Beloved Gettysburg map could be auctioned

The electric map show was a beloved part of the Gettysburg museum.
The electric map show was a beloved part of the Gettysburg museum.
Posted: May 28, 2012

GETTYSBURG — For decades the electric map show was as much a part of the Gettysburg National Military Park experience as the battlefield itself.

Generations of visitors — among them President Dwight D. Eisenhower and British Field Marshall Sir Bernard Law Montgomery — took a 20-minute trip back in time to witness the progression of Union and Confederate troops over the course of the three-day battle in July 1863.

There was no Disney animation, no interactive display. Just a dark hall with a 30-by-30-foot map on which hundreds of lights — red for Confederate and blue for Union — flashed to show changing brigade positions, from the opening skirmish northwest of town to the grim finale of Pickett’s Charge.

In 2008, after 70 years, the National Park Service pulled the plug on the beloved piece of Americana, deeming the old-fashioned map too antiquated for a flashy new museum a mile away.

Now, on the eve of the battle’s 150th anniversary, the map may get a second chance. The park service last month asked the federal government to let it auction the map to the highest bidder.

But it must first receive a waiver from the General Services Administration, which handles surplus government property sales, because the map contains asbestos that could pose a threat to public health. If no waiver is granted, the map will be destroyed, park officials say.

News that the map might be resurrected surprised some fans who thought it was history.

"I thought it was dead and buried," said John Dekeles, of Post Falls, Idaho, who filmed one of the last map shows.

Dekeles was among legions of fans upset about the map’s demise and one of many who launched efforts to save it. Local groups drew up plans to move the map, with its heavy steel I-beams, to a site nearby. Some petitioned the Smithsonian, West Point and the Naval Academy to adopt the map. But none of the ideas panned out. Today, the map sits in four pieces in an air-tight shipping containers, housed at an undisclosed location.

The map was the creation of Joseph Rosensteel, who grew up on the battlefield and whose family founded the park’s original museum near the site of Pickett’s Charge. He envisioned it as a way to introduce visitors to the fighting that surged back and forth over 6,000-acres.

Rosensteel’s grandfather, as a teenager, collected artifacts days after the battle while helping bury bodies. The artifacts, thousands of them, provided the foundation for the museum, which opened in the Rosensteel’s farmhouse in 1921 and survived until 2009 when it was demolished.

The grandson spent five years researching troop movements and laying out his map with topographic features — roads, waterways and orchards on an undulating surface — before the first electric-map show opened in 1938.

The current map was constructed in 1963 out of plaster and concrete. An auditorium was built to house it for the battle’s 100th anniversary commemoration.

The map’s fate was uncertain as plans got underway in 2008 for a new museum a mile away. The park service wrestled over whether there was a place for it.

"We finally came to the conclusion that it was outdated as an interpretive device," said park spokeswoman Katie Lawhon.

Dekeles and his family made side trips to Gettysburg to see the map during annual visits to a train show in nearby York.

In early 2008, after learning the map show was to close, he bought the domain name www.savetheelectricmap.com and filmed the show with night vision equipment (that video is posted on YouTube).

"I was shocked," Dekeles recalled. "I couldn’t believe it would be gone. I learned so much from it. “

To no avail, two non-profit groups — Gettysburg Battlefield Preservation Society and Historic Gettysburg-Adams County — made overtures to the park service to move it to a suitable home and raise money to restore it.

Rumors swirled that the park service, with its major investment in the new museum, didn’t want to give up the map because it felt threatened by it, fearing it would lure away visitors.

Not so, says Lawhon.

Curt Musselman, president of the Historic Gettysburg-Adams County group, led the effort to find a local place to house the map. He grew up in Gettysburg and credits the map, in part, with his decision to become a cartographer.

“It’s a good communication tool," said Musselman.

He recalls seeking out the cool comfort of the map theater in the late 1950s after a hot day on the battlefield and being entranced by the men who back then threw all 253 light switches by hand.

The new Gettysburg Museum and Visitor Center is a marvel of the modern history experience with beautifully designed galleries, interactive exhibits, the stunningly restored Cyclorama painting, and a triple-screen high-production value movie narrated by actor Morgan Freeman.

But purists say the new museum for all of its flash, doesn’t provide visitors with the same comprehensive overview that the primitive map did.

"It concisely interprets and orients people; it’s always been good at that, “ said Musselman, who makes maps for the park service. “And for all the millions, the museum does not have such a concise or effective orientation."

The park service, should it get its waiver, wants to see the map auctioned off as quickly as possible so it can concentrate on preparing for the 150th anniversary events next year, said Lawhon. Visitors to the park are expected to swell significantly above the 1.2 million people who came in 2011.

"We want to move forward and focus on 2013," said Lawhon.

The General Services Administration surplus property process is the last stand for the map. The only other option is destruction, said Lawhon.

Dekeles says he’d like to see the map reborn as it was, in a new location modeled after the old.

"Like a phoenix rising from the ashes and presented in a way that shows the respect it deserves," he said. "The ideal thing would be to put it back as close as it was to protect the dignity and history, like you are walking into 1963."

Contact Amy Worden at 717-783-2584 or aworden@phillynews.com.

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