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National Road Trip Day and History on US-27

ON THE ROAD IN 1962

Today Roadtrip-'62 ™ is celebrating National Road Trip Day, which falls on the Friday of Memorial Day weekend, or May 24th in 2020. The holiday was created by Pilot Flying J, the largest operator of travel centers in North America. The company was started by James A. "Jim" Haslam II in 1958 in Gate City, Virginia and now covers 44 states. Pilot Flying J has research to back up why National Road Trip Day is a great idea. They found the top reasons people take road trips are: it’s more affordable than any other forms of transportation, they have more control over the trip and plans, and they like being able to stop whenever they want along the way. I agree with all of that! They also found Americans' must-haves for a successful trip include having good snacks and drinks for the road, finding great places to eat on the way, and finding clean bathrooms to use while traveling. To that, I would add having good music, in our case, from 1962!

 

“Do You Wanna Dance”, 1962, by Cliff Richard and The Shadows

The Memorial Day weekend was selected for two reasons. First, it is kind of a traditional first day of the summer season, and second, the first coast-to-coast road trip in an automobile began on May 23, 1903, when Horatio Nelson Jackson and Sewall Crocker set off from San Francisco, California on a drive to New York City to settle a wager. They faced frequent breakdowns, waiting a week or more for parts to be sent by railroad or stagecoach, unmarked roads of rock and mud, and even a lack of gas stations, restaurants, campgrounds, and motels in most places. Still, they managed to make the trip in a 20-horsepower Winton touring car in 63½ days, winning the bet, but spending over $8000 dollars to do so. The publicity they created all along the way began the great American pastime of roadtripping and set the network of modern gas stations, restaurants, campgrounds, and motels on it way to developing.

For this virtual roadtrip, we’re heading south down US-27. This route began for many years along with US-23 and US-31 at the Michigan State Auto Ferry Dock in Mackinaw City, Michigan. When the I-75 freeway was opened across the Mackinac Bridge in 1961, US-27 was shortened by about 90 miles, back to Grayling, Michigan. That’s where we would have found the beginning in 1962. It then ran south 1660 miles to Miami, Florida. Today, it has been shortened even more on the north end, beginning in Fort Wayne, Indiana. The distance between Fort Wayne and Grayling is now covered by a combination of I-69 and US-127, and there is no longer any part of US-27 within Michigan. The south end is still in Miami.

 
Monarch white pine, Hartwick Pines State Park, Grayling, Michigan, ca. 1955 postcard
Monarch white pine tree, Hartwick Pines State Park, Grayling, Michigan (ca. 1955 postcard from an online auction)

So let’s begin in Grayling, where we could have in 1962. My favorite sightseeing in the area is at Hartwick Pines State Park, about 4 miles north of US-27. The low, rolling hills you see are sand and gravel, hundreds of feet deep, and were left behind by glaciers nearly 18,000 years ago. Many are long, thin hills of gravel known as moraines. These glacial moraines are excellent for growing pine trees, particularly the white pine, which formerly grew to majestic size. Hartwick Pines State Park holds one of the last remaining stands of these trees that were not cut down when this area was the heart of the logging industry, in the late 1800’s. The usual place to start a tour of the park is the Visitor Center, and we’ll play the typical tourist today. The Visitor Center has exhibits which tell the story of the forest, and of the lumbering days. The park began as just 85 acres of the old growth white pine, purchased in 1927 by Mrs. Karen Michelson Hartwick and donated to the State of Michigan. A Logging Museum was constructed in 1935 by the Civilian Conservation Corps, and we’ll visit that on one of the trails.

Just walking from your car to the Visitor Center places you in the proper state of mind to enjoy the forest. The center is a two-story building in a low area; you are parked on a hill and will enter on the second story. You walk across an aluminum-planked bridge between the two, as the hill drops away below you, and you are soon 20 feet up into the trees, looking down at their bases. It gives a new appreciation of how tall the trees are, to see them both above and below you; and these aren’t even the big ones yet! Just stand there a moment and enjoy the feeling of tree climbing without the work. You can easily spend over half an hour at the center, if you care to learn from the exhibits. And, be sure to allow additional time to watch the birds and squirrels at the huge feeding area at the rear. Depending on the time of year and time of day, you may see any of a dozen different birds, including the bright yellow, white and black Evening Grosbeak or the upside-down-feeding Nuthatch. The squirrels may be black, smaller red ground squirrels, or the even smaller chipmunks.

