METROPOLIS | ILLINOIS
It’s a bird… it’s a plane… it’s- Superman’s very own hometown! Hello again my small town lovin’ friends! I’m so glad to be back in the business of sharing these charming hidden gems of the US with you all. This week, we’re taking a closer look at one of my favorite small towns I’ve actually visited! Today, let’s dig a little deeper into the fascinating little town of Metropolis, Illinois.
Metropolis is a city with a population of just over 6,000 residents, and is lovingly known as the place “where heroes and history meet on the shores of the majestic Ohio River.” It was a pleasant surprise to me to find that Metropolis is, in fact, the city’s original name! The town was established in 1839 by an ambitious merchant from Pittsburgh and a local landowner. They dreamed that (because of its placement on the Ohio River) Metropolis would become a hub for transport, and thus, it required a suitably grandiose name. In 1850, it was even included in a proposal for creating a Western District of Columbia!
As the decades rolled on, however, agriculture and (much later) a uranium processing plant remained the main economic drivers of the area. That was all well and good, but a new industry entered the picture on January 21st, 1972...
This Town in History: Official Home of Superman
In 1972, the future of Metropolis would change forever because of one event that sparked tourism in the area for years to come. On January 21st, ‘Superman Day’ in Metropolis brought a DC Comics publisher, national dignitaries, and "Superman" himself (in a George Reeves suit!) to town to celebrate Superman’s designation as a Distinguished Son of Metropolis. Local public schools even got a day off to attend the ceremony! Shortly after, the Illinois House of Representatives got in on the heroic action by passing Resolution 572, which officially recognized Metropolis as The Official Hometown of Superman in the eyes of the government.
You might be wondering, “Why would this claim to fame become *quite* so official?” To answer that question, we have to look at why DC Comics and Metropolis agreed to this arrangement in the first place.
You see, DC Comics had their own reasons for finding a home for Superman, and Metropolis was more than happy to partner with them for a potential boost to the local economy. The long-term goal for both Metropolis and DC was to build a Superman theme park nearby- no doubt inspired by the massive success of parks that “started with a Mouse.” The amusement park “The Amazing World of Superman” was promoted both in the town and by DC- with an exhibition opened and a comic book released detailing the wonders visitors would witness and experience at this new park. Comic artist Neal Adams was hired to create illustrations promoting enticing attractions like the Fortress of Solitude, Bizzaro Playground, and even a super-supermarket.
Sadly, this dream of an attraction was never fully realized- and I think we all missed out on something great. The gasoline crisis of the early 70’s dramatically changed family life in the US, and therefore, the nature of family-friendly tourism. The ideal of the Great American Road Trip was especially impacted by gasoline prices directly. Whomp whomp.
Fortunately, the Illinoisans of Metropolis are a hardy and determined bunch- and still capitalize on this claim to fame in several ways that make this town worth a visit to this day. One aspect of the park that was fully realized is the giant Superman statue that was designed to be the park’s entrance. This 2-ton monument has a permanent home in front of the Massac County Courthouse, in the aptly named ‘Superman Square’. Luckily for visitors, my favorite attraction in Metropolis is just around the corner from this monument. And, surprisingly enough, this impressive museum all started with a 5-year-old boy and a Superman lunchbox.
(Left: Me & my sibling at the Superman Monument circa 2014)
Must-See & Do: The Super Museum
Jim Hambrick’s unbelievable Superman-memorabilia collection all started with a lunchbox gifted to him for his fifth birthday, and has since grown to be one of the most extensive collections in the entire world! One lunchbox turned into a Superman shrine quickly for young Jim, and by ten he had a collection in his room worth charging entry fees for (one nickel per person for a tour of his bedroom collection.) Despite the fact that Hambrick was collecting before collecting became “cool”, throughout the ’70s and '80s people lined up to see his growing exhibit of all things Superman.
