Route 66 News

The oddest site on the National Register of Historic Places

Each week, I receive an email from the National Park Service that provides the latest additions to the National Register of Historic Places. A few sites are relevant to Route 66, as you might imagine.

On Friday, this item led the listings:

1956 Grand Canyon TWA–United Airlines Aviation Accident Site
Address Restricted,
Grand Canyon National Park,

A plane crash site from more than 50 years ago? And it’s now on the National Register?

The Atlantic apparently was one of the first media outlets to find out about this and explained why the crash site was deemed historically significant:

At the time, it was the deadliest accident in commercial aviation history, and it prompted a huge push for aviation safety that culminated in the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration. The crash response eventually led to the development of nationwide radar, collision avoidance systems, flight-data recorders, and sophisticated navigation tools.

In other words, much of the infrastructure of modern aviation security can be traced back to June 30, 1956, the day of the Grand Canyon mid-air collision. […]

The designation is unusual. For one thing, it may be the first landmark to commemorate something that happened exclusively in the air.

“And we’ve never done an actual crash site,” said Alexandra Lord, branch chief of the National Historic Landmarks Program in Washington, D.C. […]

Technological crossroads are big, and frequently emerge as contributors to the kinds of broad patterns the Park Service looks for in deciding what to accept as a Landmark site. “We do a fair number that deal with major moments in the history of tech or history of engineering,” Lord told me. “It’s impossible to say how many.”

On the morning of June 30, 1956, a United Airlines jet collided with a Trans World Airlines jet in midair over the Grand Canyon, causing both aircraft to crash and killing all 128 people aboard. It was believed the pilots were dodging thunderstorms in the area and strayed into each other’s paths. According to Wikipedia, It was the first commercial airline crash to result in over 100 deaths.

A mass funeral was held on the Grand Canyon’s South Rim, and some of the remains from the United flight were interred at Grand Canyon Pioneer Cemetery. Most of the remains from the TWA flight were buried in a mass grave at Citizens Cemetery in Flagstaff, Arizona.

More about the crash also can be found in a well-researched post on the Around Arizona site.

Don’t go looking for the crash site in your hiking boots or a pack mule after visiting Grand Canyon National Park. The location of the plane’s wreckage is being kept secret. According to the Atlantic, people are banned from going to the site:

“It’s extremely remote, so it would take a very long time for someone to get there backpacking and it would be very difficult to reach,” Lord said. “But we know where it is and we’re going to work to preserve it.”

The landmark spans 1.5 square miles and has been closed to hikers since the 1950s, though people have reported encountering the wreckage since then. […]

Even after an additional clean-up area in the 1970s, much of the evidence of the crash remains where it landed more than half a century ago.

One aircraft buff also agreed that reaching the site is extremely difficult:

Hands down, this is the most difficult crash site I have been to. The hike was 18 miles in, and required two days just to get to the confluence of the rivers. Then one has to cross the Colorado River to visit the site. The TWA crash site was reached on the third day. After that, cross the river again and spend two more days hiking out. The trip consisted of 36 miles round-trip, of which a back-country permit is required.

One fellow on Flickr apparently stumbled onto a piece of the wreckage last year. And the Deseret News in Utah published a story about the crash in 2006, including interviewing Trey Brandt, who visited one of the crash sites:

Brandt, who describes himself as an aviation buff and “wreckchaser,” says it’s the old planes that interest him. But when the wreck is a fatal one there will also be other grim artifacts: coins, small glass containers that once held nail polish, silver brooches.

“I can picture an aunt figure or a grandmother looking in the mirror that morning and pinning it on,” he says, and the thought makes him sad.

Scattered among the rocks are sales receipts and advertisements and a lady’s wrist watch, the time stopped forever at 10:32.

The site brings to mind the TWA Flight 260 crash in 1955 in the Sandia Mountains above Albuquerque. Thirteen people died. Although the bodies were recovered, much of the wreckage remains on the mountain and is accessible to hikers.

(Image from 1956 of the severed tail from the crashed TWA flight by the National Park Service, via Wikimedia Commons)


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