roadside attractions

Roadside replicas: better than the real thing?

Sometimes fake places are more fun than the real thing.

Here’s a story I put together for NBC News Travel about the allure of visiting roadside replicas.

history museum

Courtesy Las Vegas Natural History Museum

King Tutankhamun’s mummy is missing, and the elaborate ancient murals painted on the wall are detailed copies.

But that is not stopping tourists from lining up to visit the replica of King Tut’s tomb that opened recently in Luxor, Egypt. The alternative tomb was built to protect the original ancient burial chamber, where the sweat and breath of thousands of tourists have taken a toll on the beautiful paintings lining the tomb over the years.

Closer to home, some mimicked world landmarks have their roots in patriotism, whimsy or the absence of an otherwise existing local tourist attraction.

“I would prefer three replicas to one real landmark,” said Doug Kirby, publisher of Roadside America. “Replicas that take some license can be more interesting than faithful reproductions, and often put a unique American stamp on something that belongs to the old world.”

Here are some replica world landmarks worth a visit.

1. King Tut’s Tomb

No need to go all the way to Egypt to see King Tut’s tomb or even the replica. The exhibit that was once at the Luxor Hotel in Las Vegas is now at the Las Vegas Natural History Museum. “We have a four-room replica of the tomb filled with recreated artifacts made in Egypt using the same techniques and materials that were used 3,000 years ago,” said museum executive director Marilyn Gillespie.

2. Eiffel Tower

Yes, the real one is in Paris, but in the U.S. there’s a 50-story, half-scale replica of the Eiffel Tower at the Paris Las Vegas Hotel and Casino. In Paris, Texas, there’s a 65-foot-tall tower sporting a bright red cowboy hat put there to make sure this structure was a smidge taller than the one in Paris, Tennessee.

3. The Parthenon

Nashville’s Centennial Park is home to a full-scale replica of the Parthenon in Athens and comes complete with a 42-foot-tall, to-scale sculpture of the goddess Athena. Originally built for Tennessee’s 1897 Centennial Exposition, the Tennessee version of the Parthenon now houses the Nashville Art Museum.

4. Leaning Tower of Pisa

The city of Niles, Illinois, 15 miles from Chicago, is home to the 94-foot-tall Leaning Tower of Niles. Built in 1934 to camouflage several water filtration tanks, the Niles tower is a half-size replica of Italy’s Leaning Tower of Pisa and leans out 7 feet, compared to the Pisa tower’s 13-foot tilt.

5. Statue of Liberty


Courtesy Birmingham Convention & Visitors Burea


While the original Statue of Liberty is a major attraction in New York City, wait times to board a ferry to Liberty Island to see her up close can exceed 90 minutes during peak season. However, there are no lines to deal with at the half-size replica of the Statue of Liberty at the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas or in Birmingham, Alabama, which has a 31-foot-tall replica of Lady Liberty that was cast in the same French foundry as the original.


6. The Mayflower

The original no longer exists, but a full-scale reproduction of The Mayflower is docked at Plimoth Plantation in Plymouth, Massachusetts. The modern-day Mayflower built in 1957 has electric lights and stairs instead of ladders between decks, but it still offers a realistic look at what life was like for the Pilgrims aboard the original 17th-century vessel.

7. Stonehenge

Many temporary and permanent replicas of Stonehenge, the prehistoric monument in Wiltshire, England, have been built around the world. A full-scale replica sits on a hillside near the Maryhill Museum in Goldendale, Washington, and while it looks like stone, it is made of reinforced concrete. Mark Cline’s Foamhenge in Natural Bridge, Virginia, is also a full-size replica, but this Stonehenge is made of Styrofoam. Cline’s full-size Bamahenge in Elberta, Alabama, is made of fiberglass.

