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South Mountain park gets boost

March 11, 1999|By LAURA ERNDE

ANNAPOLIS - South Hagerstown High School social studies teacher John Priest gave a history lesson to a Maryland General Assembly committee Thursday.

Illustrating the merits of creating Maryland's first state park battlefield at South Mountain, Priest said the battle was an important prelude to Antietam.

"Had they not fought, there would have been no battle at Antietam," Priest told the Commerce and Government Matters Committee.

The panel is considering a resolution to study the battlefield concept and report back by Jan. 19, 2000.

The resolution was sponsored by the Washington and Frederick counties legislative delegations.

"I don't think you're going to have to do a real big sell job," committee Chairman John F. Wood Jr. told more than a half dozen supporters who were on hand to lend their support.

As many as 5,200 people died on South Mountain on Sept. 14, 1862, during the first major Civil War battle to be fought in Maryland, Priest said.

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The remains of some of those who fell are still buried there, said George Brigham, a founder of the Central Maryland Heritage League. The League has spent 10 years working to protect the battlefield land from development.

"This is a fine honor for the young men who made the ultimate sacrifice," Brigham said.

Designation as a state battlefield would also be a boon to tourism, witnesses testified.

Nearly a million people a year visit nearby Antietam National Battlefield in Sharpsburg and Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia, said historian Dennis E. Frye.

"Maryland for years has been missing out on this great opportunity," said Frye, who gave his first tours of the battlefield when he was 11.

Margaret Magruder, president of the Friends of Gathland State Park, testified the park gets about 64,000 visitors a year.

Bill Van Gilder, a potter who lives and works at the battlefield, said his shop has become an unofficial visitors' center.

"I think this state would be very foolish not to take advantage of those assets," he said.

Parts of the battlefield are already owned by the state. Three state parks converge in the area, Gathland, South Mountain and Washington Monument.

Former Maryland Transportation Secretary O. James Lighthizer, who pioneered the use of federal transportation money to preserve battlefields, also spoke in favor of the resolution.

About 1,300 acres at South Mountain were protected using $3.5 million of federal and state money.

Making the battlefield a state park would maximize the use of the taxpayer money that's already been spent, he said.

The resolution makes it clear that private property owners' interests will be protected, said Del. Christopher B. Shank, R-Washington.

Shank and Del. Louise V. Snodgrass, R-Frederick/Washington, presented the resolution to their fellow committee members.

"We are at the brink of quite a unique opportunity," Shank said.

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