The Big Well – Greensburg, Kansas - Atlas Obscura

The Big Well

Greensburg, Kansas

The United States's largest hand-dug well is topped with a state-of-the-art museum. 


Kansans, it seems, have dug themselves into a hole, and they couldn’t be happier about it.

Boasted as the world’s largest hand-dug well, and known as “The Big Well,” it was begun in 1887 with farmers, cowboys, and transients in crews of 10 to 15 working from sun-up till sun-down using only shovels, picks, a half barrel, pulley and rope to dig the well. Their pay was 50 cents to a dollar a day.

At 32 feet wide and 109 feet deep, it is indeed a very big well, though despite its claim the Big Well isn’t quite the largest hand-dug in the world. The Pozzo di S. Patrizio or St. Patrick’s Well, built in 1527 in Orvieto, Italy is, at 42 feet by 200 feet, larger. The Big Well is certainly the largest hand-dug well in the United States.

The residents of Greensburg have long been proud of their well, recently named one of the eight wonders of Kansas, but maintaining it hasn’t always been easy going. The well was a popular stop from 1939 to the present, with millions buying the two-dollar ticket to take a journey down into the well and throwing a coin, shoe, or other lucky items into the bottom.  In 1956 the well celebrated its one-millionth visitor. In the 1990s the town hired divers to clean the bottom of the well and many things were found such as shoes, eyeglasses, chewing gum, and approximately $1,200 in coins. But around the same time, it seemed that the well’s supply of tourists had dried up.

Even worse, in 2007 a tornado destroyed almost the entire town, including the Well’s visitor center, leaving only a few buildings and, of course, the well itself. But what was initially a disaster became a chance for the citizens of Greensburg to put themselves and their well on the map. The town began rebuilding as the most “environmentally friendly little town” in America. Solar panels and wind turbines were installed and, with the help of the TV show Planet Green, which was about the town’s recovery and conversion to green tech, the town began to receive attention and visitors, many of whom made a stop by the Big Well.

Greensburg decided that as well as renovating the town, it was time to renovate the Big Well and a $3 million museum was built in 2012. This new museum once again allows visitors to descend a spiral staircase into the Big Well and view exhibits that feature Greensburg’s history, the tornado, and the town’s rebuilding as a sustainable community.

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