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Government shutdown to impact Petersburg National Battlefield

PETERSBURG, Va. — What would it be like to be told to lock up your home and leave for an undetermined amount of time, with no one to look after it in the same way you would?

Petersburg National Battlefield Superintendent Lewis Rogers said that the closure of park due to the government shutdown is the closest he's come to knowing that feeling.

"This, to me, is similar to me being in my development and someone saying, 'Lock your door and walk away and the police will come by occasionally.' What if a water pipe breaks?" he said. "The people in the park service care about what they do [so] having to walk away is hard."

Rogers said that closure could impact the condition of the park's four sites: General Grant's Headquarters Unit at City Point in Hopewell, Eastern Front Battlefield in Petersburg and Prince George, and the Five Forks and Western Front battlefields in Dinwiddie.

The more than 200-year-old Appomattox Manor at City Point needs constant upkeep.

The home was a century old when Grant's army occupied its grounds in 1864 and began a nine-month siege of Petersburg.

Rogers said that maintenance personnel walk the grounds daily to ensure the historic home stays in prime condition. He said that without this attentiveness, emergency situations, such as a major leak, could go unnoticed.

"It goes from patching a hole to having a floor that is saturated," he said.

Park rangers are considered "excepted personnel" and will be patrolling the grounds. On a normal day, the park has 33 employees and 20 to 30 volunteers.

Rogers said that just having park rangers on site may not be enough to protect the area and that keeping the public and other workers around helps.

He said a 2011 incident in which a Petersburg man dug up and took thousands of dollars in artifacts from the park's grounds is proof that many pairs of eyes are needed.

John Jeffrey Santo pleaded guilty to two counts of damaging archaeological resources for taking the items. According to a court filing, when federal officials searched his Oakland Street residence, they found "in excess of 9,000 war relics and artifacts including bullets, buckles and assorted ordnance."

Rogers said important long-term projects risked disruption because of the shutdown.

The park is seeding grass and planting trees to maintain earthen Civil War fortifications. Without the landscaping, the fortifications could erode. If the park were shut down long enough for the grass to die, park officials would have to pay for new seed and manpower to redo the project next year.

Certain maintenance projects must be taken care of before winter, which would be impacted by a longer government shutdown.

Tourists also have something to lose. About 580,000 visitors come to the park annually, with 40,000 visitors projected in October.

Susan Teague, who came from St. Louis to visit the park Monday with her husband Don Teague, called the idea of the park closing devastating.

"Children are not learning enough about history ... it's a shame to think that people can't keep it open," Susan Teague said.

Don Teague said that nationally, the debate over funding parts of the Affordable Health Care Act was to blame.

"The people elected him (President Barack Obama) because they approved of 'Obamacare.' ... They (Republicans) don't know what it is, that's the problem," he said. "It's been passed, so they need to give it a try."

Dave and Linda Clark of Gettysburg, Pa., toured the park Monday.

Linda Clark, who works for Gettysburg National Military Park, said the closure of national parks could impact people around the world.

"It's a terrible inconvenience; [visitors] come from all over the world and plan ahead and get reservations," she said. "It's not just impacting people with the government."

She said she has met visitors to Gettysburg from as far away as Norway and New Zealand, and that the park is packed this time of year.

Dave Clark said that he blamed getting to the point of debating a shutdown on both Democrats and Republicans.

"The politicians should not be playing with people's pay checks. It's like two little kids holding their breath saying, 'I'm not going to breathe until I get my way,' " he said.

Visitors to Petersburg National Battlefield sites could be impacted by the cancellation or reorganization of events, including Hopewell's "Four Centuries in Old City Point Day." The Oct. 12 festival on the grounds of Appomattox Manor celebrates the founding of City Point in 1613. Along with the grounds being closed, participants could lose out on a scheduled park service lecture on archaeology and a performance by Fort Lee 392nd Army Band.

The Four Centuries Committee, a Hopewell group planning the event, was to meet this morning to discuss a contingency plan.

Jimmy Blankenship, Petersburg National Battlefield historian, said Monday the event could possibly be moved to a field behind a Civil War fortification. The field, located near the intersection of East Broadway and Fort streets, is owned by the city of Hopewell.

Hopewell Ward 1 Councilor Christina Luman-Bailey said a privately-owned field in City Point may be used instead, but this field is considerably smaller.

She said even though the event would be held, it wouldn't be the same in a different location.

"The fort area is still in City Point, but it's not what people think of. The critical point of City Point is the confluence of the James River and the Appomattox River," she said. "Strategically it makes a lot of sense."

The Appomattox Manor setting made more sense because of the use of historical interpreters hired by the Four Centuries Committee, she said. A costumed interpreter of Gen. Ulysses S. Grant would stand near his headquarters, while a John Rolfe interpreter would stand near the manor itself.

Luman-Bailey said she is hoping for the best.

"I'm keeping my fingers crossed and praying," she said. "I'm sure this is insignificant to some people compared to other things that will be happening, but this is important to us."

lsmall@progress-index.com
 

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