MEYERSDALE, Pa. - My knees weakened and palms began sweating as I climbed the rickety metal stairs to the observation deck overlooking Mount Davis in southern Somerset County.
A person afraid of heights probably shouldn't be venturing to the highest point in Pennsylvania, I thought, as I gripped the railing and took gingerly steps to the summit last week. But upon reaching the top and standing more than 3,000 feet above sea level, the anxiety immediately turned to serenity as I gazed at the picturesque view of rural Pennsylvania and Maryland.
These acres at one time were owned by Civil War veteran John N. Davis, but he died in 1913 without knowing his land was the highest point in the state. It wasn't until 1921 that geologist Harold A. Bean definitively measured the height of what formerly was known as Davis Plateau. The highest elevation was previously thought to be Bedford County's Blue Knob at 3,136 feet, but Bean determined in May 1921 that this "bump on the mountain" was the highest at 3,213 feet. Less than a month after Bean asserted the highest point actually was in Somerset County, thousands of people living in small towns around Negro Mountain celebrated the news by hiking to the summit on a rainy day on June 18, 1921, according to a story in the Meyersdale Republican newspaper. Led by the Alpine Club of Pennsylvania and its leader, Col. Henry W. Shoemaker, about 1,000 trekked to the top for the formal ceremony.
"The Alpinists do not pick the easy road to the summit, and the rougher the going and the harder the climbing the better it is liked," the club's secretary, J. Herbert Walker, told the Republican. "Of course, if there is a good road down from the summit, this is taken, but the ascent is made over the rocks and through the brush to test the mettle of the climbers."
The Alpinists suggested naming the summit Mount Freedom, but the county commissioners settled on Mount Davis its name for the past 87 years. It is located on top of Negro Mountain, a 30-mile range that runs through Somerset County and Garrett County, Md. The name evokes the story of a brave black servant, but it is now draped in controversy.
There are two relatively similar tales about the name's origin, both of which date to the French and Indian War during the mid-18th century, according to separate newspaper reports from 1756.
In one account, Col. Thomas Cresap led 71 volunteers from Fort Cumberland over the mountain and into Pennsylvania. Cresap was accompanied by a "large and powerful" black slave, believed to have been named Nemesis, when the group encountered three Indians on horseback. Nemesis raised his gun and the Indians jumped from their horses and hid behind trees. Nemesis showed courage in the fight but died during the battle.
In another story, Capt. Andrew Friend left the same fort with a hunting party heading for Ohiopyle in what is now Fayette County. They, too, encountered Indians and retreated. During the fight, an unnamed black servant was mortally wounded, but Friend and another man helped him off the trail and comforted him during the night. The man died before dawn, and they buried his body on the mountain. Upon returning to Fort Cumberland, Friend named the mountain after the man because of his bravery and the compassion showed after the fierce battle.
There are several other urban legends the locals continue to tell, and it remains a mystery which one is correct.
"We don't know the exact details, but because it was named Negro Mountain it did involve a black person," said Cynthia Mason, a researcher at the Meyersdale Library. "That's about as far as I can go with anything. It makes for interesting stuff."
However the mountain was named, it continues to raise eyebrows for some who travel over it on Route 40 or Interstate 68 in Maryland.
Democratic state Rep. Rosita Youngblood of Philadelphia sponsored a resolution last year that would have formed a commission to study renaming the mountain. She requested that the name of the mountain be reconsidered to "accurately reflect the history of the region and the heroism displayed by the African-American" involved in the fight on Negro Mountain.
She suggested renaming it Nemesis Mountain to update the historical significance of the battle and the man. The resolution has failed to gain any traction in state government, but the racial undertones of the name remain.
"My question is, 'Does it have to be Negro Mountain?'" Youngblood said. "The man had a name."