 
Trail through the Trees, Hartwick Pines State Park, Grayling, Michigan
Trail through the Trees, Hartwick Pines State Park, Grayling, Michigan

Then grab a brochure and wander down the Old Growth Forest Trail. It’s a beautiful woods any time of year: noisy with birds in the spring, and wonderfully quiet in the winter. The trail is open for cross-country skiing in the winter. Of course the main attraction is the old growth white pines, the tallest of which was known as the Monarch. This tree was over 300 years old and 155 feet tall when winds broke off the top in 1992. Nature is slowly reducing this entire old growth forest: hurricane force winds blew down almost half the area in 1940. Now you can see only about 49 acres of the big trees. Farther down the trail is the Logging Museum; a reconstructed bunkhouse and shop building. You can understand just a little of the hard life and work of the lumberjacks if you ponder the displays for awhile. Many of the tools they used are on display, including one of the most unusual; the Big Wheels. These appear to oversized wagon wheels, and were used for hauling logs. Some specimens are taller than you! Besides this most popular of park trails, there are many others. If you are up for a long hike, any of the cross-country ski/mountain biking trails, or the Au Sable River Trail are long enough to give you a workout. There’s also a gravel road scenic drive along the east edge of the park for those who don’t want to leave their cars. The Bright & Glory Nature Trail takes you down to two small lakes in a wetland. On a recent visit, my wife and I flushed out a turkey from a pine tree and ducked as it flew just overhead and landed only about 20 feet away! Whatever trails you choose, don’t forget to pick up a trail brochure at the Visitor Center before you leave.

Heading back to Grayling on M-93, cross the freeway and head all the way through town for a shorter walk in the woods. Not back at Hartwick Pines; instead we’re going to the Beal Plantation. It’s just east of town on Industrial Street. Use M-72 and cross under the freeway, and turn right at the first street. The plantation is a 7-acre patch of woods on the left. The Beal Plantation is what remains of 80 acres planted by Professor William Beal of Michigan State University in 1888. It appears to be the oldest tree plantation in North America. He was attempting research on what species of trees could best be replanted on the cutover lands of this area. A short trail with interpretive signs tells more about the effort. At that time huge expanses of the area were nothing but pine stumps on sandy land. It was not suitable for farming. Some areas of pine stumps can still be seen along various roads, including along old US-27, and on a trail back in Hartwick Pines running directly north from the campground. Professor Beal’s research and the work of others helped establish the red pine stands that were eventually planted over northern Michigan. Today, lumber is still very important to this part of Michigan; you may have noticed the lumber products factory adjacent to the Beal Plantation as you drove here.

Inside the kitchen at Jon’s Country Burgers, Mt. Pleasant, Michigan

The drive south from here along old US-27 is mostly relaxing, as this 2-lane road experiences little traffic. Sometimes its replacement, the I-75 freeway, is less than a half mile away though. Most of the drive to Mt. Pleasant, Michigan is in forests, though an extensive marsh exists near Houghton Lake. We’re stopping for lunch in Mt. Pleasant, at Jon’s Country Burgers. It’s a delightful, real old-fashioned, drive-in that features carhops to deliver your orders and carside speakers to take your orders. Or, you can eat inside at their clean, bright booths…booths for all, no tables here! Both indoors and out, it still looks like 1962 because the only makeovers have been to keep the place shiny and new. I found the food tasty and plentiful. It was served by a very perky waitress, and it was fast! I’ve waited longer at an Arby’s than here. I had a smelt dinner, which comes with fries, coleslaw, and a nice chunk of toast. All was top notch, with crispy smelt and a hint of celery seed in the coleslaw. The toast was sliced from a stick of an Italian style bread, buttered, and then grilled golden brown. Of course, I had to try a milkshake, which turned out to be the best butterscotch shake I’ve ever had. They serve it with a spoon and I instantly discovered why: you simply cannot drink it through a straw. And it was overflowing with butterscotch flavor, with extra syrup stuck on the sides of the cup! Jon’s opened in 1957 and was probably one of the first on the strip, just a few blocks from Central Michigan University. Outdoors, they have plenty of stalls with speakers, all under a canopy to keep everyone dry. Indoors, you walk right past the kitchen to get to the restrooms, so you can see all the action. I should go back sometime, because a detailed reading of the menu found other wonders that should be tried. For example, their signature Countryburger is 3 patties high with 2 slices of cheese. Dessert should be fun also, if I try the donut sundae. Yes, you heard right; a sundae built on top of a donut! How could that be bad?

