Road trip news, rants, and ruminations by the Editors of RoadsideAmerica.com
February 7, 2018
They’re called “Scenic Viewers” by some. The man who runs the company that builds the devices calls them “Binocular Viewing Machines.” They don’t have an official name, but they’re instantly recognizable to anyone who’s been on a scenic road trip.
Their design is as distinctive as the Coke bottle, and the oval shape of their face plate is eerily similar to the head of the Flatwoods Monster.
The Viewers were invented by the Tower Optical Company, which began placing them at tourist attractions in 1933. Made of bronze and cast iron, weighing over 300 pounds each, they’re built to survive extreme weather and clambering kids with a minimum of maintenance. They have no electronics, because many of their locations have no power.
We spoke with Greg Rising, who runs Tower Optical, started by his great-grandfather. He told us that well over 2,000 of the Viewers are scattered across the U.S., usually in places with a long vistas that make people want to peer at things far away, such as the rim of the Grand Canyon or the observation deck of the Empire State Building.
“We’ve kept changes to a minimum,” Greg said, with the oldest and newest Viewers virtually indistinguishable from each other. The only way to date a machine is to look at the serial number stamped into its face; the lower the number, the older the Viewer. “I have machines in the very low numbers still in service,” Greg said, “built in the 1930s.” Most of the oldest machines are in the company’s home state of Connecticut, he said, but machines get moved, some get lost, and the only way to know for sure is to check the number.
We asked Greg if the Tower Optical Company gave factory tours. He laughed. The answer was No, and the idea that his Viewers might now be considered attractions themselves hadn’t occurred to him, although he said he had occasionally received queries from people wanting to know the location of a nearby Viewer, so they could take a picture of it.
“I know where most of them are,” he said. “We have a big map.”
December 13, 2017
He was once revered as a martyred President, assassinated in his second term. But modern William McKinley fandom is in short supply. Critics condemn him as an imperialist who imposed Yankee colonial rule on thousands of islands, viciously put down Filipino insurrectionists, and annexed Hawaii.
2017’s Confederate statue controversy ignited in the South and then spread to every other statue loathed by a group with a gripe. It was no surprise Arcata Plaza’s McKinley was back in history’s crosshairs. McKinley haters rise up every few years, and now the national moral momentum threatens to topple him like a deposed dictator.
In late 2017, the city council heard from citizens urging for the statue to be removed, relocated, melted down, hauled to nearby McKinleyville, or shipped to McKinley’s birthplace in Ohio. The least disruptive suggestion was to add a contextual plaque listing his crimes. One public speaker claimed he was Leon Czolgosz (McKinley’s 1901 assassin) and suggested a plaque noting McK was the “Only President Killed By An Anarchist.”
(oddly appealing, that idea)
We stopped in at Arcata Plaza on a December Saturday morning, and McKinley was surrounded… by the weekly organic Farmer’s Market, and the home-free populace.
As usual, we were the only ones gazing up at the bronze of President McKinley. The statue has a history of ad hoc decoration and occasional defacement, a blank canvas for protest. The current Christmas wreaths around his pedestal seem non-controversial — except perhaps as symbols of the discredited imperialist holiday. Then we noticed an evergreen wreath tightly wringing McK’s neck, an itchy collar of shame for his nation-building misdeeds.
A tear stain falls from one McKinley eye; either bird poop or some anger-flung organic produce rotting in the sun. McKinley knows this might be his last Christmas celebrating with the people of Arcata.
And McKinley isn’t alone as an outcast: another controversial landmark in Arcata Plaza is being assessed for change, move or disposal — a plaque about local history that casually mentions “Indian troubles.” The city council may decide the fate of both monuments in February 2018.
See also: A Mountain of McKinley Sights
October 26, 2017
Set the dial on your time machine for 2014, and along America’s highways you’d find ziplines sprouting like “Hey, let’s make something exciting AND interactive!” weeds. As with any tourism trend, most ziplines are ultimately unmemorable, while a few achieved Roadside America status for their sheer excess or their oddball themes.
Today, the hot attraction is competitive ax-throwing. We visited and reviewed an example of this new breed in New Jersey in May, and since then over a dozen more have thunked their way into cities from Atlanta to Chicago to San Francisco. Las Vegas now offers two ax-throwing attractions, built by competing franchises. Visitors can even throw an ax on Route 66, at the Uranus Fudge Factory, whose owner told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch that he saw an ax attraction in Philadelphia, copied it, and then borrowed the name from one in Las Vegas (Axe Hole).
Ax-throwing offers a more nuanced approach to ultimate justice than another recent attraction trend, machine gun ranges. The only people who usually get axes thrown into them — at least in the virtual world — are zombies or henchmen of the Chinese mob — so there’s virtue as well as entertainment in mastering the ax hurl. We’ll keep an eye on this trend, as we do all others, and note that while there can always be too much of a good thing, who knows, maybe someone will figure out how to offer ax throwing while riding ziplines.
