Before interstate highways, travel in America was full of surprises, not the least of which were the offbeat roadside attractions that beckoned to motorists during the 1940s and ’50s—everything from the Oregon Vortex (“Where gravity has gone awry!”) to Lucy the Elephant (an elephant-shaped building in New Jersey).
But when the interstates came in the 1960s, vacationing families began bypassing two-lane attractions for flashier theme parks and mega malls. It wasn’t long before most of the classic roadside attractions faltered, then failed. Mini-golf courses became overgrown with weeds, petting zoo goats were returned to farms, wax museums couldn’t pay their air-conditioning bills.
Still, a few of those classics from the Golden Age of tourism have survived. They’re worth a visit.
Harmony, Minn. (pop. 1,080)
In the 1940s heyday of Niagara Cave, some 500 tourists per summer day paid 50 cents each to trek through a limestone cavern stretching two miles under Harmony, Minn.
Drawn by a barrage of billboards (150 in a 150-mile radius), visitors saw stalagmites (from the ground up), stalactites (from the ceiling down), and the namesake 60-foot-high, underground waterfall. They saw traces of the cave’s ancient history (400 million-year-old fossilized coral) and recent history (the spot where, in 1924, a farmer’s pig fell into the hole that led to the cave’s discovery).
When Interstate 90 and I-35 were built, the area’s main thoroughfare, U.S. 52, faded into a two-lane lame duck. Niagara Cave’s visitors dropped from nearly 100,000 a year to a mere 10,000. Buildings deteriorated, the grassy parking lot became overgrown. Then came Mark Bishop.
“I was looking through newspaper ads for something like a campground for sale,” says Bishop, 45, a former real estate agent with a degree in physical geography. “Or maybe an earth science store—something to do with geology.”
He saw an ad for a limestone cave. “I never dreamt a cave might be available. They don’t come up for sale every day.”
In 1995, Bishop and his wife, Jennifer, bought the cave and moved from nearby Rochester into the one-story log house attached to the gift shop. They painted the buildings, built a new sign, expanded the gift shop, installed new lighting in the cave, and rebuilt viewing decks and staircases—and attendance has been steadily increasing.
“People seem to be taking more day trips again. And there’s the nostalgia factor,” he says. “We get a lot of people who visited the cave 50 years ago who now bring their grandkids for a tour. It took a long time, but it’s like we’re back in style again.”
For more information, call (800) 837-6606 or visit www.niagaracave.com.
Lucy the Elephant
Margate, N.J. (pop. 8,193)
Built in 1881 and handcrafted from 1 million pieces of wood covered by 12,000 square feet of tin skin, Lucy was a modern marvel—a six-story building shaped to look like, well, an elephant.
Designed as an advertising beacon to draw investors to the beachfront property south of Atlantic City, Lucy has since served as office, beach cottage, tavern and walk-through tourist attraction.
By the late 1960s, though, Lucy was abandoned and on the verge of collapse.
“It was sad to see her in such bad shape,” says Richard Helfant (almost rhymes with elephant), Lucy’s executive director. “Lucy represented history, heritage and nostalgia. To see her decay like that, it was a sin.”
In 1969, Margate residents (led by Josephine Harron) formed the Save Lucy Committee to spare the pachyderm from the wrecking ball. Volunteers solicited funds house to house, and schoolchildren sold cakes and candy bars to raise money. Finally, Lucy was relocated to city-owned land (two blocks away) and restored. Now a National Historic Landmark, Lucy was visited by 35,000 people last summer. Helfant is hoping for 50,000 this year.
While Lucy has become a museum with displays recounting her 122-year history, the real draw is being inside a giant elephant.
“When kids walk up and stare at this six-story elephant, their eyes get as big as Lucy’s,” he says. “When they get a chance to walk inside her they’re in awe. The look on their faces is worth all the effort.”
For more information, call (609) 823-6473 or visit www.lucytheelephant.org.
City of Mermaids
Weeki Wachee, Fla. (pop. 12)
The town of Weeki Wachee first appeared on Florida maps in the 1960s when the town (with a population of 9) incorporated to promote the City of Mermaids. Today, 300,000 people visit annually, mostly for the waterslides and tube rides of Buccaneer Bay Water Park—but it was mermaids that put Weeki Wachee on the map.