 
Michigan State Capitol, Lansing, Michigan
Michigan State Capitol, Lansing, Michigan (photo by Brian Charles Watson at Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.)

Jumping ahead some on old US-27, you might stop at Michigan’s state capitol in Lansing. It’s one of two capitols along the route, along with Tallahassee, Florida. The capitol building opened in 1879 and was designed by architect Elijah E. Myers. It was one of the first state capitols to be topped by a cast iron dome. The building is Michigan’s third capitol, the first having been in Detroit and the second here in Lansing. The decoration is unusual, in that all of the wood appears to be walnut, though none of it is. And to top it off, the building’s supporting columns are cast iron and pilasters are plaster, both painted to look like marble: none are really marble. While this originally saved money, it raised the cost of the restoration completed in 1992. Today, the Michigan Capitol ranks as one of the finest examples of this ancient art in the nation. There are three floors, though the basement was originally just store rooms and an armory. Government growth over the years later turned them into offices and now the building only houses the Senate and House leadership, the legislative chambers, and ceremonial offices for the governor and lieutenant governor. Tours are available.

From Lansing south to Fort Wayne, Indiana, US-27 has been replaced by the I-69 freeway. We cross our US-6 journey at Waterloo, Indiana. Shortly after Fort Wayne, highway US-27 becomes a mostly 2-lane road through farm fields again after Fort Wayne, all the way to Cincinnati, Ohio. We visited Cincinnati on our short review of US-22, and have a good list of attractions in town on that page. Cincinnati is also the home of McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish, invented in 1962 by a local franchisee. Continuing south, US-27 is mostly a 2-lane highway again through Kentucky. At Lexington, Kentucky, we can see the sights of the official “the Horse Capital of the World ®”. The 88th Kentucky Derby was held here on May 5th, 1962. Jockey Bill Hartack, riding Decidedly, won in 2:00.4 minutes. This was a new record time and was Hartack’s 3rd Derby win. The horse was the son of the 1954 Derby winner, Determine. There are many horse-related attractions in the area, including Keeneland Race Course. Keeneland has hosted live horse racing in April and October since 1936. It actually has two tracks, a 1 1⁄16 mile dirt oval and a 7/8 mile turf oval. There is a prep area where visitors can view horses up-close just before a race.

 
Henry Clay's Ashland, Lexington, Kentucky
Henry Clay's mansion at Ashland in Lexington, Kentucky (Photo by Analogue Kid at Wikimedia Commons, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.5 Generic license.)

Ashland, the house and estate of Henry Clay, is also in Lexington. Henry Clay was an early American attorney and statesman who was the seventh Speaker of the House in Congress and the ninth Secretary of State. He ran for President in three elections between 1824 and 1844 and received electoral votes. The center part of Clay’s Ashland was completed in 1809 and by 1812 the home was a full five-part Federal style structure including a center block, two hyphens (connecting pieces), and two end blocks. Clay and his wife, Lucretia Hart, lived here when he was not in Washington, DC, until his death in 1852. Within a few years his son James found the home in such disrepair that he had the house demolished. He then rebuilt it, using much of the old material and incorporating more current styles such as Italianate, Greek Revival, and Victorian details. The rebuilding was completed by 1857. Since 1950, Ashland has been open to the public as a historic house museum with tours available. There is no charge to wander the gardens or estate.

