The Histories of Penn State
Penn State Intercom......February 7, 2002

Founded to save the trees

Penn State Mont Alto was one
of the first forestry schools in the nation

Editor's note: Most people know the history of Penn State as that of a school chartered in 1855 at the request of the Pennsylvania State Agricultural Society to apply scientific principles to farming. Since that time, Penn State has grown from that one campus at University Park to 24 locations statewide, and each of those other locations has its own history. Throughout this academic year, Intercom plans to highlight those histories.

Mont Alto at a glance
By Holly Cieri
In May 1903, the governor of Pennsylvania established the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy in Mont Alto. It was one of three forestry schools in the nation, after Yale and Biltmore, respectively. Joseph T. Rothrock, an arctic explorer, botanist and medical doctor founded the academy to train men for service in the state forests. Rothrock also was professor of botany at Penn State from 1867-69, and later taught at the University of Pennsylvania. Nearly 100 years later, the Forest Academy, now Penn State Mont Alto, still educates America's foresters, as well as students in many other academic programs.
Ironworks furnaces, which were plentiful in Pennsylvania until roughly 1860, each MA_Horsescleared roughly an acre of trees every day to make charcoal, a key ingredient in the ironmaking process. Although coke-fired furnaces were the rule after that date, the destruction of the state's forests continued through the wasteful and destructive practices of Pennsylvania's logging industry. Pennsylvania led the nation in logging in 1870, and was still fourth in the nation in 1900. The "cut out and get out" philosophy of most loggers led to erosion, flooding and wild fires, and greatly limited the forest's ability to regenerate itself. The forest academy was a reaction to the fact that loggers turned millions of acres across the state into unproductive wastelands by the end of the 19th century. MA_Conklin
In the early 1900s, the state's goal was to crusade for a change. George Wirt, the academy's first administrator, patterned the curriculum after curricula in Germany, a leader in reforestation.
On Arbor Day 1905, Wirt sent students searching for native tree species not found on campus. They returned more than 400 specimens (30 species) to the campus that day, and so began the arboretum at Mont Alto. This arboretum continues to provide a training ground for students, as well as a research site for the development of new hybrids.
The primary building on the campus, Wiestling Hall, was built in 1807 as an iron master's house and has since served as the dining hall, classroom and dormitory. Legend has it that Wiestling Hall is haunted by the ghost of Col. Wiestling, the first ironmaster who lived there. The oldest building in the Penn State system outside of University Park, Wiestling Hall currently houses administrative offices.
In 1909, the forestry students began work on a new task -- building their new dormitory. Conklin Hall was finished in 1911. The building is now home to the Student Center, Student Affairs offices and the archives.
Twenty years later, the profession of forestry had developed to the point where baccalaureate studies were the norm, and Mont Alto did not have a baccalaureate curriculum. The Pennsylvania State College had offered a baccalaureate curriculum in forestry since 1907, and the two were merged to form the Penn State Mont Alto campus.
Students were adamantly opposed to the merger, and they protested by hanging two state officials in effigy. Going further, many of the students in 1929 transferred to North Carolina State University to complete their education. Mont Alto had graduated 243 students by the time of the merger.
From that point on, the campus was used as the first year of training for Penn State forestry students. They completed the remaining three years of study at University Park.
By 1963, Penn State Mont Alto had become a Commonwealth Campus, offering the first one or two years of most Penn State majors. This was the first time that the campus was considered to be "coeducational."
The increased number of students required the campus to grow again. In 1968, the campus built a dining hall, followed by three dormitories. The next decade brought the library and the Science and Technology building. In the 1990s, the campus rounded out its physical plant with a Multipurpose Activities Center and a bookstore. Then in 1997, Mont Alto joined the Commonwealth College, and began to offer baccalaureate degrees.
Today, Mont Alto offers four baccalaureate degrees and eight associate degrees, and serves nearly 1,300 students annually. The campus also serves approximately 2,500 annually through its Continuing Education unit, with courses on campus, at the Chambersburg Mall and at other sites.
One of the special features of the campus is the Emmanuel Chapel, where history has it that John Brown spent time before his raid on Harper's Ferry in 1859. Penn State Mont Alto bought the chapel in 1992 for $1 and reopened it in 1999.
The rich history in forestry and conservation still is very much a part of Penn State Mont Alto. The campus will continue to celebrate its heritage and history as the 100th anniversary of the Pennsylvania State Forest Academy approaches in 2003.

Holly Cieri can be reached at

Mont Alto at a glance

* David Gnage, CEO
* 91-acre campus at the edge of Michaux State Forest in Franklin County
* Student enrollment of about 1,123
* 62 full-time and approximately 23 part-time faculty members
* Student/faculty ratio of 17 to 1
* First two years of about 160 Penn State majors
* Complete four bachelor's and eight associate degrees
* Professional development programs
* Nine varsity sports
* More than 20 student clubs and organizations