Bella Fontana

A weekly column about life in Bellefonte, PA, reprinted from the Centre Daily Times

Friday, October 21, 2005

Beauty of a hill town can hide danger

A driver parks on a hill and forgets to set the hand brake. The car slips out of park and rolls down the hill.

A homeowner mows the steep bank in back of his house and the mower tips over on him.

A 10-foot retaining wall on Stoney Batter collapses soon after it is installed.

Hills have their charm, but there are hazards that go with the territory.

When the founders of Bellefonte laid out the town, they followed the grid pattern of William Penn's Philadelphia, never mind that their neatly planned streets would be imposed on the uneven terrain of the Appalachian hills.

So today, if you try to go up Ridge Street in a heavy rain you might end up spinning your wheels. Or if you descend South Allegheny Street in a snowstorm, you may leave a series of S-shaped tire tracks behind you.

In Hugh Manchester's The Big Spring column that appeared in the Centre Daily Times on March 20, 1993, he documents another hazard encountered by earlier residents. He describes Bellefonte as a "combination Lake Placid, Sun Valley and St. Moritz" with a bobsled run unsurpassed by any winter Olympics. A great ride would start at the top of Reservoir Hill, turn left at the Diamond onto West High and continue to Half Moon Hill.

But over the years there were four major sledding accidents, the worst at Allegheny and Linn streets, where the cutter lost its guide rope, threw its occupants in all directions and then was hit by another sled.

Any hill town devises systems for walkers to negotiate its steep inclines. Pittsburgh, for instance, has 712 sets of steps, according to Bob Regan, author of "The Steps of Pittsburgh: Portrait of a City."

Bellefonte has steps in the sidewalk, one set going up East Lamb Street by the Hastings Mansion, another on South Allegheny heading up Reservoir Hill.

Another way the town accommodates itself to its topography is the building of retaining walls of stone, concrete or wood. But upkeep becomes a problem when a concrete wall buckles and leaves hunks of masonry on the ground or when stones fall out of alignment or mortar deteriorates.

"Something there is that doesn't love a wall," poet Robert Frost wrote in "Mending Wall," For him, it might be frozen ground swell, hunters or even elves that leave gaps in his boundary wall of boulders. Here it is more likely the force of gravity that makes maintaining walls, terraces and steps an uphill battle.