The listing of the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site National Historic Landmark was an eight-year process that started in 2006 with local historians and Grand Canyon National Park staff who recognized the importance of the approaching 50th anniversary. Although the accident was known to the Colorado River community and local historians, prior to 2006, the TWA and United Airlines impact sites had no official designation and were not recognized as a historical resource to be protected. By 2006, Grand Canyon National Park had assembled a good record of the accident as well as administrative records and archival documents, but had not investigated what remained on the ground at the two sites. The work needed to officially recognize the accident sites started with an archeological investigation of what remained at the two inner canyon locations. The archeological investigation took the form of assigning an official site number and documenting the two impact sites with GPS mapping, photography and identification and analysis of all physical remains. It also required extensive written descriptions of the size, composition and condition of the sites as well as an evaluation of the site’s eligibility to the National Register of Historic Places. This work was made difficult by both extremely rugged terrain and the weight of the tragedy on the minds of those involved with the field documentation.
In 2008, following the conclusion of two years of initial field work, the impact locations were officially recognized as a historic archeological site, meeting all criteria including the 50-year age requirement, an inventory of recognizable artifacts and site condition ratings. The archeological site record demonstrates eligibility of the sites to the National Register of Historic Places, which affords the national park the ability to protect them as a historical resource. Unlike many historical sites which are significant at the local or state level, the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site was considered significant at the national level for its impact on American history. After 2008 when site documentation was completed, the two impact locations have been protected by Grand Canyon National Park, which carefully restricts who can and cannot go to the sites (no commercial groups) and prohibits activities including camping and advertising the sites to the public.
At the same time Grand Canyon National Park was completing archeological site documentation, the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program was in the process of writing a theme study focused on America Aviation Heritage.** Like other national theme studies, the America Aviation Heritage theme study helps identify and evaluate nationally significant properties.
In 2011, the America Aviation Heritage Theme Study recommended the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site accident site as a property needing further study for the National Historic Landmarks program. The theme study states that,“No single event in American history has contributed more to the current system of air safety than the  Grand Canyon disaster.”
After two years of research and writing, Grand Canyon National Park submitted a National Historic Landmark nomination for review in 2010. After various reviews in the National Historic Landmark office in Washington D.C. office, the Landmarks Committee recommended notifying TWA-UAL family members of the victims of the mid-air collision. The notification was a way to let family members know that the sites in Grand Canyon could be listed on the National Register of Historic Places and commemorated as a National Historic Landmark. This was a major turning point in the purpose and intent of the project. Up to this point in 2011, very few family members knew of the project and no family members had been given the opportunity to comment on how the accident had affected their lives, let alone how the significance of the accident would be portrayed to the public. This single recommendation by the Landmarks Committee provided an opportunity to tell the human side of the story, something that had been obviously missing up to this point. The significance of the accident is well known as a watershed moment in the creation of the Federal Aviation Administration and the modernization of the United States’ air safety system. But, the true meaning of the accident was not fully understood until the families of the victims shared their stories.
In 2013, with the help of many volunteers with the Grand Canyon Historical Society and Grand Canyon Association, Grand Canyon National Park completed an initial effort to contact as many relatives of the victims of the accident. A total of 20 TWA family members and 16 United Airlines family members were contacted and information about the project was shared with each one. A report of this outreach was submitted to the National Historic Landmarks Committee, who completed a final review of the nomination in the spring of 2014. And on April 23, 2014, the 1956 Grand Canyon TWA-United Airlines Aviation Accident Site was officially designated a National Historic Landmark.
In the summer of 2014, Grand Canyon National Park hosted a dedication ceremony at Desert View, an area of the park where both Chuar and Temple Butte are visible in the distance. As part of the dedication ceremony, at approximately 10:30 in the morning on June 30, 2014,a wreath was placed at both the TWA and United Airlines memorial grave sites in Flagstaff, AZ and Grand Canyon, AZ. A dedication ceremony at Desert View included officials from the National Park Service, the Federal Aviation Administration as well as several elected officials. Mike Nelson, author of the history of the tragedy, We Are Going In, and nephew of one of the victims, gave a very personal, moving speech. Also at the ceremony, the National Historic Landmarks plaque was unveiled to the public and the media by Superintended Dave Uberauga. A gathering of family members followed and included sharing of memorabilia, speeches by several family members and presentation of commemorative plaques to family members.
This was a time for the national park to reflect on the meaning of such tragedy and how air travel safety today owes a great deal to those who lost their lives on June 30, 1956. The National Historic Landmark plaque is now installed at Desert View for public viewing. This was also a time for family members to gather and reflect on the loss of their loved ones, and what turned out to be one of the most powerful moments of the dedication, meeting one another for the first time.
As a National Historic Landmark, the 1956 mid-air collision sites have the highest level of federal recognition in the history of the United States. Historians and the public can look back on the event and study its effect on the nation of the time a well as its affects on aviation safety today. The lessons learned from the event and the transformations that ensued still resonate today. The National Historic Landmark helps make that connection between the present and the past. The two National Historic Landmark locations in Grand Canyon National Park are also afforded the highest level of preservation protection for a historic site. The national park takes measures to protect the sites through monitoring, controlled access and careful planning of nearby projects to avoid impacts.
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