Looking back, I am proud to report that significant progress was made at Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site on my watch. I arrived in March of 2010 with two key goals in mind. I had no idea if I’d be successful at either, but I have worked at park management strategies long enough to know you must have a plan in mind on the first day and that you had better hit the ground running. The goals I chose presented challenges beyond what I really expected to accomplish. This was in keeping with all the management courses I ever attended, which said to “aim high.”
My two goals, in no particular order, were to seek to improve relations with the community and to prepare for the sesquicentennial year of 2013. The first goal came far easier than I had anticipated. I found a warm and welcoming community that accepted me and, in turn, the park with open arms. I found none of the animosity I had heard about in earlier years and I came to realize that despite the difficulty change engenders, people get over it and move on. In hindsight, goal number one turned out to be a low target that was in the process of fixing itself. With one goal seemingly under control I was able to turn my full attention to preparing for our sesquicentennial year.
Goal two proved to be a little more challenging since preparing for the commemorative events at Gettysburg National Military Park was far more complex and involved than I had imagined. Preparations were not just about creating appropriate programs, but about preparing the entire park for company that was coming from across the nation and from around the world. It quickly became apparent that some of our infrastructure was in need of attention. I had concerns about its capacities, utility and appearance. I worried about the transportation needs for the throngs of visitors I knew would be coming. I wondered about staff capacity and community involvement and how our programs and events would affect both. I tried to imagine what our programs would look like and whether they would be appropriate yet entertaining and unique enough for a national audience. Were we up to the task? I didn’t know how the Gettysburg Foundation would play into the mix and I really worried about how we would fund major programs in fiscally challenging times. With every meeting, a new revelation as to what was required emerged. With every revelation cost components rose accordingly. A short distance into year one, I realized I had aimed high enough.
Fortunately, the park was blessed with some of the most competent managers and staff in the National Park Service. These amazing people stepped up to the tasks at hand, remained flexible, exercised excellent judgment and by their own admission worked harder than they had ever worked before. Soon, my fears gave way to the joy of problem solving and the satisfaction that comes with working with smart people who like to produce results.
We first tackled the transportation needs we saw coming. With the help of the York/Adams Transit Authority (YATA), Gettysburg’s little blue buses that rolled around town received a major boost from a $1.2M grant from PENNDOT. This grant helped us upgrade the transit system by instituting an Intelligent Transportation System/Smart Parking Plan (ITS). The ITS was designed to allow people to park in satellite parking areas, use the bus system to access the visitor center and many other community locations. Its true value was born out by the fact that it helped accommodate more visitors’ access to the park and helped relieve traffic congestion throughout the town. During the 10 day anniversary period in late June and early July, the system carried 67,000 visitors and is currently being used locally as a municipal transportation system for working folks. By mid-July of 2013 ridership on the Lincoln Line of the Freedom Transit shuttle had risen 1040% over the same period a year before.
Next item on the “to do” list was removing the old cyclorama building. It sat near the location we had chosen for the big June 30th kick-off program. Removing that structure became our prime mission. After quite a bit of struggle and navigation through legal procedures we were able to demolish it and rehabilitate the area where it once stood just months before our grand opening event for the battle anniversary.
Also, just months before the anniversary programs commenced we completed an important trail designed and built to help ensure visitor safety. Tourists were accessing the park on foot from the visitor center by traversing the Taneytown roadway, thus exposing themselves to fast moving traffic along a very narrow corridor. As an added bonus, the funding for this trail provided enough money to rehab the badly deteriorated trail from Little Round Top to the 20th Maine Monument and the parking lot below, plus a little more money to reopen old Chamberlain Ave nearby.
While all this was in the works, hundreds of other small projects were underway to make the park look better and fulfill its intended purpose to commemorate those who fought and died here. Monuments were being rehabilitated, cleaned and repaired. The New York State monument in Soldiers’ National Cemetery saw the liberty cap replaced after having been missing since the 1950s. The Smith Battery monument was repaired, as was the 11th Massachusetts monument and many, many others. The Pennsylvania Memorial was thoroughly cleaned and the bronze re-patinated. The unsightly ranger office on Taneytown road directly across the street from the stage where the kick-off event was to be held was re-sided, painted and the parking lot re-graded. Twelve miles of park roads were resurfaced and all park bridges were re-pointed. Hundreds of cedar trees, bushes and woody vegetation were removed by volunteers and staff from important battlefield view sheds. Miles of Virginia worm fences were erected prior to 2013 and thousands of linear feet of board fences were painted and restored or repaired.
Wayfinding signs in the borough of Gettysburg were erected, thus ensuring visitors new to the area could find their way around. The rostrum in Soldiers’ National Cemetery was completely restored and returned to it 1879 appearance. The old visitor center parking lot was opened for visitors after it was restriped and new signs installed. Battlefields were mowed, miles of wire fences at the Eisenhower farms were replaced and the Eisenhower home façade was de-leaded, repaired and repainted. Historic farm houses and barns were rehabilitated, stabilized and painted. Over 200 acres of private property within the park’s boundary were acquired and many non-historic, non-contributing structures on those properties were removed.
We also assumed operational management of the David Wills House from Main Street Gettysburg after they had performed admirable services for the park for several years. We disposed of the old Electric Map which has been unused and in storage for many years, thus freeing the park of its stewardship responsibilities while allowing private sector interests to promote and display it as an interpretative device. We helped create an excellent museum exhibit titled the “Treasures of the Civil War” and developed dozens of special interpretative and educational programs, seminars and demonstrations which appropriately commemorated the event and people of 1863 in Gettysburg.
In the final analysis, my aim was on target and I can say that during my watch I left things better than I found them. I am extremely proud of the staff at both parks and honored to have served as their superintendent for the past four years. I leave this job with a great sense of pride and joy at the end of a career spanning nearly 40 years. It really doesn’t get much better than this.
By Bob Kirby, Superintendent, Gettysburg National Military Park and Eisenhower National Historic Site