Obscure U.S. Cities Every History Buff Should Visit
Some cities are notorious for incidents that happened there, or happen to be a hotbed for a certain historic trend. Here are six unexpected places that nonetheless played a key role in the growth of the country, and which make great trips for history hounds. From westward expansion to civil rights to early oil money’s influence on architecture in out-of-the-way pockets of America, these havens of history happen to be full of Americana.
Many are familiar with the fact that the expedition of Lewis and Clark, officially known as the Corps of Discovery, began in St. Louis and headed west. Tasked by President Thomas Jefferson with mapping the western territory all the way to the Pacific Ocean, this is where Lewis and Clark ended up. Near the mouth of the Columbia River, the corp’s Fort Clatsop, which got them through their second winter before turning back east, is nearby today’s Astoria, Oregon. The Lewis and Clark National and State Historical Parks, including a re-creation of the small fort, chronicles and commemorates the important exploration mission. Meanwhile, Astoria has some history of its own, highlighted at the Astoria Column, a towering hilltop monument with murals depicting area history and panoramic views. The Columbia River Maritime Museum showcases fishing, shipping and military history in a waterfront building. Set in a Queen Anne–style Victorian mansion, Flavel House Museum features period furniture amidst impeccably manicured gardens.
Fans of both Native American and Hollywood history need to check out Durango. The area’s ancestral Puebloans, or Anasazi, initially settled the area, but vanished from the Four Corners region around 1300. Today, Mesa Verde National Park, established as a national park in 1906, features thousands of archaeological sites and ancient Anasazi cliff dwellings. As the closest modern town, Durango serves as sort of an unofficial jumping off point for area tourism, and it has some western history of its own — both real and cinematic. The small Colorado city is known for the 19th-century Durango and Silverton Narrow Gauge Railroad. The steam train hugs mountainsides and rolls through canyons today as a tourist attraction, but it originally hauled gold and silver ore that helped build the city and the nation. The Railroad Museum in town displays restored locomotives. Several popular Hollywood hits were made in Durango, including Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, City Slickers and How the West Was Won.
When the only bank in tiny Tenino, Washington, closed during the Great Depression, Don Major, the publisher of the county newspaper, went to the city council with an idea: issue the townspeople a temporary scrip in order to facilitate transactions in the community. A lot of cities and towns across the U.S. ended up employing similar concepts, but Major’s faux money — thin spruce strips laminated on either side of a piece of paper — became popular collector’s items outside the town. The Tenino Chamber of Commerce is said to have issued more than $10,000 worth of the thin, wooden money over the next several years as requests from collectors came in. The refurbished original Chandler Price printing press still runs once a year to make souvenirs for the city’s annual Oregon Trail Days celebration, which this year takes place from July 26 to 28.
Architecture history enthusiasts must explore Bartlesville and neighboring Tulsa, Oklahoma. It may be somewhat unexpected here, but the area contains some of the best-maintained examples of mid-century and Art Deco architecture and design in the country, including homes and buildings by Frank Lloyd Wright. In fact, Wright’s only cantilevered skyscraper is in Bartlesville, which is also home to the Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired Bartlesville Community Center, as well as multiple Bruce Goff houses and his Redeemer Lutheran Church Education Building. If you plan a June trip here, you can take in the city’s classical OK Music Festival. In Tulsa, check out the central Deco District, where landmarks like the Philcade and Philtower buildings exemplify the style — and Tulsa’s oil-baron building boom. More culture and local history await at Philbrook Museum of Art — housed in an Italianate villa, former home of a local oil magnate — and Gilcrease Museum. For visit details, a great resource is Travelok.com. Additionally, the Tulsa Historical Society provides downtown walking tours the last Friday of each month.
Dodge City, Kansas
For western history hounds on the trail of the old West and vestiges of cowboy culture, the epicenter is Dodge City. The southwest Kansas town, founded in 1872, in its wild-west heydey, was known to harbor a rough-and-tumble clientele of cattle-driving cowboys and legendary lawmen. Things are toned down today, but shootout reenactments and rodeos are vibrant parts of the community that remain proud of their roots. Dodge City’s frontier history is recognized and celebrated at the Boot Hill Museum. Elsewhere in town, the Gunfighters Wax Museum features life-size sculptures of legendary and notorious old-west figures, among them Wyatt Earp and Sitting Bull. The Mueller-Schmidt House Home of Stone Museum retains its original 1880s furnishings, which occupy the parlor, kitchen and bedrooms on view during tours June through August.
As the setting of two hugely important events in U.S. history, you simply can’t ignore the importance of Montgomery as a link to the past. It was here that Jefferson Davis took the oath to become the first and only president of the Confederacy. Ironically, it is also where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat at the back of a bus in 1955. That history is on display in Alabama’s capital, in the form of the Civil Rights Memorial fashioned from gleaming black granite. The monument is on view adjacent to the exhibition center, which further details the commemoration of the Civil Rights movement. Other important nearby sites in town include the Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, a hub for the bus boycott where Martin Luther King, Jr., preached. Displays of fine porcelain American and African art are housed at the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, located east of downtown.