10 Abandoned Icons of Roadside America

abandoned drive in movie theatre (Image: Eric Wittman; the abandoned places of roadside America)

We’ve explored numerous abandoned places here at Urban Ghosts,including many locations across the globe that have long outlived their usefulness for one reason or another. Shining the spotlight on these decaying, forgotten places is remembering the world’s history, and America – despite being a relatively young nation in the grand scheme of things – is undeniably a cultural juggernaut.

But time passes quickly in the land of the free and the home of the brave, and travelers on the roads across its wide, varied landscape will experience a whole host of abandoned treasures. Some are mundane, while others are abandoned icons of a different age. Here are 10 of our favourites.

Abandoned Drive-in Movie Theaters

abandoned drive in movie theater

abandoned drive in movie theater-2

abandoned drive in movie theater-3 (Images: Matt; Eli Duke; Kevin; roadside America’s abandoned drive-in movie theaters)

The first drive-in movie theater opened in 1933. According to the Smithsonian, the idea was started by a used auto-parts salesman named Richard Hollingshead. He was looking for two things: a way to capitalize on the country’s growing obsession with cars, and a comfortable way for his mother to watch a movie. The first drive-in was built for her – he put the projector on the hood of her car and broadcast the movie on two sheets he tied between some trees.

It wasn’t until the development of better speaker technology that the idea really took off, and by 1958 there were 4,063 drive-in movie theaters across the country. Even though they were restricted to only showing movies at night, they were somewhere to take the whole family and be completely comfortable while kicking back in front of the screen.

That night-time restriction made life difficult for drive-in theaters, and by 2014 there were only 348 left. Ever-advancing technology has meant that small drive-ins need to update their equipment to just stay competitive, and many can’t afford it. Now, with home entertainment systems offering a true movie experience under your own roof, drive-in movie theaters are often forced to rely on nostalgia to attract their clients – and who knows how long that will last.

Roadside America’s Abandoned Diners

the abandoned diners of roadside america-3

the abandoned diners of roadside america

the abandoned diners of roadside america-2 (Images: Gregg Obst (website); MC Planning Commission; olavXO; abandoned diners)

According to the American Diner Museum (and quoted by PSMag), the definition of a real diner is something very specific. It’s a “prefabricated structure built at an assembly site and transported to a permanent location to serve prepared food”. While today’s’ definition of a diner might be a little more broad, diners are without a doubt icons of America’s cultural identity.

You’ve been there. They often have mediocre coffee (but there’s always plenty of it). They have fresh, homemade pies, they serve breakfast 24-hours a day, and they’re probably playing music from the 1950s. They’re the hangout of those that work odd shifts, and when they’re featured in movies, they could be the meeting place of some shifty characters. There are booths and tables, and there’s a linoleum-covered counter, too, with stools probably cracked by years of wear.

The diner started as a mobile food service wagon in 1872, the brainchild of Rhode Island’s Walter Scott. He started out serving night-shift reporters and editors at the Providence Journal. When he realized there was a market for hot, filling food for nighttime workers, the diner was born.

But diners entered a slow decline in the 1960s, and while there’s still plenty out there, enough were shuttered and abandoned that preservationists have put a handful on the National Register to make sure this slice of Americana will never disappear.

Abandoned Water Parks and Theme Parks

Rock-A-Hoola abandoned waterpark roadside America

Rock-A-Hoola abandoned waterpark roadside America-2

Rock-A-Hoola abandoned waterpark roadside America-3

Rock-A-Hoola abandoned waterpark roadside America-4

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Rock-A-Hoola abandoned waterpark roadside America-6 (Images: Michael Alan Goldberg (official website); abandoned Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark)

The abandoned Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark sits near the nation’s historic Route 66. But it hasn’t been entertaining fun-loving families since it closed in 2004. The now abandoned water park was originally built as a privately-owned facility that opened to the public in 1962, but it wasn’t until 1998 that it got its 1950s-themed makeover. That wasn’t enough to keep the facility profitable, though, and it ultimately fell victim to the same problems that many other now-abandoned theme parks suffer from: accidents and failing attendance.

