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Queen of the Air

Queen of the Air

The Wright Brothers were long codified as achieving the first powered flight, in 1903. Maybe. Other flying machines claim to have flown earlier, and the “Queen of the Air” may be the earliest. It’s clearly the most improbable. It has no wings or propellers, and looks like a cross between a diving bell and a gas chamber.

It was built in 1860 by Ohio inventor Daniel McFarland Cook, who announced in a widely-printed newspaper letter that he would fly the Queen on a round-trip between Ohio and San Francisco in the span of 12 hours — in an era when such a trip, even by Pony Express, would have taken weeks.

Queen of the Air resembles the projectile-capsule in Jules Verne’s From the Earth to the Moon, but Cook unveiled it five years before Verne’s book was published. Built of quarter-inch-thick riveted steel, its bullet shape was not meant to be fired from a cannon, but propelled by an “electric engine” of Cook’s design. He promised that it would “navigate the air at will with an inconceivable velocity.”

Queen of the Air

Cook’s subsequent silence is taken as proof that his trip was a flop, but just because nothing was said publicly doesn’t mean that the flight didn’t happen. Maybe Cook simply decided, with the Civil War brewing, that the world wasn’t a safe place for his invention.

Queen of the Air, unlike the flimsy contraptions of other early aeronauts, was built to last. After Cook’s death the airship was repurposed by less-visionary Ohio farmers into a chicken coop, a corn crib, and a smokehouse. Local historian Timothy Brian McKee tracked it down in the woods outside Mansfield in 2017, and donated it to the North Central Ohio Industrial Museum.

We spoke with museum president Jerry Miller, who said that Queen of the Air will be on display when the museum opens to the public later this year. “Mansfield is a really cool old industrial town,” Jerry said (We know! It’s the home of Elektro the Robot, among other marvels). Queen of the Air is currently in the shop having rusting parts stabilized, and when finished, said Jerry, visitors will be able to sit inside and gaze out the portholes much as Daniel McFarland Cook must have done.

No flights are expected, unless someone can track down Cook’s mysterious motor.

Sections: Coming Soon
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Binocular Viewers: The Better To See You With

Binocular Viewing Machines.

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.

Binocular Viewing Machine.

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.

Binocular Viewing Machines.

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.”

Sections: Road Trips, Trends
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William McKinley: Imperialist In The Crosshairs

Holiday humiliation for William McKinley.

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.

Arcata Plaza.

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.

Indian Troubles on the Jacoby historical marker.

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.

Update: As of May 2018, the statue was still in place. The town council voted for its removal in February. Subsequent public meetings and an environmental study (since it is designated as a “historic feature of the Plaza”) are underway to determine the details. It seems almost certain to be removed later in 2018; alternative locations are under consideration.

See also: A Mountain of McKinley Sights

Sections: Rants, Statues

Ax Marks The Spot

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.

Sections: Trends
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Origins of a Cursed Pyramid

1991 view of the Pyramid

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.

1991 interior view of the Pyramid

Sections: Rants, Video
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Prince Edward Island Vanishes From Canada’s Maps

Potato Museum.

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.

Optimus Prime.

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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