Just days before Earth Day, visitors to Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, began lining up to experience the tourist destination’s newest attraction:  Zipline Hilton Head. As the Island Packet reported on opening day, the ride, which sends riders suspended from a pulley down gradually sloping wires tethered to a series of treetop towers, mixes family fun with a dose of ecotourism (zip liners can learn about the delicate balance of nature from the company’s hired ecologist/guide) on an island whose early developer pioneered an aesthetic blend of subdued architecture with Lowcountry nature that has until now provided mainly a sylvan backdrop for decidedly calmer forms of recreation.

On the face of it, zip lines seem most closely tied to other, more “extreme” forms of recreation like bungee jumping, rock climbing, or skydiving.  Yet the contraptions’ dual provision of locomotion + vantage suggests other interesting connections rooted partly in the history of tourism. Zip lines originated in the Tyrolean traverse, an Alpine mountaineering technique for negotiating rugged terrain. They merged with environmentalism by the 1970s in a very different setting: Central and South American rainforest canopies, facilitating botanists’ and zoologists’ study of flora and fauna. It wasn’t long before the zip line morphed into an exhilarating form of ecotourism. Roughly a century after its advent, the old Tyrolean traverse has become a major moneymaker and the latest in a long line of novelties aimed at offering thrilling new ways to experience tourist attractions.

One of Gettysburg's observation towers, ca. 1900-06. Detroit Publishing Company Photograph Collection. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division

Apart from the zip-line fad, place-makers have long turned to built structures that afford otherwise impossible vantage points. Recent examples include the glass-floored skywalks at Chicago’s Willis Tower (formerly Sears Tower) and the Grand Canyon, but such structures were already a fixture at tourist attractions in the 19th century. At Niagara Falls, a rickety footbridge across the rapids leading to an observation tower on Goat Island provided a template for later devices to place visitors ever closer to the action, including the Cave of the Winds, where tourists traverse a boardwalk amid crashing waves and sprays of mist from the thunderous cataract above their heads. At Gettysburg, early steel observation towers – erected in the 1890s to help visitors imagine maneuvers at Culp’s Hill, Little Round Top, and other parts of the battlefield – paled in comparison to the highly controversial (and relatively short-lived) 307-foot-tall Gettysburg National Tower. Observation decks and towers proliferated in the late 19th and 20th centuries, ranging from reserved floors of skyscrapers like the Empire State Building (which itself was hardly the first such offering) to dedicated structures like Paris’s Eiffel Tower and Seattle’s Space Needle.

Entrepreneurial keepers of attractions also devised novel forms of locomotion to offer quick thrills. LaMarcus Thompson, who invented Coney Island’s first switchback railway in the late 19th century, seems to have drawn inspiration from an Appalachian coal-mine train in eastern Pennsylvania that began offering the opportunity for thrill seekers to pay a nominal fee to ride for amusement when the gravity train was not in use for its intended purpose. The Coney adaptation sent patrons clambering up a tower, where they sat down sideways on what amounted to a bench on wheels that coasted several hundred feet to a lower tower. The idea was elaborated countless times, culminating in the modern, extreme coasters found in places like Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio.

Thompson's Switchback Railway, Coney Island, New York, 1884. Wikipedia

The zip line and the roller coaster share a common thread in deriving leisure from labor-oriented conveyances. Yet the zip line at Hilton Head is clearly more than a thrill ride, billed as enabling participants to gain a new appreciation of the island’s ecology. A third influence is worth pointing out. As many of the contributors point out in the new book American Tourism: Constructing a National Tradition, at tourist sites, “pathways for movement have become carefully considered elements of the built environment.” Innovative forms of transit at leading attractions include glass-bottom boats, miniature-train rides, aerial tramways, and Disneyland’s famed monorail. Such motorized conveyances “represent a further attempt to alter frames of reference for visitors,” much as the Grand Canyon skywalk makes standing near the rim seem quaint – even Victorian. In this sense, the next time you whizz through the live-oak canopy on South Carolina’s most popular barrier island, you’ll be doing so in the ecumenical spirit of fixed-point observation (Culp’s Hill Lookout Tower), thrill ride (Thompson’s Switchback Railway), and scenic conveyance (Disneyland Monorail).

Monorail at Disneyland

Monorail at Disneyland, 1984. Photo by Lee Lawrence on Flickr