While many theme parks have seen a resurgence in recent years, others didn’t weather the financial crisis and tough times that came in the 1990s and 2000s. The attendance of teenagers is still down by almost 10 per cent, and in 2007 even major parks like Disney were met with more than a 7 per cent decline in net income.

Because these changing times are especially tough for smaller facilities, many were unable to cope with the downturn, and the combination of financial difficulties, accidents and injuries can result in an abandoned water park. In the case of Rock-A-Hula, a pool tech was rendered a paraplegic after using one of the park’s water slides, and the park was never able to recover.

Abandoned Casinos

abandoned-casino-hi-desert (Image: awnisALAN)

According to the Hendon Mob poker database, the Hi-Desert Casino was demolished in 2007, after a period of emptiness and abandonment. Dig a little deeper and you’ll find that the abandoned casino was once the only good restaurant in the desert town of Adelanto. And since its closure it’s become a symbol of the slow downfall of a modern Wild West town.

The LA Times reports that it was closed in 1997, and that it sits right across the street from City Hall as a reminder of just what’s becoming of their town. Adelanto has reportedly been plagued with bad decisions and corruption among the city’s governing bodies, with one resident stating: “There are people in this town who would cut your throat and stab you in the back and not think twice.”

The Times also reported that two of the city’s police officers were found guilty of not only beating a confession from a man in 1994, but making another lick the blood up off the floor – just one of the list of bizarre charges faced by city officials. Casinos have always had a rather dodgy reputation, making this abandoned casino a fitting occupant of the land opposite Adelanto City Hall.

Abandoned Fast Food Restaurants

abandoned fast food restaurants across America

abandoned fast food restaurants across America-2

abandoned fast food restaurants across America-3 (Images: Nicholas Eckhartm01229; abandoned fast food joints across the USA)

Fast food restaurants – especially those that are part of a chain – have a look that is unmistakable. It’s part of the brand, after all, and even from a distance, even without a sign, people know instinctively what they’re going to find when they walk through the door.

There isn’t much that’s more American than fast food. It’s cheap, it’s filling (sort of) and it’s never been the healthiest. But after decades of making billions of dollars, much of the fast food we take for granted is on the decline.

In 2014, Business Insider reported that more and more organisations are opting to not renew contracts with the fast food chains that run their restaurants, in part because the country is coming to the realisation of just how much damage regularly chowing down on cheap fast food can do. Ever more research is coming out about the long-term consequences of a quintessentially American diet, which means there’s an increasing number of abandoned fast food buildings along the roads of America.

Reusing an abandoned fast food restaurant’s old building can take some ingenuity. But fortunately, America has plenty of that, too. In 2014, a group of volunteer engineers took over an abandoned McDonald’s in Mountain View, California in order to set up equipment to hijack a 1970s-era satellite. They dubbed their new outpost McMoon’s Control Center.

Abandoned Motels

abandoned motels of the united states 2

abandoned motels of the united states 3

abandoned motels of the united states 4

abandoned motels of the united states 5

abandoned motels of the united states 6 (Images: el-toro; Nitram242; a selection of abandoned motels)

Motels were built alongside the nation’s highway systems, and as cars became a bigger part of everyday life, more and more people began traveling. Those people needed an affordable place to spend the night, and motels were America’s answer. After World War Two the motel business skyrocketed, and by the 1950s there were around 22,000 motels and motor courts in the USA. Even the family-owned motels were adding luxuries like swimming pools and colour televisions, but those boom times wouldn’t last.

By the 1980s, countless privately-owned motels were going out of business because they were unable to compete with large chains. Others suddenly found themselves off the well-travelled roadways they had once depended on, as traffic was routed away from two-lane highways and onto the newly built interstates. Many abandoned motels were already aging when they were deserted, and simply couldn’t afford the renovations needed to keep attracting guests.

The term “cockroach motel” had become well-known by 1976. By the 2000s, some declining, decaying and abandoned motels were moved to various historic preservation lists in a bid to save this important piece of modern American heritage.

Abandoned Gas Stations

the abandoned gas stations of America 3

the abandoned gas stations of America 4

the abandoned gas stations of America 5 (Images: Nicolas Henderson; David Blackwell; Wes Dickenson; Lane Pearman)

America just wouldn’t be the same without its cars, and those cars wouldn’t run without their service stations. Today it’s all bright lights, self-service and questionable hot dogs, but it was different decades ago. In 1963, even James Cagney’s son went into the service station business.

