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Kevin Riordan: Upgrading the trails to Burlco's secret panorama

Until Sunday afternoon, I'd never seen the world from atop Mount Holly, the 183-foot peak that gave its lovely name to the Burlington County seat.

Until Sunday afternoon, I'd never seen the world from atop Mount Holly, the 183-foot peak that gave its lovely name to the Burlington County seat.

All it took was a five-minute walk up a crunchy carpet of leaves, and a panoramic view through towering trees was mine to savor in solitude.

"Younger people don't even know it's here," says Larry Tigar, president of the Mount Holly Historical Society, noting that development has obscured views of the landmark for decades.

"But more people are getting awareness, because we're getting money to redo it."

That would be a $160,000 grant recently awarded by the state Department of Transportation. The money comes from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, a.k.a. the federal stimulus program, and it will be used to improve the network of trails up, down, and around the mount.

"I used to sled up there when I was a kid. I'd spend all day up there," says Ed Hunt, 71, a lifelong township resident, who has lived for 40 years in a tree-lined neighborhood on the western slope.

"A lot of people walk the mount during the summer with their kids," says Hunt, who owns a landscaping business in town. "I haven't been to the top in a while."

Mount Holly - a hill, topographically speaking - is not the highest point in Burlington County. That distinction belongs to Arney's Mount, which rises a dramatic 240 feet above the farmlands of Springfield Township.

But Mount Holly has another claim to fame: It was the site of a crucial tactical maneuver during the Revolutionary War.

On Dec. 23, 1776, Col. Samuel Griffin's Continental Army forces, encamped at what was then known as Iron Works Hill, lured Hessian troops south from Bordentown.

The diversion helped ensure the success of Gen. George Washington's Delaware River crossing two days later.

About 1840, the mount was the location of a relay tower for the light telegraph system between New York and Philadelphia, according to historian Paul Schopp.

It also was the site of an outdoor altar, which still exists, where local churches held sunrise services for decades, beginning in 1935.

And one of the countless legends about the Jersey Devil has the creature entering hell from Mount Holly.

"I know it's got some spooky lore, but what place doesn't?" says Mary Carty, who with her husband, Richard, owns the Pinelands Folk Music Center in the Mill Race Village section downtown. "It feels like a different world up there."

She's right. Though surrounded by development, the mount is somehow removed. And the woods are pristine.

"The rustic part is what we want to keep," says Tigar, 72, who was born in Mount Holly.

"There's going to be a lot more people up there . . . with the new trails."

He and the others welcome the improvements.

"Giving access to a beauty spot like that," Schopp says, "is money well spent."

Carty, who has lived in Mount Holly for all her nearly 60 years, grew up thinking the mount was the ultimate peak.

Until she was in her 20s, that is, and saw the Rockies.

Having grown up at the foot of Mount Greylock, the highest in Massachusetts (at 3,491 feet), I know what she's saying about perspective.

I also know what Carty means when she says the mount "is a very spiritual place."

Until I stood atop Mount Holly in the bright autumn light, I hadn't realized it was just what my soul needed.

Kevin Riordan:

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