Gettysburg Seminar Papers

GETTYSBURG 1895-1995:
The Shaping of an American Shrine

The Changing Faces of Gettysburg:
The National Park Service at Gettysburg
Karlton D. Smith
Park Ranger
Gettysburg National Military Park

On August 25, 1916, the National Park Service was organized to administer national parks, monuments and reservations and "to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations." The National Park Service was thus given two goals: preservation and interpretation. [1]

Although organized to administer the nation's large natural parks, such as Yellowstone, Horace Albright, one of the Park Service's founders, had always wanted the National Park Service to administer all of the nation's national parks. As early as 1917, Albright had first proposed bringing the War Department's historic sites under the National Park Service. Albright felt the War Department gave scant supervision to its dozen large military parks, including Gettysburg, and provided little in the way of educational programs to provide interpretation of the sites to the public. [2]

The War Department had installed cast iron and bronze narrative tablets and erected five steel observation towers on the battlefield. Only one booklet had been prepared and that was merely a statistical record of the monuments, markers, and troops. The only method of education or direct assistance for visitors was the Guide Service. In 1915 the War Department attempted to regulate the Guides by refusing licenses to the obviously unfit and revoking the licenses of those who did not comply with regulations. [3]

In 1910 the War Department started a campaign to rid the park area roads of "unsightly and offensive" advertisement signs. Despite these early efforts at battlefield restoration the Harrisburg Telegraph, in December 1925, reported that the park landscape was marred by gasoline stations and quick lunch or "hot dog" stands. The Grand Army of the Republic, the leading Civil War Veterans organization, wade in September, 1929, by passing a resolution stating that the battlefield "is not being properly maintained and preserved, ... conditions are not in harmony with the reverence and respect that is due to this sacred spot, consecrated by the brave men, living and dead, who struggled there in a great cause... The Grand Army do hereby respectfully remind the government of its duty and obligation in this matter." [4

On June 10, 1933, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order transferring all national monuments, historic sites and military parks to the jurisdiction of the National Park Service. James R. McConaghie, although hired by the U. S. Army, became the first Park Service Superintendent of Gettysburg National Military Park. Mr. McConaghie was also given general supervision for the Soldiers' National Cemetery, Fort McHenry, Fort Necessity, Antietam National Battlefield, Antietam National Cemetery, and Monocacy. It now became the task of the Park Service to preserve the battlefield and to provide interpretation while leaving the battlefield "unimpaired." [5]

In setting interpretive goals for the historic parks, the new head of the NPS Historical Division stated "the task is to breathe the breath of life into American history for those to whom it has been a dull recital of meaningless facts." The interpretation of this battle began to take shape in 1937 when Dr. Frederick Tilberg was hired as the assistant historian to prepare a long range historical program. His entire staff consisted of two Civilian Conservation Corps junior historians and two seasonal ranger historians. The Master Plan for 1937 noted: "As time changes, those having a personal relationship to the field get fewer. The new visitor differs as he is further removed. An active educational program...comes more necessary." [6]

The park did receive aid from several New Deal Programs. Nine persons were hired under the Civil Works Administration to prepare maps, lectures, folders, and compile historical materials relating to the Civil War and to Adams County. The Works Progress Administration provided funds for a technical and professional project designed to provide the first comprehensive traffic and attendance study for future planning needs. The WPA also provided funds to hire interpreters to supply information to the public during the 75th Anniversary and to prepare a card index of names on the Pennsylvania Monument. In 1940 the WPA provided funds for a park boundary survey. It was noted that early surveys "were rather inaccurate" leading to questions "as to the actual location of the park boundary." The Civilian Conservation Corps established two camps on the battlefield and aided the Park Service in the early years in constructing entrance stations, comfort stations, brush clearing, and road construction and relocation. [7]

In the early years at Gettysburg, the Park Service, and its staff, was struggling with how to carry out its mission. The problem was how best to preserve the battlefield and, at the same time, to provide the best interpretation. Both of these issues over the years will become sources of conflict and controversy. One would occur shortly after the Park Service came on the scene.

