We love exploring America’s back roads and small towns and finding overlooked gems that the tourist brochures never cover. In a series of weekly blog posts we will be sharing some of America’s lesser-known small town museums, historic sites, and oddball attractions, on a state-by-state basis. We don’t have room to cover each and every attraction in every state, but hope to give you some ideas for places to see in your travels.
Astoria: After their long journey across the continent, the Lewis and Clark Expedition built a small fort just south of here and spent the long, miserable winter of 1805-1806 before heading back east. Today Fort Clatsop is a National Historical Park, where exhibits and costumed interpreters show visitors what life was like for the hardy explorers.
Astoria: At the Columbia River Maritime Museum you will see exhibits on the region’s seafaring heritage, including old ships and nautical equipment.
Astoria: If you’re in good physical shape, consider climbing the recently renovated Astoria Column, sitting atop 600 feet high Coxcomb Hill. The exterior of the tower displays fourteen scenes commemorating important events in the history of Astoria in chronological order. The mural scrolls around the 125-foot-high structure in an upward spiral direction, with the earliest scene at the base of the column. An interior 164-step spiral staircase leads to the top and a viewing platform with spectacular views of the countryside and out to sea.
Astoria: Fort Stevens, once the primary military defense installation in the three-fort harbor defense system during the Civil War, is now a state park offering camping, hiking and an opportunity to explore what’s left of the old military defenses.
Aurora: The Old Aurora Colony Museum preserves the history of the Utopian Society of Aurora, a religious commune who settled here in 1856. The museum includes a preserved farm where costumed volunteers demonstrate traditional skills such as candle dipping, quilting, and splitting cedar shakes.
Baker City: The National Oregon Trail Interpretive Center six miles north of town uses displays and audiovisual presentations to tell the stories of the hardships endured by pioneers who traveled the historic overland route to new lives in the Oregon Territory.
Bend: The High Desert Museum tells the story of the natural and cultural history and resources of Oregon’s High Desert with exhibits on Native Americans, fur traders, the Oregon Trail, and the wildlife of the area.
Brooks: The Pacific Northwest Truck Museum displays many of the great working vehicles that developed the Pacific Northwest. 75 restored GMC, Freightliner, International, Kenworth, Mack, Peterbilt, Autocar, Moreland, Samson, White, and Yellow-Knight antique trucks, parts, and memorabilia demonstrate the unique innovations in the development of trucks brought about by the longer distances and rough terrain of this part of the country.
Cannon Beach: Tillamook Rock Lighthouse, built in 1881 on a rocky island a mile offshore, was decommissioned in 1957 due to its high maintenance costs. Today the lighthouse is privately owned and serves as a columbarium (a storage place for urns holding the creamated remains of the dead). The best views of the lighthouse can be had at Ecola State Park.
Cave Junction: Oregon Caves National Monument offers family focused opportunities to explore a marble cave, visit a National Historic Landmark (the Oregon Caves Chateau), and hike trails through ancient forests.
Chiloquin: Collier Memorial State Park and Logging Museum is a 655-acre park that includes an open-air historic logging museum with display of tools, machines, and engines, and various types of furnished 1800s-era pioneer cabins.
Coos Bay: When Jesse Allen Luse died in 1944, his son boarded up his weekly newspaper office and it sat untouched for decades. Today the old building has been restored and is the Marshfield Sun Printing Museum, displaying the old printing presses and other equipment just like they were the day the newspaper closed.
Eugene: The Oregon Air & Space Museum displays an impressive collection of aircraft, including a North American F-86 Sabre, Fokker Triplane, Grumman A-6E Intruder, and a Russian Mig-17, along with aviation artifacts, a collection of aircraft armament ranging from Hotchkiss and Lewis machine guns, .30 and .50 caliber Browning machine guns, and twin 1917 Spandau machine guns used by German pilots in World War I.
Florence: At Sea Lion Caves, eleven miles north of Florence on U.S. Highway 101, an elevator takes visitors 208 feet down into the world’s largest and most spectacular sea cave. The cave is the home of the wild steller sea lion, primarily during the fall and winter months. The rock ledge below the lookout located just outside the cave is the sea lions’ home during the spring and summer, and is where they breed and bear their young. Sea lions live at Sea Lion Caves year round.
Florence: Heceta Head, twelve miles north of town, is the most photographed lighthouse on the Pacific Coast.
