The National Park Service administers more than 2,500 National Historic Landmarks, protecting America’s cultural and historic heritage. You’ve probably visited a few of these sites; landmarks such as the Alamo in Texas and the Gateway Arch in St. Louis draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. Many of these landmarks are very obscure, while others are just plain unusual. Would you want to visit the first landfill in the U.S.? How about a cornfield? There’s no need to do that, when you can just read about them here.
10. Neutral Buoyancy Space Simulator
As NASA reached for the Moon in the 1960s, it became clear astronauts needed a place on Earth where they could experience the weightless environment of space. The result: the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator at the George C. Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. NASA used the enormous water tank (75 feet in diameter and 40 feet deep) for more than 30 years to train astronauts before decommissioning it in 1997. It’s one of several sites at the space center that have been designated National Historic Landmarks.
9. Morrow Plots
Basically, it’s a small cornfield. Yes, a field where corn is still grown today, almost 50 years after the site earned official landmark status. What’s so important about a cornfield? The University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign established the field in 1876 to test new methods to increase agricultural yields; it became the first such experimental field in the U.S., and only the second in the world.
8. Peavey-Haglin Experimental Concrete Grain Elevator
Here we have a simple grain elevator that never actually stored grain. Located in St. Louis Park, a suburb of Minneapolis, a grain company built the 125-foot tall structure around 1900 to see if such a concrete structure would be feasible. Prior to that, all grain elevators had been made of wood, which had obvious drawbacks (fire, rot, etc.).
7. American Legation
Of the 2,500-plus National Historic Landmarks, only one is located in a foreign country. In 1821, the sultan of Morocco presented this two-story building in Tangier to the United States as a gift. The first public building owned by the U.S. on foreign soil, the structure served for almost 140 years as the U.S. consulate in Morocco. Today the building hosts the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies.
6. Mayor Andrew Broaddus
While the U.S. Coast Guard is most associated with patrolling the border waters of the U.S., it also conducts search and rescue operations on internal waterways. The Mayor Andrew Broaddus, a 100-foot-long floating lifesaving station, began service in 1929 on the Ohio River near Louisville. It now houses offices and shops for the Belle of Louisville, the oldest operating steamboat in the U.S. and itself a National Historic Landmark.
5. Fresno Sanitary Landfill
Some historic landmarks draw hundreds of thousands of visitors each year. No one would set out specifically to visit this abandoned landfill; many local residents don’t even know it is a historic site. Yet the Fresno Sanitary Landfill in California is notable as the first sanitary landfill in the U.S., using trenching and compaction methods. It operated from 1937 until 1987. Here’s one more reason to steer clear: the 140-acre landfill has been designated as a contaminated Superfund site.
4. Variable Density Tunnel
This wind tunnel provided a revolutionary breakthrough in wind tunnel design when it began operation at Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., in 1922. Built by the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (the forerunner to NASA) the tunnel spurred many key advances in U.S. aviation until the mid-1940s, when it became obsolete. It might be an exaggeration to say this tunnel made possible the U.S. air superiority that helped win World War II. But it might not be. According to NASA, “The VDT yielded test results so superior to that obtained with any previous wind tunnel … that NACA became the acknowledged world leader in aeronautical research.”
3. Bingham Canyon Open Pit Copper Mine
This is the biggest manmade excavation in the world, a hole so wide (2.5 miles) and deep (3,000 feet) it’s visible from space. Workers began mining for copper ore here at this site near Salt Lake City in the mid-19th century, and large-scale mining began around 1900. Since then, the hole has continued to grow, with hundreds of workers at a time employed in the mining process. In addition to copper, miners extract gold, silver and other compounds. Better known as Kennecott Copper Mine to locals, it hasn’t all been smooth sailing at the mine; two enormous landslides occurred in 2013. While no injuries were reported, the slides hampered the mine’s productivity. A visitors center that opened there in 1992 has hosted more than 3 million visitors. The mine also has an impressive online tour of this massive hole in the Earth.
2. Iolani Palace
There are hundreds of homes listed as National Historic Landmarks, but only one royal palace. Yes, a real royal palace in America. Recall that a couple of royal dynasties reigned over Hawaii before it became first a U.S. territory and then a state. Iolani Palace in Honolulu served as the home of Hawaii’s royal family from 1845 until 1893, when the U.S. government overthrew the monarchy. The palace later served as the first state capitol of Hawaii, and is today a museum.
The building evokes bittersweet emotions among island natives. It’s in Iolani Palace that the U.S. imprisoned Queen Liliʻuokalani and later put her on trial. It’s here in 1898 that U.S. troops raised the American flag to announce the forced annexation of the islands. And it’s here that in 2008 native Hawaiians seized the building to protest that century-old annexation.
1. 1956 Grand Canyon Aviation Accident Site
On June 30, 1956, two commercial airliners collided over the Grand Canyon. All 128 passengers and crew aboard both planes were killed, making it the worst aviation disaster in U.S. history at the time. Although there were other midair collisions and near misses in that era, the Grand Canyon crash in particular prompted major safety changes in U.S. aviation. Airliners were soon required to carry black boxes and in 1957, President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the agency now known as the Federal Aviation Administration.
In 2014, almost 60 years after the incident, the government designated a site to commemorate the tragedy in Grand Canyon National Park. It’s worth noting that the National Historic Landmark site is nowhere near the area where the two aircraft impacted; the two crash sites are in a remote part of the canyon, and are not disclosed to the public.