Mount Nittany is probably Centre County’s most famous geographical feature. Thanks to the Penn State football team, which plays in the “vale of old Mt. Nittany,” fans across the country are familiar with the name and image of the iconic ridge that rises above the Penn State campus and State College. As a result, Mount Nittany has become an integral part of the lore and identity of the school and region since the mid-nineteenth century.
As a place name, a ridge named Nittany Mountain first appeared in the general vicinity of today’s Centre County on William Scull’s map of colonial Pennsylvania in 1770. However, the name was already known to the surveyors who ventured into this frontier area to establish boundaries when Pennsylvania was buying land from the Iroquois Indians in the 1750s.
It is thought that “Nittany” derives from a Native American place name — Nekti-Attin. The most accepted translation is “single mountain.” Whether it is of Shawnee, Iroquois, or Lenape (Delaware) origins is unclear as members of these groups all lived in or passed through Central Pennsylvania before and during the eighteenth century. Some consider Mount Nittany to be part of the Eastern Alleghenies portion of the Appalachian Mountain range, although locally, one rarely hears this attribution, as most consider the Alleghenies to begin more to the south of Centre County.
What is not in doubt is that, geologically, Nittany Mountain is in the western part of the Ridge and Valley province of the Appalachian Mountains. The most iconic section of the ridge is its southwestern terminus above State College, separating Nittany Valley from the Penns and Brush valleys.
From this point in College Township, the Nittany Mountain extends almost 50 miles in a northeasterly direction, to White Deer Township in Union County. With numerous water gaps and undulations, its high points range from approximately 1,900 feet to 2,400 feet.
Like most of the ridges of the region, it appears from the valley floors to have steep, wooded sides, rising to a narrow crest. However, viewed from the air, Mount Nittany is quite broad, with a dipping trough in the middle. As it extends northeastward, the formation becomes more complex with additional adjacent ridges appearing and Mount Nittany itself stands out less distinctly.
This double ridge formation is characteristic of the folded, sedimentary geology of the ridge and valley region. The geological history of eastern North America saw a series of continental collisions and separations through the Paleozoic and Mesozoic eras (from about 570 million to 57 million years ago). During these times, the area that is now Pennsylvania was covered by both deep and shallow seas, beaches, wetlands, and swamps or rain forests. With the collisions of continents, great mountain ranges arose and then eroded adding alluvial sediments.
The key to Centre County’s geology were the eroded beds of sedimentary rocks that form arches (anticlines in geological terms) in the Nittany and Penns valleys and dipping down-warps (synclines) in the ridge (Mount Nittany’s double ridge trough). The valley rocks are primarily more easily eroded limestones and dolomites of Ordovician age (500 to 430 million years old). The anticlinal valleys are separated by synclinal ridges topped by Silurian period Quartzites (430 to 405 million years old) underlain by sandstones and shales of a nearly similar age.
What became notable from the geology was Centre County’s mineral-based economy, primarily the veins of high-quality iron ore found in beds in the valleys, close enough to the surface that they could be mined by open pits. Most of this iron was embedded in clay and required substantial washing and crushing to be smelted, as well as high-quality beds of limestone that were quarried and mined in the dipping synclines that emerge at the bases of Bald Eagle Ridge and Nittany Mountain and are still an important part of the county’s economy today. Together with the abundant streams and hardwood forests, the county had all the ingredients for a thriving iron industry in the nineteenth century.
While cutting timber for ironmaking required hundreds of acres of forests from the 1790s into the mid-nineteen century, the county also became part of the lumber boom of the latter nineteenth century. By the turn of the twentieth century most of the county’s ridges, as well as valleys, had become stripped of their original stands of forest. This was true of Mount Nittany as well.
Early photographs show much of the ridge either clear-cut or with only saplings or small trees regrowing from stumps. Most of the forest growth today is typical deciduous trees and shrubs of this region, with numerous species of oak, maple, hickories, birch, and ash. Some portions of the synclinal trough are supporting white pine and a variety of wild fruit trees and bushes in a gradually maturing forest.
By the 1930s, portions of Mount Nittany were under state control and were being replanted and naturally regenerating under protection. However, the southwestern end of Mount Nittany was still in private hands. In 1945, the Alumni Society of Lion’s Paw (a Penn State senior class honorary society) purchased 525 acres overlooking State College and Nittany Valley for $2,009. In 1981, the society formed the Mount Nittany Conservancy, acquiring over 300 additional acres on the Penns Valley side of the ridge. The society continues to add parcels as they become available.
That a Penn State honorary society named Lion’s Paw, concerned with the preservation of the forests of Mount Nittany, is intertwined with the Penn State Nittany Lion mascot, and the folklore surrounding the naming and, in fact, the origins of Mount Nittany, is not accidental. The Nittany Lion as mascot was devised in 1907, the Lion’s Paw Society was established in 1908. In 1914, a Penn State professor wrote to Altoona journalist and folklore collector Henry W. Shoemaker about the possible Indian origins of the name Nittany.
Shoemaker, who would later be state folklorist, and involved with the State Museum, Historical Commission, and State Archives, was primarily a “local color” journalist and collector (some would claim creator) of Indian folktales. In early 1915, Shoemaker recounted the story of the “elderly Seneca Indian” who had passed on to him when he was a boy the story of Nita-Nee, a queen of her people in ages past who sacrificed herself for their well-being and over her grave arose, overnight, a mountain that they would name in her honor. This tale was retold in the 1916 La Vie and has been enhanced and modified over the century since then.
But for many, Mount Nittany’s most popular use today is as a hiking adventure on its approximately 8 miles of trails. Maintained by the Mount Nittany Conservancy, they rise from a trailhead at a public parking lot at the end of Mt. Nittany Road above Lemont. The highlight of these hikes is the Mike Lynch Overlook which provides a panoramic view of State College and the Penn State campus.
Bronner, Simon J. Popularizing Pennsylvania: Henry W. Shoemaker and the Progressive Uses of Folklore and History. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1996.
Cuff, David J., Young, William J., Muller, Edward J., Zelinsky, Wilbur, and Abler, Ronald F., editors. The Atlas of Pennsylvania. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989.
Esposito, Jackie R. and Herb, Steven L. The Nittany Lion, An Illustrated Tale. University Park: Penn State University Press, 1997.
Mount Nittany Conservancy. “Mount Nittany: A Symbol of Our Pride.” https://nittany.org (Accessed August 30, 2021).
Smyth, Tom. “The Changing Forest on Mt. Nittany: Mount Nittany Conservancy.” https://nittany.org/2008/the-changing-forest-on-mt-nittany/ (Accessed August 22, 2021).
VanDiver, B. Roadside Geology of Pennsylvania. Missoula, MT: Mountain Press, 1990.
First Published: September 16, 2021
Last Modified: October 2, 2021