Sunday, March 13, 2005

Wilson's Creek Ltd.

The weekend St. Louis Post-Dispatch also delivers this depressing story: Preservationists struggle to hold ground at Wilson's Creek site

The field of the Civil War's second major battle is a tranquil country refuge, its low rolling prairie and commanding ridge largely unchanged since peace was restored.

But just to the west, screened from view by only a low hill, are clanking bulldozers and rapid-fire nail guns. They herald the progress that is grinding its way toward the 1,750 acres of Wilson's Creek National Battlefield. The vanguard of new homes is a half-mile away and closing.

On the planning table are drawings for the biggest advance yet - a development of 2,500 homes on 2,240 acres adjoining the southwestern boundary of the National Park Service battlefield. A smaller subdivision already is being positioned to its northeast. Individual homes are popping up along the east flank.

One mile to the north is the 140-acre site for a new high school that's planned.

Park Superintendent Ted Hillmer Jr. and the park's defenders, including the mother of Gov. Matt Blunt, are raising the alarm: Fast-moving suburban growth threatens the pastoral setting of an important place in American history.

"I'd like to make this whole thing go away, but that won't happen," Hillmer said. "We want to work with the players to protect our mission, which is to preserve this place for future generations. Once something gets built, there will be pressure for more. And more.

"I know we all have to live in houses, but they're not making any more Civil War battlefields."

This hits close to home for me. I've always considered the Wilson's Creek National Park to be the single best civil war battlefield that I've seen in the country. I've been to probably a couple dozen of battlefield, from the big name places like Antietam and Gettysburg to little known skirmishes like that of Parker's Crossroads, Tennessee, and in many ways there is no question that Wilson's Creek is unique. A big part of that is due to the fact that it was largely ignored for a good long while. It is also a fairly compact battlefield that allows for anyone walking the field to get a real feel for what happened there.

It is also the site where Gen. Nathaniel Lyon, a personal hero of mine, was shot and killed leading Union forces.

Even putting aside their historical importance places like Wilson's Creek are intensely beautiful places. I often get the feeling that, for most Americans, parks like Yellowstone or Yosemite are considered the "real" National Parks while the battlefield parks are strictly second class affairs, places for local school field trips and "nutty" re-enactors. This is a shame as nearly all of the battlefield parks offer wonderful recreational facilities and natural history right along with the military variety. If some developer was planning on putting a subdivision and a few strip malls at the doorstep of Yellowstone a lot of people would be (rightfully) up in arms. Those same folks should get just as involved at the Wilson's Creek's of the world.

So many of the battlefield areas across the country are gone forever already. Anybody who has tried to visit the sites associated with the battle of Chancellorsville has had to feel slightly horrified as they travel from shopping mall parking lot to shopping mall parking lot looking for a few historical markers. It seems like such a dishonorable way to treat the memory of the people who breathed their last on those spots.

I'm not asking for those malls to be torn down and everything set back the way it was. I know that is impossible. All I'm asking is for the few acres we have set aside to be protected. That is not impossible. All it calls for is a little respect for something other than the almighty dollar.

Then again, maybe that is asking the impossible.

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