At Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park this summer you can pay $55 for a Segway tour of a portion of the Civil War park. The question lingering over this program, though, is whether those who sign on are doing so to check out the latest rage in personal transportation or to learn some history?
That was one of the questions that Superintendent Russ Smith and his staff debated before they decided to go ahead with the two-hour tours of the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield that are being offered Saturdays through mid-August.
"We just wanted to try this to see how it worked out, and then we’ll go from there," Superintendent Smith told me late last week. "I do know one of our volunteers took the tour. He’s one of our most devoted volunteers, and he was just thrilled with it. He just thought it was great stuff. The debate we’ve had internally is is it about the battlefield, or is it about the Segway? It is about the battlefield. Our volunteer felt that it was a great way to get around the park.”
Ironically, though, it was a year ago that Superintendent Smith, in updating his park's Compendium, or rulebook, held that that Segway use could only involve visitors with mobility handicaps.
“We thought about that when we decided we would try this out. And decided since this is on the roads, that it’s controlled, it’s in a controlled environment, that we would give this a shot," he said when I questioned the seeming conflict with his Compendium, which has not been updated to reflect the change. "One of our staff went down to Petersburg (National Battlefield) and took a Segway tour and thought it was a great way to get people close to the resource. And Spotsylvania is one battlefield where the roads aren’t used as thru-traffic, so we thought that we could safely do it in there and we could keep it at a controlled environment and so decided to give it a try."
The way this pilot program works is you contact the folks at Segway of Richmond to sign up for a tour, and pay them the $55. The park receives none of that fee. When your day arrives, you meet at the park with a ranger and someone from Segway of Richmond, who provides riders with a 30-minute tutorial.
Then you're off for a tour of the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield. It's a ranger-led tour, albeit one with motoring Segways zipping -- at 12 miles per hour, tops -- between stops. Within the allotted two hours you visit Upton's Attack, Lee's Last Line, and the famous Bloody Angle.
Currently the tours are only seen as feasible at the Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, due to its interior roads that the Segways can travel along without battling heavier traffic. And Superintendent Smith doesn't see them as any more of an intrusion on the Civil War park's hallowed ground than automobiles.
"On most of the battlefields we don’t have complete tours in the summertime. At Spotsylvania, for instance, we’ll have a ranger at an exhibit shelter at the entrance to the battlefield, and then he would go out to the Bloody Angle -- he or she -- go out to the Bloody Angle at set times during the day and give talks at the Bloody Angle," said the superintendent. "And we still do that, but the Segway gives us a chance to have a ranger guide a group completely around the battlefield. It gives us a chance to do something we haven’t been able to do before."
I couldn't help but wonder, though, if these two-hour cruises through a corner of the park were a response to society's seemingly increasing attention deficit disorder, our need to see as much as possible in as little time as possible. After all, you'd have to spend a good deal more time walking through the battlefield to see what you can aboard a Segway in two hours.
Superintendent Smith thought the tours did just the opposite, though.
“I don’t know, in a way, it’s asking visitors to actually stop and take a tour rather than jumping in their car and going through and just taking a windshield tour through the battlefield," he pointed out. "I’m a little surprised at that comment, because I think it does allow them to get a little more involved, and it does take some commitment of time. If one wanted to take their car through Spotsylvania Battlefield they could, and you could do it a lot faster. So compared to that, it’s not a lot faster. Compared to walking the trails in the park it’s faster.”
For Segway of Richmond, the park's experiment with Segways looks like a great deal, as they've already got the Segway concession at Petersburg National Battlefield and this would seem to give them the inside track if Superintendent Smith and his staff, after reviewing the program later this summer, decide to make Segway tours available on a permanent basis.
“If it looked like there were other people who wanted to do this, we’d probably have to go to a concession (contract)," said the superintendent. "As I said, it’s a pilot program. Do people like it? Does it do the job for us? Does it look like it’s a necessary, appropriate use? Then we’ll have to go from there. Right now, the way commercial use licenses are, if there were five other Segway companies out there and they wanted to do this we’d have to let them. You’d have to let everybody. ... At this point we know there’s only one, and so we can try it out without anybody being concerned that they’re being shut out.”