Once again, US-27 crosses Kentucky and Tennessee on a mostly 2-lane road unbothered by freeways. At the bottom of Tennessee, in Chattanooga, we find several old time tourist attractions. Many are on or around Lookout Mountain, which has enough tourist sites to fill a 2-day visit to the city! Lookout Mountain even has its own website, just like a Chamber of Commerce would, so you can find all the attractions. First, let’s head under the mountain to Ruby Falls. This is a 145-foot high waterfall under the mountain. The rock of Lookout Mountain is limestone and the stream is 1120 feet underground. It’s fed by both rainwater and natural springs and after the falls, the stream flows out into the Tennessee River just across US-72. The falls were not discovered until 1928, when an entrepreneur was attempting to re-open the nearby Lookout Mountain Cave. That cave once had a natural entrance that was closed due to railroad tunnel construction. He successfully reopened Lookout Mountain Caverns in 1929 and Ruby Falls the following year. In 1954, a new pathway was cut around the base of the falls inside the mountain, to allow more scenic views.

 
Rock City advertising barn, US-11, north of Chattanooga, Tennessee
Rock City advertising barn on US-11, north of Chattanooga, Tennessee (Photo by Brent Moore at Flickr, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.)

Still at the bottom of the mountain, we find the Lookout Mountain Incline Railway. It opened in 1895 and is about one mile long, with one end at Point Park at the mountain’s summit. The Incline Railway is the world's steepest passenger railway, even outdoing some in Switzerland. If you’ve never experienced an incline railway, you should try this one. It’s a lot like sitting on a staircase that moves up and down the mountain. Besides the view out the side windows, you can look through the roof and see Chattanooga as we ride uphill to get to The Battles for Chattanooga Museum, which was known as Confederama in 1962. This attraction was built in 1957 at the bottom of the mountain and operated there into the 1990s. I last visited in the 1970s, when it still had scale dioramas depicting the various Civil War battles using painted lead soldiers. After the death of the original owner, it was purchased by another local businessman and completely refurbished, still using the original figures. The entire exhibit was later moved to a new building at the top of the mountain in Point Park, and in 2016 a new, digital projection-mapped show with digital soundtrack and 3-D modeling software was installed, providing a new multi-media experience. The old Confederama building is now a Blockbuster Video store. Point Park also has actual cannons in the actual locations where the battles occurred. You can see where they were firing at! The story told is of the Civil War battles fought here in November of 1863. These battles were so devastating for the Confederacy that they became the final turning point that lead to the Union victory, as the next spring General Sherman used Chattanooga for his base to begin his march to Atlanta and the sea.

Finally, we need to drive around and then up the mountain into Georgia to see Rock City Gardens. When I think of Rock City, I can’t help thinking of their barn advertising. Almost since I started driving, I’ve seen their name painted on barns, signs, and birdhouses all over the eastern United States. The first of the painted barn roofs was created in 1935 by Clark Byers, who continued to paint these advertisements until 1969, eventually being responsible for over 900! Rock City is the creation of Garnet and Frieda Carter who designed a trail over, around, through, and even under the natural rock formations to complement an inn and residential development on top of Lookout Mountain. Rock City opened in 1932 and complemented their Tom Thumb miniature golf course that had opened six years earlier. You can read more about their Tom Thumb course on the Roadtrip-'62 ™ miniature golf page. At Rock City, the Enchanted Trail winds through rocks, across the Swing-A-Long bridge, past a 140-foot high man-made waterfall and dioramas of classic childhood fairy tales and gnomes, through the Hall of the Mountain King and Needle's Eye, past Mushroom Rock, and out to the edge of the cliff at Lover's Leap. Here, on a clear day, they advertise you can “See 7 states”.