To my surprise, Hambrick never had to ask DC Comics for permission to showcase his collection, rather the opposite! They heard about what he was doing and often referred others to Jim to assess the value of their own rare finds. In fact, Hambrick says it was DC Comics themselves who first proposed he establish a brick-and-mortar museum to share his collection and promote the films.
Then, come 1993, Hambrick relocated to Metropolis and established the Super Museum- a permanent home for his collection right on Superman Square. The museum is host to more than 70,000 items all tied to the Man of Steel: from an original George Reeves super suit, to just about every Superman toy ever produced. The museum has been featured in several TV specials, and was once awarded the coveted title of "#1 Small Town Attraction In America."
The Super Museum is certainly the most extensive evergreen attraction in Metropolis- but there is one event every year that fills the town to the brim with everything Super.
Community Event: DRIGGS SNOWSCAPES
If you can be flexible about when you visit Metropolis, you don’t wanna miss this.
Celebrating its 44th (!!!) consecutive year in 2021, the Superman Celebration is the convention/festival that Metropolis is best known for year after year. It typically draws 25,000 people to the town for the second weekend of June every year- but has been postponed to July 30th-August 1st this year due to COVID-19.
What started out as a 1-day event for locals to celebrate the town’s connection to Superman has grown to a multi-day convention that draws Superman fans from around the world to his hometown. Complete with Superman celebrity meet and greets, costume contests, live entertainment, and its own Artist Alley- this event both celebrates the town’s unique history and gives a boost to local tourism that deserves the support.
The event has grown so much that it also draws crowds to the concurrent Metropolis Super Con, which is a more general pop-culture and superhero convention. I think we can all agree that Superman would be proud of his hometown’s hospitality towards other Supers ;)
There is one other event that is at the same time as the Superman Celebration, but its location is also worth visiting year-round.
The Great Outdoors: Fort Massac State Park
Remember how I mentioned Metropolis is “where heroes and history meet on the shores of the majestic Ohio River”? Well, Fort Massac State Park is where that history comes into play, not to mention, the Ohio River.
Fort Massac’s rich history dates back to prehistoric times, as native peoples undoubtedly took advantage of this area’s high ground overlooking the Ohio River. Historians say that Europeans took this same advantage as early as 1540 when the Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto and his company built a primitive fort here as they violently claimed the land as their own. Ever since, fortifications have been built, torn down, and rebuilt here again by the French, British, and eventually, American troops. In US history, the fort was used from the Revolutionary to the beginning of the Civil War, a period of around 85 years.
In more modern history, Fort Massac and 1,500 surrounding acres were incorporated as Illinois’ first state park on November 5th, 1908. In the Fall of 2002, a replica of the 1802 American fort was constructed adjacent to the site of the original fort. This original site, where all the forts were built, still has the archeological outline used for the 1757 French Fort (and all subsequent iterations throughout history.) Fort Massac is host to a few major annual events, most notably the Fort Massac Encampment, and a large antique car show that runs alongside the Superman Celebration in town. The car show is an additional attraction for the Celebration, but the Encampment is no small affair as a standalone event. This two-day reenactment of life in the 1700s occurs every October and draws approximately 200,000 people to the area annually.
Day to day, Fort Massac is a great place to enjoy picnics, camping, hiking, fishing, boating, and regulated seasonal hunting. Plus, the beautiful landscape and views of the Ohio River make it no secret why people have been defending ownership of this land since before recorded history.
Metropolis is a small town founded on dreams of a grand transport economy, but instead, it became a stellar final destination itself. Though the community has obviously seen bumps in the road to their success, the resilience and inventiveness of the people of Metropolis is evident in how they make the most of their designation as the Official Hometown of Superman.
I speak from experience (having been here myself) when I say the Man of Steel’s neighbors are some of the most friendly and welcoming people I’ve met in any small town throughout the US. The way the community binds together to survive is Amazing in and of itself- and definitely proves that not all superheroes wear capes
“The ‘Amazing’ Can Only Be Created By Facing Fear, Risk, And Failure During The Process.” - Clark Kent