The evolving park landscape: when to go formal

From John Hennessy (this post falls under the category of managerial rather than historical conundrums; for a related post, check out this one over at Fredericksburg Remembered):

The 15th New Jersey Monument at the Bloody Angle, with the informal path in front of it--a mudhole on many days.

The business of creating a park takes generations. At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania, hundreds of acres included in the boundary expansion of 1989 remain unaquired. When money is tight (as it is now) we might be able to manage the acquisition of a parcel or two a year, and we are more reliant on privates-sector entities like the Central Virginia Battlefields Trust and Civil War Trust. Even when money is available to us (as it was in the late 1990s and early 2000s), the park can only acquire what people are willing to sell. Often, the going is slow.  There will be plenty still to do long after I and the rest of the current staff are on to other lives.

One of the new exhibits on Marye's Heights installed "naturally." Note the ugly, worn area in front of the exhibit.

The park is also continually evolving in terms of media and public facilities. Back in the day, cast aluminum signs were the best that could be done, and so the park had dozens of them, beautifully written by former staff historian Ralph Happel (who, by the way, laid the historiographical foundation for the modern park with his work over 36 years here, ending in 1972). Over the last nine years, we have been transitioning to smaller, low-profile exhibits–less intrusive, more graphic-rich.  (We are leaving a few of Ralph’s signs in the park–those that are accessible only by car, like those along Jackson Trail.)  In fact, we are now in the final phase of wayside exhibits parkwide. We hope to have the final package of new exhibits in at Spotsylvania this spring.

One of the toughest questions we have faced over the years is when to formalize our landscapes. This park was created as a rural park; beyond the Sunken Road, there was little sense of urban American. Visitors came with a singular purpose: to see history and historic places. But today, we have become an urban park. Dozens of subdivision sit along the 120 miles or park boundaries.  Visitors come as often for recreational as historical reasons. The use of sites within the park has increased dramatically.

It used to be that the ethic was to keep things natural, informal. Grass walkways. Trail surfaces made of whatever nature provided. Exhibits simply placed in a field or along the roadside. But in the last two decades, we have confronted the problems associated with informal landscapes:  sprawling, undefined paths, erosion, mudholes in front of exhibits. The question came to a head when we received funding to restore the Sunken Road: do we formalize the landscape with hard-surface paths and exhibit areas? Or do we leave it “natural.”

The formalized, rubber-mulch trail to the Bloody Angle--by acclimation a vast improvement over the sprawling dirt pathway that preceded it. The red, upright Happel signs are in the process of being removed--replaced with low-profile exhibit moved away from the Angle itself.

We decided that the traffic loads there and in other high-use areas in the park warranted the leap into formality, and we started using hard-surfaces on high-traffic walkways like those at the Chancellor House, Sunken Road, and the Bloody Angle.  Bear in mind, though, that “hard” doesn’t always mean concrete, brick, or asphalt. We have had terrific success with a recycled rubberized mulch, which we use in rural, forested areas.  The results have been dramatic. At the Bloody Angle, a defined rubber-mulch trail has turned what was an eroded, bleeding sore on the land into a fairly neat trail, far less obtrusive. Likewise, the outcome at the Sunken Road and Chancellor House site has been a significant improvement over the “informal,” churned up landscapes they replaced. We haven’t received a single lament.

Formalizing trails and exhibit areas isn’t for every place. We have not done it, for example, at Ellwood (though as use out there increases, we will have to consider some treatment to prevent wear and erosion). It all depends on the nature of the site, its popularity, and its vulnerability. Still, the more popular the park becomes (with its uses diversifying as other open space becomes more scarce) the more of a formal approach we will have to take. In a way it’s lamentable. But I’d offer too that it’s unavoidable if we hope to keep our sites sightly and accessible.


7 thoughts on “The evolving park landscape: when to go formal

  1. I can attest to the vast improvement of the rubberized mulch in Boody Angle as my feet trod it several times a week but it must be not cheap because it’s only on selective paths and other paths still have the scour problems.

    I also wonder how it ages over time…how long does it last before it needs to be renewed/replaced and can it be “renewed” when it deteriorates or does what’s left have to be taken up and replaced?

    I also like it because it is a recycled product of which (if it is from tires), we would seem to have a near inexhaustible supply, eh?

    and some irony… from our cars …to our feet… heh heh

    My wife checked into it further when they did playground work at her school and I’ve noticed that most playgrounds in the area do not use it and it would seem to be a natural…

    Also Spotsy is in the trail business now days and they are using … piling mulch several inches deep as their trail base – which is awful… makes walking on these trails like walking in sand…. and now they are talking about horses uses them…OW!

    so what about it…? how much to build these critters (roughly) and how long are they supposed to last and when they deteriorate what happens?


  2. also I forgot to mention on the walk yesterday, I came across barefoot impressions on one of the trails! Yes…. wish I had a camera with me o record and send to you.

  3. what are you going to replace the Happel signs with? I enjoyed reading them during my visits to spotsylvania, Chancellorsvile and Fredericksburg. Improvement is never a bad thing though

    • Anna: Enough will remain that the Happel signs will not be forgotten. Those that are coming off the field are invariably being replaced by more versatle, less intrusive low-profile exhibits. This, for example, is what we did at the Sunken Road. But I agree that the Happel signs are beautifully written. I love reading them too. John H.

  4. I hope the Park is preserving the text of all the Happel signs. Perhaps they could be collected into a well illustrated and mapped publication.

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