ticket so it can recognize if the driver has left the car park or has returned to it by linking the bay number with a ticket.

But what if a thief just walks in, wrecks the ticket machine and drives through the control gates after hot-wiring your car? Don’t worry, Wigley thought of that, too: Pedestrians can’t gain access to the car park unless they have the ticket from when their car entered.

4. The Greenbrier

The Greenbrier resort has been a popular gathering place for the rich and famous socialites since the late 18th century. Its fine premises, the nearby White Sulphur Springs, and the legendary Old White golf course built in 1914 have all attracted wealthy visitors over the years. But the Greenbrier used to have hidden depths… literally. Because of its luxury and relative proximity to Washington DC, the government has often used it for various purposes. During WWII, the Greenbrier housed Axis diplomats at the request of the State Department. Then, it was converted to a massive hospital that treated over 24,000 soldiers during the war. And that was just the beginning.

In 1958, the government secretly leased part of the Greenbrier’s West Virginia Wing, and started covertly constructing a large bunker underneath it. The 112,544-square-foot “emergency relocation center” was built 720 feet into the hillside. It took three years to complete, and could accommodate 1,100 people: the entire US Congress and the support staff it took to keep them alive. It had a 25-ton blast door that could, however, be opened with just 50 pounds of pressure. It had giant water tanks, purification equipment, a power plant, top-notch healthcare facilities and a communications area for  TV and audio production. It even had full-size meeting rooms for both House and Senate.

For 30 years, the bunker remained a secret. It was constantly updated and maintained by a tiny group of undercover government employees, posing as a small audiovisual support service company called Forsythe Associates. There’s a good chance that this might still be the case. However, a crucial point for a facility like this is that its location remains a secret. And so it did, for more than three decades.

On May 31, 1992, The Washington Post published an article which exposed the facility. As a direct result, the US government began de-commissioning The Bunker and ended the lease agreement with The Greenbrier in 1995. Now, should you wish to visit, you can get a tour of the facility.

3. The Swiss Vaults

The Swiss famously make excellent chocolate, watches and cheese, but what really sets them apart is their banking system. A classic aspect of this is their ultra-secure vaults. You’ve probably seen movies where a character visits a Swiss bank’s underground safety locker vault that might look a lot like the one above, which belongs to Credit Suisse.

Switzerland has a vault for everything. There are secretive alpine gold stashes where tiny metal doors leading into mountain tunnels once used by the military are protected by serious-looking men in bulletproof vests. Private asset management companies offer increasingly strange supervillain vaults under airports, and in hyper-secure deep-mountain locations (“access by helicopter or private plane”). There’s even a decommissioned military bunker where people can store their Bitcoins as personalized, physical cryptographic keys.  

2. The Mormon Church’s Secret Vaults

The Mormons, aka The Church of the Latter-Day Saints, have a massive secret vault in Utah. This sounds pretty ominous even before you hear that the site is called Granite Mountain. It’s easy to suspect supervillain shenanigans when a religious group starts setting up Iron Mountain-style mountain bases, but according to the Mormons themselves there is nothing nefarious going on. They’ve even opened the complex for a virtual tour.

Despite its remoteness and the fact that they don’t exactly welcome unannounced visitors, the 50 on-site workers have precious little time to plot for world domination. They’re too busy digitizing and archiving their material: The largest collection of family history information in the world, which Utah Mormons have been gathering since the 1930s. We’re talking about 35 billion images of genealogical information, most of it contained on fragile material such as 2.4 million rolls of microfilm. It also stores material that the church sees “key to church operations, leadership and history.”

The reason why the site is fairly closed and well-protected is simple: People destroy things. Just the dust from your blue jeans can do terrible things to fragile archived materials, and constantly marching curious people through the facility would make it borderline impossible to control the temperature.

1. Vatican Secret Archives

While we’re on the subject of religions and their secret stashes, it’s impossible not to mention the Vatican Secret Archives. This grandiose collection of some of the most interesting documents and artifacts not only contains 12 centuries’ worth of history — it contains the very things history was made with. The archives are not actually as secret as legend has it — “secretum” actually means “private” in Latin, Vatican’s language of choice. Still, a private archive in the most heavily fortified part of Vatican doesn’t exactly seem like open door policy, especially since its indexes are not public and even dedicated scholars can’t reach them until they’re 75 years old.

The archives’ main point is to house the Pope’s official paperwork and correspondence, along with other documents related to the Holy See. Of course, this means that it is full of original documents that shaped history, so the people who wish to access it have to go through a very careful vetting process. In recent years, the Vatican has tried to be a bit more open about the Archives. They’ve allowed journalists to tour the complex, and even held a public exhibition of selected works in 2012. Still, the Archives continue to hold plenty of secrets. For one, Vatican refuses to release any documents that are dated after 1939. This may or may not mean that they’re sitting on some stuff that indicates that the WWII-era Pope, Pius XII, quietly collaborated with Hitler when he didn’t speak up against the Holocaust.

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