Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club – Keepers of the Appalachian Trail
By PAUL R. LEHMAN
The Appalachian Trail is not, as many people believe, an old Indian footpath. Indians made trails that “kept their level,” twisting through water gaps and wind gaps to avoid too much climbing. They were made easy to traverse the easiest way to get from one spot to another.
Not so for the Appalachian Trail. It is strictly a white man’s trail, not made to be easy but to get to the most scenic and wild areas. It is primarily a wilderness foot trail. Its route is continuous and generally extends along the crest and over the highest hills of the mountain system known as the Appalachians, passing through 14 eastern states from Katahdin in the central Maine wilderness to Springer Mountain in northern Georgia.
Unlike trails in the rest of the world this trail has been founded and is now maintained by volunteers, not the government. Men and women take time from their busy lives and give generously of labor, time and money. It gets into their blood and they gladly drive miles, climb steep hills and then labor: carving out the trail, clearing brush, moving rocks and blowdowns, painting white blazes on trees and making signs to guide hikers. All without pay, but with much dedication. This, then, is the story of the local Berks club The Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club of Reading -and its many years of volunteer effort to preserve a wilderness wonder.
Early in this century there was a group of business and professional men in Reading who liked to walk and climb mountains. Usually they walked on Mt. Penn, where there was good fellowship at wine gardens with German songs and storytelling. They called themselves “The Fuszgangers” -men who made their way by foot.
Among them was Dr. Harry F. Rentschler who had heard about a one-time eagle’s nest on the Blue Mountains above Shartlesville. On June 15, 1916, Dr. Rentschler took the group to Daniel Hollenbach’s farm, from where they were led up to the area of the eagle’s nest on the mountain. It was a challenging climb and when they got there they found a very rugged rock formation at the top, featuring a precipitous cliff. But they enjoyed the climb so much that they planned to revisit the Eagle’s Nest every year.
The departed Blue Mountain eagle became their symbol for those climbs and the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club was born. The first formal hike-climb to the Eagle’s Nest was held on October 12, 1916. Reading’s former mayor, William F. Shanaman, was elected president of the new club and Dr. Rentschler was named secretary. Hikes were held in the spring and fall, one to the Eagle’s Nest and one to some other interesting spot on the Blue Mountains. Initially, the club was limited to 100 men who could qualify for membership by maintaining good moral standards and by making two pilgrimages to the Blue Mountains. New candidates for membership were initiated by being lowered, blindfolded, over the cliff to the Eagle’ Nest!
Usually they hiked in the morning after a drive from the city by auto from the city. At about 1 p.m. they stopped for lunch, after which they usually had some distinguished speaker and then had an informal meeting. Many times they ended their hike at Haag’s Hotel or Lesher’s Hotel in Shartlesville.
During this period (in 1921) Benton MacKaye of Massachusetts got the dream of an Appalachian Trail – a foot trail stretching the full length of the Appalachian skyline from Mount Washington in New Hampshire to Mount Mitchell in North Carolina (later changed to Mount Katahdin in Maine to Springer Mountain in Georgia). In 1926 one of the key people planning the Appalachian Trail, Professor Eugene C. Bingham of Lafayette College, Easton, Pa., contacted the Reading club about the Appalachian Trail dream.
On the tenth anniversary of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club on October 30, 1926, the hikers climbed up to their favored Eagle’s Nest. After the hike they drove to St. Paul’s Church (Smoke Church) on old Route 22 near Hamburg to meet with Professor Bingham. That was hallway between Easton and Eagle’s Nest. Professor Bingham made a plea for volunteer workers and support from the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club to complete the trail in the general Berks area. Many members thought the task was impossible, but Dr. Rentschler was enthusiastic and became the main driving force behind the effort.
