A view of five counties:
Governor Dick

A rambling by Tom Knapp,
August 1994

Governor Dick is not a pretty tower. But the tower near Mount Gretna in Lebanon County, Pa., has attracted nature enthusiasts for more than 40 years, providing not only a goal at the end of a pleasant forest hike, but also a panoramic view from the top of surrounding woodlands.

A cylinder of reinforced concrete and steel, the tower stands 66 feet high on a mountain 1,120 feet above sea level. The Mount Gretna community, by comparison, is 750 feet above sea level. The tower is 15 feet in diameter and has a double set of internal steel ladders to get to the top. It's not a straight climb -- there are nine landings on the way.

On a clear day, the view over the trees includes sites in Lancaster, Lebanon, York, Dauphin and Berks counties. Landmarks sometimes visible include the infamous Three Mile Island nuclear power plant, Hersheypark and the Fort Indiantown Gap military base. When the trees shed their leaves, the Griest Building in downtown Lancaster and the water towers at Franklin & Marshall College are visible 21 miles to the south, and the Cornwall fire tower appears to the east.

The trail begins on Pinch Road, 23 miles from Lancaster and about a 1/2-mile from downtown Gretna. There is a pull-off along the road for parking, and a plaque on a rock at the trail's mouth gives some history to ponder as you walk.

The main trail is on the rocky remains of an old narrow-gauge railroad track, which provided transportation and pleasure for family outings around the end of the 19th century. By no means an arduous trail, the route to the tower does pose a moderate challenge to walkers. The path is very rocky and slopes steeply in places -- after all, you're walking up the side of a mountain -- but it is not prohibitively steep. For the more adventurous, there are several side trails which wind through the woods and take shorter, steeper routes to the tower.

The woods are filled with a rich variety of wildflowers, fungi and ferns. An ideal spot for bird-watching, the in-season population includes wood thrushes, hawks and pileated woodpeckers.

But for people who grew up with Governor Dick, a visit today might be a little disappointing. Litter and graffiti are constant problems on the site. A cylindrical cage was built on the tower in the early 1990s to prevent people from rappelling from the top. Although it may be a logical move from a liability standpoint, it has turned a stunning bird's-eye view of the mountain into the more limited, somewhat claustrophobic view from a bird cage.

The Mount Gretna area is cut off from its surroundings by large tracts of forest. Some are state gamelands; others, like the 1,000-plus acres around Governor Dick, are preserved for public use. Through its growth over the past 112 years, the tiny village has been a cultural center, a resort and a religious community. Today, attractions like Gretna Theater, the Jigger Shoppe and an annual art show keep people coming.

"Governor Dick" was the nickname of a wood chopper and charcoal burner who labored for nearby Cornwall Furnace. Initially a slave, later a free worker, he lived and worked on the site from 1776 to 1800. The land has carried the collier's name since at least the 1880s.

A tower has stood there almost as long. The first tower at the site was used as a geodetic survey signal station. When landowner Robert Coleman, who was responsible for much of Mount Gretna's development, built a short-lived, narrow-gauge railroad from the park to the summit in 1889, it looped around the first wooden observatory. The land was later purchased by SICO Corp. founder Clarence Schock. He dedicated the property for use by nature lovers and erected on it four 50-foot-tall wooden towers. One stood in the old railroad loop at the site of the former Coleman tower.

The towers were frequent victims of vandalism, however, and in 1954 Schock had them removed. In the old railroad loop he built a new tower designed to withstand vandals, and it survives today largely untouched except by graffiti. That same year he donated the property to the former Mount Joy School District, now Donegal, which still maintains the land and tower. Donegal superintendent Woodrow Sites said the school district uses the land for occasional field trips and wood shop projects. The cost of maintaining the land is covered by the SICO Foundation.

Editor's note: In late 1998, the Donegal School District ceded ownership of the land to the SICO Foundation and Lebanon County.

[ by Tom Knapp ]

[ visit the Governor Dick website ]