Gettysburg wants federal government to take over their historic train station

GETTYSBURG — Tourists trickle through the Gettysburg Train Station's burgundy door, some to escape the heat and others to pick up battlefield maps. Only a scant few come to trace President Abraham Lincoln's path through here to deliver the famous two-minute speech that defined the Civil War and began to reunify the country.

When Walter Powell walks through, his eyes don't register the racks of picked-over tourism brochures or the weariness of travelers who rest achy feet on 150-year-old benches.

Rather, he sees what the station could be: a bustling railroad museum that gives visitors a fuller picture of the Civil War and draws tourists to downtown businesses.

In his mind, there are battlefield tours that begin and end on the platform. Out back, he envisions an outdoor exhibit that visitors can explore even after hours. Upstairs he sees offices of community revitalization groups. On the main floor, a replica of the makeshift hospital the train station had become during and after the three-day Battle of Gettysburg.

As former borough director of planning and historic preservation, Mr. Powell saw the train station through a $2.8 million renovation paid for with a combination of state grants, federal funding and local contributions. Completed in 2006, the project saved the deteriorating 1856 building from termites, replaced disintegrated bricks and repaired weak floor joists, but both funds and interest in the building waned before the train depot became the education center planners imagined.

Now the borough is asking the federal government to take over the oft-overlooked historical landmark and transform the Italianate building into a must-see tourist destination operated by the National Park Service as part of Gettysburg National Military Park.

Federal lawmakers from Pennsylvania are trying. U.S. Rep. Todd Platts, R-York, whose district includes Gettysburg, has sponsored legislation in the House. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., introduced a companion bill in the Senate and Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., has signed on as a co-sponsor.

"This legislation strengthens the ability of the National Park Service to tell the story of the historic Gettysburg battle," Mr. Platts said. "The train station played an important role in the battle, especially as thousands of soldiers passed through there, as did the president."

The legislation also incorporates into the military park 45 acres at the base of Big Round Top.

The plan would require the National Park Service to acquire the train station from the Borough of Gettysburg, which would sell it for $700,000 -- money borough officials would like to use to improve roads and sidewalks.

"Anything we can do to enhance Gettysburg's national history is a step in the right direction," Mr. Casey said. "Tourism is the second largest industry in our state, and tourists come from across the country to see that site."

Some come from across the world.

Tamas Makra, for example, came with his family from Budapest, Hungary, to trace Lincoln's path from his birthplace in Illinois to his boyhood home in Kentucky to the site of his most famous speech in Gettysburg. Here, he expected to see merely the outside of the train station but was surprised to find a museum inside with a docent eager to give her second tour of the day.

"I didn't know it was a museum," said Mr. Makra, 42, who also picked up a map from the Convention and Visitors Bureau counter. He said $1 million is a small price for the government to pay to preserve such an important piece of history.

"It's worth it," he said above the sounds of period fiddle music coming from a small sound system behind the counter where telegraph operators used to sit. "You have to preserve important buildings like this for future generations."

Mr. Powell wants more foot traffic from tourists like Mr. Makra. He realizes it takes advertising and additional exhibits to draw them there.

"We designed this to be a downtown visitor center but the challenge -- and we found out early on -- is that we couldn't get people to staff it," Mr. Powell said.

Utilities and other costs to keep the building open are covered by the $1,000 rent paid by the Gettysburg Convention and Visitors Bureau, which staffs a small information center inside. The building is in good condition now, but borough officials worry they won't have the funds for major repairs down the line.

"It's self-sustaining but as time marches down, anything else for our borough to maintain could be a big expense," said borough manager Florence Ford. "The borough stepped in and saved it, which was the most important thing at the time, but now the important thing is how to sustain it."

That concerns historians and Park Service employees, too.

"Right now the future of this historic train station is in doubt," said Katie Lawhon, spokeswoman for Gettysburg National Military Park.

"Once a property becomes part of the National Park Service, the main mission is to preserve resources for this and future generations and to provide public enjoyment of it," she said. "Right now there's uncertainty about preservation of this historic train station where Lincoln arrived to give the Gettysburg Address and where the wounded came. It's an integral part of the battle and a part of the story that's a little less well known."

If Congress approves the bill, the Park Service would likely spend another $300,000 on a fire suppression system and on new exhibits to add to the few inside.

Owning the property would help the Park Service tell a fuller story of Lincoln's time in town, since it already owns the nearby David Wills House, where the president stayed the night before the Gettysburg Address, and Soldiers National Cemetery, where he delivered it.

Some are wary that the federal bill would take control away from the local community that has been working for years to keep the station out of disrepair.

"The Park Service isn't the answer to everything. It's a government agency that does vital work but it's been underfunded and understaffed for years. They can't manage what they have," he said. "I have pretty mixed feelings about it going to the Park Service, but it certainly could become a drain on the [borough] budget and costs keep going up."

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