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Unexpected Places on the National Historic Landmark List

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There are some places you pretty much expect to be on the National Historic Register. Sprawling manors, Presidential birthplaces, historical monuments. But there are some pretty unexpected spots on the list too. Here are a few of them to check out the next time you’re looking for diversions from your road trip.


The Donner Camp, Truckee, California
Yep… an official Historic Landmark that seems to praise cannibalism. In case you don’t know the story, the Donner Party was a group of emigrants who were headed to California from Illinois in 1846. When they hit this spot near Truckee, they hit some horrible weather and decided to set up camp for the winter. The winter was brutal, though, and when provisions ran out, the surviving members of the party began to eat off of the bodies of those who had already died. Of the original party, 39 died and 48 survived.

It seems more than a little grim, but the monument at the Donner Camp site explains that it is to commemorate the pioneers who crossed the plains to settle in California – at any cost.

Mission Beach Roller Coaster, San Diego, California


This wooden coaster is more than 80 years old – and, miraculously, it still safely runs. That’s not without some restoration, though. In 1925, John D. Spreckels commissioned a crew to build it. It took 100-150 men about two weeks. It was a bit hit until the 1960s, when other bigger and greater thrill rides started to emerge. It became unused and a bit battered and closed in 1976. By the early 1980s, the Giant Dipper was in total disrepair and was something of an eyesore; people started to request that it be torn down. A “Save the Coaster Committee” was formed and managed to have the Giant Dipper elevated to Landmark status. An estimated $2 million was spent on restoring the old gal, so if you’re in the area and feel like taking a trip back to the ‘20s, you can hop on the only surviving Prior and Church coaster on the West Coast.

UC-Berkeley, Gilman Hall, Room 307, Berkeley, California.
Why this specific room? In 1941, Glenn Seaborg and his associates discovered that plutonium was an element. In 1942, the entire top floor of Gilman Hall was dedicated exclusively to work in nuclear chemistry to benefit WWII. Research done in Room 307 was part of the Manhattan Project. If none of that convinces you, then consider that two Nobel Prizes in Chemistry were awarded to people who did research around this project; four others were awarded for later work. Currently, it’s not exactly up-to-date with the latest lab equipment, so it’s now used for classroom and office purposes.

Bathhouse Row, Hot Springs National Park, Arkansas.
In the 1800s, the Federal Government took control of land containing 47 hot springs. These four parcels of land also included a collection of eight bathhouses, so, naturally, the government took those over too. The Department of the Interior spent about eight years improving the area that they called the “National Health Resort”. The first whirlpool bath was installed in 1939, and FDR’s polio treatments at a similar facility inspired one of the bathhouses to start offering treatments for polio and muscle and joint pain. By the time WWII ended, it was nearly a craze – in 1946, people enjoyed 649,270 hot tub baths, which set a new record for the industry.

But that would really mark the peak – after 1946, the bathhouse trend declined pretty rapidly. By 1979, the number of baths on Bathhouse row was down to 96,000. By this time, several of the bathhouses had already closed, leaving just a few of the original eight open. Today, only the Buckstaff still operates as a bathhouse. But the gorgeous and diverse architecture is still there, which is part of the reason Bathhouse Row earned a spot on the Historic Landmark list in 1987. The buildings not in use are being renovated right now and will be put up to lease when that is complete, so who knows – perhaps we’ll see a resurgence in the bathhouse trend.

Flying Horses Carousel, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.
Yep, a carousel makes the list! It’s the oldest functioning platform carousel in the U.S., so it’s a little more special than your every-day variety. It was built in 1876, but it still operates from Easter Sunday to Columbus Day.
Every person who rides gets to play a game as well – as the carousel turns, the rider gets the opportunity to collect rings that are placed on the inside and the outside of the carousel. The rider who manages to snag the brass ring (there’s one both sides) gets to stay on his or her horse and ride again for free. But if you don’t get the brass ring, another ride will only set you back $1.50.

“The City of Milwaukee” Railroad Car Ferry, Manistee, Michigan Even a non-operating car ferry makes the Register! The S.S. City of Milwaukee ferried railroad cars between Muskegon, Michigan and Milwaukee, Wisconsin, beginning in 1931. She was retired in 1982 as a museum, although there is apparently talk of turning her into a bed and breakfast. Either way, the City of Milwaukee is still the only railroad car ferry that still floats on the Lakes with all of her original fittings and woodwork.

Do you know of a quirky place that makes the Historic Landmark list? Share with us in the comments.

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Newest 5 Comments

Just like to thank you for listing the S.S. City of Milwaukee. Folks can also check us out at www.carferry.com. We are open for summer tours, an October Ghost Ship haunted house, and we are working on having overnight lodging later this summer.

I also noticed a landmarks page listing suicides. Unfortunately we had one of those in 1947. There was also two bodies carried on the ship in 1936. Haunted? Who knows...?

The S.S. Badger is the last operational Great Lakes carferry. Their website is www.ssbadger.com. Still a coal fired steamship.

Thanks again.

George P. Micka IV.
President, S.S. City of Milwaukee NHL
sscitymilw@aol.com
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I will note that there are *2* roller coasters named the Giant Dipper in California, and *both* are National Landmarks. In addition to the one you mentioned, there's the Giant Dipper in Santa Cruz, CA, which is older by a year and never needed a public campaign to save it - it's been a tourist hit forever.

And it's a *great* ride.
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Thought I'd better add this I had a typo while I was writting my first post. Roosevelt did not make it a park it was congress.

Hot Springs is the smallest and oldest of the parks in the National Park System, dating back to 1832, when Congress established - 40 years ahead of Yellowstone - the first federally protected area in the nation's history. Hot Springs Reservation - which was renamed Hot Springs National Park in 1921 - originally was created by Congress to protect the 47 naturally flowing thermal springs on the southwestern slope of Hot Springs Mountain.
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I just spent a week in Hot Springs Ark. last week. You forgot to mention that Hernando De Soto was shown the Hot Springs (Valley of the Vapors)by the Native Americans in the area when he was stomping around thorough North America in 1541 looking for gold. Also Roosevelt made it the Very first Nation Park in the Country, years before Yellowstone and Yosemite. He took the Rough Riders to Hot Springs in about 1896.
The State Capital was moved to Hot Springs during part the Civil War out of fear that they would be attacked in Little Rock, and there was an Army and Navy medical hospital right off bathhouse row during the Civil War. Al Capone, and Babe Ruth frequented Hot Springs as well. I for one would be suprised if Bath House row wasn't on the historical list.
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