Jimmy Stewart starred in the 1939 film classic “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” in which a well-meaning fellow from a small town pleads the case for a recreation area before Congress.
Flash-forward to 2013, and Pulaski County’s Mr. Neikirk has gone to Washington to do something similar.
Bill Neikirk, former president of the Mill Springs Battlefield Association (MSBA), went with Somerset’s own Congressman Harold “Hal” Rogers to the nation’s capital last week to plead the case for the Civil War site in Nancy to become an official national park.
“Yes, very much so,” said Neikirk, chairman of the committee to make Mill Springs a national park, when asked if the panel seemed receptive.
“I was very impressed with the whole system,” he added. “It was a bigger deal than I was anticipating.”
In January of 2012, Rogers introduced binding legislation to push the Mill Springs Battlefield’s inclusion into the U.S. National Parks system. The bill directed the National Park Service to conduct a study that would evaluate the potential for bringing the Mill Springs Battlefield into the fold.
Rogers reintroduced the legislation at the beginning of this year with a new Congress in place, in recognition of the 151st anniversary of the Battle of Mill Springs, or the Battle of Logan Crossroads.
The Battle of Mill Springs occurred on January 19, 1862 in Pulaski and Wayne counties and was the first significant victory for the Union Army in the west. The Confederate defeat at Mill Springs blazed a trail for Union troops to move from Kentucky into Tennessee.
On Thursday, Rogers and Neikirk addressed the Subcommittee on Public Lands and Environmental Regulation in Washington, D.C. and explained the historic significance of the Battle of Mill Springs to the country as a whole.
“The U.S. Department of Interior classified the Battle of Mill Springs as one of the most important battles in the western theater of the Civil War, and labeled the site an endangered battlefield in Kentucky," said Rogers. "Thanks to Bill and the group he founded, the Mill Springs Battlefield Association, hundreds of acres of battlefield land have been diligently preserved."
The legislation requesting a Mill Springs Battlefield Feasibility Study is H.R. 298.
The hearing was the first step in the committee process, where witness testimony is given and lawmakers have the opportunity to ask questions about the legislation before them. Rogers encouraged subcommittee members to pass the bill on to the full committee for consideration, according to Rogers’ office.
Of course, as Neikirk noted, it’s actually the second step after creating the bill in the first place. “The third would be if the committee votes to get the park service to do the feasibility study,” he said. “The fourth step would be if the park service goes to Congress and says, ‘We want you to vote them in.’”
The cost of the study would likely be around $20,000.
Neikirk acknowledges that a resolution it’s a long process — even if it’s approved, it would still take approximately five years to accomplish everything necessary for full inclusion into the U.S. National Parks system.
Still, it’s a worthy effort. Becoming a national park would enable Mill Springs to benefit Pulaski County as a whole, noted Neikirk.
“One of the main reasons you like to be in the park system is tourism,” he said. “If you’re a green dot on the Rand McNally map, people will come to you. More people come to national parks than regional parks.
“Tourism is what drives Pulaski County,” continued Neikirk. “Not everybody is on the lake when it rains. They come off the lake to visit us.”
To that point, Neikirk noted that this year’s Fourth of July holiday weekend — altogether a rainy one — saw the Mill Springs Battlefield Museum draw its largest visitation in five years.
“It gives more people an opportunity to see other things (in Pulaski County),” he said.
Neikirk also stated that Mill Springs is one of the top maintained battle sites in the country.
“There are a lot of national parks, but how many of them are civil war battlefields?” he asked.
Neikirk gave his testimony about these points to the committee, “trying to sell them on this,” he said.
The plan would be for the battlefield to become part of the Cumberland Gap National Park, rather than an entirely stand-alone park, said Neikirk.
Through a partnership of public and private funds, the MSBA has constructed a 10,000 square foot visitor's center and museum, established interpretive signage, and led driving and walking tours of the battle. Thousands of visitors and students now visit the site each year, according to Rogers’ office.