In the next five years there were many full days of work to complete the Appalachian Trail from the Lehigh River to the Susquehanna River. Dr. Rentschler led most of those trips. It was quite a feat; they were going into unknown territory. They had to find local people of the different areas who had knowledge of the mountains. Among those recruited were John Baer, an Eckville school teacher; “Pappy” Driebelbis of Hamburg, and the Drenkle brothers of the Swatara area – to name only a few. It was an astonishing volunteer effort.
Think of the hours and days that were spent on locating and building 102miles of trailthrough the wilderness. It was a lot of work, but now there was a trail to pass on to many generations of hikers.
In May of 1930 Nicholas Phillipson measured the locally-sponsored trail with a bicycle wheel, which is still the property of the Blue Mountain club as an icon of the accomplishment. All of that phenomenal volunteer task was completed in time to dedicate the Berks trail on October12, 1931. Guests of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club on that occasion were Benton MacKaye, Myron H. Avery and Professor Bingham – the most prominent names in the entire Appalachian Trail movement.
After the Berks trail was finished, Dr. Rentschler was not satisfied. He was instrumental in the building of many monuments, cabins and rest stops along the way. He saw the need to acquire land on the trail to preserve the wilderness. Many tracts of land were acquired from members over the years, often at no expense to the club. Whenever a member died, Dr. Rentschler would try to convince the widow to donate land in memory of her husband. Land was comparatively inexpensive in those days and more than 240 acres were acquired.
A number of shelters were built on those lands – and other lands – during the early years. Because the club had no dues, materials for those shelters had to be donated or built from natural materials from the forest. Labor came from the volunteers. But some simply could not afford to volunteer. There was the case of the Seip brothers from Blandon who could not find work because of the Depression of the early 30s. Dr. Rentschler paid them minimal wages to work on the trail, probably from his own pocket.
Seven monuments were erected to honor those who made significant contributions to the development of the Appalachian Trail and the Blue Mountam Eagle Climbing Club. The first one was, of course, dedicated to Dr. Rentschler in recognition of his work. That one was at the Dr. Rentschler Shelter which was along Route 183 where the trail crosses. The cabin is gone now, but the monument can still be seen.
One of the outstanding features of the trail in Berks County is “Showers’ Steps.” Five hundred steps were built up to Roundhead just off Route 501. Lloyd C. Showers of Bethel had the vision of a side trail leading up to the Appalachian Trail. So under his guidance and with labor he recruited, huge boulders were moved to form steps up a steep slope to the summit and to an outstanding view. Time took its toll on the steps and much volunteer effort is needed from time to time to maintain the unique steps.
In 1937 a corporation was formed by the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club known as the “Blue Mountain Wilderness Park Association.” That organization had the purpose to acquire and own land in order to preserve the forest, protect wildlife and protect the Appalachian Trail.
Then, in 1939, the club lost its first president, former Reading Mayor Shanaman. A monument was erected in his honor on Roundtop at the head of the Showers’ Steps. The personable Daniel K. Hoch, who had a strong appreciation of the history of the county, was elected as the second president of the climbing club.
In 1945, Hoch, serving as Berks County’s Congressman, introduced into the U.S. House of Representatives the first bill calling for an authorized national system of foot trails. Although that bill, and the subsequent Hoch Bill of 1948, were not reported out of committee, Hoch’s foresight was the beginning of federal thoughts toward the protection of the Appalachian Trail.
It is interesting to note that through the first 40 years of the climbing club’s history, only two men – Bill Shanaman and Danny Hoch – served as president, illustrating that those men were dedicated to the wilderness cause and completely trusted by the membership.
During World War Two it was difficult for the volunteers to maintain the Appalachian Trail. There was a shortage of gasoline and tires, but buses and trains were utilized and the semi-annual hikes and work trips continued.
From time to time other hiking clubs emerged, requesting sections of the trail to maintain. To ease the strain of the heavy work load of maintaining 102 miles of trail, different sections were transferred to other clubs. Today, the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club maintains 65 miles of the Appalachian Trail from Lehigh Furnace Gap Road to Rausch Gap (with the exception of a section between Bake Oven Road and Tri-county Corner).
