I got the idea for this post from reading 50 Great American Places: Essential Historic Sites Across the U.S by Brent D. Glass. I heard about this book in a 2016 NPR interview with the author and David McCullough (a history author I thoroughly enjoy) who happened to have written the Foreword to the Glass book. When the Kindle version went on sale for 50% off in 2017, it immediately moved to the top of my wish list and so purchased it.
If you have not heard of this book, it is a collection of fairly short essays (total book length 294 pages) along with color photos of the 50 places that Glass selected. Each essay gives a brief history of the location and highlights why it is significant to America. If you are wondering what qualifies Glass for authoring such a compilation, he is Director Emeritus at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.
In an author’s note at the beginning of the book, Glass admits that some of the essays cover more than one place and so the total is actually more than fifty. But he theorizes that most readers would agree that there are more than fifty great places in the U.S and Glass encourages readers to add some of their own to his list. In many of the essays, Glass also includes, but not necessarily discusses other significant sites worth visiting while in that locale.
I enjoyed the brief but thorough discussion of each place. As I read each chapter, I began to keep count of how many sites I had actually been to already. At one point, I was well over 50% but ended up having only visited 34%.
For many of the sites selected, I would have to agree they were worthy of being included. The Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, Fort Sumter in Charleston, the Alamo in San Antonio, and the Arizona Memorial in Hawaii all played a significant role in our fight for freedom and democracy (all of which except for the last I have visited).
Representing U.S. technological achievements, the Golden Gate Bridge, the St. Louis Arch, the Brooklyn Bridge, Thomas Edison’s laboratory, the Saturn V Rocket (in Huntsville, AL) and the Hoover Dam are all fine examples of engineering and scientific ingenuity that I have too personally witnessed.
Sadly our American history also includes stories less of excellence but more of civil rights persecution. Sites such as Central High School in Little Rock, AR, Indian War sites in Montana and South Dakota, and Minidoka Camp, one of the Japanese internment sites in Idaho represent a darker and less honorable side of our history.
Occasionally I would read about a place and wonder why that particular site was selected. For example, of all the historical events that have occurred in our past, what made the Salem Witch trials worthy of making the top 50 list? Also, some of the sites, I had never heard of before but I can only assume that to a scholarly historian, these stories help weave the fabric of our collective history.
Interestingly, the book opens with the National Mall in Washington, DC and closes with the Mall of America in Minnesota, two vastly different types of malls but both uniquely American.
Not that I would necessarily suggest this should be a bucket list of sites to see before you die. But I must admit it did give me some ideas for some fun road trips now that I am retired. It even got me to ponder what would a book of 50 Great Places in the world look like.
While I cannot profess to be an historical scholar, reading each essay did get me to think about what places I would have selected. The car lover in me was delighted to see that automotive sites were included, the enormous River Rouge Ford plant in Dearborn, MI and the famous Route 66 from Chicago to Los Angeles both represent the industry that mass produced the car and the highway that got people in that car and on the road to see the USA. But what of the Blue Ridge Parkway, the country’s longest linear national park, a wonderful drive from which beautiful mountain vistas are too numerous to count?
I was also pleased to see that the Biltmore House in Asheville, NC made the list representing the largest private residence in the country.
But Asheville, an area I have been to many times over my lifetime, got me to thinking about another site close by, certainly not one of historical significance to the U.S. but one of personal significance to me as well as anyone else who grew up as a Presbyterian. I have written multiple times before that Montreat, NC is my favorite place on Earth.
It’s where my family vacationed each summer when my dad, a Presbyterian minister, would attend a weeklong conference. Growing up, we lived in a number of different states and cities but the one constant no matter where we lived was to get to spend a glorious week in Montreat, exploring the serene mountainous environment.
So if I ever decide to write my own 50 Great Places in the U.S., you already know what will be number one in my book. I would also certainly include many of the ones that Brent Glass included in his book while adding some others I have experienced previously.
How about you, do you have a great place you would want to include on your list? There is certainly a lot to explore in this massive country of ours. Maybe it’s time to get out and acquaint yourself with some of those.