Historic Gettysburg Railroad Station

The following excerpt is from exhibit panels located onsite at the Historic Gettysburg Railroad Station. These panels provide a brief history of the town of Gettysburg and the Railroad Station. This text is courtesy of Gerald R. Bennett and Dr. Walter L. Powell.

A Brief Timeline of Gettysburg


Frontier to Established Settlement

 

After the Revolutionary War, the land around Samuel Gettys' tavern was surveyed for a town.

Before 1735, this area was wilderness and saw occasional battles over land ownership and hunting rights between roaming Native American tribes. By 1735, Scotch-Irish homesteaders were arriving, clearing forest and planting crops. Soon roads from established eastern settlements were constructed to help develop the frontier, and inns were established every six to eight miles, a day's travel.

Many of these early inns became towns. In 1786, the land surrounding the Samuel Gettys tavern at the intersection of the Nicholson's Gap and Shippensburg-Baltimore roads was formally laid out as a town by the innkeeper's son, James Gettys.

In 1800, the town, called Gettysburg, became the county seat for the newly created Adams County. Dynamic growth in building construction, local industry, town infrastructure and social development followed. Free public elementary education and two institutions of higher learning, the Lutheran Theological Seminary and Pennsylvania College (now Gettysburg College) were established by 1835.

Gettysburg's water system, established in 1825, was unique for a rural town. The system distributed water by gravity flow via buried wooden pipes to both public and private subscribers.

 

A Growing Town

By the eve of the Civil War, Gettysburg was a mature and thriving town of 2,400 inhabitants.

The August 20, 1860 issue of the Gettysburg Compiler captured the scope and spirit of seventy-four years of the town's many accomplishments: "Gettysburg now has her railroad, her water works, her cemetery, her college, her seminary, her large public school. What will come next? We can not say, but our enterprising little town never says stop."

Gettysburg was not just an agricultural center - its diverse population included college professors, judges and lawyers, small manufacturers, merchants, and both skilled and unskilled laborers.

The arrival of the railroad in 1858 marked a significant advancement in the town's economic fortunes. The railroad stimulated growth in local warehousing, lodging, and manufacturing, and also expanded trade with Eastern cities.

Not all citizens shared in this growing prosperity. Widespread racial discrimination, typical of that practiced throughout the northern states, hampered the progress of the town's African-Americans. Segregation in the public schools created inferior educational opportunities - a barrier to self improvement and better jobs.

 

War Comes to a Northern Town

The meeting of Lee's and Meade's armies at Gettysburg made the town's wartime experience different from other northern towns.

Gettysburg's Black and White citizens both faced daunting, but different experiences. While the war was being fought in nearby Virginia, Gettysburg was frequently subjected to the rumor, "Rebels are coming!" White citizens tended to might light of such alarms, but the town's African-American citizens felt a well-founded fear of abduction and enslavement by the Confederates and would flee, with what belongings they could carry, into the countryside.

The terrifying experience of the full fury of war came to Gettysburg on July 1, 1863. When the fighting briefly passed through the town's streets, civilians fled to their cellars in a state of shock and horror. When the clamor of combat ended, they emerged to find their streets occupied by enemy soldiers and the debris of battle.

For two and a half days Gettysburg lived under enemy occupation, forced to share their food, water and buildings and the constant danger of random missiles from the nearby battlefields. The battle miraculously claimed the life of only one citizen, Jenny Wade.

The wounded, occupying every church, public building and many private homes, presented an additional challenge. Gettysburg's women volunteered to nurse and feed the casualties from both armies during the battle, and for days afterwards without relief, a heroic deed.

 

Aftermath of the Battle

The departing armies left Gettysburg overwhelmed with wounded soldiers. Thousands of visitors soon followed.

Both armies departed, leaving insufficient food and medical supplies to care for 21,000 wounded soldiers. Within days, a second invasion of thousands arrived to help the wounded, seek loved ones or to tour the great battlefield. The cumulative effect was to overwhelm a town already burdened by chaos and destruction.

The situation was made worse by the condition of the battlefield. Poorly prepared graves for the fallen soldiers and untended dead horses drew swarms of "bottle" flies that increased the risk of contagious diseases. The smothering stench from the fields, not life-threatening but generally nauseating, did not disappear until the first frosts of autumn.

By August some degree of normalcy returned. The number of wounded remaining in the Gettysburg area had fallen to 5,000, with most of those sent to a consolidated field hospital named Camp Letterman, a mile east of town along the York Pike.

The railroad provided a lifeline of food and supplies for the wounded and local citizens, coffins for the dead, and transportation for thousands of wounded to be moved to city hospitals. A major problem requiring immediate attention were the thousands of Union soldiers lying in scattered and inadequate graves. A meeting of state representatives was held at the home of local attorney David Wills. The group recommended a common burial ground on the battlefield, leading to the creation of the Soldiers' National Cemetery, and to President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address.

 

Lincoln in Gettysburg

Abraham Lincoln paid his only visit to Gettysburg to deliver a speech lasting less than three minutes.

Lincoln's Gettysburg Address resonated throughout the world and forged an enduring association of Lincoln with Gettysburg.

The Soldiers' National Cemetery dedication ceremony prompted another influx of almost 20,000 people to Gettysburg. Despite good planning and preparation, Gettysburg was once again overwhelmed.

President Lincoln and a small entourage of aides and dignitaries arrived at this railroad station at six p.m. on November 18, 1863. In the solitude of David Wills' guest room, Mr. Lincoln put the finishing touches on his dedicatory speech for the next day's ceremony.

Following a parade along Baltimore Street to the dedication site on Cemetery Hill, and three hours of speeches and music, President Lincoln delivered his Gettysburg Address in less than three minutes. He then returned to town to meet and accompany local citizen-hero John Burns to a patriotic meeting in the Presbyterian Church.

Twenty-four hours after arriving, Lincoln departed from the Gettysburg train station. He left behind a world-wide legacy for Gettysburg as the site of a "new birth of freedom."

 

Dedicated to the Unfinished Work Gettysburg

Union veterans memorialized their Civil War experiences here, and their monuments remind visitors of their valor.

Since the 1880s, the memorialization of the battlefield by Union veterans has generated interest in travel to Gettysburg. In response, the town evolved into a major tourist community, and manufacturing further boosted the local economy.

 However, racial discrimination in Gettysburg continued to mirror the country's racial attitudes, preventing African-Americans from sharing the town's prosperity. They coped by forming institutions such as the Lincoln Lodge (Masonic Order) and Lincoln Cemetery, maintained today as a memorial to African-American veterans of the Civil War and the town's African-American citizens. Local schools were integrated in the 1930s, but only 1960s civil rights legislation lifted remaining economic barriers.

Gettysburg's economy has continued to change. Manufacturing has declined, but tourism continues to flourish.

The 50th and 75th Battle Anniversary celebrations gained national interest and paved highways, most notably the Lincoln Highway, and the automobile improved Gettysburg's accessibility. Following WWII, former General of the Army and President Dwight David Eisenhower made Gettysburg his home. At the end of his second term in 1961, Ike and Mamie retired to their farm on the south end of the battlefield. Today the Eisenhower Farm National Historic Site and Gettysburg National Military Park have made Gettysburg an international tourist destination.

The Historic Gettysburg Railroad Station is open to the general public. Admission is free.


Hours of Operation:

Open Daily 10:00 a.m.- 12:00 p.m. and 1:00 p.m. - 4:00 p.m.

 

A gallery of present day photos of the Railroad Station is located here.