From the Archives: Just a Mountain

From the May/June 2001 issue: It’s not particularly large. It’s not on campus. And it doesn’t really belong to Penn State. So why do we care so much about Mount Nittany?

cover of May / June 2001 issue of Penn Stater Magazine, Penn Stater Magazine Archives


In the fall of 1983, Wilhelm Kogelmann of Oak Hall was planning to clear-cut 209 acres near the top of Mount Nittany. He was one of the last private landowners on the top of the mountain, with several tracts on the Boalsburg side that stretched from the base to the crown. Over the summer, gypsy moths had laid massive amounts of eggs that would hatch in the spring and eat the leaves off the hardwoods. He knew that he could get a nice sum of money for the lumber if he got to the trees before the eggs hatched. He might have done it, too, if Penn State alumni and State College residents hadn’t gotten involved.

The Mount Nittany Conservancy, founded two years earlier by the Lion’s Paw Alumni Association to protect what had become one of Penn State’s most important symbols, knew that Kogelmann had already logged nearly 40 acres at the base of the mountain the year before. When conservancy members approached him about his intentions to clear the top, Kogelmann made an offer: He would give the conservancy 89 acres if it purchased the other 120 at $1,000 each. The conservancy agreed and, in September 1984, announced its fund-raising campaign—“Save Mount Nittany from the Woodsman’s Axe.”

Conservancy President Ben Novak ’65 Lib, ’99 PhD IDF pitched articles to the Centre Daily Times, the Collegian, and The Penn Stater about “the famed Mount Nittany.” One article claimed that the mountain belonged “not only to the people who live and study in the Nittany Valley, but to all Penn Staters.”

Local Penn Staters seemed to agree, and joined the campaign. The State College Women’s Club arranged a bake sale. State College Intermediate High School sold paper trees. Waiters and waitresses at Ye Olde College Diner sold Mount Nittany T-shirts and books. Kindergartners from Lemont Elementary School put together a construction-paper book about why they wanted to save Mount Nittany’s trees. Even State College’s W.R. Hickey Beer Distributor connected to the mountain’s cause. The business donated 50 cents for every case of Busch beer sold—as one of Hickey’s managers noted, “It just seems like such a natural tie-in because Busch’s theme is ‘Head for the mountains.’” In just eight months, the conservancy raised the $120,000 it needed to purchase the land and preserve “Penn State’s mountain.”

There was just one problem. Mount Nittany really didn't “belong” to Penn State. Sure, students thought of it as a Penn State symbol. They’d stared at its signature slope from Beaver Stadium. They’d hiked it. They’d sung about it in school songs like “Blue and White” (“Where the vale of old Mt. Nittany meets the eastern sky / proudly stands our alma mater, on her hilltop high ... ”). No matter who had a title to the land on it, Penn Staters felt that they “owned” that mountain, that it was their job to protect that mountain from being clear-cut.

That mountain, however, had been clear-cut before. More than 150 years before the Mount Nittany Conservancy started its “Save Mount Nittany” campaign, the mountain had lost nearly all of its trees to the iron industry. In fact, Penn State came into existence in 1855 because Mount Nittany had been clear-cut.


It all started about 500 million years before Penn State did, when nature began the long process of depositing layers of sedimentary rock—first limestone, then sandstone on top. When the continents collided, these rock layers folded up and down like wrinkles on a scrunched-up towel. At that point, the top of the future Mount Nittany was actually the bottom of a valley. Slowly, erosion carved the wrinkles into an even plain. Then, about 15 million years ago, forces within the earth caused a gentle uplift, raising everything 1,000 feet. Thanks to further erosion, the softer limestone was dissolved (resulting in valleys), and the harder sandstone remained (resulting in ridges). Without its top mantle of protective sandstone, the mountain as we know it would not exist.

The sandstone, however, wasn’t very effective at protecting the mountain after William Penn came in 1682. To pay off a debt to Penn’s father, the King of England had given the young Penn a large tract of land in the New World—the land that became Pennsylvania. Recognizing the potential commercial value of central Pennsylvania’s iron ore deposits, Penn sold land to settlers, who soon began mining the ore. By 1810, Pennsylvania produced more than half of the pig iron made in the United States. Although Mount Nittany itself wasn’t mined, by the mid-1800s its trees had been turned into charcoal to fuel the area’s iron industry.

