Monday, August 1, 2016

Hiking The James Cleveland Trail

The first sign announcing the James Cleveland Trail
Along Greens Valley Road
On May 24, 1931 Airmail Pilot James "Jimmy" Cleveland lost his life when his plane failed to clear Mount Nittany, crashing near the top of the mountain above Centre Hall.

I grew up knowing the history of the crash and though I knew there was a memorial for James Cleveland at the top of the mountain, it would not be until 2009 that I would first visit the monument. In the years since, I’ve made my way back up the mountain at least once each year to pay my respects to the pilot who lost his life here.

The trail to the monument is known as The James Cleveland Trail (on some maps it is referred to merely as The Cleveland Trail) and is located in Greens Valley at the top of Centre Hall Mountain between Centre Hall and Pleasant Gap – the sign for the trial is three and a half miles from Route 144. There is also a trail head on Route 192 (Brush Valley Road) but at the current time, the portion of the trail that crosses private land is blocked. I have heard rumors that there are plans to reopen the Centre Hall side of the trail, but as of the time I write this, that portion of the trail is still closed.

Roughly a mile from the junction with Route 144, Greens Valley Road turns to dirt as it enters Bald Eagle State Forest. This area brings back memories; as a part of my Senior Day of Caring (the school’s attempt at preventing Senior Skip Day) a group of us volunteered to plant pine trees in the area the road passes through. Looking at the pines standing along the road, I realized that some of them could possibly be ones I had planted years ago. Our class had placed a sign here in honor of our service, but it had disappeared within a month or two after we had planted the trees.

Arriving at the sign for the trail there are two options depending on how much clearance your vehicle has. Vehicles with low clearance should park here, but any vehicles with higher clearance can turn here and drive down to another parking area roughly a hundred yards down the side road.

The start of the trail from the second parking area
Here’s where I lost the trail before I could even start the hike. My first trip I parked in the closer lot and when I got out, I was not able to immediately see any of the blue markings for the trail. After carefully scanning the area, I finally found blazes for the trail to the left of this parking area. Since the first visit, the blue trail blazes have been repainted and the trail markers can be clearly seen at the trail’s head.

Bridge over Little Fishing Creek
The trail almost immediately crosses over the headwaters of Little Fishing Creek before meandering across the valley towards the southern summit of the mountain. The first half mile of the trail is a gradual incline and is a relatively easy walk. At one point, it crosses another small stream, but logs that once served as a bridge were rotted and falling apart, so I opted to jump across the small stream rather than chance walking across them.

I soon came across an old road; this road was the same one that had been blocked off where I had parked my vehicle. I thought it was strange that here, where the trail and road cross, is a sign announcing the Cleveland Trail. My guess is that this spot was the original start of the trail and when the old road was blocked the trail was expanded to its current length.

Sign marking the trail
Along the old road
In the middle of the woods
From this point the trail grows steeper as it goes up the mountainside. After a switchback the trail levels out for a short distance just below the ridge. Crossing the flat I came to the final push as the trail turns sharply and the last fifty or so feet it goes straight up a steep set of rock steps to the top of the mountain. The last hundred yards is flat and the easiest hiking of the trip.

Stepping out of the woods into a small clearing, I had my first view of the crash site. Two monuments stand at the location. The first is a rock column built as the first memorial to James Cleveland. On top of this memorial are rusted parts of the plane that have been collected over the years. The second is a granite marker engraved with Jimmy's name and wreck date on it that his brother had placed there in 1971, the year before the boy scouts created the trail.

As I stood there, the woods seemed even quieter than it had minutes ago. The reality of where I was and the tragic event that happened eighty years ago sunk in. The young man had lost his life when his plane hit the mountain roughly twenty feet below the southern summit and slid through the trees. The plane burst into flames as it was torn apart – the fire was so bright that it could be seen from the airmail field in Bellefonte. Sadly, Jimmy had turned twenty-six only a couple weeks before the crash that instantly claimed his life.

Over the years there has been a debate over what caused the fatal crash. Some claim the wings of his plane had iced up causing the plane not to respond. Others claim that it was a sudden gust of wind that caught him off guard. Still other claim that he got lost in the clouds. Looking through some newspapers from the time of the crash, most of the articles blame the weather stating that the young pilot was the victim of a freak snow squall that hit the region.

Monuments at the crash site
I paused to pay my respects to him and the other airmail pilots who had perished while delivering the mail in the early years. Jimmy wasn’t the only airmail pilot that this mountain had claimed. On October 1, 1925, the mountain took the life of Charles Ames about four miles east of where Jimmy had crashed. Charles took off from New Brunswick, New Jersey that evening for the night run and was due in Bellefonte around midnight. He never arrived. The last his plane had been spotted was at 11:35 that evening as it passed over Hartleton.

A large search extended from Bellefonte to Clarion, most thinking he overshot Bellefonte and had crashed to the west of town. 

Sadly this was not the case. Ames never reached Bellefonte.

On the morning of October 11, a group of boys discovered the crash site on top the mountain overlooking Hecla. The wreckage was discovered  on the southern side of the northern summit, about two hundred feet from the top and only a quarter of a mile from the Hecla beacon – the caretaker never heard the fatal crash.

Due to the weather conditions, Ames flew directly into the side of the mountain and the trees prevented search planes from discovering the wreck. Unlike many of the airmail crashes, Ames’ plane did not catch fire due to the angle it landed – the escaping gas ran down the mountain, away from the engine.

Close-up of the memorial
Placed by Jimmy's brother
As I finished paying my respects, I continued past the memorials to a vista that overlooks Penns and Brush Valleys. While the vista is a nice addition to the hike, it does not rank really high on my favorite vistas. If I had hiked this just for the vista, I would have been really disappointed, but seeing I was here for the history of the spot, it was a nice bonus to my hike.

At this point I turned and headed back down the mountain.

The James Cleveland Trail is a little over a mile in length (making it a two mile round trip), but it doesn't feel like it is that long of a hike. The history of this place, along with the vista, made the trip worth the hike,

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