High in the hills south of Rome, in the crater of an extinct volcano, there's a very small lake called Nemi. For years, the local fishermen, who lived in an abandoned woodland temple to the Roman goddess Diana, had reported glimpsing vast, mysterious ships at the bottom of the lake. Numerous attempts to raise the wrecks were made (the Catholic Church even sponsored a sort of Medieval proto-submarine in an attempt to solve the mystery), but the giant ships stubbornly refused to budge. In 1927, Mussolini was so engulfed by Nemi madness that he ordered the lake briefly drained, revealing two vast Roman barges.
But not just any barges! These were the lost sex barges of the mad emperor Caligula. Still the largest ancient boats ever discovered, the mighty barges supported entire marble palaces, complete with lush gardens and hot running water. Statues on rotating platforms overlooked decks "which blazed with jewels." And all this was built, entirely on the spot, in a tiny mountain lake completely disconnected from any other water source. But Caligula never got to enjoy his new toys, dying of natural causes (being stabbed) shortly after they were completed. The vessels were sunk to the bottom of the lake, and it seemed like the world would never again see such barge-based magnificence. Which brings us to McDonald's.
And honestly, where else could it bring us? What other empire could rival the wealth of ancient Rome? Did any conqueror's armies ever spread across the world faster? When future archeologists discover the triumphal arches and boastful inscriptions ("Over 1 Billion Served") towering throughout every major city, will they not conclude that this was the age of King Clown? Will they even be wrong? So it should be no surprise that, having subdued the land, McDonald's sought dominion over the water too, with the construction of a mighty barge. And it's no surprise that, hubris being what it is, the barge should have suffered an even more humiliating fate than Caligula's volcano party boats.
This is the story of the McBarge, the greatest vessel of the 1980s. And it's a pretty good one, involving helpful robots, nude punk riots, brave little tugboats, the strangling of David Goyer by Wesley Snipes, and the best damn summer anyone in Vancouver ever had. They should've sent a McPoet:
The McBarge was built as a showpiece for the company at the Vancouver World's Fair, also known as Expo '86. Millions of customers were expected to visit the fair, exchanging hugs with the friendly robot mascot Expo Ernie, screaming in terror at the World's Largest Hockey Stick, and splashing through the cool fountains of water that sprayed out of a massive styrofoam flying saucer dubbed UFO H20. Corporate sponsors went all out, bizarrely so in the case of GM, which unveiled the General Motors Spirit Lodge, where guests could enjoy a mystical experience with a mysterious Native American storyteller, who vanished at the end of every session. It's unclear how any of this was intended to promote the new Buick LeSabre, while the psychic damage caused by the phrase "General Motors Spirit Lodge" may actually have reverberated back in time and killed Tecumseh.
McDonald's drew the line at offering customers a limited-edition ayahuasca shake, but they knew they'd have to pull out all the stops to compete with GM. Naturally, they thought of barges. The end result was the McBarge, a floating "McDonald's of the future," complete with wood floors and high-tech conveyor belts that ferried Big Macs from a hidden kitchen. It was big enough to accommodate thousands of customers at a time (although, like all McDonald's locations, we assume there was only one guy who knew how to work the ice cream machine), while massive windows offered panoramic views of Vancouver. Sadly nobody ever saw them, since everybody was too busy gazing in awe at the McBarge.
The McBarge was a miracle of reverse futurism, in which designers trying to conceptualize the 2000s accidentally created a highly-concentrated blast of the 1980s instead. Just looking at pictures of the place is the equivalent of snorting cocaine at the exact moment Huey Lewis starts playing on your Betamax copy of Back To The Future. Seriously, ALF doesn't actually appear in any of these photos, but your brain will automatically try to add him in. It's like an architectural contest to suggest the color beige without actually using it. It's like they held Ray Parker Jr. at gunpoint and forced him to design a restaurant. They spent $8 million dollars on the place, and it was worth every penny!
But we know what you're thinking: Surely the McBarge's disgusting hog customers were constantly hurling plastic cups and cutlery into the water, probably hooting like gibbons the entire time. And you'd be absolutely right -- which is why the McBarge came complete with a miniature garbage boat called the Tidy Tug (although it was inexplicably not actually a tugboat), which scooted around sucking up waste as soon as it hit the water. Every single person here would gladly lay down our lives for the Tidy Tug, the hero boat that won the war on its own customers. Sadly, nobody seems to know what happened to it. We choose to believe that it took to the seas and now circles the Pacific Garbage Patch, solving ocean crimes with a quirky crew of castaway McDonald's employees.
Inside the McBarge, a party atmosphere prevailed, with customers happily queuing up for hours for a chance to munch Big Macs on the water. One teen employee later recalled that the "McBarge was so packed all the time that serving customers turned into a kind of performance art, like the bartenders in Cocktail but with fast food. The crowds loved it. Our crew held the summer record for selling something like 800 soft-serve cones in an hour." The McBarge's good vibes clearly spread throughout the fair, which became a massive surprise hit, smashing all attendance projections (22 million people ultimately visited). The place was so magical that the most common phrase in retrospectives appears to be "I had my first kiss there," which appears so many times it's quite possible nobody in Vancouver had ever made out before the McBarge chugged up to teach an entire fairground how to love.
Seriously, this place was like the kindly space turtle to Action Park's evil clown.
