They are the moments that defined America.
History has been made by thousands of leaders, innovators and everyday heroes. But some events from our collective past were so pivotal that they created iconic images Americans will remember for ages to come.
Traveling throughout the United States affords many opportunities to rediscover those moments and hear the untold stories behind them. Here are some iconic moments in government, culture, science and art that are worth revisiting on your next tour.
Boston Tea Party
It’s a scene illustrated in nearly every American history textbook: A band of rebellious Massachusetts colonists disguised as Native Americans angrily dump a shipment of tea in the Boston Harbor. The 1773 event, which came to be known as the Boston Tea Party, was the first of many incendiary acts that led to the American Revolution.
The colonists, angry over the British government’s “taxation without representation,” dumped 342 chests of imported tea over the side of a ship and into the water. The act caught the attention of the Crown, and less than a year and a half later, American rebels were fighting British soldiers on nearby Lexington Green.
Travelers can learn more about the Boston Tea Party and re-create the act of rebellion for themselves at the Boston Tea Party Ships and Museum. This multisensory experience includes live actors, interactive exhibits and a full-scale replica of a 1700s sailing ship.
Few events have shaped America more than the Civil War, and the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863 was among the bloodiest and most important moments. But what cemented this battle in the minds of Americans was the stirring speech that Abraham Lincoln gave in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, just four months later.
The Gettysburg Address was delivered at the dedication ceremony for the Gettysburg National Cemetery. The speech made headlines for its shocking brevity and power, which included the phrase “government of the people, by the people and for the people.”
Today, the Gettysburg National Military Park is among the most visited battlefields in the country. Groups can tour the park and several local museums to learn about the battle and the Gettysburg Address. Of special interest is the David Wills House, where Lincoln stayed the night before the ceremony and put the finishing touches on his speech.
It’s difficult to overstate the importance of the railroad in creating the interconnected United States we know today. The railroad enabled commerce, settlement and travel throughout every part of the country it touched. So when the major rail lines of the Eastern and Western regions were finally connected, it was a big deal.
In 1869, officials celebrated the completion of the first transcontinental railroad by driving the ceremonial Golden Spike between two connecting lines at a place in Promontory, Utah. The spike was made of 17.6-karat gold and was accompanied by other ceremonial spikes composed of various gold, silver, copper and iron blends.
The Golden Spike is no longer in the ground — gold is relatively soft and makes a poor metal for railroad durability — but visitors can see the spot where it was laid and learn more about the transcontinental railroad at Utah’s Golden Spike National Historical Park.
Rosie the Riveter
In 1943, in the middle of World War II, Pittsburgh artist J. Howard Miller created a poster that would become one of the most iconic images of the decade: a woman in coveralls and a red polka-dot bandanna flexing her bicep and proudly proclaiming, “We can do it!” The image caught on like wildfire, and “Rosie the Riveter” became a symbol of the multitudes of American women working in factories to support the war effort.
There has been some disagreement over the years about who inspired the image of Rosie. But historians have recently settled on Naomi Parker, an attractive young woman who was photographed in just such a bandanna and coveralls working an industrial machine at the Alameda Naval Air Station in California in 1942.
Today, travelers can learn about the legacy of the fictional Rosie, Parker and thousands of other women who contributed to the wartime production at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California.
Elvis on ‘Ed Sullivan’
In 1956, there was no bigger stage in America than that of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And on September 9 of that year, “The Ed Sullivan Show” helped catapult up-and-coming musician Elvis Presley into superstardom.
More than 60 million people watched Presley’s debut performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” where he sang “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Love Me Tender,” “Ready Teddy” and a few verses of “Hound Dog.” The performance cemented Presley as a superstar and was perhaps the most significant act on the show until the Beatles arrived in 1964.
Today, the Ed Sullivan Theater in New York is still a hot spot for television production: David Letterman taped his “Late Show” there for decades, and his successor, Stephen Colbert, taped there, too, until the pandemic began. Groups can arrange for tickets during trips to Manhattan. And there’s much more to learn about Presley and his performing legacy at the legendary Graceland estate in Memphis, Tennessee.
Selma to Montgomery March
America’s civil rights era produced numerous iconic moments and memorable images. Perhaps none is more triumphant, though, than the 1965 Selma to Montgomery March, in which activists John Lewis and Martin Luther King Jr. led thousands of protestors across Selma, Alabama’s Edmund Pettus Bridge.
The successful march across the bridge was especially significant because an earlier attempt had ended in disaster when authorities violently beat back protestors in an event that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. The attention garnered by the march was instrumental in leading to the passage of the Voting Rights Act later in the same year.
Travelers can commemorate this momentous march in numerous ways. They can attend the Selma Bridge Crossing Jubilee, which takes place each March or see the still-standing Edmund Pettus Bridge during a trip to Selma. The city’s National Voting Rights Museum has much more information about the march and the civil rights era.
On July 20, 1969, Americans watched in rapt anticipation as Neil Armstrong ventured out of the Apollo 11 lunar module and became the first human to walk on the surface of the moon. His words in that moment became legendary: “One small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.”
In that moment, Armstrong and the legions of NASA employees who made the moon landing possible cemented America as the definitive winner of the space race, securing a key victory in the Cold War and inspiring legions of children to dream of becoming astronauts. Historians estimate that more than 650 million people watched the event live.
Many artifacts from the moon landing and the Apollo program are now on display at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum in Washington. But travelers can also learn more about Armstrong and his pioneering career at the Armstrong Air and Space Museum in his hometown of Wapakoneta, Ohio.
Miracle on Ice
In 1980, there was no more intimidating athletic force than the national ice hockey team from the Soviet Union. The Russian team comprised professional players and had won gold in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games. So when the U.S. team of younger amateurs took the ice to face them in the medal round of the 1980 games, few onlookers expected them to emerge victorious.
During that hockey match, which took place in Lake Placid, New York, the American team put on a stunning performance and cemented its place in sports history by defeating the Russians 4-3. The match came to be known as the Miracle on Ice.
Travelers today can relive this moment and learn more about the 1980 games at the Lake Placid Olympic Sites. Adjacent to the site where that famous hockey game was played, the Lake Placid Olympic Museum features memorabilia and exhibits about the Miracle on Ice and other moments from the Winter Olympics.