In 1937 the Pennsylvania Commission, in consultation with the Park Service, purchased land on the north side of the Mummasburg Road, on Oak Hill, for the erection of the Eternal Peace Light Memorial. On the advice of their architects, the Commission on November 16, 1937, purchased land on the south side of the road in order to provide a proper setting. Situated on this later property were the house and barn of John S. Forney. Although modified over the years, the Forney house and barn were significant landmarks during the battle. After the Park Service refused salvage, the Commission signed an agreement with a private party to wreck the buildings by January 1, 1938 in order to open the foreground. [8]

After demolition commenced, the Secretary of the Commission raised concerns about the possible historic significance of the buildings. Work was stopped while the Commission appealed to the Washington office. In a November 20 memo to the Director, Superintendent McConaghie stated that the National Park Service knew of "no special historical significance" attached to the buildings. He noted there was no bronze plaque marking the site although he did state a report on the buildings was being prepared. McConaghie also stated that "in view of the private nature of the proceedings, the questionable value, the expensive and questionable problem of restoration, the run down, unsightly, and unsafe condition of the buildings, and the need for the area being opened to provide a proper setting for the new monument, razing proceedings should be continued." The Commission also felt there would some embarrassment on their part since they had already awarded the demolition contract. The buildings were razed by December, 1937. [9]

As a postscript, the Acting Assistant Director wrote a letter to Dr. Tilberg, the Park Historian, through the Superintendent dated December 16, 1937. The Acting Assistant Director stated: "It is unfortunate that a report on the Forney House was not prepared sooner. Historians must submit pertinent data regarding projects which involve in any way historical features of an area at the time of its greatest significance. They must hold themselves responsible for preserving as far as possible the historical character of an area.... It is the business of park historians to know such things." This would not be the only time that Park Historians were held responsible for actions taken by the administration. [10]

Later in the 1940's an airport was located on the former Forney property and a Peace Light Inn was proposed for the southwest corner of Buford Avenue and Mummasburg Road. Superintendent J. Walter Coleman, in a 1941 memo to the Director noted that the "American Legion has adopted a resolution opposing the sale of private building lots in places where such development would be damaging to the National Military Park." The Park Service was apparently beginning to win some support for its preservation efforts. [11]

By 1940, the Regional Supervisor of Historic Sites urged the need for a land acquisition plan along the Emmitsburg Road. He felt the situation "indicates priority over any other land acquisition program affecting any of the national military parks.... I consider the Gettysburg Park as probably the most important area falling within this category." Dr. Tilberg was also concerned about the proposal to extend the borough line further south along Steinwehr Avenue. He felt such action could result in more subdivisions:

"Thus, a residence section with borough facilities would be established on battle ground which is equally as important, from the viewpoint of the preservation of historical values, as the area known as the field of Pickett's Charge...." [12]

Tilberg was trying to make people aware that the area proposed for the subdivision, now known as Colt Park, was just as significant as the fields around the Bliss and Codori farms. In the area known as Long Lane were stationed five Confederate brigades who were to take part in Pickett's Charge, if an opportunity presented itself. It was the area where the left flank of Pettigrew's Division crossed while taking part in Pickett's Charge. It was also the jump-off point for a proposed Confederate assault on the evening of July 2 against Cemetery Hill. Tilberg was in effect saying that it is a mistake to get into a debate as to which areas were more important than others. To him, and to most historians, the whole battlefield is important, and therefore, worthy of being preserved and protected.

The issue of battlefield preservation, and land acquisition, are challenges that have been faced by the Park Service through the years. In 1971, a U. S. News and World Report article, entitled "The Second Battle of Gettysburg", noted that this time the conflict was over "commercialization":

"Bordering the 3100 acre Gettysburg National Military Park, are fast-growing strips of motels, filling stations, quick order restaurants, commercial museums and souvenir stands...