In 1959 Danny Hoch resigned as club president, after serving for 20 years. Robert R. York served for one year until Richard C. Kimmel was elected. Kimmel was to serve for 16 years. He was a very dedicated volunteer to the entire hiking community, serving as president of the Keystone Trails Club (the state organization of some 40 clubs from all over the Commonwealth), and also serving on the Appalachian Trail Board ofManagers, as well as on state and federal councils that were liaisons between the hiking community and governmental departments. Then, too, he maintained a section of the Appalachian Trail for 32 years; his total record of service spanned 42 years.
Kimmel came to the club’s presidency with new ideas. With him came a whole new group of people. New but typically Appalachian Trail volunteers: no mountain too steep, no task too difficult to demonstrate their love of the wilderness trail.
A vigorous hiking program began. Weekly hikes were held instead of just the spring and fall hikes as before. Back-packing, canoeing, caving, bicycling, and train trips became regular events. The hikes were well attended – sometimes drawing more than 100 participants.
Yearly banquets were begun with special programs put on by members and guests. Hiking schedules, with printed descriptions of the events, were sent to all members. The events were advertised in local newspapers. Membership grew and new enthusiasm for trail maintenance developed. The work trips on the Appalachian Trail were very well attended. The author can remember a traffic jam on top of the mountain above Shartlesville, when special permission was obtained to drive cars to the trail to facilitate the maintenance.
There have been many honors bestowed upon Dick Kimmel over the years, not the least of which is the naming of the Kimmel Look out just off Route 501 on the Appalachian Trail. It was a favorite spot of his.
After Kimmel retired as president of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club in 1976, the bylaws of the club were changed and terms of office were limited. There began a series of presidents of shorter terms: Robert Wolfe III, Leonard Reed, Robert Fisher, Joan Moyer, the first woman elected; Sandy Shollenberger, and Joan Moyer (for a second term). They have all carried on the task of leading the ready army of volunteers on the Appalachian Trail in Berks County.
Yet, there’s more to the work of the club. It owns a beautiful run of 34 acres near the village of Bernville. The land was willed to the club by its first secretary, Dr. Rentschler and his wife, with a trust fund of $5,000 for maintenance. It’s a lovely tract of land with a million-dollar view. There are many different trees, some planted to honor active members.
A new arboretum building was dedicated in 1969 to be used as a club house for meetings and special events. The leadership for the arboretum came from Henry Kalbach and, after his death, from his son, Henry Kalbach, Jr.
On October 2, 1968, Danny Hoch’s earlier dream became a reality when President Lyndon Johnson signed into law an act to provide a nationwide system of trails. Under the law the Appalachian Trail became the Appalachian National Scenic Trail. Soon the federal government became involved in purchasing land along the entire Appalachian Trail for the purpose of preserving the trail for future generations. Something was done that was entirely out of the normal. The land acquired was turned over to the local trail clubs for stewardship.
Thus, the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club went from being a maintenance club to a managing club. The club has had to manage thousands of acres of land. It has had to work with neighboring land owners, local governments, the Game Commission, and other outdoor groups. Roads had to be closed off to vehicular traffic. Parking areas were made for the hikers. Monitors had to inspect all the tracts of land along the Blue Mountain club’s 62 miles of trails several times a year to make sure the lands stayed in a primitive state and that no one made inroads on the land.
Again the club’s volunteers were ready to do the job. Presently there are some 26 monitors who have the responsibility to oversee the 62 miles of the club’s portion of the Appalachian Trail. This stewardship was to become one of the most important tasks of the club.
Originally, the Appalachian Trail was to have shelters about one day’s hike from each other. Thirteen shelters were built on the initial 102 miles of the trail for which the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club was responsible. Through usage andvandalism – too many non-hikers abused the shelters – there were only six shelters left. Construction had stopped for about 15 years. Then, too, new lightweight tents seemed to make shelters unnecessary.
