Several years before we left D.C., we spent a long weekend up at Gettysburg National Military Park. At the time, we learned that the National Park Service was going to be building a new, state of the art, visitor center for the park. So when we headed up to Gettysburg recently, I returned to the park to check out the new center and explore the battlefield once more. Additionally, we spent a day in York, Pennsylvania, visiting one of Kevin’s friends from high school and learning about the revitalization efforts that are going on in that city.
Gettysburg National Military Park
The new visitor center is beautiful. It’s huge and bright and well thought out. Visitors have several options for how to spend their day. I chose to watch the introductory movie, which is paired with a visit to the Gettysburg cyclorama, and visit the museum. The cyclorama is a massive 360 degree mural/painting that depicts the battle. Visitors stand in the center of the painting while a voice-over describes what happened during the course of the 3 day battle, and special sound and light effects are used to animate the painting.
Apparently, cycloramas were a popular form of entertainment in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. They were basically an early version of motion pictures, and there is an exhibit about their production and their popularity at the visitor center. The Gettysburg cyclorama was painted in 1884 by a French artist and was on display in Boston for several years before finding its permanent home at Gettysburg National Park. It was restored in 2008 as part of the new visitor center project.
As for the museum, there are exhibits on everything from the timeline of the Civil War, to individuals involved in the battle at Gettysburg, to the history of the flags that were flown… It is comprehensive and one could easily spend hours wandering through it.
Unfortunately, the day I was there, there were several school groups and some of the kids were just awful. Think: “Lord of the Flies,” but less well behaved. They were running through the hallways, touching exhibits, climbing walls…and there were no chaperones anywhere. It was pretty appalling. Anyway, it got old quick and it was a beautiful day outside, so I grabbed a map and headed out for the peaceful battleground (I realize it’s weird to call a battleground “peaceful,” but these kids were seriously assholes.)
As with most national parks we’ve visited, the National Park Service does a fantastic job of preserving the property. The grounds are meticulously maintained, but everything looks natural and authentic.
The buildings look appropriately weathered, but not dilapidated.
The fields are landscaped, but not so much so that they look fake.
The statues, cannon, and signage are present, but they don’t interrupt the views.
And when they do stand out, they tell an important part of the story.
Walking around the battlefields, it feels like you’ve stepped back in time and you can easily imagine the events unfolding where you stand. On the other hand, it is hard to fathom so much carnage and misery taking place in such a beautiful place.
Soldiers’ National Cemetery
After the battle, the people who lived in the town of Gettysburg were overwhelmed by the dead and the sick. Thousands of bodies were buried in the fields, in mass graves, many of which were too shallow. Weeks later, leaders from the northern states formed a committee to give the soldiers a proper burial. The committee purchased land near the battlefield and began the process of unearthing the bodies and moving them to the cemetery. Thousands of soldiers could be identified only by the state from which they came, while thousands more could not be identified at all.
For several weeks following the battle, the bodies were moved to what became known as Soldier’s National Cemetery. The dedication of the cemetery, in November, 1863, brought Abraham Lincoln to the town where he gave his famous speech.
The land surrounding the original Civil War cemetery was used as a military cemetery until the 1970’s, when it was officially closed.
“Where the hell is everyone?” I asked Kevin as we drove into York, Pennsylvania one weekend morning. It was midday on a beautiful spring day and as we drove along pretty landscaped streets on our way to meet Kevin’s friend, Jen, the absence of people out and about in the city was painfully obvious.
York, Pennsylvania, located thirty five miles east of Gettysburg looks like any number of small cities we’ve visited this year. The buildings, many of which date from the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, feature beautiful brick work and interesting architecture, the streets are nicely maintained, there are planters full of flowers, park benches placed along the sidewalks, and pretty murals painted on the walls.
The place should have been buzzing with activity on a Sunday morning, and yet, it was dead… there was no one around!
Jen’s husband, Jordan, is a restaurant owner in the city. He and Jen are both heavily involved in revitalization efforts in the downtown area, so it was interesting to hear their perspective on what we had noticed. They explained that while plenty of people work downtown during the week, once the weekend rolls around, the city empties out because there are very few businesses to attract people. As Jordan said, “there are no people because there are no businesses. And there are no businesses, because there are no people.”
Sure enough, as we walked around after lunch, we could see there were very few businesses actually open. While, from the outside, the neighborhood looked well maintained and the buildings appeared to be in decent condition, on closer examination, we saw that many, if not most, of the storefronts were empty. The stores that did exist appeared to be struggling, and apartments, which would have rented for thousands and thousands of dollars per month in other cities, stood vacant.
For years, York was run down, crime ridden, and generally unappealing. In the past several years though, local leaders and business owners have been working hard to improve the city’s fortunes. Small business owners like Jen and Jordan are opening new shops, and larger investors are actively working on several big revitalization projects. They’re obviously making good progress. They just need more people to move into the city and hang out on weekends.
Assuming that eventually happens, this city could be the next hipster heaven. We’ve no doubt if these same city blocks were magically transported to other cities we’ve visited, they’d be full of cutting edge restaurants, packed bars, trendy shops, and renovated apartments.
I hope it all comes together because right now, the potential is incredible, and if I were a betting woman, I’d say the people who own these buildings are gonna make a killing in a couple years.
Bonus Random Farm Animal Pics!
Finally, it was kinda awesome that our campground in Gettysburg had a working farm, and we could go visit the animals. And yes, I realize this is actually an attraction for 6 years olds, but I don’t care. Animals are THE BEST!! Of course, when we visited (several times), I took lots of pictures. Then I wondered what the hell I was gonna do with all these random pictures of farm animals. That’s where you come in….
There were also lots of goats, but they were usually running amok outside their enclosure, so I never got a photo….
Anyway, in real time, we will start the week in Vermont and end it in Maine. Given all the maple syrup and cheese we’ve consumed, it’s probably for the best that we head to a state whose specialty is seafood. More on Vermont soon….
Where we stayed: Gettysburg Farm Campground