On May 24, 1931 Airmail Pilot James “Jimmy” Cleveland lost his life when his plane failed to clear Mount Nittany and crashed 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, along with all the airmail pilots who lost theirs while flying the mail.
The trail to the monument is known as The James Cleveland Trail (on some maps it is referred to merely as The Cleveland Trail) is located in Greens Valley at the top of the Mount Nittany, between Centre Hall and Pleasant Gap – the sign for the trial is three and a half miles from Route 144. Note: There is also a trail head on Route 192 (Brush Valley Road) but at the current time, a 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, the pavement ends as Greens Valley Road enters Bald Eagle State Forest. The 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 students volunteered to plant pine trees in the area that 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 a sign placed here in honor of our service, but it 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 a higher clearance can turn here and drive to another parking area roughly a hundred yards down the side road.
Here’s where I lost the trail before I could even start the hike. On my first trip, I parked in the lot closest to the trail head but was not able to immediately see any of the blue markings for the trail. After carefully scanning the area for a couple minutes, I finally found faded 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.
The trail immediately crosses over the headwaters of Little Fishing Creek before meandering across the mountain valley toward the southern summit of Mount Nittany. 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 serving as a bridge were falling apart – I opted to jump across the narrow stream rather than chance walking across the rotted wood.
I soon came across an old road, which I discovered 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.
From this point the trail grows steeper as it goes up the mountainside. Near the top of the mountain, 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 up a steep set of rock steps to the top of the mountain. The last hundred yards is across the top of the mountain and is the easiest hiking of the trip.
Stepping out of the woods into a small clearing, I had my first view of the two monuments that exist for Jimmy Cleveland. The first is built from rocks from the mountain and is topped with rusted parts of his 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 and slid through the trees roughly twenty feet below the southern summit. 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 few 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 others claim that he got lost in the clouds that covered the top of the mountain. 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.
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. The thick trees at the location 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.
Note: While there is no hiking trail to the location of the crash, there is a small monument at the location. Ames would have his name attached to the first airfield created in Clearfield County. The airfield began as an emergency stop on the transcontinental airmail route from New York to San Francisco. The airfield began commercial operations the early 1930s (sources differ between 1932 and 1934) and, according to a county historical marker, closed down in the 1940s. The airport still appeared on maps until the 1960s, but may have been for emergencies rather than a fully functional airport.
After 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 high on my list of 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 made the trip worth the hike.