Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 2

From Mink:

Part 1 of this discussion can be found here

Choosing a Location

The selection of a location for the new visitor center at Chancellorsville was not without debate within the NPS. Typically, land within a national park is considered significant to the story of that park and finding a site that can be heavily developed, such as the construction of a visitor center, is no easy task. This was certainly the case at Chancellorsville. In the late 1950s, NPS-owned lands at Chancellorsville totaled about 600 acres, whereas today the battlefield under NPS stewardship sits at about 2,600 acres.

The map below shows the approximate boundaries of what the NPS owned of the Chancellorsville Battlefield around the time the decision was made to build the new visitor center. Trying to find a place for development, within those shaded areas, proved somewhat difficult and there was some disagreement within the NPS once the decision was made.

The star on the map to the left represents the location of a contact station that had stood near the Stonewall Jackson Monument since 1935.

While it might have been easy to simply expand the existing parking area and build the larger facility, NPS staff and planners looked at other areas of the battlefield to site the new visitor center. A major consideration for any proposed site was that the new building should be easily accessible from current traffic patterns. In other words, access from State Route 3 was preferred. Additionally, the project also included the construction of three houses for park employees, along with water and maintenance facilities. Given the comparatively small amount of land the park had to work with, there were few options.

On March 17, 1958, NPS Director Conrad L. Wirth signed off on a plan that called for placing the visitor center south of State Route 3 and along Stuart Drive – a park road. The development plan below shows the accepted location and orientation of the visitor center and associated structures.

The close-up view below shows the proposed visitor center location in relation to State Route 3 and the Stonewall Jackson Monument. It
should be noted that the plan depicts State Route 3 as a four-lane divided road. That would not actually occur for another 15 years, but the NPS was planning for the road’s widening.

On November 3, 1958, FRSP Superintendent Oscar F. Northington expressed the park’s concerns about the location. In a memo to the Regional Director, he requested a restudy be conducted, listing among a number of reasons that the park “had argued … that extensive construction should not be undertaken in the heart of the battlefield.” Northington went on to argue that the expected widening of State Route 3 would result in the visitor center being “pushed that much farther into the attack scene.”  (Memo, dated November 3, 1958, O.F. Northington, Jr. to Regional Director, Region One, copy in FRSP files) The primary concern was that such intense development south of State Route 3 would impact a significant portion of the May 3, 1863 battlefield and destroy the area between Hazel Grove and Fairview, which witnessed some of the heaviest and most horrific fighting at Chancellorsville. Northington also argued for the removal of the proposed park residences from the visitor center area, suggesting that they be built farther to the east, at the site of the old Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) camp at the intersection of Ely’s Ford Road and Hooker Drive. Although not overjoyed at the idea of reconsidering the plans, the Washington office did agree to reopen the study.

FRSP Historians Ralph Happel and Albert Dillahunty authored memos to Northington, expressing their concerns and suggestions for a suitable location on which to build the visitor center. Historian Dillahunty wrote:

“From the standpoint of interpretation and circulation of visitors along the park tour, the north side [of State Route 3] is a much more desirable location for the center than the south side.

Troops north of the road were engaged, but not as heavily as those south of the road. However, due to the confusion at that point, one would be at a loss to prove which side of the road was of greatest importance. Since we can prove little from an historical standpoint, we must be guided by practical considerations. From the standpoint of management and interpretation, I cast my vote for a visitor center on the north side of the road with utility area and residences removed to the site of the old CCC camp.” (Memo, dated December 24, 1958, Albert Dillahunty to Superintendent, FRSP, copy in FRSP files)

Happel, likewise, endorsed placing the new visitor center north of State Route 3 and in the area around the Stonewall Jackson Monument.

“I have always favored a visitor center north of the road and been opposed to any development hereabouts on either side which would combine visitor center, utility buildings, and dwelling quarters in one package. This package would be a tremendous intrusion on historic ground, both physically and otherwise.

However, the plum in the pie thereabouts, the dramatic point which people want to see and walk around is the site of Jackson’s mortal wounding, marked by the stone monument, on the north side of Va. Highway 3. How will the visitors get across the main road? We surely cannot allow them to walk. Highway 3 is busy enough now; it will then be busier and wider. If they do not walk, how will they safely and easily get there by car from the south side parking lot?

For various reasons, the separation of the Jackson Monument and a visitor center by a wide, busy highway keeps cropping up in my mind as a flaw in any proposed development placing a visitor center south of Highway 3.” (Memo, dated December 22, 1958, Ralph Happel to Superintendent, FRSP, copy in FRSP files)

In a final plea to his superiors, Superintendent Northington wrote:

“Severe infantry action, which involved a great deal of back and forth movement, took place on both sides of the highway. A definitive study would, however, probably prove that there was more movement involving larger numbers of men on the south side. In addition, Fair View, the cornerstone of Union defense on May 3, was south of the road. This position was attacked not only in front, the West, but also from the South. Confederate artillery at Hazel Grove supported both attacks. The development, as now planned, would unquestionably intrude upon the scene to a greater degree than if it were moved north of the present highway. Recall also that the State Highway Department proposes to widen on the critical side.” (Memo, dated January 15, 1959, O.F. Northington to Regional Director, Region One, copy in FRSP files)

A restudy was granted and the north side of State Route 3 was looked at. On November 16, 1959, the NPS decided to move the proposed visitor center to the north side of State Route 3 and place it near the Stonewall Jackson Monument. Director Wirth, however, was convinced that the three residences and support structures needed to remain close to the visitor center, believing that such proximity would facilitate operations and provide security and protection for the center.

With some slight modifications, the development was to appear as indicated in the revised plan below.

A close-up of the development area reveals the spatial relationship between the visitor center, the residences, and the utility area. The visitor center, today, is oriented slightly different than it appears in the plan.

The selection of the visitor center’s location was not made lightly, and certainly not without debate. With the agreed upon plan in place, however, the construction of the visitor center could commence. That is covered here.

Eric J. Mink


5 thoughts on “Park Development: Chancellorsville Battlefield Visitor Center, Part 2

  1. Eric,

    Good post on the discussions that went into determining location of the VC. Was there any discussion about the fact that the VC was being placed in the historic Road trace used by Jackson’s party and almost right upon the actual wounding site?

    • Chuck – Thanks for the lead-in. I plan to discuss this in my follow-up post on the construction and dedication of CVC. Yes. The park staff and planners were aware of the Mountain Road trace. In fact the visitor center’s construction drawings clearly show a portion of the trace being obliterated by the building.
      – Eric

  2. Eric,
    The actual photograph you posted here proves vividly my earlier point in that the VDOT right-of-way cut such a huge, deep swath, almost right up to the monuments. It is amazing that such a wound to an historic roadway was not given second thought during the planning process. Perhaps you have, or will, uncover something regarding a debate on this point. I would like to think there was some objection along the line.

    Thank you for providing this look at the history of CVC. It is interesting to read the official correspondence.

    • John – I took a look at the revised VDOT plans from 1972. I’m not very good at reading road plans, but if I interpret them correctly, the road edge on the north did not change, but the right-of-way was extended north toward the monument 5-10 feet. Also, the construction appears to have dropped the road by about 12 inches.
      – Eric

  3. I could be wrong, but I’d bet that road was dropped a good three feet or more in front of the monuments, thus my analogy to a “canal”.
    I know that it all comes down to line-of-sight and drainage issues, but it seems like such a shame it had to be that drastic. I like the one image of the dedication of the monument in 1888 where everything is on the same plain. Today you can’t even get a picture of the full front of the monument, plus all the screening plants create a maze like trail that visitors never had to contend with before.

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