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Morro Castle: I Was A Death Ship, Too!

Morro Castle Memorial.
The Morro Castle Memorial, Asbury Park, NJ
Most people know the sad story of the Titanic. A few have even visited its Kate Winslet-inspired memorial in Washington, DC.

But the Atlantic had other Ships of Hell as well — such as the Morro Castle. This doomed ocean liner’s infamous pedigree is now etched into polished black granite, at the spot where its burned-out hulk drifted ashore in Asbury Park, New Jersey, on September 8, 1934. As the memorial asserts, it was “one of the greatest maritime disasters in American history.”

The Morro Castle was only a couple of miles off shore when it was caught in a storm, its captain died of a heart attack, and then a big fire broke out. 137 passengers and crew perished.

Morro Castle Memorial art.
Artist's depiction of burning ocean liner.
“The still-burning Morro Castle beached itself in Asbury Park,” reads the text on the memorial, “and became a major tourist attraction” –  something that the deep-sixed Titanic never accomplished. In fact, the Morro Castle shares its closest calamity kinship with the Hindenburg: fire, death, 1930s, big floating thing, New Jersey.

The Morro Castle Memorial occupies prime real estate just south of Asbury Park’s Convention Hall, next to the boardwalk and the Greek Orthodox “Man of Love” statue. It was unveiled on the 75th anniversary of the ship’s unscheduled arrival. A local historical society member told the Asbury Park Press, “We just felt it was time to acknowledge the disaster.”

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Hitler’s Pennsylvania Cabin

When Adolf Hitler’s yacht was busted up for scrap in the early 1950s, souvenirs wound up all over Pennsylvania and southern New Jersey.

Hitler's toilet.Greg Kohfeldt, who owns the most famous piece of all, Hitler’s toilet, told us that, “A lot of stuff made it into people’s homes. Little things. Portholes, chairs, signs — it’s all over this part of New Jersey. Florence, Bordentown, Fieldsboro….”

Greg referred us to Dick Glass, a 25-year Navy vet and local historian who recalled some of the relics’ final landing spots. According to Dick, one of the portholes is now in a private museum in Gettysburg; a big oak table — the ship’s map desk — is still at the American Legion hall in Florence; and Dick and his dad used screws from the yacht to build their own boat. “They were good brass and bronze screws.”

Dick’s most intriguing story dates to 2004 — or maybe earlier, he couldn’t be sure. Dick got a call from a man in Pennsylvania who had salvaged an entire cabin from the yacht. “It had been cut off of the ship. It was in this guy’s back yard,” Dick recalled. “It had portholes in it and everything. He was German. He was living in it!”

Dick said that the man offered the cabin to him, “but how would I get it here and where would I put it?” He lost track of the cabin after that, but ventured that it “may still be kicking around somewhere” as an odd counterpoint to more noble back yard live-in souvenirs. We’ll certainly keep an eye out for it.

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Roadside News: Sept. 3, 2009

Burt Reynolds Museum.
Smokey and the Bandit display, Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum.
Burt Reynolds Museum: Drumbeats of doom are sounding in Jupiter, Florida, where an upscale mall is slated to be built on the property now occupied by the Burt Reynolds and Friends Museum. “Demolition… could be in a year,” reports the Palm Beach Post — but we’ve heard this gloomy news before, and Burt’s place always seems to survive another year. “The museum needs to be more than acting classes, photos of Burt Reynolds with Loni Anderson, and canoes used in filming Deliverance.” No it doesn’t!

Heal me, Red Boiling Springs! The evocatively-named town of Red Boiling Springs, Tennessee, wants to reopen its red boiling springs as a tourist attraction, according to local station WZTV (The springs were shut down by the state because the water was untreated). “The bubbling, sulfur-filled mineral water once drew thousands who swore by it’s power to cure everything from arthritis to kidney stones.” Sounds like Tennessee’s version of Montana’s radon health mines to us — maybe the red boiling water could be zapped with radon?

Mall Averse to Bison Stampede: Entrepreneur Garry Eiden has been forced to close his tourist attraction in Marbleton, Wyoming, which was a pen packed with seven live bison at a shopping mall. According to the Sublette Examiner, the possibility of a buffalo stampede made the attraction a “dangerous recipe for disaster,” but Eiden was unconvinced. “It’s just like your dog. Why do you like your dog? Because people can pet it and enjoy it – that’s the way I was with the bison.”

Stoogeum Owner Needs Loud Conk on Head: Gary Lassin, who owns and operates the Stoogeum in Lower Gwynedd, Pennsylvania, has admitted that he’s baffled by the broad popularity of his Three Stooges museum. “I did not foresee this as a tourist destination, but that’s what has happened,” he told the Montgomery News. Lassin reportedly is mulling over the idea of moving the museum to Philadelphia — into the house in which hometown hero (and Stooge) Larry Fine was born.

