“In an effort to be of still further service to the traveling public…” – Battlefield Contact Stations, Part 2

From Mink (for part one of this post, click here):

In the late 1950s, the various contact stations appear to have still been in operation. Their removal seems to have been decided through the efforts to upgrade park facilities through the Mission 66 program. In addtion to the Chancellorsville Visitor Center, which replaced the contact station near the Jackson monument, the park erected three “exhibit shelters” – one at each of the three other battlefields.

These shelters were of standard Mission 66 construction and made of brick, concrete and steel. Three-sided, open structures, they contain outdoor intepretive panels. One was constructed on Lee’s Hill of the Fredericksburg Battlefield, replacing the Prospect Hill Contact Station. A second was built in Saunders Field of the Wilderness Battlefield, replacing that station. The third was constructed near the intersection of Grant Drive and Brock Road on the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, replacing the Bloody Angle structure.

All three of these shelters were finished by 1963 and the old wood and stone contact stations were dismantled around the same time. 

Although the 1930s contact stations have been gone for nearly fifty years, one can still find evidence of them on the landscape.

At Propsect Hill, the site of the ranger station is still in use for interpretation of that area.

Park wayside exhibit panels and other interpretive markers still provide information about Prospect Hill, the adjacent artillery lunettes and the battle. The orientation disc and station building itself are gone. The stone steps that lead from the parking area to the building remain, providing access to the lunettes and signs.

At Chancellorsville, the station disappeared altogether, leaving no visible sign of its existence, as the area was developed for the visitor center.

The concrete orientation disc was moved slightly to the east and survives off the northeast corner of the visitor center. In the 1960s and 1970s, park interpretive staff used it as a base from which to conduct programs that included the firing of a coehorn mortar.

The orientation disc remains on the ground today, ignored and forgotten. A close examination of the surface of the disc reveals faint evidence of the lines and words that at one time oriented visitors to other sites on the battlefield.

The Wilderness Contact Station site retains the most evidence of the early development and use of these facilities. Although the site is overgrown, the woods hide some interesting remnants of the station’s existence.

Just a few yards off State Route 20 and a short distance inside the tree line, lie the rotting wood bollards that once marked the edge of the contact station’s parking lot.

Beneath an inch or two of decompossing leaves, the orientation disc remains intact.

A close examination reveals that it is still legible, providing distances from that spot to Todd’s Tavern, Chewning Heights, Parker’s Store, etc.

At the Bloody Angle of Spotsylvania, almost nothing remains to indicate that there was once a contact station there. Occasionally, a small piece of cut stone may make itself known, but other than that nothing remains.

The replacement of the year-round, all-weather contact stations by the three-sided, open-air exhibit shelters was a result of the NPS’s desire to upgrade visitor facilities. By doing so, however, one has to wonder if the result was also a downgrading of personal services, as historian and rangers certainly could not staff the new structures during the non-summer months.

The future of these reminders of the early park development is uncertain. The park is not intentionally preserving these features, as we weren’t aware of them or their origin until just recently. In the case of the Prospect Hill steps and the Chancellorsville orientation disc, the park found adaptive uses for these elements of the early contact station development. At the Bloody Angle, all evidence of the station and its interpretive devices were wiped from the landscape, while those at the Wilderness were simply abandoned and left to be claimed by the woods.

For a discussion of the preservation of early interpretive devices and features, see John Hennessy’s post Are Battlefields Museums of Interpretive Expression, Too?

Eric J. Mink


6 thoughts on ““In an effort to be of still further service to the traveling public…” – Battlefield Contact Stations, Part 2

  1. Great info Eric, thanks for sharing. There is definately somethiing to be said for the personal contact these facilities provided, not to mention the quaint reminder of simpler times.

  2. This reminds me of a visitor to City Point yesterday who said “We are so glad you are here to provide personal contact with people like us.”

    Long live our jobs…or else I’m screwed.

  3. Can anyone tell me where the concrete orientation disk is located in relation to the parking area at the Wilderness Contact Station site? I found the remains of the parking area but not the disk.

    • Mark – it’s a bit difficult to describe where the disk is located, but it’s a few feet east of the contact station site. When the disk was found by park staff, it was buried under inches of leaf duff and dirt. It remains under that accumulation of leaves. Digging for the disk by our readers is strongly discouraged, as such activity is against park regulations and the law.

      – Eric Mink

  4. Thanks Eric! If the disk has been covered with dirt I won’t bother looking for it anymore. It’s too bad it couldn’t be moved to the exhibit shelter area to be displayed as part of the park’s history.

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