And remember, ax-chopping attractions are something else entirely.
May 14, 2017
Memphis was the capital of Ancient Egypt, but it didn’t have giant pyramids (Egypt’s famous pyramids were miles away in Giza).
That didn’t stop a Memphis, Tennessee, artist named Mark Hartz from sketching up plans to build three big pyramids overlooking the Mississippi River. Nothing came of it. But 30 years later Hartz’s son resurrected the idea as a single pyramid, 32 stories tall, and Sidney Shlenker was brought in to make it real.
Shlenker was a successful wheeler-dealer best known for staging the Battle of the Sexes between Bobby Riggs and Billie Jean King. He promised a lot. “The Great American Pyramid,” as he called it, would be home to an NBA franchise. It would have a Grammy Museum, a Hard Rock Cafe, the College Football Hall of Fame, a Secrets of the Pyramids Expo, and an amusement park named “Rakapolis.” It would have laser light shows and an incline elevator to take tourists up its outer edge to its pointy peak.
None of those promises were kept. By the time the Pyramid opened on November 9, 1991, Shlenker had skipped town, leaving a pyramid-high pile of unpaid bills. On opening night a water pipe burst in a bathroom and flooded the pyramid floor.
America has a history of cursed pyramids, but none as melodramatically hexed as the one in Memphis. Hot on the trail of American pyramids, cursed or otherwise, we’d visited the construction site in July 1991, scant months before it opened. Here’s some video as we were escorted inside by a city representative.
Even in size, The Great American Pyramid failed to live up to its greatness. Less than two years after its Memphis opening, the rival Luxor Pyramid opened in Las Vegas, 18 feet taller. Memphis residents no longer called it The Great American Pyramid. They called it The Tomb of Doom.
Shlenker’s career spiraled downward; he died in 2003. The long-promised NBA franchise finally came to the Pyramid in 2001 – then left in 2004. The Pyramid lingered on, hosting an occasional tractor pull, wrestling match, or concert, but even those stopped in 2007. The Pyramid then stood empty for years. Its giant statue of Ramesses II was hauled away.
The Memphis Pyramid, like its Egyptian predecessors, seemed fated to survive only as a spectacular ruin — until a magical Mississippi River catfish finally lifted the curse.
March 17, 2017
Prince Edward Island in Canada is known as “the cradle of Confederation.” it’s a pastoral place that has only 0.1 percent of Canada’s land but produces 25 percent of its potatoes.
So it was shocking news when Canada’s National Observer reported several examples of Prince Edward Island simply being left off of Canada’s maps: on t-shirts, on a big wall display in Vancouver International Airport, and even on a feature map in the Canadian Automobile Association’s magazine.
It was all extra-embarrassing for Canada because 2017 is the country’s 150th birthday and is expected to be a big year for tourism.
Admittedly, Prince Edward Island has never been #1 on the travel go-to lists of most Americans. But it is part of America, and it is one of Canada’s only 13 provinces and territories.
And despite being impossible to find on some maps, Prince Edward Island is a bona-fide travel destination, with a number of Roadside-worthy attractions, such as its outsider art Bottle Houses, a 21-foot-tall Optimus Prime, a full-size replica Space Shuttle, and, of course, the Canadian Potato Museum.
The National Observer story concludes that most Prince Edward Islanders are proud of their overlooked province, and quotes one, the woman who discovered the t-shirts, saying, “Maybe we shouldn’t tell anybody, or they’ll all show up.”
Sections: Attraction News
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March 6, 2017
For decades New Jersey was used and abused as a landfill by its urban neighbors, dotted with smelly, heaping, seagull-infested mini-mountains packed with everything from New York City’s garbage to Philadelphia’s dead mobsters.
Now tourists in The Garden State will be able to experience for themselves what it’s like to be trash.
Named “The Greased Beast,” according to its press release, it’s a first-of-its-kind thrill ride built into a giant dump truck by Diggerland, “America’s first and only construction-themed adventure park,” in West Berlin, New Jersey.
Down-and-dirty thrill seekers, the release explains, will be strapped into seats bolted into the dump bed of the giant truck, which was originally built to haul bulky waste from construction sites. The truck’s hydraulic piston will then slowly raise the dump bed higher and higher, finally reaching a steep angle over 30 feet in the air, and then, “the machine’s tail gate opens and vibration activates; giving the riders a simulated experience of being a dump truck’s payload.”
Or, as a promotional video for The Greased Beast promises, “You’re getting dumped just like the 80,000 pounds of raw material this beast was designed to haul!”
Plans are for The Greased Beast to dump its first human payload on March 25.
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