Gettysburg threatened by development

Preservation trust seeks to draw attention to danger of encroachment

$6 million appropriated for land

March 22, 2001|By Jerry Abejo | Jerry Abejo,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON - Not long after the fierce battle at Gettysburg, Pa., in 1863, people began working to preserve the land as a memorial to fallen Union and Confederate soldiers. And though the military park now covers nearly 6,000 acres, preservationists still worry about commercial development on the fighting field.

The Civil War Preservation Trust says in a new report that the Gettysburg National Military Park is threatened by development on adjacent private land.

Trust members hope the report will draw attention to their efforts to preserve land. They have helped preserve 11,000 acres on or near important Civil War sites in 16 states.

"A lot of people are knowledgeable about the Civil War but it's very difficult to understand what happened and the sacrifices that were made unless you stand where these things occurred," said Jim Campi, spokesman for the Civil War Preservation Trust.

A recognizable name

Gettysburg is probably the most recognizable name in the Civil War, the place where 51,000 soldiers were killed or wounded in the culmination of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee's last northern invasion and where President Abraham Lincoln later delivered one of his most famous addresses.

Sections of battlefield at Gettysburg and other Civil War sites remain in private hands. One of the difficulties of preserving these sites is that the federal government has a limited amount of money to buy property from private owners.

The National Park Service has preserved 5,000 acres of the Gettysburg site, but portions are still privately held.

The Civil War Preservation Trust fears this land could be sold to developers instead of to the Park Service. This year, Congress appropriated $6 million to buy the 1,200 acres of private land designated as part of the park.

As early as 1864, only a year after the battle, sections of Gettysburg were purchased to memorialize the fight.

The national park was created in 1895, and Congress expanded its boundaries in 1990.

"The Park Service philosophy is based on the premise that the original place such as Thomas Edison's laboratory or Abraham Lincoln's birthplace needs to be preserved for the civic health of our country," said Dwight Pitcaithley, the chief historian of the National Park Service.

There has been development on the Gettysburg battlefield for years. Indeed, the park's visitors'center was built directly atop the Union battle line.

A string of fast-food restaurants, hotels and gift shops grew up around the visitors' center, along with some other places where fighting occurred.

`That's not right'

"I work in the visitors' center and I know that soldiers fought and died where we have a parking lot, and that's not right," said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for the Gettysburg National Military Park.

Plans are in place to move the visitor's center to a less important section of battlefield.

The move also will let the park build a bigger center that could house the park's 43,000 Civil War artifacts and its massive 356-foot- long painting of Pickett's Charge, a decisive and costly Confederate attempt to break the Union lines.

The old visitors' center will then be demolished and, using archived photographs, the National Park Service will restore the site to its 1863 appearance.

Lawhon said that because Gettysburg is one of the most studied and documented pieces of land in the world, the Park Service would be able to re-create precise details of the 1863 battlefield, such as fence lines.

Campi said that preservation trust members are worried that new stores and restaurants will sprout up around the new visitors' center on battlefield land that is still privately owned.

Trust members are working with the National Park Service to buy that private land as it becomes available. But it's a time-consuming process, Lawhon said.

There are no plans to restore the battlefield where the fast-food restaurants now exist. Lawhon noted that the stores serve an important purpose - they provide food and shelter for the park's 1.6 million annual visitors.

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