Critics call the areas where there are no zoning laws 'the shame of Gettysburg', and say commercial interests threaten the integrity of the park" [13]

In a speech to the Adams County Historical Society in 1971, Frederick Tilberg, now retired from the Park Service, noted:

"As long as certain historic lands adjoining the Park remained in agricultural use and there appeared to be no likelihood of development for other use, such land was not included in plans for Park development. Publicity on a broad scale within the past three decades, associated with major battle anniversaries, the annual observance of various patriotic events, the visits of notable persons and the home selected by General and Mrs. Eisenhower, all have served to pin-point Gettysburg a major tourist objective...."

The conflicting purposes of expanding business and industry on the one hand, and on the other, the forces of conservation, can lead either to an impasse, with a continuing undercurrent of antagonism toward the Park in its efforts to accomplish the objective of adequate land ownership defined in the act of Congress establishing the Park, or a sound and fair settlement for the borough and township governments, and the National Park. At the base of the issue, the tax-free land of existing government holdings and of its purpose to acquire additional land to complete its conservation objectives is pitted against local government needs of additional income for operation with a minimum increase of taxation..." [14]

A 1987 study by the U. S. Army contended that annual direct tourist spending had risen to more than $40 million. Superintendent Dr. John Latschar recently stated that a Park Service study indicated that Park Service facilities in Gettysburg generate about $66 million in visitor spending in the community. This, in turn, resulted in about $13 million in state, county, borough and township revenues. [15]

Prior to 1974, the philosophy governing land acquisition at Gettysburg was based on the Sickles Map and the Establishment Act of 1895. This act provided for an aggregate area of 15,360 acres. As a result of a Senate sub-committee agreement, in 1974, a 3,874-acre ceiling was established for the park. The agreement eliminated the Sickles Map as the official boundary of the park. In 1987, Congress expressed interest in whether the battlefield was being adequately protected. The National Park Service was directed to conduct a boundary study and to make recommendations for the park's final development. The park identified thirteen outstanding historic resource areas to be added to the park and expanded the park boundary to 5,733-acres. Methods for acquiring these additional acres, other than direct acquisition, include zoning, cooperative agreements and easement acquisition. [16]

When historians and preservationists speak of protecting historic areas from intrusions, the one issue they point to is the National Tower at Gettysburg. The whole story of the Tower construction is too complicated to state fully here. What follows is an attempt to briefly summarize the main points.

In February 1970, Thomas R. Ottenstein announced plans to construct a 300-foot observation tower at Gettysburg, at a site near the Colt Park development. Among the groups opposed to the tower were the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, Adams County Historical Society, Lincoln Fellowship of Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania Historical Association, Gettysburg Civil War Round Table, Gettysburg Battlefield Guide Association, Texas State Historical Society, Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Association, and the Governor's Advisory Council on Natural Resources. Superintendent Jerry Schobert was also on record as opposing the Tower.

The scene shifts to Washington. To help understand this part it helps to explain the Interior Department organization. Under the Secretary of the Interior is the Assistant Secretary for Fish and Wildlife which oversees the National Park Service. On May 11, 1971, J. C. Herbert Bryant, Jr., a Special Assistant to the Assistant Secretary was ordered to find a more acceptable site for the Tower. On June 8, Bryant received a memo from the National Park Service proposing three acceptable alternative sites chosen by "investigating teams" from the Washington office. The sites were chosen without reference to local Park officials.

At this point, a bureaucratic "oversight" took place. In early May the Park Service had prepared a letter for Secretary Rogers C. B. Morton to Governor Milton Shapp. The letter was not ready until June 14. In this letter, Secretary Morton's letter stated "The most devastating effect of the tower... will be upon the integrity and character of the historic site.... The tower will wholly dominate this historic scene and may well constitute the most damaging single intrusion visited upon a comparable site of American history."

