Along the Way: Hollidaysburg’s Moon Tree

Hollidayburg’s Moon Tree is located at Highland Hall

I was first introduced to Moon Trees in the early 2000s. I was a member of an online group that discussed Pennsylvania mysteries and one of the members asked if any of the group knew about the Moon Tree planted at Core Creek State Park. After a number of messages back and forth, the subject was forgotten and although I placed the tree on my list of places to visit, I had completely forgot about it.

In early 2011, I was reintroduced to the Moon Trees when a friend sent me a copy of an article about NASA tracking down the lost Moon Trees. Upon doing an internet search, I discovered there was a tree in Hollidaysburg and knowing I would be passing through the region, I made plans to stop in the early months of 2011.

With little to go on, I knew the tree was planted on the grounds of Highland Hall at the junction of Penn and Walnut Streets. I arrived at the historic building and began to wander about the grounds. Highland Hall was built about 1865 as a Presbyterian seminary for both males and females. The building was renamed Highland Hall in 1911, the year it became a female academy. The academy closed in 1940. At the time of my visit, the historic building was being used as the courthouse annex, but in 2016 it was renovated and became a retirement home that opened in 2018.

Close to Penn Street, I noticed a small marker standing at the base of a sycamore. I walked over to the small marker and discovered my first Moon Tree. The plaque states: “Bicentennial Moon Tree / This sycamore, placed here May 5, 1976 / Was grown from a seed carried / To the moon aboard Apollo XIV / By astronaut Stuart Roosa / Command modular pilot.”

Known as “Moon Trees” “Bicentennial Moon Trees” or “Bicentennial Trees,” these trees grew from the five hundred seeds taken into space on the Apollo 14 mission by Stuart Roosa who piloted the command module. Roosa had taken five small canisters filled with the seeds from five different trees: Loblolly Pine, Sycamore, Sweetgum, Redwood, and Douglas Fir. While Alan Shepard and Edgar Mitchell walked on the moon, Roosa and the seeds orbited the moon.

During the decontamination process, the canisters broke open and the experiment was deemed unsuccessful. The seeds were taken to National Forest Service stations in Gulfport, Mississippi and Placerville, California. The seeds where planted and most of the seeds sprouted. Beginning in 1975, the trees were given away as a part of the bicentennial of the United States. The first Moon Tree was planted at Washington Square, Philadelphia in May 1975.

Note: The original Moon Tree planted in Philadelphia no longer stands, but a second tree grafted from the original exists in the park. Recent reports state this tree too is dying, but caretakers are not sure what is causing the tree to rot.

 Also, all of the trees planted in Pennsylvania came from the Gulfport, Mississippi station.

The problem with the Moon Trees being given away is no one kept a record of where the trees were planted. It would not be until 1996 NASA began tracking down the trees and have created a list of known trees – living and dead – but the list is missing many trees.

The tree planted at Highland Hall was originally a part of a park that was designed by W. Walter Campbell. Called the Pioneer project, the center of the park was the Moon Tree and a statue of a pioneer family. The park was supposed to remember the pioneers of the past and look forward to future exploration. The pioneer family stood guard over the Moon Tree until 1999 when the statue was moved to the Blair County Courthouse.

Note: Newspaper articles at the time state a statue commemorating the Apollo XIV flight was to be unveiled during the ceremony. I believe this “statue” is the plaque on the small granite marker located at the base of the sycamore. What I think happened is the newspaper combined the pioneer family statue, which was also dedicated at the time, with the plaque for the Moon Tree to accidently create a statue to the Apollo XIV program.

As I stood there, I realized how many of these trees went unnoticed. If this tree had not been marked with a plaque, it would have looked no different than any other tree found in Pennsylvania’s woods. Even with a plaque, they could easily be overlooked and missed.

After taking in the sight of this forgotten “astronaut,” I left Highland Hall and the tree standing as a silent witness to NASA’s space program.

Note: While I have not found a method to how the trees were distributed, I did find that originally only four of the Moon Trees were given to Pennsylvania and those four had been given to Philadelphia, York, Bucks and Potter Counties. Pennsylvania had an additional four trees given to it and they were planted in Montgomery, Blair, Berks, and Cambria Counties as a part of America’s Bicentennial celebration.

Once the decision was made by the National Forest service, the tree was then given to the Pennsylvania Bureau of Forestry. Once it was in possession of the state, it was then turned over to the Bicentennial Committee who planted it.

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