“Foamhenge is actually a pretty good version of Stonehenge and does configure astronomically to the original,” said Kirby of Roadside America. But he added that some Stonehenge-inspired spots on the site’s America Unhenged map, such as Carhenge in Alliance, Nebraska, and Truckhenge in Topeka, Kansas, “are closer to folk art and lean more towards a fun and interactive roadside attraction, which can make up for the fact that these are replicas and not the originals.”

In search of Paul Bunyan

American folklore hero and lumberjack Paul Bunyan was said to be so loud that fellow lumberjacks had to wear earmuffs year round. When he sneezed, legend has it that he blew the roof off the loggers’ bunkhouse. “When he was a baby, it took five giant storks to deliver him,” Carol Olson, manager of the Bemidji Tourist Information Center in Minnesota, said of the larger-than-life figure.

“North America has a fascination with powerful men such as Daniel Boone, the fur traders, prospectors and the cowboys, who opened or cleared wilderness,” said folklorist Jens Lund. “And in Paul Bunyan, we combine the superhuman powers of a mythological entity with a frontier hero and the humorous appeal of ridiculous exaggeration.”

Here are a few places around the country where you can spot the big guy this summer.

Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox, courtesy Visit Bimidji

Bemidji, Minn.
If you’re passing through Bemidji, Minn., on a Wednesday, you’ll see lots of people dressed like lumberjacks, in black and red plaid.

The midweek get-up is at the request of the mayor and part of a year-long celebration that includes cake-decorating contests and museum exhibits to mark the 75th anniversary of the city’s famous Bunyan statue.

One of the exhibits at the Beltrami County History Center is a collage made up of hundreds of photos sent in by people who stopped to get their photos taken with Paul and Babe over the years. It was put together by Mitch Blessing, creative director of Design Angler Inc.

Collage of Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox photos


At 18 feet, the big Bunyan figure outside the tourist information center on the shore of Lake Bemidji is not the world’s tallest statue of the legendary logger, but it is one of the oldest.

“In 1937, there was a lot of logging around here and the statue was built for a winter carnival,” said Olson. “The mayor at the time was 6 feet tall, so they made the statue three times his size.”

A statue of Babe, the blue ox, was added two years later and, ever since, visitors have been bee-lining to Bemidji to get their pictures taken with the oversized duo and to see the display of Bunyan’s personal effects, including his giant-sized flannel shirt, toothbrush, wallet and telephone.

Brainerd, Minn.
In Brainerd, there’s a 26-foot tall, 5,000-pound Bunyan statue at the Paul Bunyan Land amusement park with a moving head, arms and eyes and who greets visitors by name. “I can’t tell you how he knows everyone’s name,” said amusement park co-owner Lois Smude. “That’s part of the magic.” Smude said the park, which also features more than 35 rides and attractions and a pioneer village with antiques from the late 1800s, celebrates Bunyan’s birthday on June 29 each year.

Akeley, Minn.
In the middle of Minnesota, the city of Akeley (pop. 432) has a 25-foot-tall Bunyan with an outstretched palm low enough for visitors to climb into for a photo op. “Right next to the statue we have his giant cradle,” said Akeley clerk/treasurer Denise Rittgers. “We don’t do anything special for Paul Bunyan’s birthday, but if you drive into town, he’s right there, you can’t miss him.”

Paul Bunyan in Bangor, Maine

Bangor, Maine
Once called the “Lumber Capital of the World,” Bangor, Maine, boasts a Bunyan statue that’s 31-feet tall. “Even though Lucette, Paul’s wife, has begun to try to make him eat healthier, poor Paul still weighs in around 3,700 pounds,” said Jessica Donahue, marketing and promotions director at the Greater Bangor Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Paul is also friends with famed author and Bangor resident, Stephen King, and was brought to life in ‘It,’ King’s 1986 novel.”

