The Complete Guide To: The Monuments of America

The US is full of stunning landmarks deemed so important they have legal protection. David Orkin visits the sublime and the ridiculous, from Crazy Horse to the Volkswagen-eating troll


WHERE ARE AMERICA'S MONUMENTS?

WHERE ARE AMERICA'S MONUMENTS?

The word monument comes from the Latin monumentum, meaning "that which reminds". America may not have as many layers of history as Europe or Asia, but the country has (for example) a number of well-preserved dwellings dating from between the ninth and 13th centuries. Many other important monuments have been constructed since Columbus's visit, and a significant number have been designated as National Monuments under the Antiquities Act of 1906. The most celebrated are the Statue of Liberty (001 212 363 3200; www.nps.gov/stli/index.htm) and the 555ft neo-Egyptian Washington Monument (001 202 426 6841; www.nps.gov/wamo) in Washington DC, which is due to reopen soon after being closed for security enhancements. But there are many more, from Little Bighorn Battlefield in Montana (where Custer and his men fought the Sioux and Cheyenne) to natural wonders such as California's Lava Beds and Arizona's Sunset Crater.

HOW MANY NATIONAL MONUMENTS ARE THERE?

Seventy-seven at the last count, of which roughly half are man-made. Around a dozen are Pueblo dwellings built between the eighth and 13th centuries by Native American peoples such as the Anasazi, Hohokam and Sinagua. Four are fossil beds, two (Craters of the Moon in Idaho and Aniakchak in Alaska) are National Monuments and Preserves and eight are forts (of which Maryland's Fort McHenry is the one and only National Monument and Historic Shrine).

While most of the forts are Civil War-related, more recent history is not forgotten. In south central Idaho, work is under way on the Minidoka Internment National Monument (001 208 837 4793; www.nps.gov/miin), which aims to tell of the hardships endured by the Japanese-American population after the Pearl Harbor attack. On a more sombre note still, Pan Pacific Park in Los Angeles is home to the Holocaust Monument (001 310 204 2050; www.laholocaustmonument.com).

The US even has a river that is designated a National Monument: Hanford Reach in the Saddle Mountain National Wildlife Reserve (001 509 371 1801; www.hanfordreach.fws.gov), the only free-flowing non-tidal stretch of the Columbia river. In this beautiful, peaceful landscape lies a poignant contrast. In the area - although no longer in operation - are plutonium reactors: radioactive material from one was used in the bomb dropped on Nagasaki in August 1945 that killed 150,000.

There are also close to 600 sites designated as National Natural Landmarks (NNLs). One, in Kansas, is made up of a number of weathered and eroded chalk pillars, and is confusingly called Monument Rocks ( www.naturalkansas.org/monument.htm). Each state can also designate its own mementoes; official State Monuments include Diamond Head (001 808 587 0300; www.hawaii.gov/dlnr/dsp/oahu.html) at the end of Waikiki Beach on Oahu, Hawaii, and Hearst Castle (001 805 927 2020; www.hearstcastle.com) in California.

ANY MONUMENTS TO MAN?

Three National Monuments (NMs) commemorate individuals, all of whom were called Washington. There's the birthplace of the first President of the United States, George Washington, 40 miles from Fredericksburg, Virginia; the Booker T Washington NM in Hardy, Virginia, which commemorates the founder of Alabama's Tuskegee Institute; and a tribute to a great scientist and humanitarian who almost single-handedly revolutionised Southern agriculture, the George Washington Carver NM near Diamond, Missouri.

The original Washington Monument (001 301 791 4767; www.dnr.state.md.us/publiclands/western/washington.html) is close to Boonsboro on the Maryland-West Virginia border. This 35ft-tall bottle-shaped stone construction was completed in 1827 and is the earliest monument to commemorate the first US president.

The most awe-inspiring man-made monument is probably the Crazy Horse Memorial (001 605 673 4681; www.crazyhorse.org) in South Dakota's Black Hills. It's close to the far more famous Mount Rushmore - the huge sculpture of presidents Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln and Roosevelt - but is much bigger. When completed, the memorial to the great Lakota warrior and leader will be 641ft long by 563ft high. So far the head is complete, and is 87ft 6in high. The horse's head, currently the focus of work on the mountain, is 219ft high - the same as a 22-storey building.

This is a massive work in progress. It was started in 1948, but because of uncertainties with the weather, finances and the challenges of the mountain engineering, there is no way to predict its completion date. Even now, though it is well worth seeing, and your visit may correspond with a blast.

I WANT TO KEEP MY FEET ON THE GROUND

Then walk along Monument Avenue in Richmond, Virginia, the only street in the US designated a National Historic Landmark. It was named for the several splendid statues along its length: subjects include Civil War legends Robert E Lee, Jefferson Davis and "Stonewall" Jackson - and the tennis great Arthur Ashe.

You don't have to have been a president, or to have won Wimbledon, to have your own monument: lesser mortals are also popular subjects. The Peg Leg Smith Monument at Borrego Springs in California celebrates a renowned early 19th-century liar, while the Mother Featherlegs Monument is probably the only one in the US to remember a lady of ill-repute, who was murdered in 1879 by one "Dangerous Dick Davis the Terrapin". Drive down a rutted road near Lusk, Wyoming, and you'll find a slab of granite bearing her story.

Inanimate objects also get recognition. Eartha is 41ft in diameter and is listed in the Guinness Book of Records as the world's largest revolving globe. It is housed in the three-storey atrium of the DeLorme company's headquarters in Yarmouth, Maine (001 800 642 0970; www.delorme.com/companyinfo/eartha.htm). You can visit (and pop in to the company's map shop) daily 9.30am-6pm.

