Making history more accessible through Gettysburg trail redesign

September 2022

At Gettysburg National Military Park, the Devil’s Den section is one of the most visited areas of the battlefield. The boulder-packed hill was used by artillery and infantry at the start of the Civil War and became a popular tourist site after the war ended.

Gettysburg Trail Map

All the foot traffic over the years led to significant erosion along walkways and safety issues, rendering the site inaccessible to people with disabilities. Additionally, unauthorized trails established by hikers created safety hazards.

So, the National Park Service decided to bring in a civil engineer to solve the issues at the site. In 2018, C.S. Davidson was awarded the contract to perform the redesign.

Old hat, but still not easy

C.S. Davidson has done similar work at Gettysburg in the past. The firm has also done design and construction work for the Valley Forge National Historical Park, Cape Cod National Seashore, Sandy Hook National Recreation Area, and other federal sites.

At Gettysburg, the initial proposal was for Devil’s Den and Devil’s Kitchen, another battlefield site. But the park could only secure funding for the Den, so the Kitchen will have to wait.

As it is, the Devil’s Den project posed enough challenges on its own. First, C.S. Davidson needed to conduct a topographic survey of the site. Since it is such a boulder-strewn and archaeologically sensitive location, the easiest thing would have been to fly a drone over the area to get the necessary readings. However, the Park Service informed the engineering team that it would take an Act of Congress to get a civilian drone approved for the federal air space. So instead, the team undertook the painstaking task of surveying the site manually and created the topographic map in AutoCAD.

Leveling up for everyone

Next came the trail redesign. Some paths were removed entirely because they were not historic and were created by people walking off-trail. Other trails were so eroded that the walkways were undermined. At some points, hikers could take one step off the trail, and the ground would drop by 18 inches to 2 feet – a danger for anyone able to walk the path.

The C.S. Davidson team wanted to make Devil’s Den as accessible as possible – and the old trail wasn’t accessible at all. The team created two new gatherings, one at the top and one at the foot of the hill. Now, people with disabilities can access those gathering areas and get a full view of Devil’s Den.

The C.S. Davidson team also worked to make the improvements as low maintenance as possible. The exposed aggregate concrete used requires less maintenance than pavement, and its lifespan is double that of pavement. The granite steps used to replace the old crumbling fieldstone stairs will also last much longer than the fieldstone.

The team used local rocks and on-site gravel to block up concentrated water flow areas to fix the erosion problem and built small dams with boulders and rocks to dissipate water flow.

Making an impact

Now, the Devil’s Den work is essentially finished. Nathan Simpson, project manager for C.S. Davidson, said about a dozen of the firm’s employees spent roughly 500 hours on design and construction oversight for the project. The firm decreased the impervious areas, so more water could get into the ground rather than run off from concrete. The firm also made an additional 2,200 square feet of the trails accessible.

“It’s a great feeling knowing we’re improving kids’ field trips and family vacations,” Simpson said. “We’re really having an impact on the community, which is very rewarding.”