Mount Gretna History

Mt. Gretna was born in a forest of chestnut trees that for more than a century provided charcoal to the Cornwall Furnace that one forged cannons for George Washington's army. Mount Gretna was founded in an effort to locate railroad stations between the towns of Cornwall and Colebrook. Mr. Robert Coleman, owner of the Cornwall ore empire and its railroad lines, took an interest in the area and orginally began development for a picnic grove. The community was a pleasure stop on what was then Coleman's Cornwall and Lebanon Railroad. The picnic grove rapidly developed into a summer community during the period of 1882-1885. Cornwall Iron Furnace still stands nearby today and is open to the public.

Originally you could travel there by rail from any point in the country. President Benjamin Harrison actually did. He and thousands of the picnickers detrained at a small station, walked down a tree-lined corridor past a stone fountain (that still exists) and spent the day in a woodland park that expanded each year as the number of visitors grew, eventually sporting an elaborate carousel, a primitive roller coaster called a "switch-back," a dancing pavilion, and other attractions of an early amusement park.

In 1885 the Pennsylvania National Guard began a 50-year annual encampment at Mt. Gretna, using 120 acres of this area as its summer encampment site. This proved to be so satisfactory that it was 1935 before they moved to the Indiantown Gap area. That year Conewago Creek was dammed to form Lake Conewago, by the Army Corp of Engineers, ideal for swimming and canoeing.

No longer an obligatory destination of captive railroad passengers, many of Mt. Gretna's attractions languished in the 1920's as vacationers drove their cars to the Atlantic shore and other more distant points. The Depression, departure of the National Guard in 1933, and finally World War II diminished Mt. Gretna's popularity. The amusement park closed, hotels lay empty, and the narrow gauge was abandoned. Even the chestnut trees fell victim to a nationwide blight and were replace by oaks and evergreens. Some Gretna institutions continued: a long tradition of theater in the Playhouse, the Campmeeting Bible Conference, Chautauqua programs in the Community Building, the Jigger Shop, swimming and boating in the lake, and a Roller Rink in a remaining building of the amusement park.

A growing population of permanent residents began to occupying the homes. Some date Mt. Gretna's modern revival to 1976 and the First Annual Outdoor Art Show, the creation of Gretna artists, Bruce Johnson, Reed Dixon and John Wentzler, then Director of Summer Programs for the Chautauqua. In its distinctive setting, the show almost immediately became on the most successful in the state.

In the next two years, a new Gretna resident, physician and musician, Carl Ellenberger, again at the suggestion of John Wentzler, began inviting musician friends to perform in the Playhouse and longtime Gretna resident, Mary Hoffman revived the theater productions in the Playhouse after a year when the theater was dark. Both Gretna Theater and music at Gretna flourished, attracted government, foundation and corporate grants as well as new visitors and residents. Mt. Gretna became known in the region as a center for arts and culture and increasingly as a desirable place to live, especially for those who wanted to participate in its artistic activities, but also those who had discovered its other virtues during a visit to the Playhouse or the Art Show. Many Gretna residents serve on one or more of the boards that guide each section of the community and the performing groups, and most volunteer to help at the Art Show which brings thousands of visitors and vital economic support to Mt. Gretna.