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Ft. Worth: Last Supper Wax Back

For a dozen years a life-size wax version of The Last Supper has languished in a Texas closet, the heads of Jesus and his disciples stored in boxes. Delays kept it there despite promises of its return in 2005 and 2007 and 2008.

Now it’s finally back, the centerpiece of Ft. Worth’s new Christian Arts Museum, which opened in August 2009.

Last Supper Exhibit before 1997We last saw this Last Supper some time before 1997, when its then-sponsoring group ran into money trouble and packed it away.

The Supper was built under the supervision of mother-daughter wax artists Katherine and Katherine Marie Stubergh. In 1955, Ft. Worth oil tycoon Bill Fleming saw an earlier Wax Supper that the Stuberghs had built — which is still on display in Santa Cruz, California — and paid them to build a duplicate as a “gift to all Christians.” He displayed it for years at a Ft. Worth shopping mall. According to Ed Malone of the Ft Worth Christian Arts Commission, the Stuberghs built four addition Wax Suppers — maybe for four other tycoons? — but these have all since disappeared.

Daughter Katherine Marie, perhaps ready for a change of subject matter, opened up a Presidential wax attraction in South Dakota. But she and her mother both died years ago, so the Christian Arts Museum had to hire an artist from a wax museum in nearby Grand Prairie (but not this wax museum in Grand Prairie) to perform touch-ups on the figures

“They held up real well,” Ed told us. “Maybe one or two hairs were missing.”

The modern trend in wax museums is to allow visitors to mingle with their wax heroes. Ed, however, said that Jesus and the gang will be safely roped-off from adoring fans, and allowed to enjoy their divine dinner in peace.

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B Reactor’s Slide Rule: Touched By Fermi?

Michele shows off slide rule.
Slide rule at Hanford.
Scientist Enrico Fermi was a superstar of nuclear physics. He was the genius who helped to build the first atomic pile in 1939, and who later oversaw the construction of the B Reactor outside of Richland, Washington.

On a recent tour of the reactor, we were shown Fermi’s office, which displays a 1944-model slide rule. Michele Gerber, the reactor’s historian, told us that “Fermi would have used a slide rule exactly like this” to calculate the stacking of the reactor’s graphite core, or the maximum amount of uranium that could be shoved into it without exploding. She cautioned that “it’s not his, but one like it,” but maybe she just has to say that.

B Reactor.
B Reactor.
A slide rule touched by Fermi — an extension of his brain — would be a powerful totem in the wrong hands. But whether or not this particular slide rule fits that description, its safety seems secure. Thieves would have a hard time escaping the reactor’s paramilitary patrols, or crossing the miles of desert that surround it without falling into a radioactive sludge pit or being killed by a rattlesnake.

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Souvenirs: The Terror of Tiny Towns

Cheap miniature metal buildings are a classic souvenir category. At one time they were made with actual metal — probably pewter — and often handily doubled  as banks or salt and pepper shakers. Today they are most likely cast from polyresin with a faux-bronze finish. But they still generally sell in a reasonable $5-10 price range, depending on size, complexity of detail, and how desperate the tacky tourist emporium you’re browsing in needs to improve its cash flow.

Miniature RotundaThe Building Collector blog (run by “Dave”) covers this wonderful world of Lilliputian landmarks — from miniature buildings on rings, to how to photograph your miniature collection. Oh sure, most people have a handful of common examples shunted off to the back of some shelf (an Eiffel Tower here…a Statue of Liberty there…) but if you read Dave’s blog you’ll quickly realize that there is another trend afoot: upscale, limited edition models that appeal to the serious collector.

InFocusTech offers a vast array of high-end examples, from popular, well-known tourist destinations like the Empire State Building (Ultra Limited, $250) to just about every obscure corporate tower attempting to dominate the skyline of a mid-sized American city. Miniature buildings.Is there really a big demand for Bank of America, Dallas? (Although I must admit that Pride of Bartlesville (in Oklahoma, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright) is rather cool.) And it’s nice to see that they offer an itty bitty version of the folk art filigree wonder that is the Watts Towers ($90).

Another niche in the field of petite production is fulfilled by Boym Partners. Their “Buildings of Disaster” series appeal to the lover of irony, black humor, and conversation-starting object accumulation. Beautifully designed and sure to give your guests the willies, the line-up includes Chernobyl, The Ford Theater, The Dakota Apartments, The Branch Davidian Compound, and the timeless and once-again-topical Neverland Ranch ($110).

Curioustown - UFO Assembly PlantFor a more cheerful take that appeals to the artier side of baby building multiples, check out “Curious Town.” These “building never built…until now” are designed by illustrator Bob Staake. The first offering is “UFO Plant #51″ of “Disk, Nevada” ($150).

So if you feel the need to lord it over a miniature world of your own making, this hobby is for you. Indulge your “Godzilla Complex” and start shopping! Gargantuan credit card bill to come. [Post by Anne D. Bernstein]

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