RSS feed of this blog

Tourism taking toll from the shutdown

Philadelphia visitor Roseann de Freitas (left) and Hallowed Ground Tours Tourmaster Scott Walker pass by the Masonic lodge on Princess Anne Street Monday afternoon. The federal shutdown has resulted in a cancellation of many of Walker’s tours, so his group outings have dwindled to a single-digit size. (ROBERT A. MARTIN / THE FREE LANCE-STAR)

October is normally one of Scott Walker’s two busiest months for his Hallowed Ground Tours of the Fredericksburg area.

But he’s had to cancel about 18 tours—including one for a bus group—and postpone nearly a dozen more due to the federal government shutdown.

It has closed the Civil War battlefields in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park that those customers had wanted to see.

“It’s almost a gnashing of teeth,” said Walker, whose battlefield tours normally include such Battle of Fredericksburg sites as Chatham Manor, Sunken Road and the National Cemetery.

The National Park Service oversees and interprets about 9,000 acres of battlefields in the Fredericksburg area, and the shuttering of those places “is a huge loss,” said Julie Perry, who manages the Fredericksburg Visitor Center, 706 Caroline St.

She said that the center has been fielding calls from tourists who have booked rooms here and wanted to know if they should cancel because the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park is closed.

“The answer,” Perry said, “is a resounding ‘No!’”

Visitor center staff are directing people to a variety of other places with Civil War connections, including tours of downtown, the Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center, the Spotsylvania County Museum and, in Stafford County, the White Oak Civil War Museum and the new Stafford Civil War Park.

Walker has conducted a couple of tours already this week that focused on historic Fredericksburg and Falmouth, and said there are a number of Civil War sites where he can still take visitors. They include Slaughter Pen Farm, which is owned by the Civil War Preservation Trust, and the place where Union troops crossed the Rappahannock River during the Battle of Fredericksburg.

The Fredericksburg Area Museum & Cultural Center at 1001 Princess Anne St., which currently has a permanent and a traveling exhibit about the Civil War, is offering free admission during the shutdown. It saw a 25 percent increase in admissions last week over the same period last year, said Christa Stabler, the museum’s executive vice president and COO.

“The main thing we knew is that we would have tourists in the area, not just here to see Fredericksburg but also to tour Washington,” she said. “We wanted to get the word out that there was still something for them to do. No one wants to take a trip and having nothing to do.”

Stabler said the museum also decided during a staff meeting on Oct. 1 to offer free admission because this area has so many federal government workers who’d be on furlough during the shutdown.

“We’re not a stagnant museum,” she said. “I hope that folks who are not familiar with us will continue to visit online if they can’t be here physically, and consider us if they come back.”

Glenn Trimmer, executive director of the Friends of Stafford Civil War Sites, said that there were five cars in the parking lot of the new, still relatively unknown Stafford Civil War Park at 400 Mount Hope Church Road on Monday morning.

Not only was that more than the park normally would get on an overcast weekday, but he said two of the visitors told him they had come specifically because the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park was closed.

“It’s a great alternative to the national parks,” Trimmer said. “The thing about the park is it also paints a whole story that hasn’t gotten much attention.”

The Stafford Civil War Park, which the Friends help build and the county maintains, is located on land where more than 135,000 soldiers in the Army of the Potomac camped in what some scholars call the Union’s “Valley Forge.” It contains hut site remains, a corduroy road, a late 18th- and early 19th-century sandstone quarry, and remnants of the 1660s Potomac Church Road bed.

The White Oak Civil War Museum, 985 White Oak Road, however, hasn’t seen any change in the number of visitors it gets, said D.P. Newton, who created and operates the museum.

Open Wednesday through Sunday, it has an extensive collections Union and Confederate artifacts. Many of them were discarded or lost by troops camping in Stafford before and after the Battles in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania in 1862–1863.

The Spotsylvania County Museum, 9019 Old Battlefield Blvd., has exhibits and artifacts about the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse and the local inhabitants. It bills itself as “an excellent stop prior to visiting the National Park Service’s Spotsylvania Unit,” and has seen “a slight increase in numbers,” according the Terry Dougherty, the museum’s director.

The Fredericksburg area’s three state parks and other downtown tour companies also are seeing an impact due to the government shutdown.

Caledon State Natural Area’s Friends group sponsored free hayrides and campfire programs for furloughed federal government and civilian employees last Friday and Saturday. The campfires attracted about 60 people and all three hayrides were full, said Nena Cox, the park’s manager.

Lake Anna and Westmoreland state parks are normally busy this time of year, but officials there said they were probably a little busier than normal. Doug Graham, who manages Lake Anna State Park, said that several people called to see if they could camp at there since the national parks are closed.

Christine Kovacs, who owns Olde Towne Carriage Tours of Fredericksburg, said that she hasn’t seen much of change in her business, possibly because most of her clients are retirees who aren’t worried about being furloughed.

But Carol Nesbitt, who co-owns the Ghosts of Fredericksburg Tours, and Wimmer, owner of Trolley Tours of Fredericksburg, said business has been brisk. Nesbitt had to add extra tours last Saturday, and Wimmer said that the 10:30 a.m. and noon tours on Tuesday were full.

“The shutdown may have even helped us since the battlefields are closed. I know it hasn’t hurt us,” Wimmer said. “They can still go to the sites downtown, like the Mary Washington House.”

Cathy Jett: 540/374-5407