GETTYSBURG, PA. — 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
"Last year, we turned down 25 percent of schools who requested programs because didn't have the staff," said Lawhon. Over the past decade, there has been a 23 percent increase in visitors, but a 23 percent decrease in visitor services staff because of funding shortfalls.
The park infrastructure is crumbling, said Dave Dreier, chief of maintenance, as he drove down a road and pointed to eroding pavement.
There are supposed to be 430 cast-iron cannon carriages in position, but there are only 380 in place now, he said. Many are cracked or otherwise in need of repair, he said, describing how children climb on the gun barrels to pose for photos.
"If one of these things falls on a kid, it's going to kill him," said Drier. But it costs $1,100 to sandblast, prime and weld the cracks in a single cannon carriage.
Security is another problem, with no rangers on duty from midnight to 6 a.m. in the largely open park. But a rash of vandalism was halted when a volunteer Park Watch Patrol of residents began making nightly rounds.
John McKenna, the assistant park superintendent, said a recent staff survey showed that people like working at the Gettysburg battleground, but "they're frustrated."
Because of the funding shortfalls, he said, "they're unable to do their jobs."
Bob Monahan decided to invest in history as he was driving through the dark park after taking a baby-sitter home one night in 1993. Earlier that evening, he and his wife had attended the Washington, D.C., premiere of Ted Turner's movie "Gettysburg."
1995 plan draws fire
"I live on the edge of the battlefield and drive through the heart of Pickett's Charge on my way to work," said Monahan, a real estate developer whose family owns several funeral homes in the region. Because he had grown up in Gettysburg, he said, the movie moved him to get involved in his home-town heritage.
Not long afterward, Monahan met for lunch with some National Park officials at the home of Angela Rosensteel Eckhert, a family friend who is the daughter of the late artifacts donor and a board member of the nonprofit Friends of the National Parks at Gettysburg.
After months of similar meetings, plans emerged for the Monahan group to build a new $30 million visitor center and museum in the park and to build and operate a companion giant-screen IMAX theater and other tourist facilities. The nonprofit Friends would serve as a bridge between the government and business.
When the plans became known in 1995, some preservationists protested that the Park Service had sold out history and heritage a secret deal.
"They wanted to build an IMAX theater within a stone's throw from where Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address," marveled Silbey, one of several Friends board members who quit over the group's involvement in the project.
Silbey, the son of immigrants, is passionate in his defense of the rolling fields and woods where 51,000 Americans were killed or ++ wounded in the decisive battle of the Civil War. "The spirit of this place entered into me," he explained.
In addition to historic preservation, Eric Uberman had another interest in stopping the 1995 arrangement. For three decades, his family has owned and operated a Civil War wax museum and other establishments across the street from the present Visitor Center.
Surveys show that 98 percent of the tourists who visit the park go the Visitor Center, he said, meaning that "the Park Service can deliver to a private enterprise virtually every person who comes to Gettysburg."
The 1995 arrangement was "a done deal" before an outcry from " Civil War buffs, some local merchants and others forced its abandonment, said Uberman.
The Park Service and Monahan deny there was anything clandestine or sinister about their planning.
"It wasn't veiled. It was actually very forthright: 'Here's our plan and we want to do it with Monahan and the Friends,' " said Lawhon.
But after the hostile reaction, she said, the Park Service decided "we needed to look at a wider range of options ... and an open, nationwide search for partners."
And that's where the situation stands now.
'Wired for one person'?
After the outcry about his initial plan, Monahan secured land adjacent to the park and will propose building a "heritage campus" there that could include the new museum and visitor center. Having already invested several years, he said, he will establish a "historically accurate" education and entertainment facility there whether or not he becomes the designated Park Service "partner."
Lawhon said the Park Service is searching for innovative proposals to preserve and improve the Gettysburg facilities and experience. But the opponents remain skeptical.
The process seems "wired for one person - Bob Monahan," said Silbey. "All I want to do is see this damn thing stopped and to preserve the battlefield."
The opponents suggest that corporate sponsors could be found to provide funding in return for a bit of recognition without becoming actively involved in the park operations or related tourist facilities.
"I don't believe there is any need to sell off the national parks like this. It's setting a precedent - the total debasement of the entire national park system," said Uberman. He fears that the Gettysburg project could create "a wave of the future with private monopolies within the parks."
Lawhon said the Park Service can only await the proposals and then select the best - or reject them all if none is satisfactory.
Pub Date: 4/17/97