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Battle's 150th: Gettysburg Prepared For Big Crowds

3:48 PM, Jul 1, 2013   |    comments
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Larry Bleiberg, Special for USA TODAY

GETTYSBURG NATIONAL MILITARY PARK, PA-- Like a general leading his troops into battle, tour guide Charlie Fennell stands tall on his Segway, snaking through the crowd that mills around an equestrian statue. His group follows on their futuristic two-wheeled vehicles, carefully avoiding bicyclists, motor coach passengers and a pair of locally rented three-wheeled scooters resembling circus clown cars.

"This is where Robert E. Lee became a hero," Fennell tells the Segway riders over a two-way radio, pointing to the memorial and explaining how the Confederate general took responsibility for the South's loss at the Battle of Gettysburg.

The group at the Virginia Monument numbers fewer than 100 on the day USA Today visited. It's nothing compared to the hundreds of thousands expected at the end of June and early July. Ten days of events will mark the 150th anniversary of what some call the most crucial battle in American history. More than 50,000 soldiers were killed, wounded, captured or went missing.

Tourists began arriving the day after the fighting ended on July 3, 1863. And from the beginning, this small Pennsylvania farming community has had to strike a sometimes uneasy balance between honoring the fallen and profiting from tragedy.

TOURISM IS PART OF THE SCENE

Over time, commercialism has taken many forms. Today, visitors can stop by the Adams County Winery to sample Rebel Red - a semi-sweet Concord with "a dry finish" - and Tears of Gettysburg, a white blend in production for 25 years.

A few blocks away along Steinwehr Avenue - a boulevard of toy gun and T-shirts shops and wax museums - hungry tourists line up at Hunt's Battlefield Fries, which announces its presence with a sign featuring jaunty Idaho spuds in blue and gray uniforms.Over at the cavernous National Park Service gift shop, visitors are tempted by Battle of Gettysburg pajamas with a stylized U.S. flag featuring stovetop hats instead of stars.

And nearly every night, the city is haunted by more than a dozen ghost tours ranging from historic walks to full-fledged Ghostbuster outings with energy meters and dowsing rods.

Bob Wasel, who started Haunted Gettysburg Ghost Tours 10 years ago, says the town is spook central. "There are 1,000 bodies still buried on the battlefield. If any place is going to be haunted, it's here." He says his customers, who each get use of paranormal-detection equipment, often find unexplained images in photos and mysterious sounds on their recorders. "The ghosts are friendly. They're happy that we're coming there ... telling their story."

Carl Whitehill of the city's visitor's bureau strikes a diplomatic tone. The tours can be a welcome evening activity in a town without vigorous nightlife. "We want everyone to be respectful, to follow the rules and learn history. If you come just to do the ghost thing, you are missing out."

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