Standing at the bottom of the mountain and looking up, one can get a sense of how steep the mountain is, but it cannot be truly comprehended until you climb up the mountain and look down. Pepper Hill isn’t a town or a village. Yet it is a place that is forever etched in the historical memories of wildland firefighters. Located in Cameron County, Pepperhill Run (the official name on the U.S.G.S. Sinnemahoning quadrangle topographic map) flows into First Fork of Sinnemahoning Creek from the west, about two and a half miles north of the village of Jericho, where First Fork meets Sinnemahoning Creek.
It is in this section of Pennsylvania where some of the steepest local relief can be found. Looking at the Sinnemahoning quad, it is mostly green with thick ribbons of brown wrapping tight to each other. The brown lines on the map indicate 20 foot contour intervals and on this map in some places they are so close together they almost shade out the green between them. From the bottom of the mountain, where you access Pepper Hill Trail, to the top is a vertical distance of some 1160 feet. The horizontal distance is only 3200 feet, about six tenths of a mile. That is roughly a 36 percent grade. It can, and has been climbed by people; some for recreation, some in panic, and some to pay tribute to the lives lost on the mountain.
Pepper Hill and Civilian Conservation Corps became linked forever in 1938. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was created under the Emergency Conservation Work Act of 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. The program had been a huge success, taking boys from ages 17 to 25 and putting them to work in the woods, building roads and trails, parks and dams, and when needed fighting forest fires. The number of CCC camps in Pennsylvania was second only to California and the tasks these men performed are still visible today. There are parks, roads, trails, dams and other infrastructure that stand as monuments to the work these men did.
On the morning of October 18, 1938 a series of fires broke out near Lick Run and Jerry Run in Cameron County. The fires burned throughout the day and men from CCC Camp S-132 at Hunts Run, east of Emporium were detailed to fight the fires. Additional men, who had returned to camp from their regular duties, were sent out to work the night shift on the fire line. They returned to camp at 5:30 a.m. the following morning.
On Wednesday, October 19, 1938 the Lock Haven Express weather report stated, “Rain tonight and probably Thursday morning, colder on Thursday, and in central and west portions tonight.” The paper noted it had been 80o F. the day before. The same paper reported that two small forest fires had occurred in the area the day before, one near Haneyville and the other in Paddys Run. The Harrisburg Telegraph was predicting temperatures near 78o F with rain to follow. The fall of 1938 was dry. While spring rainfalls had been near normal, the summer and fall proved much drier with precipitation 2 inches below normal. A killing frost had hit the northcentral part of the state on October 7 followed by higher than normal temperatures. The forest was tinder dry.
Along the First Fork of Sinnemahoning Creek, an arsonist had set fires on the west side of the valley upstream from Jericho. Truck driver, George Poloski was dispatched to check on the report of a wildfire in the area. At noon Poloski phoned District Forester Charles Baer to report the fires and returned to camp S-132 to eat and pick up the fire crews.
Two crews were dispatched from camp S-132. Both crews had been on the fire line all night and had only a few hours of sleep when they were dispatched to the blaze. Crew 1 had 25 enrollees and was led by foreman Adolph Kammarath. Crew 2 had 22 men and was led by foreman Gilbert Mohney. The 49 men were exhausted from the previous day’s and night’s fire duty.
When the crews arrived on the fire scene they found four separate fires. A decision was made to attack the smallest fire on the north side of Pepperhill Run. Crew 2 under Foreman Mohney began building a fire line uphill on the right flank of the fire, while others in the crew began backfiring. The going was tough and in 45 minutes only 200 feet of fire line had been constructed. The crew was instructed to move to the top of the mountain and construct a downhill line. As the crew proceeded to the top of the mountain the men became separated. Some men stopped to rest while others moved on. At about 3:30 p.m. the crew noticed that the wind had shifted and the backfire they had set below had jumped their fire line and was burning toward them. The fire assumed the shape of a horseshoe. The fire burned on the panic stricken crew’s left and right as well as behind them on the downhill side.
Some sought shelter in the rocks. Others raced toward the summit in an effort to get away from the fire. The flames caught the men. In all, the fire claimed eight lives. Foreman Gilbert Mohney, 38 of Ridgway, Basil Bogush, 19 of Conemaugh, John Boring, 19 of Johnstown, Howard May, 18 of Erie, and Andrew Stephanic 18, of Twin Rocks all perished at the scene of the fire. Ross Hollobaugh 18 of Rimersburg died the next day at Renovo Hospital. Stephen Jacofsky 17 of Johnstown died the next day at the hospital in St. Marys. George Vogel who was believed to be from New Kensington died November 2, in Renovo.
Over twenty others were injured in the fire, many requiring hospitalization. Peter Damico was severely burned, transferred to Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. He recovered and eventually returned to duty at camp S-132. Enrollees Kiliany and Gaydos were credited with leading many of the crew to safety on a large rock since named, Survivors Rock.
In an ironic twist of fate rain began to fall about the same time the men were trapped and the 134 acre fire was extinguished, not through the efforts of the firefighters but rather by the heavy rain that fell that night.
In the days that followed federal, state and county officials began an investigation into how the fire started and how and why the men were trapped. Initial reports found in the press had the size of the fire at 800 acres, names were misspelled, and the hometowns were somewhat disorganized. George Wirt was the PDF & W investigator but the main investigation was conducted by federal and county officials. Cameron County District Attorney Edwin Tompkins would lead the county’s investigation. On October 22, 1938, three days after the fire Tompkins stated that “improper supervision” led to the deaths. Tompkins said he would convene an inquest into the deaths and he “would subpoena everybody with the slightest connection with the case.” The CCC investigation was under the direction of Colonel C.D. King, Commander of the Indiana District of the CCC which covered Cameron County. Captain Alton Miller, Sub-district Commander and Lieutenant Rodman Hayes Cameron Camp Commander were the CCC officials on site for the investigation.