But in the late 1980s, with new club leadership, interest in shelters again arose. In 1988 an Eagle’s Nest Shelter was built in the mountains above Shartlesville. It was unique in that it was built off-site and flown in by a large National Guard helicopter. In 1955 the William Penn Shelter, south of Route 645, was competed. New self-composting toilets had to be installed with those two shelters to meet National Park Service regulations. With federal protection of the trail there also came regulations and guidelines that had to be met. Some of them have made for undue hardships for the volunteers.
But there’s another side to the federal coin. When the federal government began acquiring land to protect the Appalachian Trail it purchased most of the acreage of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club. When the land was initially acquired by the club it was worth pennies an acre; by the time the federal government got into the act the land was of much greater value. The club suddenly found itself with quite a bit of money. But the principal was invested and earnings are used carefully toward trail maintenance, tools and equipment for the Arboretum, hostels and shelters.
Donations are also made to the work of the Appalachian Trail Conference, the Berks County Conservancy, the Wildland Trust, a trail crew engaged in major construction projects, and others.
There also is a club Lands Committee whose task is to claim parcels of land along the Appalachian Trail that have no owners because of non-payment of taxes or other reasons. Those lands have to be titled because the federal government will not just claim land on its own; it has to purchase the land from someone. But the club can claim many of the parcels of land because the trail has gone over the land for many years. Many thousands of dollars have been acquired in this manner. But the club does not keep that money. It is turned over to the Appalachian Trail Conference in Harpers Ferry so that it can acquire other lands to broaden the Appalachian Trail corridor.
Today, more than 70 years afterits founding, the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club still operates under a simple mandate: service to the Appalachian Trail and the citizens who use it. In recent years, on maintenance of the trail alone, there have been an average of 125 volunteers who spend more than 5,000 hours annually laboring on the trail.
And then there’s the Wednesday Crew of retired men who give mountains of labor. No matter what the job is they are up to it. For nearly ten years they have met almost year around to tackle any job that comes along. Sometimes trail blazing, planting trees, service to the Arboretum, even ripping down buildings that were acquired when the federal government bought land to protect the Appalachian Trail. (If there is a structure on the land it has to come down so that the land can revert to wilderness.)
Perhaps the greatest points of pride for the men of the Wednesday Crew comes from the work done on two hiker hostels on the trail. Two houses on acquired lands were kept and turned into hiker hostels and caretakers’ homes so that there is always someone present to provide guidance to hikers and security for the facility. One of these units is off Route 501, north of Bethel.
The other is a hiker hostel in Eckville near Hawk Mountain. Here the Wednesday Crew took an old farmhouse, gutted it and completely rebuilt it to comply with federal regulations. More than three years was spent on the job, it was dedicated in 1992.
But has all of this volunteer hard work been appreciated by the users of the Appalachian Trail? Well… at The Pinnacle there is a register box with a notebook, and hikers are encouraged to sign their names and to give any comments they may have about their Appalachian Trail experience. Some typical comments:
“Father and son having the time of their lives .”
“Here on our honeymoon – the whole world is beautiful I!.”
“This is my first mountain climb. I want to stay here forever.”
“He who seeks to avoid pain succeeds only in avoiding pleasure…”
“Praise the Lord for all this beauty and our eyes to see it.”
POSTSCRIPT: Current president of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club is Curt Campfield, Womelsdorf, elected in the spring of 1997. Campfield started with the club as a “ridge runner”, a member who volunteers to walk the trail to meet hikers and explain the wonders of the Appalachian Trail. For more information on membership, write to the club at P.O. Box 14982, Reading, PA 19612-4982.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: The late Paul R. Lehman, Laureldale, was the archivist of the Blue Mountain Eagle Climbing Club. He had maintained the Appalachian Trail over The Pinnacle for 35 years.
This article originally appeared in the Fall 1997 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County.