John Day: Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site is a must-see for anyone with an interest in Oregon history. Built to preserve the legacy of the Chinese workforce in Oregon, the park’s museum contains artifacts and displays that share some of the trials of everyday life of these people. Chinese businessman Lung On and herbal doctor Ing Hay worked out of the building in the mid-1800s.
John Day: A visit to the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument is like taking a journey into ancient Oregon. Some of the earliest rhino fossils in the world were found in the John Day beds. The first horses evolved in North America 50 million years ago, and at least 14 different genera have been found at the John Day Fossil Beds National Monument. Fossils of hundreds of other plant and animal species have been found here and are displayed at the Visitor Center.
McMinnville: Howard Hughes’ Spruce Goose is just one of many historic aircraft on display at the Evergreen Aviation Museum. Other aircraft include a replica of the Wright Brothers 1903 Flyer, a Ford Tri-Motor, a Boeing B-17G Flying Fortress, a Curtiss P-40 Warhawk, a Lockheed P-38 Lightning, a World War II German Messerschmitt fighter, and dozens of other vintage airplanes and helicopters.
Newberg: Champoeg State Heritage Area preserves the early days of Oregon. The park includes a visitor center, Newell House, and Pioneer Mothers Log Cabin museums that demonstrate pioneer life at Champoeg. A guided walk helps visitors learn what happened to the once-bustling pioneer town of Champoeg. An 1860s-style garden lies next to the visitor center. The park also includes the historic Butteville Store founded in 1863. It is considered the oldest operating store in Oregon. The store is the last commercial vestige of the once thriving Willamette River community of Butteville.
Newport: 93 feet high Yaquina Head Lighthouse is the tallest lighthouse on the Oregon coast and is open for tours.
Newport: Visitors to the Hatfield Marine Science Center will learn how scientific research helps us to better appreciate, manage, and sustain coastal and marine resources.
Newport: The Oregon Coast Aquarium is home to one of the finest collections of fish, marine mammals, and water birds to be found anywhere.
Ontario: For centuries the Snake, Malheur, Owyhee and Payette Rivers have supported life here, attracting people from all points of the compass. Four Rivers Cultural Center is named for these waterways and honors the constant flow of people of varied ancestries, American Indian, Basque, European, Hispanic, and Japanese, who have made this a diverse and vital region that has opened its arms to many cultures and accepted their differences. The museum preserves more than a century of history. Exhibits include a life-scale diorama of a Northern Paiute camp, the arrival of the Oregon Short Line Railroad in 1883, the evacuation and the war effort of the Japanese Americans with an internment camp barracks.
Oregon City: The End of the Oregon Trail Interpretive Center tells the stories of the pioneers who made it to their destination after their long, dangerous journey over the Oregon Trail.
Oregon City: The Museum of the Oregon Territory tells the story of the history of the region and the people who settled it.
Pendleton: The Tamástslikt Cultural Institute, located at the foot of the Blue Mountains near Pendleton, is the interpretive center for the Cayuse, Umatilla, and Walla Walla Indian tribes, preserving the history and cultures of the native peoples of this region.
Pendleton: Tours of the Pendleton Woolen Mills include seeing the spinning machines and watching the shuttles of the automatic looms weaving the famous brightly colored, geometric Pendleton designs.
Port Orford: Built in 1870, Cape Blanco Lighthouse is the oldest continuously operating lighthouse on the Oregon coast and is open for tours from April through October.
Port Orford: From 1934 into the 1960s, courageous surfmen from Port Orford Lifeboat Station answered the call when ships were in peril. Today the Station is open for tours, with displays on the duties of the men who served here.
Portland: The Kidd’s Toy Museum at 1301 SE Grand Avenue displays an impressive collection of toys dating back 150 years.
Portland: The Portland Police Museum honors the men and women who have protected and served the city over the last 150 years. Exhibits include police uniforms and equipment, including a Harley-Davidson patrol motorcycle with sidecar, a collection of Portland police badges dating back to 1862, and a memorial room dedicated to the Portland officers killed in the line of duty.
Portland: At the Oregon Historical Society Museum, visitors can see a replica of a Hudson’s Bay Company ship hull, a 19th century explorer’s tent, and a store stocked with 1940s-era merchandise from the Hood River Yasui Brothers Mercantile. Other exhibits include an Oregon Trail covered wagon, Native American pottery and baskets, and memorabilia from the state’s past.
Portland: The Oregon Jewish Museum displays a collection of Jewish art, along with religious and cultural artifacts.
