Every year, nearly 1.4 million visitors come to Gettysburg National Military Park by car or bus. They tour the battlefield using numerous forms of transport, from those same cars and buses to Segways, horse drawn carriages, and bicycles. All head to the “highlights” of the battlefield park, the Virginia Memorial, Little Round Top, and the fields of Pickett’s Charge. Sadly, fewer will visit the Soldiers’ National Cemetery, the resting place of many Union soldiers from the battle of Gettysburg and veterans from America’s other conflicts through Vietnam and the location of the Gettysburg Address.
People came to Gettysburg in a much different way over 150 years ago…
Railroad service to Gettysburg began on December 16, 1858 with a grand celebration. A crowd of over 8,000 visitors from nearby York, Harrisburg, and other communities rode the new rails for the event. Although many of the new buildings associated with the railroad were completed and open for business, the passenger depot was not. Despite the lack of a formal passenger station, the town and nearly 8,000 visitors enjoyed the celebration marking the opening of the western terminus of the Gettysburg Railroad Company. In total, it was a 16 ½ mile line from Gettysburg to Hanover where it then connected to the Hanover branch line.
The opening of this stretch of the railroad line was indeed a joyous celebration. After all, needed rail service for passengers and industry and manufacturing had taken 23 years to finally reach Gettysburg. Construction on this Pennsylvania rail line had begun in 1835. In an effort led by Representative Thaddeus Stevens, funding was secured at the Federal level to get rail service expanded in this area of the state. Unfortunately, progress slowed drastically as the project continued. The South Mountain range was a significant impediment to the line’s construction. Because of the mountain range, the construction project had to build numerous switchbacks, which led to the line’s nickname, “Tapeworm.” What all but ended the construction project, however, was cost. The project’s cost soared because of the setbacks and construction challenges. With the rising costs the project slowed and died out completely.
By 1851, three Gettysburg entrepreneurs sought to get the work completed connecting Gettysburg to the surrounding rail lines. Agricultural production had increased over the sixteen years in the area and getting that volume of product to surrounding markets was proving ever more challenging. Additionally, manufacturing in the area, the carriage and brick industry to name a couple, was also discovering that getting more product to markets without rail lines was challenging as well. Thus, the necessity of getting the rail line completed could be profitable.
Over the next seven years stocks were sold, money raised, and through private investment construction began. No state or Federal funds would be used to complete the line. Railroad buildings along where the track would be positioned began construction in the summer of 1858. These included an engine house, turntable, and freight station. A passenger station would be built one block to the west of these buildings, on the corner of Carlisle and North Streets. The site of the passenger station was an undeveloped one-half acre lot lot that had been acquired from property owner John H. McClellan.
By September 30, 1858, although not completed, the passenger station was taking shape. The Gettysburg Compiler reported that day, “the passenger station to be two storied with deep bracket cornice and a bell cupola. The plan is much admired.” The plan was that of the Italianate style, which was popular in the United States from 1850-1880. Little could the designer, architects, or even builders of the station imagined that it would one day receive the sixteenth president of the United States.
Finally completed mid May 1859, on the outside it included a large brass bell, a large platform that had a roof built over top of it to protect travelers from the weather, and a switch in the track that allowed the steam engine to pull the passenger cars up along the platform. Inside the new passenger station included two waiting rooms, separated by gender, an entrance door on the north side of the building for women and the south side for men, and a common door to the loading platform.
The beautiful station would not solely serve passengers for long. Just months into the beginning of the Civil War, the 10th New York Cavalry would use the town of Gettysburg as a training camp during late 1861 and into 1862. During that time the cavalry regiment’s band used the second floor of the station as a rehearsal hall. A little over a year later, the Gettysburg campaign would bring more soldiers back to the train station.
John Buford’s Union cavalry division arrived to Gettysburg on June 30, 1863. Those that were sick and had been riding with his units were brought to the station and a temporary hospital established. The next day, as fighting waged west of the town of Gettysburg, some of the initial Federal wounded were brought there and the number of patients quickly grew. During the remainder of the battle the passenger station remained just one of many Union field hospitals; however, it would be under Confederate control as the town went under Confederate occupation. Patients that were able to would climb up to the cupola and watch the fighting, several recording what they saw on the afternoon of July 3. By July 5, the Federal army had reoccupied the town and the wounded were transported to larger hospitals. The station would be needed to evacuate wounded troops and bring in much need supplies.
It was a full week since the battle before regular train service was restored to Gettysburg. Numerous sections of track had been damaged or destroyed during the campaign events leading up to the battle and during the battle itself. Unfortunately, as soon as service was restored that government commandeered the line and pressed into service for all of its military needs. The campaign and battle had taken its toll on the line. The rail company later filled a damage claim with the Federal government, seeking to recover the losses and cost of repairs to get operational again. They only received $787.00 of the thousands they had lost. The railroad company would never fully recover financially from the events of the summer of 1863.
Four months after the battle the passenger station was pressed back into hard service. Nearly 15,000 people were gathering in Gettysburg for dedication of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery in the days leading up to the ceremony on November 19, 1863. After an early departure from Washington, DC, President Lincoln, his secretaries, and numerous others in his party, as well as dignitaries to the dedication ceremony, arrived in Gettysburg in the evening of November 18, 1863. Nearing 6:00 pm, the train came to a halt at the platform and droves of visitors awaited the President to disembark from the car. Waiting closest on the platform was David Wills, the Gettysburg attorney that had invited Lincoln and had been the number one point-man on the cemetery project since it’s inception. With Wills was the dedication ceremony’s main speaker, Edward Everett. Wills had opened his home to both Lincoln and Everett, and an additional thirty-plus guests that he had also offered to stay with his family during the dedication activities. Lincoln, Wills, Everett, and other dignitaries were then escorted from the station by the Invalid Corps several blocks south to the home of David Wills. Lincoln would leave from the same station just twenty four hours later at approximately 6:30 pm on November 20.
Between the Civil War and World War II, the passenger station that saw Lincoln’s arrival went through many changes and owners. Although the line saw a resurgence just before World War I, it had never fully recovered from June and July 1863. On Thursday, December 31, 1942 the last passenger cars rolled away from the station. Over the next four decades it sat empty, a storage facility for maintenance tools for the line that still carried freight. By 1996, however, an effort of fundraising and leadership got underway to begin its restoration and nine years later the physical restoration started in 2005. The passenger station was rededicated on November 18, 2006.
Although it will not take an entire weekend, you can begin your exploration of Gettysburg’s railroad history at 35 Carlisle Street, the Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station. Parking is available in a paid deck nearby or metered street parking just in front of the building. The building has a different day and time schedule for open hours depending on the time of year so make sure to check their website before heading there.
Gettysburg Lincoln Railroad Station
- 35 Carlisle Street, Gettysburg, PA
- 717-334-0655 (during open hours)
- 717-338-1243 (all other times)