An even better tourist address?

Booster wants Gettysburg's train station made into a museum and gateway to the battlefield.

Posted: July 23, 2012

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

When Walter Powell walks through, his eyes don't register the racks of picked-over tourism brochures or the weary travelers resting 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, battlefield tours begin and end on the platform. Out back, he envisions an outdoor exhibit. Upstairs, offices of community revitalization groups. On the main floor, a replica of the makeshift hospital the station became during the battle.

As borough director of planning and historic preservation, 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 money and interest in the building waned before the train depot became the education center planners imagined.

Now the borough wants the federal government to take over the oft-overlooked landmark and turn the Italianate building into a must-see destination run 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 House legislation. In the Senate, Bob Casey (D., Pa.) introduced a companion bill, to which Pat Toomey (R., Pa.) has signed on as a co-sponsor. "The train station played an important role in the battle," Platt said, "especially as thousands of soldiers passed through there, as did the president."

The plan would have the park service acquire the train station from Gettysburg borough for $700,000 - money officials would like to use to improve roads and sidewalks.

Gettysburg, of course, is already a tourist draw. Tamas Makra came with his family from Hungary to trace Lincoln's path from Illinois to the site of his most famous speech. Makra, 42, was surprised to find a museum in the train station, compete with docent.

Makra said $1 million was a small price for the government to pay to preserve such history. "It's worth it," he said above the recorded sounds of period fiddle music from behind the counter where telegraph operators once sat. "You have to preserve important buildings like this for future generations."

Powell knows it takes advertising and additional exhibits to draw more visitors. "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," he said.

Various 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 shape now, but borough officials worry they won't have the funds for future repairs.

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


Contact Tracie Mauriello at 703-996-9292 or tmauriello@post-gazette.com.

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