The New Market Battlefield State Historic park and museum commemorate a famous 1864 Civil War conflict where teenage Virginia Military Institute cadets stood next to battle-hardened Confederate soldiers and helped win the final military victory for the South in the Shenandoah Valley. It's the site of the oldest continuous annual Civil War battle reenactment in the country. It also is an official Virginia tourism information center.
The nearby town of New Market, Va. has long been a crossroads for travelers. It's located at the foot of New Market Gap, a scenic break in the long, even ridgeline of the Massanutten mountain range that divides the lower Valley region. U.S Route 211 intersects with historic U.S Route 11 at New Market, as well as with Interstate 81 exit 264.
The Shenandoah Valley Tourist Information Center, located at the Virginia Museum of the Civil War, is part of the New Market State Historical Park. A number of major Valley attractions exist within a 20-30 mile radius of the property, which is owned and operated by the Virginia Military Institute in Lexington, Va.
“We're kind of in a crescent, if you will,” says site director Maj. Troy Marshall. People are going to the caverns just to the north of us, Shenandoah Caverns. They visit us. They go through New Market, get on their way either to Luray Caverns, or beyond, up to the Shenandoah National Park. And vice versa: Shenandoah National Park, all the way up to the caverns. So New Market provides not only a physical way to get through the mountain, but also kind of a tourism cycle for people to use.”
The visitor center and museum provide a commanding presence in the battlefield park, housed in a round concrete and steel building that stands out along the interstate highway. In fact, I-81 traffic cuts directly through the center of the battlefield.
“Our surveys say that it is the single most singular way that people actually come and make a decision to see us,” Marshall says. “In effect, at 80 miles per hour. 'Oh, let's visit that place.' We kind of rely on the interstate for good or ill.”
Each year, tens of thousands of visitors stop in at the Tourism Information Center.
The Virginia Museum of the Civil War was formerly called the Hall of Valor. Its primary interpretation continues to be the story about how young VMI cadets bravely answered a call of duty that ordinarily would have been beyond their teenage years. The name change was for the sake of visitors who simply may be new to Valley Civil War history, Marshall says.
“Travelers in the Commonwealth and out of the Commonwealth are looking for standard things. The Virginia Transportation Museum. The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts. And so, by default, we are Virginia's only Civil War museum. And so, our current branding resonates with a much larger audience.”
Branding aside, it's always business as usual at the information desk that greets visitors as they enter the building.
“Instead of saying, 'Can we interest you tickets to the museum or battlefield?' we say, 'Folks, are you here for travel information or would you like tickets to the museum?' It's a nice and natural fit.”
The Valley visitor information service has actually existed at New Market for decades. It previously had been located in a visitor center managed by the Shenandoah Valley Travel Association. After the SVTA closed their facility several years ago, New Market State Battlefield Park jumped in and applied for state certification.
Providing tourism information is a role that the museum staff had already been familiar with, particularly having worked under what Marshall termed a ”loose partnership” with the SVTA . Tourism brochures were offered at the museum and museum staff regularly encountered tourism-related questions from museum visitors.
“We always had a few brochure racks on the wall.” Marshall says. “Because people kind of expected it. You know, 'You're a museum, you should also be a visitor's center.' But we've taken over this role here in this part of the county.”
Gaining official certification from the Virginia Tourism Corporation is not an easy or automatic process. The inventory and presentation of brochures and other information available in the Tourist Information Center are subject to strict guidelines. Although the museum staff has long been experienced in dealing with the public, they undergo additional training as part of the certification process. The result, says Marshall, has been a higher-quality service.
The dual role of heritage tourism attraction and tourism information center may be a bonus for people who may initially hop off I-81 for a comfort stop or to pick up information about Valley attractions and accommodations. Or they can then also choose to stay a bit longer and tour the museum and scenic battlefield grounds that include bluffs overlooking the Shenandoah River.
The museum was built in 1970 to interpret the Civil War in Virginia, although a significant portion of the facility is dedicated to the role the VMI cadets played in the New Market battle. A museum theater features a film that tells the story of the Battle of New Market, there is an art gallery with Civil War paintings, and special, interpretive programs are offered throughout the year along with the annual battle reenactment weekend each May. Both guided and self-guided tours are available, as well as newer programs such as QR tours. There is also a local podcast available and information is broadcast on low-range radio along a stretch of the interstate.
“But we think that the best experience you can have is to go out with our visitor's guide, or go out with a guide and literally walk that ground,” Marshall says. “I mean, you can take a virtual tour of the battlefield. But it's better if you go out there.”
The Shenandoah Valley Tourist Information Center is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., seven days a week. The center is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and New Years Day. Phone access at 1-866-515-1864 and online at www.VMI.edu/NewMarket.
Tourism information photo courtesy Shenandoah Valley Tourism Information Center, all other photos and story by Hank Zimmerman, copyright ©2011 by Shenandoah Valley Productions LLC