Road Trip: The Most Historic Small Towns in the U.S.

By Jessie Fetterling for Far & Wide

@iwillbikerideforchocolate / Discover Bisbee/Facebook

We know travel plans are impacted right now. But to fulfill your wanderlust, we’ll continue to share stories that can inspire your next adventure.

The U.S. is filled with fascinating small towns that each have their own unique story to tell. Havens for artsy free spirits. Mining sites that once yielded a ton of gold. Sites of infamous military battles. Stomping grounds of storied pirates.

These small towns offer history buffs a glimpse into our nation’s past, while also remaining just as relevant today as they were years ago. Learn the histories of these small towns, and plan a visit that will encourage you to travel back in time.

Los Alamos, New Mexico

Population: 12,019

What was once a secret military town is now the fifth-fastest-growing city in the state. Its claim to fame is what’s now called the Los Alamos National Laboratory, operated by the Department of Energy. 

This was the creation site of the world’s first atomic bomb as part of the infamous Manhattan Project. During World War II, all incoming truckloads to the area were mislabeled, and it wasn’t revealed until after the bombing of Hiroshima what residents here were really up to.

What to Do

History buffs will want to head straight to Manhattan Project National Historical Park, where you can tour the Manhattan Project’s historic Los Alamos site and the lab’s Bradbury Science Museum. Visitors can engage in the museum’s more than 40 interactive exhibits.

Long before physicists moved to the area, though, the four mesas of the Pajarito Plateau (on which the town sits) was home to Puebloans, and you can visit ruins of their cliff dwellings at Bandelier National Monument. Climb ladders and visit small carved rooms at this archaeological site that features more than 70 miles of trails.

Beaufort, North Carolina

Population: 4,452

Beaufort was established in 1709, making its historic district alone worth visiting because several buildings are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

But this town is one with a pirate history. In fact, it’s where Blackbeard spent most of his days, and in 1996, an archaeological crew found the remains of his flagship, Queen Anne’s Revenge, in what is now called Beaufort Inlet. Blackbeard ran the ship aground in May 1718.

What to Do

For all things Blackbeard, a stop at the North Carolina Maritime Museum is a must. It features all the artifacts found from Blackbeard’s flagship.

The small town’s Old Burying Ground is equally intriguing, with graves that date back 300 years, including one of a child who died at sea and was buried in a keg of rum.

Sitka, Alaska

Population: 8,493 

With 22 buildings and sites on the National Register of Historic Places, Sitka is another small town with history to boot. Its name comes from “sheet-ka,” which means “people on the outside of Baranof Island” to the Tlingit people who settled here more than 10,000 years ago. 

When Russian explorers took over the area in 1804 after winning the Battle of Sitka against the native people, the town was designated the capital of Russian America.

What to Do

The 107-acre Sitka National Historical Park interprets the famous battle between the Russians and Tlingit people and features artifacts from the two groups. It also features a collection of Haida and Tlingit totem poles moved from the Louisiana Exposition in St. Louis.

This being Alaska, there is also plenty to do in terms of outdoor activities, from fly fishing to kayaking to wildlife boat tours that will get you up close and personal with the area’s majestic humpback whales.

Columbia, California

Population: 2,297

If only Columbia was as fruitful as it was during its heyday! From 1850 to the early 1900s, $150 million in gold was mined here, earning it the nickname, “Gem of the Southern Mines.”

What was once California’s second-largest city is now home to a few thousand residents who keep its gold rush charm very much alive.

What to Do

Columbia State Historic Park is a living gold rush town and is home to California’s largest single collection of existing structures from this era. Visitors can pan for gold, ride the stagecoach and explore exhibits that tell the history of the California gold rush.

Better yet, a visit to this historic town is free, but you’ll likely want to purchase some sweets at the authentic ice cream parlor or order a pint at the local saloon.

Woodstock, New York

Population: 5,823

Believe it or not, the epic Woodstock music festival that attracted some 400,000 people to the area for “three days of peace and music” was not held in Woodstock, New York. It was actually held about 60 miles away at Max Yasgur’s dairy farm in Bethel, New York. 

Festival organizers originally wanted to host the concert just across the Woodstock town line in Saugerties, where a series of Woodstock Sound-Outs concerts had been held years prior, earning the area a reputation as a popular summer art colony. But the town wouldn’t approve a permit. Whether or not the festival was actually held here, though, the name stuck, and music and art remain ever-popular here.

What to Do

A stroll down Tinker Street will take you back to the town’s bohemian roots, where quirky mom-and-pop shops sell crystals and Tibetan trinkets to visitors. There’s also a handmade candle shop, indie bookstore and a place where you can get tarot card readings. And don’t miss the Mower’s Flea Market or Woodstock Farm Festival held weekly during the summer and fall seasons.

Of course, the town is also filled with art galleries and music venues, such as Levon Helm Studios, where you can check out local acts. In the summer, the Maverick Concerts series, founded in 1916, takes place in a rustic concert hall in the woods, where the acoustics are exceptional.

Deadwood, South Dakota

Population: 1,293

Gold, prostitution, gunslingers — you name it, Deadwood had it in spades in the late 1800s. In fact, the settlement of Deadwood itself began illegally because the land was originally granted to the Lakota people in 1868. By 1874, however, Colonel George Armstrong Custer brought people here as part of the Black Hills Gold Rush. And by 1876, there were more than 25,000 people in this lawless community where murder was commonplace.

Even gun showman Wild Bill Hickock was killed here, and he and his associate, Calamity Jane, are buried in Mount Moriah Cemetery, which is open to visitors.

What to Do

Looking to get a taste of the Deadwood experience? The entire city is designated a National Historic Landmark District because of its well-preserved architecture.

But the Days of ’76 Museum features more than 50 historic wagons, stagecoaches, firearms, clothing and other memorabilia that celebrates the town’s early pioneering days. Or you can experience those early days first-hand via the 1876 Mystery Dinner Theater, where you can help solve a murder.

Gettysburg, Pennsylvania

Population: 7,724

This small town needs little introduction to history buffs, but we’d be remiss not to include it. 

After all, it’s where the Battle of Gettysburg took place in July 1863, marking a significant turning point in the Civil War and inspiring President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address” speech.

What to Do

The town’s highlight, of course, is Gettysburg National Military Park, where you can learn all about the history of the battle and even witness reenactments. You can also take walking tours to visit some of the historic churches that were used as hospitals to care for soldiers.

After a day of history, you can check out the area’s craft wine, beer, cider and spirits trail and take in the beautiful farmlands.

Well that’s all for today. I’ll post more small town America in days ahead. Be sure to check in.


Author: Dennis Hickey

There are no limits to success to those who never stop learning. Learning will nourish your personal growth. I hope you enjoy this website and visit often so you keep learning and growing too!

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