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Today’s the Shared Anniversary of Ruin Porn Poster Children Detroit, Machu Picchu

July 24th marks double jackpot for the intrepid explorers of years past as well for as fans of the latest photographic trend, "ruin porn."

July 24 marks double jackpot for the intrepid explorers of years past, as well for as fans of the trend in “ruin porn.” The fine city of Detroit was founded 311 years ago, and the spectacular ‘lost city of the Incas,’ Machu Picchu, was “discovered” on this day 101 years ago. Little did the explorers know as they were hacking through the bush or laying their first stakes that their grand achievements would become staples of Tumblr’s latest pic fad. But before the rot and decay, before the industry crashes and hoards of backpack-toting tourists, there were two men: the self-absorbed, swindling Cadillac and the buccaneering womanizer Hiram Bingham.

History Today has the scoop on both of these celebratory explorers:

A French settler with a promising future ahead of him was Antoine Laumet de Lamothe Cadillac, a Gascon adventurer of tremendous charm and matching unscrupulousness, in his forties. He added de Lamothe Cadillac to his name to make himself sound aristocratic, equipped himself with a bogus pedigree, coat of arms and army commission, and concealed his origins so effectively that his early life has remained obscure ever since.

Cadillac made his splash in the New World scene in the 1680s and immediately got busy illegally selling Brandy to the Native Americans and taking bribes from the rowdy beaver pelt traders.

In order to better exploit this trade, he talked the French authorities into letting him found a new settlement – Detroit! – situated between Lake Erie and Lake Saint Clair.

A small settlement developed, though both the colonists and the local Indians objected to Cadillac’s tyrannical and extortionate administration. In 1710, more or less in disgrace, he was packed off to be governor of Louisiana, which was considered a thoroughly undesirable post.

Cadillac eventually escaped the mosquitoes, ending his days in the comfort of his native Gascony. Besides establishing Motown, his legend lived on for years as his fake coat of arms adorned generations of Cadillac cars.

Fast forward 200 years and meet Hiram Bingham, a Hawaiian-born explorer who preferred football to missionary work. After attaining a pedigree degree at Harvard, Bingham married an heiress of Tiffany’s jewelry and promptly used his wife’s fortune to fund exploratory galavants through South America. His lady was left at home, of course, and his enthusiasm for exploration reportedly extended to foreign women as well as ancient ruins.

In 1911, pursuing whispered rumors of a lost city, he hit the motherload in Peru.

They soon came to what Bingham called ‘an unexpected sight, a great flight of beautifully constructed stone terraces, perhaps a hundred of them, each hundreds of feet long and 10 feet high.’

The ruins were overgrown by trees, bamboo thickets and tangles of vines and covered with moss, but the white granite walls were ‘carefully cut and exquisitely fitted together’ and the scene ‘fairly took my breath away.’

He took thousands of photos and carted boxes and boxes of temple objects back to North America, exposing Machu Picchu to the Western world. (Incidentally, he believed until his death that he had discovered a different lost city, Vilcabamba.) Eventually, his wife came to her senses and divorced him.

Today, we celebrate Detroit and Machu Picchu as icons of ruin porn; as meditations on bygone eras, on lives and dreams lost to the weight of history. We love the wistful nostalgia and crumbling romanticism of Detroit’s ruined factories and Machu Picchu’s moss-covered splendor precisely because they remind us of our own inevitable decline, a meditation that is both thrilling and terrifying to contemplate, but that, apparently, we can’t get enough of.

More from Smithsonian.com:

Everything Will Be Alright  

Saving Machu Picchu 

 

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