WEST VIRGINIA: Civil War Trails See Influx of Interest in Pandemic

MARTINSBURG, W.Va. — All around the area and up and down the East Coast, Civil War Trails signs can be found, highlighting areas that played vital parts in American history. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, areas rooted deep in that history, such as the Eastern Panhandle, have seen an influx in interest — a way to get outside safely as well as a tool for education.

“Recently, there has been significant attention paid to the American Civil War,” Martinsburg-Berkeley County Convention and Visitors Bureau executive director Mark Jordon said. “In my opinion, it is because of this attention, more people are taking the opportunity to learn about the Civil War, and the Civil War Trails allow for this possibility. And with the social distancing, COVID environment, we currently find ourselves enabling people to venture out and follow these Trails to learn about America’s Civil War past safely.”

St. John’s Lutheran Church in Harper’s Ferry is one of numerous stops around the area as part of the Civil War Trails. / Journal photo by Jessica Wilt

Executive director of Civil War Trails Drew Gruber said the organization has been overwhelmed with requests for brochures, itineraries and other information as the interest has grown. They also received more requests for helping support families who are homeschooling, the trail being a good way to immerse learning in history nearby.

“While the goal of Trails is to drive tourism to localities, doubling as an ‘open air museum’ for students and parents turned teachers is incredibly rewarding,” Gruber said. “It’s one thing to read about the events and people of history. It is another to stand in their footsteps and imagine the events as they would have swirled around you.”

In general, Civil War Trails has seen increased interest from a younger cohort, finding more young adults visiting stops along the trail, Gruber comparing the trails to any other outdoor experience loved by the public.

“As our audience grows, they appear to be younger than ever, spending just as much as previous travel ‘profiles’ and looking at historic sites as a unique amenity that cannot be consumed elsewhere — just like local beer and foodie experiences,” he said.

A goal of the organization is to not only share the knowledge and interest in Civil War history but to help drive the economy as well, the trail connecting various states and communities, all with unique adventures to enjoy. In addition to sharing brochures and other information about the trail itself, Civil War Trails assists visitors in finding safe and responsible places to travel, learn and enjoy, helping put money back into the small businesses of the communities.

Locally, the Civil War Trail can be found in Berkeley, Jefferson and Morgan counties along with plenty in nearby Maryland and Virginia, each sharing an insight into life during the Civil War.

Gruber said the growth in interest has been ongoing, visits growing since 2015, but the organization wasn’t expecting to see as much this year when COVID-19 struck.

“We were not prepared for the flood of families and travelers,” he said. “Our tourism partners and our small staff are working late each day to accommodate the requests for brochures and to help craft itineraries for visitors.”

However, that growth and every visitor helps spark that love that has made the Civil War Trails what it is today.

“We are constantly invigorated by our guests, their passion and the relevancy of our program and the wide breadth of stories it tells,” Gruber said.