Pennsylvania iron moguls James Irvin and Moses Thompson, who had run Centre Furnace since 1826, realized that they needed to switch gears. With no trees, the area was no longer ripe for the iron industry, but it could, thought Irvin and Thompson, have a future in agriculture: They began to talk with the Philadelphia Society for Promoting Agriculture. Founded in 1785 with Ben Franklin, George Washington, and Thomas Jefferson as members, the society had been trying to bring its ideas about experimental farming to the average Pennsylvania farmer. It decided to start an agricultural school and was looking for land where the group could build it.

After visiting many sites, the group settled on the land proposed by Irvin and Thompson in Centre County near Centre Furnace. In 1855, when Irvin and Thompson toasted the start of the Farmers’ High School that would one day become Penn State, Mount Nittany—2,077 feet tall—stood bleak and treeless in the background.


lithograph of Mount Nittany by Harold Altman, Penn State University Archives
ARTISTIC RENDERING: Nationally known artist Harold Altman has done several lithographs of Mount Nittany, including this view of Mount Nittany Road in Lemont. Harold Altman.


In 1904, when a few skinny saplings had started to poke through the ground on Mount Nittany, Penn State’s baseball team was playing a game at Princeton. Penn State third baseman Harrison D. “Joe” Mason 1907, 1913 MS EMS and his buddies were playing catch before the game when a couple of opponents approached them, bragging about their tough mascot, the tiger. On the spot, Mason invented a legend: “Up at Penn State we have Mount Nittany right on our campus, where rules the Nittany Mountain Lion, who has never been beaten in a fair fight.”

By that time, there were no mountain lions on Mount Nittany—or anywhere else in the eastern United States. Between 1829 and 1845, 600 mountain lions had been killed in Centre County. The last mountain lion in the region supposedly was killed in 1856. But even though its namesake no longer existed in Pennsylvania, the Nittany Lion beat the Bengal Tiger that day, and the story of Mason’s impromptu legend spread around campus, quickly becoming a part of Penn State’s identity—a mysterious Nittany Lion that roamed the slopes of local Mount Nittany.

The school didn’t settle on the Nittany Lion as a mascot until the early 1920s. In the meantime, students and faculty batted around the idea of “Chief Nittany,” but they weren’t sure if there ever had been a chief with that name. In 1914, they asked Pennsylvania folklorist Henry Shoemaker, who said that the name didn’t come from a chief, but from a princess. Shoemaker said he had heard the legend from an old laborer who’d grown up at the foot of the mountain.

The legend told of a tribe that lived in the valley between Tussey and Bald Eagle mountains. Although the tribe farmed the land, its members starved, because the North Wind would swoop in every fall and blow their crops away. One day a mysterious Indian maiden appeared and taught the tribe how to protect itself and its harvest by using shields. The tribe called her Nitanee, which meant “wind­breaker,” and made her its ruler.

Soon, Nitanee fell in love with a warrior, but their romance was cut short when his shield was stolen and the North Wind killed him. Nitanee found his body and carried him to the center of the valley, where she buried him. As she placed the final stones over his body, a huge storm blew through. The tribe watched through the night as Nitanee stood on the grave, which grew into a mountain. By morning, Nitanee had become part of the mountain as well.

Shoemaker published the myth. The more people read it, the more they began to look at the mountain with reverence. As a result, Penn State could boast its connection to a princess, an all-powerful mountain lion, and the physical presence that tied everything together: Mount Nittany.

Meanwhile, Penn State president George Atherton was trying to figure out how to minimize the fall rituals that had been disturbing the town each year with noise and destroyed property. He enlisted several student leaders, in hopes they could influence other students to take greater interest in the well-being of their community. Eventually they became the Lion’s Paw Society.

Lion’s Paw members developed a mysterious initiation ceremony on Mount Nittany. Each year on a spring evening at dusk, they blindfolded the new Lion’s Paw initiates and led them to the summit. At the top, blindfolds came off and the students gazed on the school and the valley as they chanted secret incantations.