In mid-June, Bryant, Ottenstein, and Park Service officials from Washington, but not Gettysburg, sat down to consider the various options. Ottenstein advanced the idea of building the tower on federal land in return for the maximum 25-year concessionaire lease. This was rejected by Bryant. An agreement was signed on July 2, 1971. Ottenstein agreed to convey the Colt Park tract to the National Park Service and to donate annually 5% of his taxable income from the Tower and permit the Director to appoint a majority of the members of a board, which Ottenstein would establish, to contribute to activities and institutions dedicated to preserving the historical significance of Gettysburg. In return for the Colt Park tract, the Park Service granted a twenty-two foot right-of-way on park land for the life of the Tower. The Gettysburg Times, on July 10, revealed the terms of this "secret" agreement. The Park Service announced the terms the next day. To say that this agreement took all the opposition groups by surprise would be an understatement. The local Park officials had never been made a party to the discussions and, indeed, had not been informed of the final agreement. To this day, the Tower continues to generate its share of controversy. [17]

As stated previously, NPS interpretation at Gettysburg began to take shape when Frederick Tilberg was hired as the assistant historian. He became the head of the Interpretive Division in 1941. His responsibilities included the planning, directing and supervision of all historical research, interpretation and museum activities. He was also to prepare historical publications, prepare studies for historical restoration and direct and supervise public contact work. To accomplish most of this work, Tilberg supervised two seasonal ranger historians. At this time, it was not unusual for Park Service personnel to be re-assigned to other parks every few years. Dr. Tilberg proved an exception. He would remain at his post at Gettysburg from 1937 until his retirement in 1965. [18]

By 1949, Dr. Tilberg had written a 16-page guide booklet intended for the average visitor. This booklet, revised several times by Tilberg, is still being sold. Through the 1940's, visitors could attend a weekly campfire program at the base of East Cemetery Hill. Visitors stopping at Park Headquarters, located on the 2nd floor of the old Post Office Building, could receive an orientation lecture from a Park Ranger at the relief map (now located on the upper lobby of the Cyclorama Center). Guided tours of any part of the battlefield by park historians were limited to VIP's, military, convention and educational groups. Visitors were able to tour the battlefield on their own or with a licensed battlefield guide. One of Dr. Tilberg's objectives was to more closely supervise the guide service and make it more professional by requiring testing of the guides and a strict set of guidelines. [19]

The Guide Service had been in existence since the War Department days. Initially, the Guide Service remained outside the direct control of the Park Service. During the 1930's, the park studied various ways to provide quality guide service under the park's supervision. Among the "evils" of the Guide service were the means of solicitation, the various points of contact, the lack of control and public relations. In March 1942, Dr. Tilberg prepared a "guide manual" with sections on qualifications, the objectives of the guide service, and guide regulations. In November 1963 a new application form and a 200-question examination were developed by the Park Service to insure uniform standards for the Guides. By February 1970 the Superintendent could state that "every Guide passes an extensive, detailed written examination and meets prescribed standards of oral performance before the National Park Service issues his license and insignia." Even though there have been several attempts over the years to place the guides on the federal payroll, the Licensed Battlefield Guides remain individual contractors. In 1994, the 105 Licensed Guides conducted battlefield tours for 216,595 visitors. [20]

In planning a self-guided tour route, Tilberg stated his aim was to "put forth a clear; uninterrupted chronological narrative of events, readily understandable to visitors who are entirely unacquainted with the battlefield and the story." Installation of directional signs was delayed because of protests by the licensed guides. Directional signs were finally installed by 1947. In 1951, Tilberg described a 14-stop tour route designed to start on the First Day's field and proceed in a logical sequence. [21]

In July 1941, the National Park Service acquired rights to the Gettysburg Cyclorama painting. This large circular painting depicts Pickett's Charge on the third day of the battle and was a major addition to the park's ability to interpret the battle for visitors. The problem was how best to display and preserve the painting. The building it occupied on East Cemetery Hill, had been built in 1913 as a temporary structure. By the 1940's the painting was in need of repair and restoration. The park at that point was developing plans for a new, modern Administrative Center. But funding, was going to be a major obstacle. [22]