Portland, Ore.
A 31-foot-tall Buynan statue in the Kenton neighborhood of Portland, Ore., dates to 1959 and depicts the legendary woodsman leaning on a giant axe and dressed in a red and white plaid lumberjack shirt and blue pants. Originally created for display at the state’s Centennial Fair, this big Bunyan was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Klamath, Calif.
At the Trees of Mystery attraction in Klamath, Calif., there’s a 49-foot-tall Bunyan leaning on this axe with a 34-foot tall Babe the blue ox by his side. This Bunyan has been winking, swiveling his head and “talking” to passersby via a hidden public-address system since 1961.

“Paul Bunyan is indeed very appealing, especially in forested regions of North America,” said Lund. “No doubt the decline of logging and commercial forestry also makes him a perfect nostalgic character in those regions.”

(My story about where to see Paul Bunyan first appeared in a slight different version on’s Overhead Bin.)

Really big things you can’t – and shouldn’t – miss!

World's Largest Ball of Twine

(Courtesy Linda Clover)

The World’s Largest Ball of Twine. (Cawker City, Kansas)

The World’s Largest Catsup Bottle. (Collinsville, Illinois)

And the World’s Largest Penny. (Woodruff, Wisconsin)

World's Largest Penny

Who can resist making a detour to see this stuff?

Not me.  And you shouldn’t either.

Especially when 14 (possibly 15th by now…) of some of the biggest “can’t miss” things are gathered all together in my “Really Big Things You Can’t Miss” story over on Bing travel.

You can flip through photos of the the World’s Largest Frying Pan, the World’s Largest Egg, the Giant Duck and other cool big things on Bing, but here’s some bonus information about two of the people who helped me gather up images and information for that story.

Erika Nelson, the artist who made the World’s Largest Souvenir Travel Plate for Lucas, Kansas, also shared her photo of the World’s Largest Eight Ball for the story. Look for her out on the road: she travels around the country displaying tiny versions of some of the world’s largest things.

Erika Nelson World's Largest Souvenir Travel plate

And several of the photos in the story are courtesy of Amy C. Elliott who co-produced, with Elizabeth Donius, World’s Largest, a documentary all about small towns with …big things.

Thanks, ladies, for your help!

World's Largest Duck, Flanders, NY

Oregon Curiosities: The Bomber in Milwaukie, OR

I love hanging around airports, of course, but I also find bliss when let loose in small museums filled with odd and unusual artifacts or if there’s a wacky roadside distraction somewhere and I’ve got the keys to the car.

So I’m fortunate to be able to produce radio features and write books about my discoveries. More than two hundred of my favorite offbeat attractions in Oregon are in the newly updated Oregon Curiosities book you see pictured in the craftily-titled Buy My Books section here on this site. There are an equal number of unusual people, places and things in the Washington Curiosities book I’m starting to update right now.

One of the aviation-related places in the Oregon Curiosities book is The Bomber Restaurant complex in Milwaukie, about six miles south of Portland.

The Bomber Gas Station

From 1947 until 1991 this vintage World War II B-17G four-engine bomber served as shelter for a forty-pump independent gas station that was one of the top performers in the country. When the gas station closed, the bomber fell on hard times and for years the plane was just a sad-looking roadside attraction suffering from bird poop, vandalism, and Oregon’s rainy climate.

Now restoration of the bomber is under way. Her nose is all shiny and new and on display inside the on-site WWII-themed Wings of Freedom Showcase. And while the gas station is long gone, you can fill up your stomach at the memorabilia-packed Bomber Restaurant, where the menu includes Bomblettes (omelettes) and Bombarded Hash Browns for breakfast, and Tokyo Rose BLTs and Bomberburgers for lunch and dinner.

If you want to see The Bomber for yourself, be sure to enter the Oregon Mt. Hood Territory’s Secret Sweet Spots contest. Each week you’ll be asked to answer a (very easy) question about a “hidden gem” in the region. You’ll find the answers in the short videos on the Mt. Hood Territory website.

Of course, one of those Secret Sweet Spots is The Bomber.