Petrol stations are bigger than ever now, but abandoned gas stations across the country are presenting a potentially deadly problem. Underground storage tanks are deteriorating, installed before the regulations that made keeping their doors open next to impossible – for the small, mom-and-pop businesses, at least. When stations couldn’t keep up with demand or replace their tanks, they closed – and those same tanks are reportedly making it extremely difficult to re-use old sites.

Redeveloping lots that were previously home to gas stations takes a whole lot of work, and in many cases it’s just not cost-effective. That means there are plenty of abandoned gas stations standing empty across the vast network of highways that criss-cross the US, their pumps stripped of their hoses and windows broken and grimy with disuse. (Side note: the abandoned gas station (above, bottom) featured in the movie Rain Man.)

Vehicle Boneyards

Modern America was built with steel and gasoline, and cities like Detroit and Buffalo were once at the very heart of that mechanical revolution. But it’s in a small town just north of Atlanta, Georgia that you’ll find one of the largest collections of abandoned cars in the country – a property affectionately called Old Car City U.S.A.

Most of the cars are pre-1972 and made their way to the property with the help of the Lewis family. In the years surrounding World War Two, the family worked hard scrapping cars and metal needed to fuel that country’s military machine. Then, after the war, Dean Lewis decided that he wanted to preserve some of the cars that had helped shape American history.

The blog Sometimes-Interesting reports that Lewis stopped counting when he reached 4,000 cars, but he didn’t stop collecting. Some of the oldest have been reclaimed by nature, but they still remain quintessentially American. There are Chevrolets and Buicks, Plymouths and a ton of Lincolns in the Lewis family junkyard – the latter being the owner’s favourite make.

Weird Roadside Art & Monuments

the weird Americana monument of Carhenge

the bizarre monuments of roadside America 2

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the bizarre monuments of roadside America 4

the bizarre monuments of roadside America (Images: Chris M. Morris; Ron Pinkerton; bizarre car monuments)

The United States is a big place, and when it came time to connect its cities with highways and interstates, it wasn’t long before people across the country rushed to develop the biggest and most bizarre art installations and monuments to break up the seemingly endless miles of road ahead.

The abandoned cars of the Cadillac Ranch are raised into the Texas sky, not too far (in the grand scheme of things) away from Nebraska’s Carhenge. Meanwhile, the International Car Forest of the Last Church is an undeniably mysterious feature amid the wide Nevada desert; and then, of course, there’s the food.

There’s a giant pistachio in New Mexico, and donuts and artichokes in California. From Georgia’s giant peaches and their “World’s Largest Peanut” to Ohio’s concrete corn field and Texas’ giant watermelons, the drive from coast to coast is filled with the bizarre, the unlikely, the weird, and the tasty.

Abandoned Neon Signs




neon-boneyard-las-vegas-8 (Images: Graeme Maclean; abandoned neon signs now preserved in Las Vegas)

French engineer and chemist Georges Claude put the first neon light on display in Paris in 1910, but it wasn’t until 1923 that he took his invention to America. The first two signs sold for a staggering $24,000, destined for a Packard car dealership in California. They were known as ‘liquid fire’, and America loved them. They were everything the country stood for in the 1920s and 1930s, and by the following decade Las Vegas had made neon its own.

But of coure, nothing lasts forever – not even in America. Now, the Neon Boneyard in Las Vegas is filled with tons – literally – of iconic neon signs, all in varying stages of decay and preservation, all advertising some of the flashiest casinos and nightclubs that sprang up seemingly overnight in the Nevada desert. The two-acre lot is home to abandoned neon signs that once towered over the world-famous Las Vegas Strip, advertising Caesar’s Palace, the Gold Nugget, and even hostelries like the La Concha Motel. The Neon Boneyard is preserving these signs and in doing so, they’re also preserving the memories of generations – not to mention an important iconic of Americana.

Edit: an earlier version of this article stated that Rock-A-Hoola Waterpark sat along historic Route 66. The park’s location is actually to the north of Rte 66, along Interstate 15. 

Related – 10 Creepy Ghost Towns & Modern Ruins of the United States


About the author: Debra Kelly




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