The invention of barbed wire, which meant that cattle could be penned effectively, and thus marked the beginning of the end of the cowboy era, is commemorated by the Tribute to Barbed Wire Monument outside the Devil's Rope Museum in McLean, Texas. Another inanimate, and iconic, monument is San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge, which opened to traffic in May 1937.

Death - or at least the first major battle of the American Revolution - is the raison d'être for Boston's Bunker Hill Monument, a 221ft-high granite obelisk. There are 294 steps to climb but the view is worth it. The monument is part of the Boston National Historical Park (001 617 242 5642; www.nps.gov/bost), open daily 9am-5pm. Two Massachusetts monuments commemorate European settlement of the country - the 81ft tall, solid granite National Monument to the Forefathers, erected in 1889 on Monument Hill in Plymouth, and the Pilgrim Monument (001 508 487 1310; www.pilgrim-monument.org) in Provincetown. The latter is a 252ft-tall tower that offers spectacular views over the Cape Cod peninsula and is open daily (except Thanksgiving) from 9am-4.15pm (to 6.15pm in July and August), admission $7 (£4).

The Four Corners Monument (001 928 871 6647; www.navajonationparks.org) is the only place in the US where you can be in four states - Utah, Colorado, New Mexico and Arizona - at the same time. A big cross on the cement, granite and brass podium defines the state lines.

YOUR PERSONAL BEST?

This, of course, depends on your interests. For me, when looking at man's creations, the more offbeat, the better. Enterprise, Alabama, is where you'll find the curious Boll Weevil Monument, which consists of a Greek goddess holding up a large platter bearing a boll weevil. First dedicated in 1919, the idea was to create a monument honouring the insects that devastated cotton crops and forced local farmers to diversify. The monument you can see now is relatively new - after repeated acts of vandalism by bored Enterprise youths, the original statue was put in the local museum and a copy replaced it. Look under the Aurora Avenue Bridge in Seattle's bohemian Fremont neighbourhood and you can see a huge Volkswagen-eating troll.

In terms of natural sites, for fantastic desert scenery and an abundance of cacti head to Arizona and the Organ Pipe Cactus NM (001 520 387 6849; www.nps.gov/orpi). Also in southern Arizona there's fantastic hiking among the bizarre rock formations of Chiricahua NM (001 520 824 3560; www.nps.gov/chir). At White Sands (001 505 679 2599; www.nps.gov/whsa) near Alamagordo, New Mexico, you'll find immense dunes of brilliant white powdery gypsum (don't be put off by the nearby missile-testing range). And up in Oregon, the Painted Hills Unit of the John Day Fossil Beds NM (001 541 462 3961; www.nps.gov/joda) is spectacular.

But my top choice is a wonderful, iconic symbol of the American West. You've seen it in loads of films, but I can guarantee that the approach along US163 to Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park (001 928 871 6647; www.navajonationparks.org/monumentvalley.htm) will not disappoint.

There are majestic views from the visitor centre but it is possible to get down among the mesas and buttes that can be up to 1,000ft high. Seventeen-mile Valley Drive may be too rough or sandy for your vehicle, in which case you'll have to take a 4x4 tour with a Navajo guide. Outside the heat of the day, a horse ride through the valley is hard to beat.

GETTING THERE AND AROUND

As you'll have realised, America's monuments are dotted about the country and unless you have unlimited time to spend criss-crossing the States, you're not going to see them all in one trip. Adventure travel specialist Trek America (0870 444 8735; www.trekamerica.co.uk) is developing a coast-to-coast tour that will take in many of the more offbeat monuments, but this won't be operating until 2006. So I'd suggest you focus on a particular area. For example, for both nature and Pueblo ruins, it's hard to beat the Four Corners area of south-east Utah, south-west Colorado, north-east Arizona and north-west New Mexico.

WHERE I CAN GET MORE INFORMATION?

Try the National Parks Service ( www.nps.gov); BLM National Monuments ( www.blm.gov/nlcs/monuments) or National Natural Landmarks ( www.nature.nps.gov/nnl). The Bradt guide book Eccentric America by Jan Friedman includes details of many wacky monuments, while the website www.roadsideamerica.com aptly bills itself as the "online guide to offbeat tourist attractions".

Monumental, a documentary about the late David Brower, one of America's strongest environmentalists, premiered in 2004. Brower fought passionately to save and preserve many of the country's natural treasures.

LONDON BRIDGE GOES WEST

In 1962, London Bridge was falling down. Built in 1831, the bridge couldn't handle the ever-increasing flow of traffic across the Thames, and, like Venice, was slowly sinking. The City of London decided to put the 130-year-old bridge up for auction, and build a new one in its place. Robert McCulloch, founder of Lake Havasu City in Arizona and the chairman of the McCulloch Oil Corporation, submitted the winning bid of $2.46m. McCulloch spent another $7m dismantling the bridge, cataloguing the pieces and moving them to their new home via Long Beach in California - a process that saw them travel more than 10,000 in three years. The reconstruction began on 23 September 1968, with a ceremony attended by the Lord Mayor of London, who laid the cornerstone.

Legend has it that as the (re)construction neared completion, McCulloch became furious as there seemed to be some towers and other bits missing. It is said that the oil baron thought he was buying instantly recognisable Tower Bridge, rather than the less spectacular London Bridge.

On 10 October 1971, London Bridge, Lake Havasu City, Arizona (001 928 453 3444; www.golakehavasu.com) was dedicated. Visit today and you'll find fish and chip shops and a red double-decker Routemaster bus (used as an ice-cream shop) nearby.

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