Putting the Burg in Gettysburg
Wednesday, March 22, 2006
For many of its 2 million or so visitors each year, what's largely been missing from the Gettysburg experience is, well, Gettysburg. A visit to the Civil War's most hallowed town has typically included a stop at the National Park Service visitor center on Steinwehr Avenue a few miles from the city center, an audio driving tour through 20 square miles of rolling battlefield, and maybe a guided walk around the Peach Orchard, Little Round Top or another of the marquee scenes of bloody devastation out in the countryside.
As for the well-preserved antebellum downtown itself? In spite of its role in the clash of armies, all that many battlefield visitors have seen of Gettysburg proper is a glimpse through the car window on their way to Hershey Park.
"The Steinwehr Avenue end of town has traditionally been the more visitor-oriented," said Stephanie McSherry, a Gettysburg native and manager of the James Gettys Hotel. "The downtown gets overlooked by a lot of visitors. But it also has a rich history that just hasn't been interpreted very often."
But now the town that involuntarily surrendered its name to American history is asserting itself a bit. A new series of guided downtown walks, modeled on the popular licensed battlefield tours, seeks to reveal the "civilian experience" of those three days of horror and carnage in July 1863. The long-neglected downtown rail depot where Abraham Lincoln arrived to deliver his famous address has been restored and will reopen next month as a towncentric interpretive center; a few blocks away, the Wills House, where Lincoln polished his final draft, is also undergoing a renovation. And perhaps most ambitiously, the Majestic, a grand vaudeville-era theater, reopened in November after a $16 million restoration as an 850-seat performing arts center and twin-screen repertory movie house. Among its live offerings will be a summer-long staging of "For the Glory: The Civil War at Gettysburg," a Broadway musical with a professional cast.
Add to that a slowly growing stock of restaurants, art galleries and antique shops, and downtown Gettysburg stakes a legitimate claim to weekend getaway status that doesn't have to rely exclusively on the historical war zone that surrounds it.
"It's not just the battlefields anymore," said McSherry. "People come to eat outdoors and walk around the shops. It's becoming more popular to spend a night or two."
Last Friday night, the sidewalks were filled with St. Patrick's Day partiers and March Madness fans moving between some of the major downtown drinking holes, including the Blue Parrot Bistro, the Pub and McClellan's Tavern. All are clustered near Lincoln Square, the traffic-heavy crossroads of highways 30 and 15. Half a block off the square, the lights of the new Majestic threw a glow across Carlisle Street, and a bartender could be seen working a martini shaker in the theater's storefront cafe, Mamie's. Next door, the soon-to-open Lincoln Station was still sheathed in construction dust and ladders, but its ornate Italianate shape made a striking silhouette in the night sky.
Trucks rumble through constantly, but otherwise much of the surrounding grid of brick buildings is recognizable as Civil War vintage. In fact, the town's historic core maintains much more of a period feel than the franchise sprawl surrounding the official visitor hub on Steinwehr Avenue.
At the Cannonball Malt Shop just off the square, a small American flag marks an artillery shell embedded in the masonry. There are many shot-pocked walls in town, markers of the hot war, but for townspeople the real horror began after the shooting stopped. When the armies pulled out, they left a grisly butcher's bill: more than 22,000 soldiers too injured to move and an estimated 6 million pounds of rotting flesh -- horse and human.
"Basically every major building became a hospital, and all the women in town became nurses," said Bob Alcorn, 66, a licensed town guide. Using a transmitting headset to be heard over the traffic, he was leading a Saturday morning tour of downtown. His spiel is centered largely on the heroics of Gettysburg's women and girls, the matrons who hid wounded officers from the rebels, the 9-year-old who dispensed sips of laudanum to soldiers getting their legs sawed off.
The city's Licensed Town Guide program began last year to more fully tell the domestic story of those epic events. Except for ghost tours (popular, but not historically exact), spreading that tale had fallen largely to the excellent Shriver House Museum, a preserved home and tavern, and the Jenny Wade House, which commemorates the only civilian killed during the battle. The new town guides, who must pass a series of tough exams, add anecdotes from more than 300 diaries, obituaries and other local accounts.
Given that family focus, Alcorn says he's been surprised that some of his most enthusiastic visitors have been hard-core military buffs.
"It's finally starting to enter people's consciousness that there was an effect on the town and that's interesting, too," he said.
Walking along Baltimore Street, now lined with antique shops, galleries and reenactor supply houses, Alcorn describes another crushing event that followed the battle: the flood of 15,000 to 20,000 sightseers that poured into the beleaguered town in the following weeks.
Still reeling from its shocking run-in with the war, Gettysburg was thrust into the role it still fills today, a little town that must play host to the world.