GETTYSBURG — Planning matters.
Years of preparation for the 150th anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg enabled a remarkably smooth transition as this town of 7,600 swelled on Monday to several times its normal population. Nightmare scenarios of endless traffic backups on the town’s 19th century road system failed to materialize, and the National Park Service’s plan of spreading the crowds throughout the park with simultaneous events led to a steady progression of thousands of vehicles moving over the park’s narrow, wooded blacktop lanes.
As many as 200,000 people are expected to descend on the area during 10 days of events surrounding the anniversary of the three-day battle, which raged from July 1 to 3, 1863. More than 158,000 combatants joined the bloody fight.
“This is far more people” than a typical anniversary, said Ellen Mann, 63, who bought a house in Gettysburg with her husband, Chip, five years ago. They spend most of their year in Reno, Nev., where they work as accountants, but travel to Gettysburg once tax season ends, she said.
Friends suggested they skip the anniversary this year and capitalize, as many in Gettysburg have, by renting their house. Ellen Mann estimates they could have charged about $3,000 for the week.
“We loaded the refrigerator with food so we don’t have to go anywhere,” she said.
But the couple joined the crowds anyway, volunteering Sunday night to help light luminaria on 3,512 Union soldiers’ graves in the National Cemetery, where the opening ceremony concluded. They sat on a bench in the national cemetery as thousands of visitors to their adopted hometown walked quietly past the flickering lights of the somber, enormous memorial they helped create.
“This is why we’re in Gettysburg,” she said.
Shortly after noon on Monday, about four hours after tourists and re-enactors marked the first shots fired in the battle, it took about 12 minutes to travel just less than a mile from the town’s center to the edge of the battlefield on Cemetery Hill. Getting to the park entrance took less than 20 minutes, and a trip to the Pennsylvania Memorial, where Union re-enactors drew thousands of people to booming artillery demonstrations near their encampment, took less than half an hour.
“It really hasn’t been unreasonable,” said Sarah Mishler, 25, of Lisbon, Ohio, a re-enactor with the 19th Ohio Light Artillery, whose bright purple period dress slowed traffic along Hancock Avenue near the Union encampment. People who came to the park knew what they were getting into, she said.
Though people were able to move around better than had been expected, the thousands of cars squeezing through this small town kept police Chief Joseph Dougherty’s 13-person department hopping.
“We’re constantly moving around to keep traffic flowing. We’ve gotten a lot of help from the state police,” Dougherty said. “Traffic is not as bad as we expected. Most of the town is really not too bad.”
The volume of emergency medical calls was “like a busy weekend,” said Assistant Fire Chief Bryan Wasylyk. The department handles about 2,200 EMS calls and 800 fire calls a year, he said.
Even the town square — a traffic circle regulated only by yield signs at each of the four entrances — flowed more smoothly than some expected. The day’s biggest problem came at mid-morning, when flaggers tried to manage the flow rather than just stopping cars for pedestrians as they were supposed to.
“That just made things worse,” Dougherty said.
Free public transportation and shuttles from remote parking lots to the battlefield alleviated much of the congestion, and simultaneous events throughout the park thinned the crowds gathering in any one place, said Katie Lawhon, a ranger at Gettysburg National Military Park.
“We had no trouble at all,” said Jon Brighton, 38.
Brighton of Philadelphia relaxed under a mostly cloudy sky beside the monument to the 1st Minnesota Volunteer Regiment with his wife, son and parents, who are visiting from Wales.
“It’s a very moving experience,” said Paul Brighton, 71, his father. Quoting Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, Paul Brighton said the battle is a reminder of the ideals linking all democratic societies, not just the North and South of this one.
“It has the attention not only of Pennsylvania; it has the attention of the world,” Gov. Tom Corbett said after cutting the ribbon Monday morning to open the Seminary Ridge Museum in Schmucker Hall on the campus of the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Gettysburg.
The building played a major role in the battle, first as the spot where the Confederates advanced and Gen. John Buford surveyed the terrain that would help the Union win the battle, then as a field hospital treating the wounded of both sides.
Corbett and his wife, Susan, didn’t tour the museum.
“I didn’t get a chance to look at it all,” Corbett said, adding, “I made a mental note to myself to come back when the crowds aren’t here.”
Mike Wereschagin is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7900 or [email protected].