Ghost tours, proposed gambling tramp on user experience at Gettysburg battlefield

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Visitors to the Gettysburg Cyclorama take in the 360-degree artist’s rendition of fighting on the battle’s third day, specifically Pickett’s Charge. This scene came in the early days of the rehabbed painting at the Gettysburg National Military Park’s new visitor center in 2008. Also of interest: ‘Ruh-row, Raggy’: Gettysburg ghost hunters find no trespassing signs and York newspaper about Gettysburg Address: ‘Mr. Lincoln made a joke or two …’ and Q&A on new Gettysburg visitor center, old Electric Map

This isn’t the first time we’ve raised issues about out-of-control huckstering of ghost tours in and around the battlefield in Gettysburg. (See: What do you think about those ghost stories linked to historic sites in York and Adams counties?
But a recent visitor over there brought back how that industry has over run that town, which has the asset of a well-done visitors center.
Now, we have the prospect of gambling.
All this came out in my York Sunday News column (6/27/10): … .

Patrons putting down $10.50 at the visitors center at the Gettysburg battlefield receive a cascading overview of the Civil War battle.
First, the emotion-tugging film “A New Birth of Freedom” rolls across a screen — covering the battle, the war and reasons for the conflict.
Then comes the loud drama of the “Gettysburg Cyclorama” that can cause patrons to leave in contemplative silence.
And then visitors are guided to The Gettysburg Museum of the Civil War that thoroughly explores the three days of fighting, plus a fourth day. On this last day, patrons receive an interpretation about how Gettysburg — and America — recovered from the battle and the war. Those leaving the center are well prepped to go forth to the battlefield.
* * *
Then comes the evening and the relished stroll from Gettysburg’s square to the Sunset Ice Cream Parlor along Steinwehr. Here is where the edge of that grand Gettysburg experience is shaved off.
That walk is haunted with ghost tours.
Pedestrians must negotiate tour groups and dodge quiet barkers selling the walks.
A litany of signs tout ghosts in Gettysburg, haunted tours and, redundantly, haunted ghost tours.
Candlelight is the illumination of choice, as if wicks in wax create a universal beacon to call up those spirits.
After a long day of real history, enhanced understanding and thoughtful insight into the American experience, visitors are accosted by this fake history.
* * *
Now comes another invader threatening to trample this hallowed ground.
A posh resort is proposed just south of the battlefield — specifically the South Cavalry field — complete with casino.
Gettysburg bears a well-deserved brand as the high-water mark of the Civil War, a decisive moment in American history when the fate of our country — and the lives of millions of enslaved people — hung in the balance.
Now some interests are seeking to overlay this historic land with the atmosphere of a circus — a casino. And they are undermining that rich heritage with false history through ghost tours.
Even the Gettysburg Chamber of Commerce, friendly as many such organizations are to promises of an economic boost, could muster only mild support for the casino.
When members were asked whether the chamber should support the Mason Dixon Resort and Casino, 51.5 percent responded aye and 43.3 percent, no.
That’s hardly an endorsement, more like damnation with faint praise.
* * *
When the tents of circuses like casinos and ghosts tours are put up next to sites where blood was shed, well, this brings to mind another Civil War moment.
Early in the war, blue and gray troops squared off outside Washington, D.C. at Manassas Junction.
Men in hats and women with parasols rode in carriages on an excursion to see what would transpire along the banks of Bull Run Creek. Perhaps they believed it would be a big croquet match.
What transpired was a bloodbath as the Confederates mauled Union troops, scattering them back to the D.C. defenses.
The finely dressed gentry became intertwined with the rout, as the Yankees, their new blue uniforms dirty and bloody, retreated in disarray to safety.
That moment had meaning, too. The war would be no afternoon Union picnic, but a four-year struggle.
Similarly, the Gettysburg battlefield district is no place to play games or to game.
And it’s no place to mock the memory of those who died by making up ghost stories.
Religious leaders from the Gettysburg region recently issued a clear statement opposing gambling for ethical and economic reasons and more.
“We recognize and honor the significant role that Gettysburg has in our nation’s history,” they stated. “We are concerned that a casino cheapens the memory and meaning of Gettysburg for those of us who live here as well as for the nation and the world.”
Well said.
Just substitute “ghost tours” for “casino” and the statement remains on the mark.

Photo courtesy York Daily Record/Sunday News.
For reaction to this post, visit: Ghost tours, proposed gambling tramp on user experience at Gettysburg battlefield, Part II.

About Jim McClure

Editor of the York Daily Record/Sunday News, ydr.com and its many digital products. East Region Editor, Digital First Media. Journalism/history blogger: yorktownsquare.com. Author or co-author of seven York County, Pa., history books.
This entry was posted in Archives, all posts, Civil War, Explanations/controversy, For photo fans, Local journalism & Web, Local landmarks, Nostalgia & memories, War. Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Ghost tours, proposed gambling tramp on user experience at Gettysburg battlefield

  1. Five generation native says:

    First of all, you are blind-sided by the Park service and its over-rated facility, not to mention cost. You are led to believe that if you go to the visitor center you will learn all you need to know about Gettysburg and buy souvenirs, books, food and drink. Oh yes, the technology is impressive, but in this over-programed world, some reality is refreshing. Walk downtown in the daytime and notice all the other attractions that are available (some even free!) which portray how the town was during and after the battle. Talk to people (other than ghost barkers), go into the restaurants or the art galleries and enjoy the true Gettysburg experience Positive press coverage could help, also. As for the the ghost tours, it is called free enterprise, but it is not what Gettysburg is all about. Perhaps the casino isn’t either, but people are struggling and it won’t be in the middle of town.

  2. Harvey says:

    What I would like Mr. McClure to explain is where we draw the line between what enhances a visitor’s experience and what detracts from it. If ghost tours and a *proposed* casino [which would be built largely on already-developed land] detract from the mystique and meaning of the battlefield, what does he think about fast-food joints on Steinwher Ave., chain stores on York Road (east), and kitschy museums of dubious interpretive value throughout the town? Even the Sunset seems a bit out of place when you think about what the main attraction really is–the ground where tens of thousands of men butchered each other as part of a defining moment in American history.
    Whether we like it or not, attempts to capitalize off of the importance of the battle have existed almost since the battle itself. Perhaps the visitor experience would be better without people yelling at you to take their ghost tours (which, according to at least one ghost tour employee, is illegal). But, at least the ghost tours have roots in folklore specific to the battle and town and are, in their own way, a piece of Gettysburg’s past. What’s to be said about “General Pickett’s Buffets”?

  3. Joe says:

    I have to agree with the comments above. If it is wrong to make $ off of the deaths of 1000′s of men, then 90% of the shops in that town are as guilty as the developer of the proposed casino.
    Face it, Gettysburg is a tourist attraction. People are going to come there for more than the battlefield, and having alternative entertainment options for those tourists brings more money to the town.
    Probably the biggest money maker is the National Park Service. How is it ok for them to build a multi million dollar facility directly on hallowed ground but a casino elsewhere is so despised?
    It is very true that the story of Gettysburg can be told in those little shops, the local residents and even on ghost tours.
    Ghost tours aren’t the worst thing, particularly if they are respectful to private land. A good deal of history can be told if presented in the right way.

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