Gridlock, history will collide in picturesque Gettysburg in 150th anniversary events
GETTYSBURG — Dick O'Connor moseys up a path on the shaded eastern slope of Little Round Top on his way to another spring sunset with Tahoe, a beautiful white-and-gray malamute-kuvasz mix.
The warm light fades to shadow across farm fields, groves of trees and the 150-year-old battlefield. Fewer than a dozen tourists mill around atop the hill. Quiet evenings like this show why O'Connor, 58, retired to Gettysburg from California 2 1⁄2 years ago. He's enjoying them while they last.
The Convention & Visitors Bureau expects as many as 200,000 people to clog this hamlet and surrounding battlefield for 10 days in late June and early July for the 150th anniversary of the three-day Battle of Gettysburg. The National Park Service, businesses and local groups have scheduled more than 400 events, including two re-enactments with about 10,000 re-enactors apiece.
“You know that swarm of (cicadas) that's supposed to be coming?” O'Connor joked. “Well, this is going to be the same thing for Gettysburg.”
Even in their absence, crowds shape the character of this town of red brick row homes and 7,200 people. Fealty to a bloody history and fidelity to the battle's memory mingle with tourist kitsch and the sedate pace of rural Central Pennsylvania.
More than 158,000 Union and Confederate soldiers clashed at Gettysburg July 1-3, 1863; 51,000 became casualties, making the battle the bloodiest of the Civil War and its turning point.
Most anniversaries of the battle draw about 65,000 tourists, said Carl Whitehill, spokesman for the Gettysburg Convention & Visitors Bureau. Locals say they're accustomed to the annual rush, inasmuch as people can get accustomed to their town's swelling almost tenfold for a few days.
Those in the tourism, law enforcement and preservation industries measure their sesquicentennial preparation in years, not weeks or months. Federal and state intelligence and law enforcement agencies meet several times a week with Joe Dougherty, chief of the town's 12-member police force and a former criminal intelligence officer in Reading.
The biggest threat they face might be the one they can influence the least: “Gridlock. Big-time gridlock,” Dougherty, 64, said.
“We have a road system in town that was laid out in the 1860s that is just not ready for the traffic in 2013, and there's nothing we can do to remedy that,” Dougherty said.
Organizers tried to alleviate congestion by spreading events throughout the area. Re-enactments will take place on farms outside Gettysburg. More than 100 events within Gettysburg National Military Park will take place July 1-3, and the National Park Service scheduled many to run simultaneously at different parts of the park to disperse crowds.
The National Park Service deployed its Incident Management Team, which helps set up safety, security and emergency management plans for events, including the presidential inauguration and the 150th anniversary of battles in Manassas, Va.
Organizers said they considered the threat of possible terrorist attacks long before the Boston Marathon bombing highlighted the vulnerability of large crowds.
“We're asking the public to partner in this,” said Katie Lawhon, a park ranger at Gettysburg. “If you see something, say something.”
Police and state workers will be able to tweak the flow of traffic. PennDOT can adjust the town's traffic lights remotely, for instance, and state police will take up posts along outlying roads to monitor traffic. But they're managing the same roads that brought Gens. George Meade and Robert E. Lee together 150 years ago. One of the main choke points in the 10-day festivities is likely to be the traffic circle in the town's center, where four roads converge with pedestrian traffic at intersections marked only by yield signs. Even without tens of thousands of extra cars, it can be “a zoo,” Dougherty said.
“There isn't really much we can do other than trust the fact that most people do have common sense enough to get their way around it,” Dougherty said.
Gettysburg shares a public transportation system with nearby York, and will be borrowing buses as needed, said Whitehill. Park-and-ride locations are being set up. Hotel rooms are filled as far north as Hershey and as far south as Hagerstown, Md.
“We've got a great public transportation system in town. It's absolutely free, and we have provided transportation to all the major events,” Whitehall said.
Costs for the years-long preparation might never be fully tallied, said Lawhon, who has been working on the event for four years.
PennDOT stepped up road construction in 2011 and 2012 to keep roads open this year. Businesses and departments like Dougherty's will spend untold sums on overtime. Workers spent five years thinning or clear-cutting some stands of trees and planting others to return the battlefield to what it looked like in 1863. Hundreds of portable toilets have been rented for public and private events throughout the 10-day period.
The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg and the Adams County Historical Society spent $13.3 million creating the Seminary Ridge Museum in a building that figured prominently in the battle. The museum is scheduled to open July 1.
The National Park Service provided $500,000 for the anniversary, but the federal government provided no other special-event funding, which has put the celebration on a shoestring budget.
“They can't even buy ice for us,” said Michael Kraus, 59, of McCandless, a Civil War re-enactor. He plans to spend three days and nights living in the park as part of a National Park Service demonstration of how soldiers lived during the battle. Kraus, a curator at Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall & Museum in Oakland, will wear the Union's wool uniform.
Between 200 and 300 volunteers and extra workers from the National Park Service will reinforce the park's usual complement of about 200 permanent employees, Lawhon said.
“It's all hands on deck,” Lawhon said.
A few park regulars plan to skip the festivities. Abby Zinn, 17, and Daniel Strauss, 18, spent a recent afternoon at Devil's Den, an otherworldly collection of boulders at the foot of Little Round Top. They come here often in the summer, usually before noon or after 2 to miss the worst of the crowds.
“You don't come up here without a history lesson from somebody,” said Strauss of Spring Grove, about 25 miles east.
In the fading light, they leap from rocks that shielded sharpshooters and land on grassy turf trod by doomed men.
Just up the hill, O'Connor takes in the view while Tahoe gamely accepts the petting of passing strangers.
“Part of me wants to get ... out of here,” O'Connor said. “But part of me thinks I will never see anything like this again.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or email@example.com.