The View is Improving at Devil's Den in Gettysburg National Military Park

Devil's Den in 1905

A view of Devil's Den in 1905. NPS photo.

About 900 yards west of the Gettysburg landmark known as Little Round Top is a rugged area of steep cliffs, deep gullies and massive boulders. Local residents called it the Devil's Den, and on July 2, 1863, the rocky ridge and the nearby stream known as Plum Run became one of the "significant major battle action areas of the Gettysburg battlefield."

It was a very tough place to fight a battle. According to a park publication,

Southerners from Alabama, Texas and Georgia were awe struck by the rugged nature of the ground, broken by gullies and strewn with massive boulders. One veteran of the battle described it as, "a wild, rocky labyrinth which, from its weird, uncanny features, has long been called by the people of the vicinity the 'Devils Den.' Large rocks from six to fifteen feet high are thrown together in confusion over a considerable area and yet so disposed as to leave everywhere among them siding passages carpeted with moss. Many of the recesses are never visited by the sunshine, and a cavernous coolness pervades the air within it."

Pastures around the base of the Den were filled with piles of rocks and large boulders that caused battle formations to fragment. Officers lost control of their commands and soldiers lost their way in this wild garden of stone. Men scrambled behind boulders for protection from the shower of bullets, shell and canister.

The area is now part of Gettysburg National Military Park, and the serene, almost pastoral scene that prevails at Devil's Den today can make it a bit difficult for many park visitors to visualize the intense fighting that occurred there nearly a hundred and fifty years ago.

Helping visitors understand and picture those historic events is a key goal of the park, but that activity is often hampered when the sights and sounds of modern life intrude on the scene. That's certainly been the case at Devil's Den in recent years—a building housing a restroom and overhead utility lines have been both a distraction on the historic view and an eyesore on the natural landscape.

Those concerns will soon be past history. Gettysburg National Military Park and the Gettysburg Foundation are teaming up to remove the restroom as well as the intrusive utility lines that provide power to it.

The Foundation raised the money for the project, and the group will also fund work to bury intrusive overhead utility lines in several areas in the southern part of the battlefield near the historic Althoff, Slyder, and Trostle farms.

Initially, the Park had asked the Foundation to raise funds to bury the intrusive power lines to the Devil’s Den restroom but concerns about potential environmental impacts to the floodplain and the geology, as well as the expense of burying the lines in a boulder field, led to the decision to remove the restroom altogether, in favor of returning more of the area to its battle era appearance.

"The building is in a sensitive location for the environment and for the historic scene," said J. Mel Poole, interim superintendent for Gettysburg NMP. "We think we can offer comfort facilities for the visitors elsewhere and do a better job with preserving the historic battlefield here."

The current roadways, visitor parking, and paths at Devil’s Den, as well as the pedestrian bridge over Plum Run, will stay. Visitors will be directed to use other park restrooms nearby, such as at the South End Guide Station on Emmitsburg Road and next to the Pennsylvania Memorial.

If you're not familiar with key features at Gettysburg National Military Park, you can download a copy of the Official Map and Park Guide from the park website.

This project is part of a long term plan to return the major battle action areas of the park to their appearance at the time of the fighting in July 1863. The Gettysburg Foundation is funding and managing the project at Devil's Den on behalf of the National Park Service.

Comments

I'm glad to hear this news. It will be a big improvement on the viewshed to take that restroom out of there. Now if they could just do something about relocating the parking lot at the base of Devil's Den . . .

One of the best views in the park is on top of Devil's Den looking towards Little Round Top. And there is a witness tree right there as well, which really makes it special.

I used to go to Devil's Den as a child and hadn't been there in a long time until a couple years ago. I was shocked to see the huge parking lot and large bathroom, along with the missing shade from trees. Happy to here about the coming changes.

Interesting commentary about how modern life (a stone restroom, a string of power line, and parking for less than 20 vehicles) had infringed upon the view of such desperate historical horror. As a town resident for 25 years who has spent countless hours exploring the battlefield's fascinating natural features — including its designation by National Audubon Society as an I.B.A. (Important Birding Area) — I can tell you that cutting down hundreds of acres of trees might be advantageous to the imaginations and the interpretations of history students and battlefield visitors; however, this has opened up many more views of modern life. And it is impacting the preservation of historic natural features.

The decimation of valuable woodland (and brush, grassland, and meadows) which have helped to maintain historic streams such as Plum Creek already is altering the natural lay of the historic battlefield. Trees which had held soil and held back weeds and plants from waterways are no longer present, so some streams are being overtaken by wild growth. (Note, too, that it is mostly the good trees, valuable to lumber companies, that have been removed. You will see dead and dying trees standing in new "fields" of what had been wooded areas.)

If you like to check out the residences of Gettysburg and the backs of people's homes where some folks stack a lot of — well, shall we say — detritus, and where others sit out shirtless to barbeque and relax, then W. Confederate Ave. is just for you as you head to the Alabama and Virginia Monuments. If you enjoy observing passing vehicles and motorcyclists while you explore hallowed ground, then Devil's Den and the remaining woods leading to The Wheatfield are just for you. If you enjoy walking the battlefield in July as the sun pounds down on your head, then many formerly tree-lined walks and paths are waiting to deplete your strength. The debilitating heat of 90+ degrees this summer are drying up not only the humans but also the waters that played a role in where commanders positioned troops and horses. The shrubs, bushes, and weeds which nature had controlled by the presence of trees will now have to be maintained by the overburdened GNMP staff.

As for the precious and very few "witness trees" from 1863, let us not forget that many later trees have, in a great sense, been witness: To the veterans who returned for the July 1938 anniversary. To Ike and Mamie. There were the Kennedys who toured with the great Col. Sheads; and there was Carter who brought Anwar Sadat and Menachem Begin during an impasse as they negotiated peace.

Though the argument for the felling of thousands of trees is supposedly for opening up views to what they were "at the time of the battle." I've wondered how accurate these interpretations have been since most photos of the area were taken after July 3, 1863 — after woodland and fields were cut for troop use and devastated by weapons.

For purists who want Gettysburg to appear as authentically 1863 as possible, it is by now an old retort: Then get rid of the monuments, too.