Lion’s Paw members weren’t the only students focusing on Mount Nittany. In the 1920s, a group of World War I veterans along with engineering and forestry students pushed the idea of erecting a concrete S—for “State”—on the side of Mount Nittany. In a disapproving letter, professor Fred Lewis Pattee stopped their enthusiasm cold. The mountain, he wrote, was “becoming a unique Penn State possession. To make a huge letter on the front of it like a hideous scar on a human face is to turn it into a sensational object .... It becomes not the sentinel of the extreme flank of the range overlooking the magnificent valley, but it is turned into a mere billboard.” He called the idea “cheap” and “unworthy of Penn State.”

More than 20 years later, in 1945, Mount Nittany found its way into the spotlight again when Centre Daily Times editor and Lion’s Paw alumnus William Ulerich ’31 Lib noticed an ad while proof­reading the paper—the Nittany Outing Club was selling 525 acres on the campus side of Mount Nittany for lumber. Years before, the club had acquired the land from the estate of Col. Theodore Boal, who’d purchased it in the 1920s “to preserve untouched the natural beauty and grandeur of Mount Nittany.” But, in the 1940s, the club was also trying to preserve itself from financial ruin, so much so that it would even sell Mount Nittany’s timber rights. The club members were so desperate for the money that, when Ulerich contacted them, they supposedly made up a story to expedite a sale—they claimed that West Virginia Pulp and Paper was planning to strip the land the very next day.

Their story worked. Lion’s Paw whipped up support from Lion’s Paw alumni to raise the $2,000 they needed to buy the Outing Club’s land. A Lion’s Paw newsletter that year informed its members that “YOU are now PART OWNER of the most famous geographical landmark affiliated with Penn State.”


collage of five photographs of Mount Nittany by various photographers
PHOTO OPPORTUNITY: Many photographers over the years have tried to capture the mountain: (clockwise from top) The Pennsylvania State University Archives circa 1940; Scott Elmquist; Joe Bodkin; Robert Bees; Steve Williams '86 Lib.


Over the next 50 years, the mountain’s status as a Penn State icon came to its rescue several more times. In the 1950s, when West Penn Power attempted to run a power line across the mountain, Penn State alumni convinced the company to re­route the line. In 1981, gypsy moths infested the mountain, causing trees to lose their leaves. That year, Lion’s Paw paid to spray for gypsy moths and also spent $32,000 to purchase a 33-acre tract from the Boal estate. As a result, Lion’s Paw members came to terms with the fact that they could no longer bear the financial burden of preserving the mountain. So, that same year, they founded the Mount Nittany Conservancy, a nonprofit organization unaffiliated with Penn State. They expected the conservancy to tap into community dollars so it could protect more of the mountain. “Thousands of Penn State graduates think of Mount Nittany as the symbol of Penn State,” said Ben Novak, the conservancy’s first president. “It is the one rock-solid reality that persists in the midst of so much growth and change.” And perhaps that was why the mountain had become so dear to Penn Staters, why it had become more than a landmark, but a tradition. A myth, even. Mount Nittany was reliable. It stuck around. Though attitudes about it changed, the mountain itself was rock solid.

Right off the bat, the conservancy decided on its first campaign: to acquire all of the land on the mountain above 1,300 feet. It began that campaign in 1985 as part of raising the money to buy Wilhelm Kogelmann’s land. The idea was to sell 1-square­inch plots of the conservancy’s land on the mountain. Today, in its 20th anniversary year, the conservancy owns all land—besides the acres that Lion’s Paw owns—above the 1,400-foot elevation line. It has sold more than 2,000 of the original 57,600 1-inch­square plots it put up for sale 20 years ago.

Right now, some might argue that there should be another fight to protect the mountain—or, at least, the view of the mountain. The 11,000 seats currently being added in the $84 million expansion of Beaver Stadium will block the view of Mount Nittany for many inside the stadium. Soon, the only stadium view of the landmark will be from the club lounge or from special suites. In 1984, the Centre Daily Times described that view as “one of the sites those fans will look for ... the sloping face of Mount Nittany, an important part of Penn State’s rich tradition.” (Rumor has it that Mary Beaver, the sister of James Beaver, for whom the stadium was named, insisted back in 1960 that the view of Mount Nittany from the stadium would never be blocked.)

But other than conservancy members, no one has had much to say about the view, aside from a few letters to the editor in local papers. Alumni didn’t protest. Neither did students. Perhaps they know that Mount Nittany is bigger than Beaver Stadium, bigger than Penn State. Though attitudes about it might have changed, the mountain itself has been rock solid. Part of the land- scape. Unchanging.