Visitation at all National Parks had steadily increased over the years, except for the World War II years. By 1954, the parks were receiving about 54 million visitors a year. Unfortunately, those visitors were using facilities that had been designed when the parks were receiving 15 million. A New York Times article stated that unless funds were forthcoming, the park system was threatened with ruin: "In fact, just about everything concerning the parks is inadequate except their magnificent scenic or historic values and the dedication of the men and women of the National Park Service, whose morale remains, on the whole, unshaken despite the shabby treatment sometimes accorded them." This need for new facilities lead to Mission 66. Mission 66 was the name given to an ambitious ten-year restoration program. Congress, with the warm support of President Eisenhower, provided appropriations totaling more than ten billion dollars for the program. Under this program nearly 150 new museums and visitor centers were constructed in order to strengthen park interpretive activities. One of the sites affected by Mission 66 was Gettysburg. [23]

From the beginning there was identified a need for an administrative/museum building to increase visitor contact and visitor understanding of the battle and the battlefield. Dr. Tilberg proposed four sites: 1) the triangle between the Emmitsburg Road and the Taneytown Road, 2) East Cemetery Hill, 3) the triangle between the Baltimore Pike and the Emmitsburg Road, and 4) Hancock Avenue south of Ziegler's Grove. The major advantage of the first three was that they provided good accessibility from all directions. The major objection was that none were on park property and would have to be purchased and several buildings on the sites would have to be removed. The Emmitsburg/Taneytown Road triangle would also entail the purchase of the National or Rosensteel Museum and would provide the park with a fine display of Civil War relics. Tilberg also noted that such a purchase "would eliminate a strong competitor for tourist business as well as confusion between government and privately operated establishment." To Tilberg the least disagreeable location was Hancock Avenue because any building at that point "would be an objectionable development on some of the most important historic ground." But it was the only proposed location on park land. Tilberg was also concerned that such a building would encourage development along Steinwehr Avenue. [24]

In October 1942, the Acting Regional Director favored a site "at the northeast corner of Hancock Avenue and the road leading to Meade's Headquarter's" since the Park Service already owned the land. Tilberg insisted that this location "would be an objectionable intrusion upon historic ground. The Angle and Meade's Headquarter's, and the entire surrounding area, should be preserved in their wartime character." In January 1946, Director Newton B. Drury determined that the building would be located "on relatively flat ground, between Emmitsburg Road and Ziegler's Grove" in "front of and below Cemetery Ridge." This decision was confirmed by Director Conrad L. Wirth in the 1950's. [25]

The new Cyclorama/Visitor Center, which opened in 1962, was designed by Richard Neutra, of California. It is interesting to note Mr. Neutra's ideas concerning this new building. Mr. Neutra stated "Many honored guests will come here and many distinguished speaker(s) will speak. Their speeches must be brief because the building itself is most important and comes first. This building will be a shrine for many nations and the free world." Note that to Mr. Neutra it is the building that is most important, not the battlefield itself. [26]

This new Visitor Center marked the arrival of the Park Service on the field, not in a proprietary role so much as an interpretive one. As stated previously most visitors only contact with an interpretive ranger was at the relief map in the old Post Office Building where they received an orientation lecture. The new building would allow Rangers to interpret on the field to an increasing number of visitors. In August 1971, the Park Service further enhanced interpretive opportunities with the acquisition of the National Museum with the Electric Map and a substantial Civil War collection of artifacts. [27]

Since the mid-1970's, the National Park Service has continued to expand its interpretive programs to try to include a more diverse audience. In 1970, the interpretive staff included three Park Technicians and twenty-one Park Rangers (Historians), most of whom were seasonals. In 1972, scheduled programs were offered hourly every day during the summer months at Little Round Top, the Peace Light, the National Cemetery and The Angle. Two new programs were added that year: a Civil War period cavalryman and, at the insistence of a seasonal female Ranger, a program entitled "Women in the Crises". In 1982, the staff included twelve seasonal aides, a Junior Fellowship student, and seven permanent Rangers. In that year the Granite Farm was reopened to interpret the effect of war on civilians. Stationary talks were given six times each day at Little Round Top. Rangers also gave extended walking tours of Pickett's Charge, the Valley of Death, the First Day, and East Cemetery Hill. [28]

Budget cuts in the 1980's affected the number of Interpreters at the park and thus the number and variety of interpretive programs. There are no longer hourly talks given on Little Round Top. The Granite Farm living history talks had to be eliminated. Increasingly, the Interpretive staff has been asked to do more with less.

