originally published April 17, 2014
Despite my wife’s overwhelming disinterest, one of my dream vacations involves combing the secondary highways of North America and tracking down the most boisterously benign roadside attractions the western world has to offer. I think it’s fantastic when a small town builds a UFO landing site, a massive ball of twine or the world’s largest collection of business convention name tags. It’s like the town can say, “Here – we offer the world this. Nothing else but this.”
I imagine there’s an inherent pride in curating one of these roadside spectacles. You might print out the tiny two-paragraph page on some obscure website like Weird-Iowa.net, then boast to passers-by about the dozens of hits your page has received, proving that the world is truly ready to embrace the magic of the two-headed squirrel corpse you found beside the highway and subsequently placed behind glass in an accurate Civil War-era Confederate uniform replica.
Some towns have pushed a little harder for their morsel of fame – never quite achieving the cosmopolitan status of a two-theatre town but still achieving enough notoriety to merit a two-minute segment on some show on the Travel Channel. For some, this is the pinnacle of their fifteen flickering minutes, and that suits them just fine.
I’ll start with a town I couldn’t possibly visit because it only existed for a very short time, and only for the purposes of one explosion. William George Crush, a passenger agent for the Missouri-Kentucky-Texas Railroad (also known as the Katy to you blues fans), thought it would be a great idea to stage a head-on train collision. Just for fun.
About three miles south of West, Texas (located conveniently in the eastern half of the state), Crush set up a “town”, complete with grandstands and gigantic circus tents on loan from the Ringling Brothers. A separate track was built, and discount fares were offered to potential spectators who might want to drop by and witness this free event. Roughly 40,000 showed up, making “Crush, Texas” the second-largest city in the state that day.
The crash happened at 5:00pm on the afternoon of September 15, 1896. Both locomotives were pulling cars that were stacked with railroad ties, just for some added drama. It was to be a moment history would never forget, the first big-budget action flick, but performed as live theatre. There was just one technicality that William George Crush neglected to take into account.
The explosion. No one had considered what might happen if the trains’ boilers were to explode. Debris flew into the air, some of it as large as half a drive wheel. The event’s photographer (who probably took the two pics above) lost an eye from a wayward bolt. Several were injured and two or three were killed. This is probably why we don’t see a lot of publically staged disasters anymore. Crush was fired from the railroad, but hired again the next day, perhaps because there’s no such thing as bad publicity.
Oak Ridge, Tennessee began its existence as a humble farming community. Then in October 1942 the US Army Corps of Engineers started grabbing the land. It was war-time, and these sorts of land acquisitions were legal – even if it meant residents would come home to find eviction notices on their doors. The city of Oak Ridge sprung up quickly, expanding from 3000 residents in 1942 to 75,000 by 1945. The city was built for one purpose: The Manhattan Project.
This was where uranium-235 was separated from natural uranium. This was where that uranium-235 was enriched by liquid thermal diffusion. The workers had no idea what they were contributing to until August 6, 1945, when the first atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan. From then on, Oak Ridge has been actively involved in nuclear and technological research, and it remains a key asset of America’s national security.
Yes, there are tours, but apparently they fill up fast. This would make for a curiously dark destination.
One doesn’t go to Metropolis, Illinois in hopes of actually seeing Superman (unless a statue counts, which, if you’re driving across the country it really shouldn’t). But in 1972 DC Comics proclaimed the town – which was founded with this name in 1839 – as Superman’s hometown. Well, technically his hometown was on Krypton, but who am I to argue with a corporation like DC?
The town holds an annual Superman Celebration every June, and I suppose for a fan with a deep connection to the superhero, this would be worth a visit. You just have to forget that Superman’s Metropolis is clearly a New York-size city, and that the guy grew up in a place called Smallville. But if you’re a comic book fan, you won’t find an actual “Gotham City” in the United States so this might have to do.
If you’re as much a fan of the purposefully weird as I am, you’ll want to add Gibsonton, Florida to your itinerary. Gibsonton was the winter getaway for the Ringling Brothers’ troupe of carnies and circus sideshow performers. Al Tomaini, the world’s tallest man parked himself there, as did Percilla the Monkey Girl and of course Grady Stiles, a.k.a. Lobster Boy. Lobster Boy, who suffered from ectrodactyly, meaning his fingers and toes were fused together to form claw-like configurations, was convicted of murdering his daughter’s fiancé on the eve of their wedding in 1978. No prison was set up to handle Grady’s physical requirements though, and he was sentenced instead to 15 years’ probation. That’s just an example of the bizarre lore you’ll hear in Gibsonton.
You’ll hear tell of the Siamese twins who used to run the local fruit stand, or the post office with a special counter just for dwarves. The largest carnival industry trade show still happens in Gibsonton, and apparently the local museum has a feast of strangeness for tourists to behold. Forget Disneyworld – Gibsonton is the Florida attraction you should get lost in.
There’s really nothing quite like the charm and quaint appeal of a small English town. If for some reason you find yourself booked to travel to China instead of Europe, you needn’t worry about foregoing the real British experience. About 20 miles outside of Shanghai you can find yourself lost in the majestic splendor of Thames Town, a cobblestone-laden stretch of Tudor architecture, Victorian terraces, ale-slinging pubs and fish & chips shops.
This was partly a tourist ploy, and partly a novelty for the wealthy. In fact, most of the properties were snatched up by rich folk who were looking for a second home, meaning the permanent residency in Thames Town is astoundingly low, leading to a crappy economy and almost no community facilities. Still, if this particular brand of weirdness appeals to you, China has you covered. Another similar town is being planned near Beijing.
This is what I’m saying – if we hop in our cars and head out to support the world’s weirdness, that weirdness will propagate. It’s the least we can do.