Portland: Housed in the historic Belmont Firehouse, the Jeff Morris Fire Museum displays fire fighting exhibits that include an 1879 Amokeag steam pumper, an 1860 hose cart, an 1863 hand pumper, a collection of fire alarm boxes, firefighting clothing and helmets, and an 1865 roster board from Multnomah Engine Company #2.
Portland: The World Forestry Center is dedicated to teaching people about the importance of the world’s forests. The Center’s museum has exhibits on tree growth, fire fighting, logging, and tree planting.
Portland: The Oregon Maritime Museum tells the story of the rich river history of Oregon. Exhibits include the sternwheeler Portland, a Columbia River gill net boat, model ships in bottles, and maritime artifacts.
Portland: Stark’s Vacuum Museum displays a collection of over 300 vacuum cleaners, from the durable wooden devices made in the 1800s to chic, space-age cleaners from the 1960s. Museum highlights include the two-person-operated Busy-Bee (he pumped, she vacuumed) and the Duntley Pneumatic (the salesman would attach it to the ceiling and do chin-ups from it to demonstrate its air-pump suction seal).
Salem: Mission Mill Museum tells the story of the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill, which produced wool products from 1889 to 1962 and was one of Oregon’s earliest and strongest industries. Mission Mill also interprets the history of Jason Lee’s Methodist Mission to Oregon, which settled in the Willamette Valley in 1834 before the major Oregon Trail migrations. The missionaries brought formal education, industry, and large scale agriculture and advocated for the U.S. government in the Oregon country. Mission Mill Museum preserves mission houses, an Oregon Trail settler’s house, a historic church and the structures, equipment, and original water-powered turbine of the Thomas Kay Woolen Mill with related artifacts.
Salem: A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village is a kids’ museum where exploration, experimentation, and learning all work hand in hand. Children and adults alike enjoy interactive exhibits at a place where playing is essential to learning. Visitors can play in the largest Erector set in the world, learn about the moon’s surface, make bubbles with giant wands, and see a toy inventor’s workshop.
Seaside: The Seaside Aquarium was the first facility in the world to breed harbor seals in captivity.
The Dalles: The Columbia Gorge Discovery Center preserves the natural and cultural history of the Columbia River Gorge and Wasco County. Exhibits include Native American baskets from throughout the region, household furnishings and farm tools, along with a unique collection of 1,200 padlocks.
The Dalles: Fort Dalles Museum, housed in an Army officer’s house on the site of the 1850s military fort established here, displays pioneer memorabilia, Native American artifacts, historic photographs, antique vehicles, and authentic hand-hewn log buildings.
Tillamook: Visitors can tour the Tillamook Cheese Factory and watch the cheese making process, then snack on free samples in the gift shop.
Tillamook: At the Tillamook Forest Center, visitors can develop a deeper connection with Oregon’s forests through experience and exploration. The center showcases the legacy of the historic Tillamook Burn forest fire. Visitors can climb a 40-foot tall replica of a forest fire lookout tower and walk across a dramatic 250-foot-long pedestrian suspension bridge spanning the Wilson River.
Tillamook: The Tillamook County Pioneer Museum displays 35,000 local history items, plus an additional 10,000 photographs. The collection ranges from prehistoric specimens to modern day exhibits, covering everything from the Tillamook Indians to Captain Robert Gray’s 1766 voyage into Tillamook Bay. The museum includes a library of thousands of books relating to genealogy.
Tillamook: The Tillamook Air Museum is housed in an old World War II blimp hanger and displays a fine collection of vintage aircraft, including a P-38 Lightning, P-47 Thunderbolt, F4U-Corsair, P51-Mustang, PBY Catalina, B-25 Mitchell Bomber, and an SBD Dauntless dive bomber.
Tillamook: The Latimer Quilt and Textile Center offers exhibits of antique and contemporary quilts, weaving and spinning demonstrations, and instruction in various textile arts. The Center includes a research library for on-site use, a climate controlled textile repository, and a gift shop with hand-made items, books, and vintage and hand-dyed fabric.
Tillamook: Cape Meares Lighthouse is the star attraction at Cape Meares State Scenic Viewpoint. At 38 feet tall, it is the shortest lighthouse on the Oregon Coast and is open for tours daily April through October.
Thought For The Day – To steal ideas from one person is plagiarism. To steal from many is research.
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I really enjoy these “Overlooked” entries and wish that you would put them all in a tab on your page so they could be used as a reference as we pass through various states. I know that they can be found using the “search function,” but they do not come out in alpha order which makes it cumbersome to look for a particular state.