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The United States has a fascinating history, and exploring the places which most affected it is much more fun than simply reading about it. These 10 towns – voted as the best by readers – have small populations (fewer than 25,000 people) with big histories, making them fun and affordable ways to dive into our nation’s past. These are the 10 best historic small towns across the country for 2023.
No. 10: Port Gamble, Washington
Port Gamble was once a thriving mill town, built on the banks of the Kitsap Peninsula in 1853. These days, this little village gives a glimpse into that historic time. Numerous structures are just as they were way back then and can be toured and explored – and some are said to be haunted, too. That’s given rise to the annual Port Gamble Ghost Conference in November, when believers in those wraiths gather for a three-day extravaganza.
No. 9: Mackinac Island, Michigan
One of the last car-free destinations in the U.S., Mackinac Island, sandwiched between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, seems trapped in the past – but in the most delightful way. Accommodations consist of turn-of-the-century hotels, while the horse-drawn carriage remains the favored form of transportation. With 80% of the island occupied by protected state park land, those looking to explore the outdoors will find plenty of opportunity for hiking and biking.
No. 8: Yorktown, Virginia
Revolutionary War buffs flock to Yorktown, the spot where that war was effectively won by Washington and his colonial troops. Today, this small port town is chockablock with historical places to visit, including the Main Street grouping of Colonial period buildings, the Yorktown Battlefield, and the American Revolution Museum at Yorktown. And there’s even a beach on the York River where you can play a bit after discovering the fascinating history that happened here.
No. 7: Williamsburg, Virginia
Originally the capital of Virginia (the largest state at that time) from 1699-1780, Williamsburg lost much of its prominence when the capital was moved to Richmond. However, this means the town wasn’t as affected by urbanization and the Industrial Revolution, leaving many of its historical buildings and sites intact, despite bitter battles and sieges being fought in the area during the Civil War.
No. 6: Wickenburg, Arizona
With 30 stops on Wickenburg’s Historic Walking Tour, visitors may tucker out before they see all the history of this quintessential Western town. A gold mine started things off here in 1863, and today, you can still see houses and stores built back then, as well as structures and the original train depot from the late 1890s. Oldtownreview.com expert Kyle McCarthy likes it because “it still has dude ranches, [a] classic Main Street, rodeos, cowboy shops, and barbecue joints.”
No. 5: Cody, Wyoming
This picturesque town near Yellowstone was founded by its namesake, William F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody in the 1890s. Today, it features the Buffalo Bill Center of the West, five museums that include the Plains Indian Museum as well as the Buffalo Bill Museum – both packed with historical objects and artifacts. The Heart Mountain Relocation Center is also nearby, commemorating where 14,000 Japanese-Americans were interned in World War II.
No. 4: Wallace, Idaho
Set against Idaho’s Bitterroot Mountains, Wallace is the epitome of an Old West mining town. Once a booming “silver city,” a fire destroyed the town in 1890, but the miners rebuilt it with brick buildings that still stand today. It’s those structures that put the whole town on the National Register of Historic Places. It’s even got the Oasis Bordello Museum, located in a real bordello that existed on the town’s main street for generations.
No. 3: Wickford, Rhode Island
Europeans first settled this Rhode Island community around 1637. Today, it features one of the Northeastern United States’ most significant collections of 18th-century dwellings, most of which are on their original foundations. The Old Narragansett Church was established in downtown Wickford in 1707 and today stands as the oldest Episcopal church building in the Northeastern United States. One of the area’s most visited historical locations is Smith’s Castle, built in 1678 by the son of one of Wickford’s earliest European settlers.
No. 2: Abilene, Kansas
Abilene is the hometown of Dwight D. Eisenhower, a five-star General of the Army and 34th President of the United States – and that’s just the start of this town’s historical appeal. Besides the Eisenhower Presidential Library, Museum, and Boyhood Home, visitors can ride the state’s only operational steam locomotive, tour the historic Seelye Mansion, take a spin on the oldest known Parker Carousel, and step back into the Wild West in Old Abilene Town.
No. 1: San Elizario, Texas
The roots of this small Texas community go back hundreds of years, beginning with a Spanish settlement and military base. San Elizario chose to maintain its historic integrity rather than move forward as the railroad became a more prominent means of transportation in the late 1800s. Today, the community features historically significant buildings with the adobe construction and architectural features recognized in the Territorial and Pueblo Revival styles. Los Portales Casa Garcia, formerly a residence in the mid-19th-century, now serves as a museum and highlights exhibits on the town’s history through its many governmental periods.
These 10 historic towns offer visitors a unique opportunity to immerse themselves in the rich history of the United States. From Revolutionary War sites to Old West mining towns, each town has its own story to tell. Whether you’re a history buff or just looking for a fun and affordable way to explore our nation’s past, these towns are sure to leave a lasting impression. So pack your bags and get ready to dive into history in these fascinating destinations.