In 1947, Newton Perry, a former Navy frogman instructor and one-time stunt double for movie Tarzan Johnny Weissmuller, built a large glass wall along one side of a freshwater spring. He added an 18-seat theater and hired a half dozen women—Aquabelles, they were called—to perform an underwater ballet while breathing through air tubes hidden in the scenery.
By the 1950s, the City of Mermaids was a staple of Florida tourism. Thirty-five women performed eight shows daily. Esther Williams (Neptune’s Daughter) and Don Knotts (The Incredible Mr. Limpett) filmed movies there. Elvis visited in 1961.
“Back in the 1950s and ’60s, there used to be lines like you see now at Disney,” marketing manager John Athanason says. “The mermaids were like superstars. But then all the big resorts started moving in.”
Now, 57 years and an estimated 25 million visitors later, a dozen mermaids still perform two shows daily in the now-500-seat theater.
“Most everyone who visits Weeki Wachee Springs stays for a mermaid show,” Athanason says. “People love nostalgia, and we’re one of Florida’s original theme parks. We’re what roadside attractions used to be all about.”
For more information, call (352) 596-2062 or visit www.weekiwachee.com.
House of Mystery
Gold Hill, Ore. (pop. 1,073)
Nearly every state has a Mystery Spot or a Gravity Hill, one of those attractions where physics seems disinterested, gravity appears apathetic, water runs uphill, you stand and sit and lean at impossible angles, that sort of thing.
The House of Mystery is one of those. An old mining shed inside the three-quarter acre area called the Oregon Vortex, the house (originally built as a mining office) bills itself as “the granddaddy of any house of mystery that's ever been built.”
“All the other [houses of mystery] are just imitations,” says owner and manager Maria D. Cooper, whose family has owned the House of Mystery since 1959. “This is an area that can't be explained.”
It’s an area, the story goes, called “forbidden ground” by local American Indians, who allegedly refused to enter the region. Birds, they say, won’t nest there. Animals stay away. John Litster, described as “a geologist, mining engineer and physicist,” studied the area in the early 1920s. He opened the House of Mystery to the public in 1930.
While most scientists dismiss these mystery spots as simple optical illusions (tilted houses built, by design, into angled hillsides), Cooper says it’s more than that. She describes various theories, ranging from optical distortions to magnetic disturbances.
“Anyone can build a slanted house,” says Cooper, who has been leading tours since 1962. “But it is the area that causes the phenomenon, not the house. The vortex causes the phenomenon.”
Whatever the reason, the House of Mystery, now in its 74th year, still draws nearly 400 tourists on summer Saturdays.
“We’ve managed to stick around so long because we’re authentic,” says Cooper, who is seeking a buyer for the Oregon Vortex. “We’re historical and hysterical.”
For more information, call (541) 855-1543 or visit www.oregonvortex.com.
Lookout Mountain, Tenn.
(706) 820-2531; www.seerockcity.com
In 1932, Garnet and Frieda Carter opened their rock gardens atop Lookout Mountain on the Georgia border to the public. They hired painters to brush a simple three-word phrase, “See Rock City,” on to 900 barns and thousands of birdhouses across the country. The rest is marketing history. Today, 500,000 tourists annually walk the mile-long Enchanted Trail, past the 200 million-year-old rock formations, through the wildflower gardens, and into the gift shop to buy an “I saw Rock City” T-shirt. Because, well, they finally did.
(989) 471-5477; www.dinosaurgardensllc.com
From the mid-1930s until his death in 1961, Paul Domke spent dawn-to-dusk days sculpting two dozen prehistoric scenes from a mixture of cement and deer hair. Today, summer visitors still follow winding gravel trails on the half-mile walk through the ferny, 40-acre cedar “swamp” in northern Michigan. And while the scenes haven’t changed—cave people spear a mastodon, a caveman is locked in combat with a giant python, an 80-foot long, 60,000-pound brontosaurus cranes its neck—the colors have. Owners Frank and Judy McCourt, who bought the place in 1985, have updated some of the drab gray dinosaurs with neon pinks and greens.
(605) 995-8427; www.cornpalace.org
It’s a 300-foot long, 44-foot high concrete building. And it’s decorated, annually, in 300,000 ears of corn. Past corn murals have depicted scenes from “A Celebration of Agriculture” to “Birds of South Dakota,” which is fitting, considering that the Corn Palace often becomes, once winter starts to set in, the “World’s Largest Bird Feeder.”