Except for World War II, visitation to the battlefield had shown a steady increase. From 1937 to 1940 the park averaged over 600,000 visitors a year. This may not be an accurate count because 1938, the 75th Anniversary year, saw over one and a half million visitors. During the centennial celebration in 1963, visitation reportedly topped two million with over 400,000 visitors reported for the month July alone. In 1994, visitation was reported at about 1.7 million visitors with over 110,000 attending interpretive programs. On July 3, over 800 visitors attended a special Pickett's Charge Walk. [29]

In 1994, interpretive programs included Student Education Programs in the off-season, short Ranger-conducted walks of the High Water Mark and National Cemetery, Interpretive programs once a day at the Peace Light and Peach Orchard, three costumed interpreters hired with funds donated by Eastern National Parks and Monument Association, two-hour battle walks and nightly campfire programs covering a range battle-related topics. In 1994, the Interpretive Staff consisted of nine permanent Rangers and three seasonals to attend to the needs of 1.7 million visitors. The Park Service anticipates at least that many visitors in 1995 with, perhaps, the same staffing.

1995 will see the Centennial of the creation of Gettysburg National Military Park and the sixty-second year of the Park Service administration. The Park Service has accomplished much in that time. We have made mistakes in the past and, hopefully, we have learned from those mistakes. We hope to accomplish more in the future, not only for the millions of visitors to the park, but for the surrounding community as well, As always our goal will be the conservation of this historic scene and the interpretation of that scene—so as to leave the battlefield unimpaired for future generations.


1 The National Park Service by John Everhart, page 185

2 The National Park Service, page 21; Birth of the National Park Service by Horace Albright, page 188; Administrative History: Gettysburg National Military Park/Gettysburg National Cemetery,, page 142.

3 Administrative History, page 114-115.

4 bid., page 107, 124-125, and 129.

5 Ibid page 139; Birth of the National Park Service, page 300; Forest and Range Policy: Its Development in the United States by Samuel Trask Dana and Sally K. Fairfax, page 152.

6 Administrative History, page 145-146, 178, and 187.

7 Ibid page 159-161.

8 Historian's Files, Gettysburg National Military Park, File 1-17, Forney Farm.

9 Ibid.

10 Ibid Memo from Acting Assistant Director to Superintendent, GNMP, December 16, 1937.

11 Administrative History, page 200.

12 Ibid., page 201-203.

13 Ibid., page 310.

14 Ibid., page 311.

15 Gettysburg Times, January 17, 1995, "Battlefield chief appeals for community support", page A3.

16 Land Protection Plan. October 1993. Gettysburg National Military Park, Department of the Interior, pages 1-6.

17 Pickett Charges: Everyone Else Pays: The Story of the Gettysburg Tower Controversy by John S. Oyler, 1972; page 134-146.

18 Administrative History, page 169.

19 Ibid., page 223 and 193.

20 Ibid., page 197 and 287.

21 Ibid., page 273.

22 Ibid., page 209 and 246-247.

23 Ibid., page 253 and 257; The National Park Service, page 267.

24 Administrative History. page 224; "From Battle Ground to Pleasure Ground: Gettysburg as a Tourist Site" by John S. Patterson, page 33; "Proposed Sites for Interpretive Center, Gettysburg National Military Park" by Frederick Tilberg.

25 Administrative History, page 229-230.

26 Ibid. page 259; "From Battle Ground to Pleasure Ground", page 32.

27 Administrative History, page 324.

28 Ibid page 325-327; Interview with Park Ranger/Historian Rebecca A. Lyons.

29 Administrative History, page 271 and 280; Interview with Supervisory Park Ranger John Andrews.

Previous Top Next