Gettysburg fighting a battle of attrition History: As artifacts melt away under the assault of time, weather and vandalism, the National Park Service searches for an ally to help it preserve the battlefield.

April 17, 1997|By cox news service

GETTYSBURG, Pa. - The cannon smoke had scarcely cleared and corpses clad in blue or gray were still being dragged from the cornfields when the first curious folks came by carriage in the brutal summer of 1863.

"Gettysburg is one of the oldest tourist towns in America. Visitors started coming here within days of the battle," said Katie Lawhon, a National Park Service spokeswoman. "People needed see firsthand what happened here."

Now, six score and 14 years after the biggest, bloodiest battle ever fought in North America, 1.7 million people still visit )R Gettysburg every year and contribute $107 million to the local economy. What these tourists will see and spend in coming years has sparked a new conflict around the Civil War battlefield, where preservation and profits are sometimes uneasy neighbors.

'All about money'

"This is all about money," said Frank Silbey, a Washington business consultant who was a board member of the Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg until he resigned in protest over a proposed development of the park. "They are going to destroy a national shrine," he said.

Money is at the crux of the controversy, the National Park Service agrees. For decades, the park service says, the federal government has not provided enough funding to maintain the 5,733 acres of Gettysburg National Military Park, much less modernize its aging facilities and properly display its artifacts.

So the park service is seeking a "partner" - probably a private enterprise - to invest $45 million or so in park improvements. Exactly what these improvements will be, and what the investor will get in return are negotiable under a federal "request for proposals" that the Park Service has issued.

"Gettysburg National Military Park is broke," Park Superintendent John Latschar warned Nov. 16 at a ceremony marking Remembrance Day, the anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. "On a broader scale, all of our Civil War parks are broke, and the entire National Park Service is bankrupt."

The partnership plan is being watched closely from Yosemite to the Great Smoky Mountains.

Gettysburg park officials were told, "if you're going to do this, figure out a way to do it that could set a model up for other parks to be able to follow in your footsteps," said Lawhon. "That's been one of the principles we've followed."

Fighting 'red rot'

"Red rot," snorted Mike Vice, museum curator of the Gettysburg National Military Park. He pointed to a deteriorating leather cartridge pouch in the musty basement of the Visitor Center.

Rust and rot threaten many of the 40,000 artifacts stored below the hall of glass cases where visitors see a relatively few muskets, uniforms, flags and other historic objects collected from the Gettysburg battlefield. Because of the limited space, Vice said, only 10 percent of the collection is on display.

The collection could stock "one of the major Civil War museums in America," said Vice. But stored where temperature and

humidity are not controlled, the pistols, saddles, drums, sabers and other artifacts might not survive another 20 years.

Much of the collection was donated to the Park Service in 1971 by the Rosensteel family, which had operated a private museum and shop in the building that is now the Visitor Center. George Rosensteel sold the property to the park service.

Since then, the federal government has never provided proper funding to maintain and display the artifacts, said Vice. "There has been 25 years of benign neglect."

Next to the Visitor Center, overlooking the broad field where Confederate Gen. George Pickett led his famous charge, is the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The giant circular painting depicts the fateful third day in the battle that marked the beginning of the end for the Southern forces. There are only two Civil War cycloramas left in the United States, the other being a major tourist attraction in Atlanta.

The roof leaks at the Gettysburg Cyclorama. The marvelously detailed painting is improperly hung, so a close examination shows waves and wrinkles in the canvas. There is no "entourage" of figures around the base of the painting to enhance the three-dimensional effect, pointed out Lawhon.

The park service would like to bulldoze the Visitor Center and Cyclorama and relocate to new, state-of-the-art facilities on a less historic spot in the battlefield or outside the park. The existing buildings are on Cemetery Ridge, where the Union troops dug in to stop Pickett's charge, and not far from where Abraham Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address four months after the battle ended.

Congress voted to establish a National Civil War Museum at Gettysburg in 1989, but has never appropriated any funding. The $3.5 million allocated for Gettysburg in the current federal budget is nearly $2 million less than Park Service officials say is needed to operate the park.

Visitors up, staff down

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