This positive atmosphere was not in any way guaranteed, especially since the city council kicked preparations off by evicting 600 poor people from long-stay hotels in order to make more room for tourists visiting the General Motors Spirit Lodge. Then, it turned out nobody at the fair had actually bothered to listen to the bands booked for their local live music series, meaning that they accidentally kicked off with a concert by Slow, the most outrageous and notorious punk band in Vancouver history. They ended up cutting all power to the stage in less than five minutes, by which point the band members were fully pantsless and calling the governor a Nazi. The loss of sound enraged the punk audience, who marched on the media pavilion and besieged the nightly news, which was being broadcast live from the fair. The ensuing riot is still remembered quite fondly in the B.C. punk community.
The publicity from the riot probably helped, given that the entire fair had only been held in a desperate attempt to prove that the city actually existed. Several years earlier, the local government had commissioned a survey to discover Vancouver's image around the world, which just revealed that nobody had ever heard of Vancouver: "In California, you know practically our closest neighbour, [awareness] was something like 12 per cent. They didn't even know that we were a sizable cosmopolitan city." Fortunately, there was a solution. The world's fair had once been the hottest event on the planet, with millions flocking to extravaganzas like the 1893 Chicago Fair, which was considered so thrilling that nobody even minded when a serial killer started picking off fairgoers, and even the mayor being shot in the face by a deranged stalker only put a momentary dampener on events.
Roughly ninety years later, word of this hot new trend trickled through to the sizable cosmopolitan city of Vancouver. Realizing that a successful expo could grant them the same international recognition as recent hosts like Spokane and Plovdiv, the entire city came together to put on the greatest celebration of '80s kitsch known to man. And the crazy thing is that it worked -- by the end of the fair, over 80 percent of people in California had heard of Vancouver, which is more Californians than have heard of California.
The whole world went berserk for this fair, and we're pretty sure the McBarge was responsible for like 70 percent of that. Seriously, nobody outside Canada cares about the world's largest hockey stick, and Expo Ernie would have been rightfully murdered 15 seconds after setting foot in the US. This is the story of a barge that won the world's heart. And then, when it needed us most, we turned our back on it.
When Expo '86 ended, Vancouver needed its harbor back to support local industries, like filming episodes of 21 Jump Street, or meth smuggling. Which meant that McDonald's suddenly found themselves with a gigantic McBarge and nowhere to put it. All efforts to find a new location apparently failed, even though potential new locations for a barge include literally anywhere touching the ocean or a major river. And that's just the easy spots. We would have dragged the thing over a mountain range like Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo if we thought there was a nice welcoming lake on the other side. But the McDonald's corporation was apparently helpless and the McBarge remained in place until 1991, when it was unceremoniously towed upstream and abandoned to rot amid hulking oil refineries.
Thus began the second, sadder part of the McBarge's life. For years, only the bravest of urban explorers (guys filming amateur skateboard videos) dared to trek to witness its fading splendor. Ownership changed hands a few times, but nobody ever found anything to do with it, despite the obvious solution (sell it to the producers of Waterworld and make Kevin Costner sail it around the whole movie). The paint peeled, the walls were gradually torn apart in search of copper, and the barge itself developed a notable list to one side. It's likely that it would have been sold for scrap years ago, if not for the sudden emergence of the hero of this story: Blade!
For reasons that are genuinely impossible to fathom, a significant part of the movie Blade: Trinity was filmed aboard the rotting McBarge. Most notably, it was used as the headquarters of the Nightstalkers, a team of sexy young vampire hunters played by Ryan Reynolds, Jessica Biel, and Patton Oswalt (the holy trinity of early 2000s teen idols). The film had a famously troubled production, as star Wesley Snipes supposedly argued with director David Goyer to the point that he once tried to strangle him, then started communicating exclusively through Post-It notes signed "From Blade." Things got so bad that the production team literally had to CGI Snipes's eyes open in one scene. Clearly, the McBarge's famous good vibes had turned evil during its abandonment.
Blade: Trinity was a massive disaster, but it did have one upside: the burst of publicity attracted the attention of real estate developer Howard Meakin, who bought the McBarge and had it towed to a nearby dock for repairs. Meakin initially hoped to use it as the centerpiece of a floating restaurant complex. That plan eventually fell apart due to some combination of red tape and failure to find a suitable mooring, at which point Meakin gutted the interior of the barge and proposed repurposing it as a museum of ocean exploration. In 2017, Meakin began touting a crowdfunding campaign for the museum, promising "rewards for contributors, including ... McBarge mementos" (we would donate our blood and organs in exchange for a single piece of the Tidy Tug, a holy relic to followers of '80s culture).
But nothing came of the campaign, which apparently never launched. And here's the saddest sentence we've ever typed: The abandoned McBarge's Twitter account hasn't posted since 2017. It's still lying in the river near the Maple Ridge industrial zone, slowly listing into the water, waiting for some brave crew to steal it and set up the first no-rules McDonald's in international waters.
But if that day doesn't come, and the McBarge truly is doomed, then at least let us make a suggestion. Remember the Roman barges that lay undisturbed for almost 2,000 years in the sacred lake of Nemi? Well, they were destroyed during World War II, when American artillery fired on some German troops camped out by the museum housing them. So if we really have to say goodbye to the McBarge, let's at least make that loss right. Tow the McBarge to Italy, hoist it up into the mountains, and let it sink in the mirrored waters of Lake Nemi. That way, millennia from now, long after our society has collapsed, the local fishermen will see the outline of three golden arches, shining in the depths below. And they will know in their hearts that we were great.
For more adventures in weirdo fast food, see Pittsburgh's fake Burger King.
Top image: Nonstandard McDonald's/Twitter