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Battlefield not ready for crowds

September 21, 1997

By JULIE E. GREENE

Staff Writer

SHARPSBURG - Whether Antietam National Battlefield is prepared or not, the historic national park could see an onslaught of tourists in the coming years thanks to a strong push by tourism officials to make Washington County a destination for thousands of tourists interested in the Civil War.

Unfortunately the National Park Service, which oversees the battlefield, isn't ready, said battlefield Superintendent John Howard.

While increasing the number of visitors to Antietam is realistic and certainly welcome, the park isn't prepared for the crowds local tourism officials are hoping for, Howard said.

"A lot of people want to turn Antietam into Gettysburg" in terms of the number of visitors, Howard said. "There's a lot that needs to be done first."

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Gettysburg National Battlefield received 1.6 million visitors in 1996, a 1 percent decline from the previous year, Howard said.

Antietam National Battlefield had 246,000 visitors in 1996, up 14 percent from the 168,000 visitors in 1995, he said. A typical anniversary weekend at the park would attract 4,000 to 5,000 visitors.

The weekend of the 135th Commemoration of the Battle of Antietam the park received between 25,000 to 30,000 visitors, Howard said.

County tourism officials are hoping to get that big a crowd every weekend during the height of the tourism season as they market Hagerstown and Washington County as the Crossroads to the Civil War, He said.

Howard said he would need at least another eight or 10 rangers and maintenance workers to regularly accommodate the crowd size that visited the battlefield the weekend of the 135th anniversary re-enactment.

During the anniversary weekend the park handled the extra visitors by using 14 extra law enforcement rangers from C&O Canal National Historical Park, Monocacy National Battlefield and Catoctin Mountain National Park, he said.

"It's not a popular thing right now to hire federal employees," Howard said. "It just doesn't work to go ask for another 10 to 12 rangers."

Howard said budget requests for more personnel at Antietam haven't been approved in at least four years.

For the fiscal year starting in October, Howard said he has asked for four more seasonal rangers and four more seasonal maintenance workers at a cost of $200,000.

He has two vacancies in maintenance now, Howard said.

The park has a staff of 37 people, including about 15 rangers and 15 maintenance workers during the height of the tourism season in the summer.

Park officials' two goals are to serve visitors and protect the battlefield, Howard said.

Those goals have always been at odds with each other and will be more so with a surge in visitors, he said.

The reason park officials didn't allow the 135th anniversary re-enactment to be done at the battlefield was to protect it, Howard said.

Re-enactment officials have estimated up to 100,000 people visited the Artz Farm on Rench Road during the three-day event. The farm is about six miles from the battlefield.

One visitor, one vote

Whether Antietam is ready or not, tourism officials want the tourists, said Dennis Frye, co-chairman of the Antietam Commemoration Committee that organized the re-enactment.

"The federal government's inability to prepare for tourists is a problem that is not going to constrain our efforts to enhance tourism," Frye said.

If tourism officials succeed in attracting more tourists, then Howard will have more justification to ask for more funding, he said.

"Every potential visitor is a potential voter," Frye said. Tourists can lobby their Congressional members to provide more money to the park.

Frye said he will let the National Park Service deal with the tourists.

"Our job is to bring tourists into the community and to the sites," including the battlefield, Frye said.

"We acknowledge the more people to come the more demands on the park and the staff. It's the role of the national government to meet the demands. We can't turn the American public away even if the park is not prepared for it. But the American public can become the park's best ally, but the park must let people know what its needs are."

One reason people visit the battlefield is because it is largely unchanged since it achieved historical significance on Sept. 17, 1862.

While the battlefield recovers fairly well from a large group of visitors, there is some physical impact, Howard said. For example, the overflow parking lot on grass by the visitor center looked rough the week after the re-enactment, he said.

The parking lot can handle about 60 cars and four buses and the overflow lot can accommodate another 200 cars, he said. Last weekend parking overflowed so much people were parking on the sides of the streets.

While traffic was congested, it did keep moving, he said.

Nancy Jones, a Maryland State Highway Administration traffic engineer, said the highways can handle the traffic.

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