 
Bragg Reservation, Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Tennessee
Bragg Reservation on Missionary Ridge, Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park, Tennessee (public domain photo from National Park Service)

If you decide to see it all, you can buy a combo ticket that includes Ruby Falls, the Incline Railway, and Rock City. A final attraction around Lookout Mountain is the Chickamauga and Chattanooga National Military Park. This site, run by the National Park Service, shows the battlefields and history of the battles in the Chattanooga area, including nearby Chickamauga, Georgia. The park was authorized in 1890 and dedicated five years later. It was the first military park in the country. There are five areas comprising the park other than the Lookout Mountain Battlefield. The Chickamauga Battlefield was the site of a Confederate victory a couple of months before the main battles. It now includes a separate museum and visitor center. Missionary Ridge, in the center of Chattanooga, has eight monuments commemorating the battle fought there. Moccasin Bend, lying north of Lookout Mountain, was used as a supply base by Union forces and also includes an active archeological district that investigates over 12,000 years of Native American history. Signal Point was the main communications position of the Union forces, as it had commanding views of the area and all along the Tennessee River. Finally, Orchard Knob was the site of one of the earliest battles in the area.

Resuming the journey, through Georgia we would have again found US-27 to be a largely rural, 2-lane highway down to Tallahassee, Florida in 1962. However, virtually the entire road through Georgia has since been widened to a divided highway. You had a choice of how to get through the state in 1962, with both US-27 and US-27ALT traveling from Carrollton to Columbus, Georgia. As previously mentioned, Tallahassee is the site of the other state capitol on US-27. Tallahassee was chosen as the capital of the territory of American Florida in 1824, primarily because it was midway between the two principal cities of the time of St. Augustine and Pensacola. Three log cabins constituted Florida's first capitol. In 1826, a two-story masonry building was constructed. Just prior to Florida achieving statehood, the US Congress appropriated $20,000 for the erection of a new capitol. The new brick capitol was completed in 1845, just prior to the installation of the new state government. This structure remains the core of the Old Capitol today. The first major alteration to the Old Capitol was in 1902, when two new wings and the dome were added. This was the last time Florida's government operated under one roof. Further additions to the Capitol were made in 1923, 1936, and 1947, and additional buildings were acquired. A completely new Capitol Complex including a twenty-two-story executive office building was constructed in 1977. Restoration of the Old Capitol was accomplished in the face of calls to demolish it, and it was opened to the public in 1982 as the Florida Historic Capitol Museum, showcasing the state's political history. Tours are available.

 
Lego Southern Belle at Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven, Florida
A Lego Southern Belle at Cypress Gardens, Winter Haven, Florida

The section of US-27 from Perry to Williston, Florida is the only 2-lane section of the highway remaining in the state. There is a US-27ALT that covers the same distance, paired with US-19 on a divided highway. Another shorter section of US-27ALT used to travel next to the main route from Haines City to Sebring, Florida, but has been renumbered to FL-17. Everything else has been upgraded to divided highways, all the way to Miami, Florida. In this section, I recently visited Cypress Gardens, about 4 miles west off US-27 near Winter Haven, Florida. You can read more about it on the my Roadtrip Down US-17, the Coastal Highway page. The most interesting thing I found was that when the adjacent Legoland was built in 2010, they did not tear out Cypress Gardens, but still offer it as a quiet zone behind the main amusement park. The water skiing shows still wow the crowds. The Southern Belles in their period costumes are gone, but there are a couple of Lego substitutes to take photos with!

 

A great place to visit near the south end of US-27 is Miami Beach, across Biscayne Bay from Miami, Florida. Many old, art deco hotels that were here in 1962 have been refurbished today to their original glory. Exteriors with pleasing curves and porthole windows abound. And interiors have beautiful details like the curved balconies, pipe railings, and the wood-and-metal bar of the Netherland Hotel, as seen below. The nine-story Netherland was built in 1936 and is now a condo, and both the age and use are typical for many of these old buildings, which also enjoy ocean views from the upper stories. Since this is now a condo, I’ll have to choose someplace else to stay the night and get ready for the next Roadtrip-'62 ™ journey. I hope you have an enjoyable National Road Trip Day and I’ll see you next time here!

 
Interior, Netherland Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida
Interior of Netherland Hotel, Miami Beach, Florida
 

All photos by the author and Copyright © 2020 - Milne Enterprises, Inc., except as noted.

All other content Copyright © 2020 - Milne Enterprises, Inc.

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