Grief Tourism

Travel to areas affected by natural disasters, places where people were murdered, etc.

Gettysburg National Military Park – Preservation of Sacred Ground

3rd June 2012

The Gettysburg battlefields had little significance as a tourist attraction, visited primarily by relatives of the Union soldiers, until Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address in November 1863 and the dedication of the National Soldiers Cemetery honoring the Union. It took seven more years to bring the Confederate soldiers killed on the battlefield to the Cemetery.

Tourists began to arrive on day trips, followed by weekend excursions, and extended vacations. The automobile made travel easier, along with a trolley line from town followed by an extension of railway service, for many more visitors. By 1884, Gettysburg had become a major historic site for an average 150,000 visitors a year, vigorously advertised and commercialized by the media to attract the crowds. People had money to spend and needed places to stay and eat, so hotels, restaurants, and shops were built for the tourist trade. Small amusement areas for families were located at the end of the trolley line on Little Round Top (known as the Devil’s Den), and later as a stop on the old railway spur in 1884. Then came the inevitable request for some type of entertainment and excitement in the evenings after the park closed.

Fast forward. The Pennsylvania state gaming board was established in 2004, and casino licenses were few and in great demand. By 2006, the controversy over a casino on or anywhere near the Park had grown considerably with local conservationists and Civil War historians vehemently opposed, while those in favor supported the plan as adding to the economy of the town. The main promoter was local developer David LeVan who bid twice for the Mason Dixon Resort and Casino and Resort. LeVan’s partner, Joseph Lashinger was a former state representative and a member of the gaming industry who had considerable influence on the state legislature’s decision. The controversy became political when even the governor warned that the state would lose money and employees unless casino table games were legalized. Susan Paddock, head of the grass roots movement, pointed out that the proposed site less than half a mile away was too close to the battlefields and would degrade the meaning of the sacred ground. She also objected to the possibility of casino employees taking business away from the employees of the town’s local establishments, as well as discouraging visitors who were only interested in the historical and cultural value of the Park.

There was no need for a casino, as slots and the lottery were bringing in substantial revenue to the state. Yet, LeVan persisted in his efforts for the next three years to convert the Eisenhower Conference Center into a casino. More than 35,000 historians and researchers, film producers, and Pulitzer Prize winner James McPherson joined efforts, signed petitions, and wrote letters of protest to the gaming commission to keep the battlefields as sacred ground in honor of those who fought at Gettysburg. Another 16 groups including the Civil War Trust, the National Parks Conservation Association, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund, and the American Legion also opposed the idea. Even the chairman of the Michigan Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee protested against the casino as dishonoring one of their own who had fought at Gettysburg. Perhaps, they remembered the words of Colonel Chamberlain, hero of Little Round Top, “In great deeds something abides. On great fields something stays. Forms change and pass; bodies disappear, but spirits linger, to consecrate ground for the vision-place of souls.”

In April 2011, the 6-year controversy was over when the Pennsylvania gaming commission rejected the idea, and awarded a casino license to the Nemacolin Woodlands Resort in another part of the state. Today, there is no casino or other form of inappropriate entertainment on or near the sacred ground. Gamblers and the betting crowds will have to drive to Penn National Racetrack at Hershey Park, about 30 minutes away, to find the closest casino. In fact, there is a bill pending to establish a buffer zone to block casinos from opening within 10 miles of the boundaries of the Park. Gettysburg National Military Park has kept its place in history and not fallen victim to the commercialism of other historic sites. The majority of visitors are heritage tourists, which added $67 million to the economy in 2010.

Preservation by the National Park Service (NPS) since 1933 and the Gettysburg Foundation continues with the opening of a new Visitor Center and Museum and renovation of the David Wills House. Visitors can watch the film, A New Birth of Freedom, narrated by Morgan Freeman and view the Cyclorama, a huge painting by Paul Philippoteaux, restored and revealed to the public in 2008. Cycloramas were predecessors of motion pictures, popular in the late 1800’s where visitors stood on a central platform to view a 3-D effect from the surrounding painting. A statue of Lincoln stands in front of the David Wills House in downtown Gettysburg. The grand opening was celebrated on 12 Feb 2009 in honor of Lincoln’s 200th birthday. It features five galleries of artifacts and exhibits, two short films, and Lincoln’s bedroom where he spent the night and finished writing the famous Gettysburg Address.

Park – Free. Guided 2-hour tours, from $65 (up to six passengers), bus tours, from $30.
Museum & Visitor Center: Adults – $12.50, Seniors/Active Military – $8.50, Children 6-12, $5.50.
Wills House: Adults – $6.50, Seniors – $5.50, Children 6-12 – $4.00. Tours available.

Park – 6am-10pm, 1 Apr-31 Oct. 6am-7pm, 1 Nov-31 Mar.
Museum – 8am-6pm, 1 Apr-31 Oct. 8am-5pm, 1 Nov-31 Mar
Wills House – Open on various days all year, usually from 9am-5pm.

Upcoming event, July 6-8, 2012, 149th Annual Gettysburg Civil War Battle Reenactment – Five Civil War battles will be featured.

Sharon L Slayton

See also: General Farnsworth mysteryGettysburg tourism

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