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Susquehanna Life

The Pennsylvania Alpine Club: Where Patriotism, Nature & Spirituality Coalesced

Jun 08, 2017 02:26AM ● By Melanie Heisinger

Edwin Charles at the entrance to the center's farmhouse building. Photo by Bill Rozday

By Bill Rozday

View of the Susquehanna from Mt. Mahanoy. Photo by Gordon Wenzel

Pennsylvania is America’s focal point when it comes to resource controversy, with Susquehanna country its epicenter. Cell phone towers and fracking followed acid rain, which followed Three Mile Island, which followed strip mining, which succeeded deforestation, each breeding social debate.

To listen to environmental advocate Edwin Charles is to hear a plea for environmental education in schools. Funding shortfalls, field trip transportation liability and politics—despite the fact that education is a bipartisan cause—hinder its progress.

Life’s work

Charles’ environmental career traces a 100-year circle. In 1917, his great-grandfather and grandfather, Henry F. and Edwin W. Charles, along with newspaper publisher and well-known folklorist Col. Henry Shoemaker, G.W. Wagenseller, W.M. Schnure and F.G. Betts, completed a famous hike to the crest of Mahanoy Mountain, across the Susquehanna from Susquehanna University.

That 1917 hike inaugurated one of the most successful environmental organizations in Pennsylvania history. Called the Alpine Club, it drew diverse educators, community leaders and political figures into its membership of 2,500.  The defining characteristic of the club was its broad-based, nearly spiritual view of the outdoors. Its membership actually included Gov. William Sproul, and of course Gifford Pinchot. The Alpine Club’s outreach campaign consisted largely of contacts with a network of newspapers. Journalists were invited on noteworthy hikes, which produced accounts of those expeditions for a wide audience. The sheer diversity of populated places in the state lent itself well to this approach.

Hiking goals

Nature and patriotism: Alpine Club members rest after an ascent, circa 1919.


The Alpine Club deliberately sought out high Pennsylvania mountains. The belief was that upward climbs and inspiring views healed. This focus embraced a diversity of disciplines—ornithology, botany, geology, fishing, hunting, folklore.

In spring of 2017, Susquehanna University students retraced that 1917 walk up Mahanoy Mountain in a university tradition dating to 1880, revived in 2002 by President Jay Lemons. The annual ritual reminds Mr. Charles that Pennsylvania has reached another significant point on its environmental timeline.  He defines it as a the conflict between the human spirit and corporate thinking, evident in the cell phone towers that blight our high ground landscapes and in the fracking controversy.

Lesson for today

Disbanded around the Great Depression, according to Mr. Charles, a resurrected 2017 Alpine Club would reintroduce this universal focus. Some Pennsylvania peaks already have been memorialized—Nittany, Hyner, Grand Canyon Vista, Pole Steeple, Waggoners Gap. A walk atop a high mountain in Pennsylvania yields an exhibit of our political symbols: ruffed grouse, State Bird; bursting from mountain laurel, State Flower; beneath hemlock, State Tree. Penn State already has institutionalized Mount Nittany by selling token pieces of the mountaintop to students.

To sense the values of the Alpine Club, visit Trails and Trees Nature Center in Mechanicsburg, established by Mr. Charles during his work as an environmental education and geography teacher in 1967, and see how patriotism, nature and spirituality coalesce. Americans once approached life this way; so this is what is missing.

On the horizon?

Will the Alpine Club re-form? The closest thing to it in terms of outreach is the Pennsylvania Conservation Heritage Project. Mr. Charles works with the project to produce TV shows on Harrisburg public television station WITF that depict the extensive chronology of resource issues in Pennsylvania. Access their materials at

On the high mountains in the distance are the resources that brought both prosperity and controversy and gave us Edwin Charles, who says of a revived Alpine Club:  “Isn’t this the time to renew the goals and ideas of the Alpine Club and start a new chapter for men, women, children and organizations in Pennsylvania? Can we get back to nature, physical fitness, family time, club activities, spiritual reflection and community outreach?”

If You Go

Since 2002, when President
Jay Lemons revived the
historic hike, Susquehanna
University students have
made the arduous climb
to the top of Mt. Mahanoy. 
Photo by Gordon Wenzel

The Trails and Trees Nature Center, located at the highest elevation within the Mechanicsburg School District, reflects the grassroots appeal of environmentalism, and arose from an abandoned site used for can recycling. Edwin Charles conceived the nature center during the year of the first Earth Day.

At the center, Charles uses nature as a gateway to American culture. The center has obtained heirloom tree seeds harvested from important historic sites and created a socially significant planting. The learning process starts with name recognition. There is a tree from seed gathered at Mark Twain's home site, another from Helen Keller's yard. Still another comes from the Alamo. Nature learning readily branches into other areas of learning.

Occupying a good portion of the nature center’s 30 acres, the Tree Map consists of trees planted in the configuration of the U.S. map.  Each tree memorializes a notable aspect of its state; an oak from one state, a tuliptree from another.  Kids learn tree identification, geography, patriotism and history on a single walk.

The center is more a tribute to humanity than a nature spectacle. Pre-Civil War oaks grow along a trail, and a copse of wild sweet cherry, hackberry and walnut exhibits the regional flora, but this place serves the human cause. The center doors open into a classroom, and a tree marker commemorates a late teacher.  Even an adjoining 19th-century farmhouse hosts classroom activities.

As we strolled the grounds, garnet-red resin from a cherry tree shone like a jewel in the sun. “The amber of tomorrow,” said Mr. Charles, the conservationist from a long line of conservationists.  And, later:  “I wonder what the next generation will think of us.”—Bill Rozday

Bill Rozday writes frequently about Pennsylvania conservation issues.

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