On Monday, October 23, 1938 a mass was celebrated at St. Mark’s Roman Catholic Church for the seven dead. At Camp S-75 near Hyner, the flag was lowered to half-staff and taps was played in remembrance of their fallen comrades. Robert Fechner, Director of the CCC sent condolences to the families of the deceased.
On October 31, 1938, District Attorney Tompkins began an inquest into the Pepper Hill Fire. The inquest was expected to last three days. Tompkins was concerned that the fire was arson caused and that improper supervision had led to the deaths. The testimony began with parents of four of the deceased in attendance.
Early testimony of the witnesses indicated that they did not believe the fire could have started from other fires burning in the area, and trains and discarded smoking materials were also ruled out as sources of ignition.
On November 2, 1938 Earl Getz, supervisor of camp S-132, testified that “the youths had received some experience fighting fires in September.” When Getz was further questioned about how much training the men had received he refused to answer, stating that the information was in the records turned over to the U.S. Department of Agriculture that was conducting its own investigation. Lieutenant Rodman M. Haynes, reserve officer at the camp admitted that the book CCC Safety Regulations Relating to Forest Fire Fighters, had not been issued at the camp until two days after the fatal fire. He also testified that no other regulations or information concerning the fighting of forest fires had been posted at the camp.
Later testimony from the CCC men reported they had worked on roads all day of October 18 and then had been on a fire through the night. They had gotten only six hours of rest before they were dispatched to the Pepper Hill Fire. As testimony went on, survivor enrollees testified about the conditions they faced, how they escaped and tellingly that they had not received any classroom instruction in firefighting. The testimony in the Coroner’s Inquest concluded on November 10, 1938.
On November 12, 1938 the coroner’s jury of “experienced woodsmen” decided after hearing nine days of testimony that the fire’s cause was incendiary and set by “some person or persons unknown”. The jury also found camp officials guilty of “laxity and negligence” and recommended that any officer in charge of the camp be reprimanded and disciplined in accordance with army regulations.
Though Tompkins’ inquest was closed the Pepper Hill Fire would have long-lasting ramifications in the CCC and in forest fire fighting. The rules and guidance for firefighting would change. Before the Pepper Hill disaster and other fires that claimed lives of other CCC enrollees and others, men and boys were often sent into the most dangerous situations with little or no training. Training would be “on the job” and survival was often a matter of luck. Today a person without the proper training isn’t allowed near a fire.
Seventy-seven years and eleven days after the fire we stood at the bottom of the trail and looked up. The state forest trail leads along the south side of the valley and the first three quarters of a mile or so is an easy gentle climb. But it was apparent from looking at the map that the climb would become more difficult. At about the point where the small stream splits, below the pipeline the stream crosses to the north side of the hollow and the climb becomes more difficult. Switchbacks in the trail take you first east and then west, and then back east. The climb is steeper, the trail is narrower and our climb became more difficult.
The fire had burned along the face of the mountain and not too far into Pepperhill Run Hollow. As we ascended the forest changed from hemlock to a mixed oak forest. Tall mature trees closer to the valley floor, give way to brush and pole-stage timber. Some trees appear to be clinging to the mountainside with effort. As we make our way closer to the top loose stone becomes more prevalent and frequently our steps dislodged loose scree and we paused to watch it roll through the dry leaves, down a hundred feet or more.
At last we attained the summit. We made our way along the trail to Survivor Rock. It was here that enrollees Kiliany and Gaydos climbed onto the rock with others and saved themselves while the fire burned around them. I looked at my watch. It had taken us two hours to make the climb. The firefighters who survived had less than half an hour, and they had no trail to follow.
We doffed our knapsacks and sat on the rock. It was a cool October day. Far below we could see First Fork shimmering in the sunlight that periodically broke through the clouds. The last vestiges of fall colors clung to the trees around us, below us and across the valleys. The forest isn’t the brush and saplings the firefighters encountered. Now it might be characterized as late pole stage or a forest in early maturity. The effects of the fire cannot be seen. Time has eroded them away.
We ate our lunches and from my pack I produced a small bottle of single malt scotch. We toasted the brave men who were killed and injured on the mountain. We shouldered our packs again and began the descent.
Once one has been to the top of this hallowed ground, it is easy to visualize how a fire could have spread so rapidly and the men overrun. A breeze from the southeast hit our faces as we began to hike out. “That’s all it would have taken,” I think to myself, “Dry fuel, steep terrain and little breeze.”
 The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 19, 1938
 The Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 19, 1938
 NOAA, National Climatic Data Center, http://www.ncdc.noaa.gov/
 Schultz, Michael, Pepper Hill: A Tragedy, Wildland Firefighter, February, 2001, along with multiple other references including Ely, Warren, in Forest Fire Warden News, 1981, and multiple press accounts by UPI, AP, and INS.
 Bradford Evening Star and The Bradford Daily Record, Bradford, PA, October 22, 1938
 The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, October 22, 1938
 The Express, Lock Haven, PA, October 25, 1938
 Warren Times Mirror, Warren, PA, October 27, 1938
 Harrisburg Telegraph, Harrisburg, PA, October 31, 1938
 The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 1, 1938
 The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 2, 1938
 The Express, Lock Haven, PA, November 8, 1938
 The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 10, 1938
 The Kane Republican, Kane, PA, November 14, 1938