Tour of Alvira shows off recreation opportunities

The door to one of the approximately 150 WWII-era bunkers stands open on State Game Lands 252 Driving Tour Sunday afternoon. The tour featured 19 stops along the 9-mile-long tour and highlighted points of interest including managed wetlands and hunting fields as well as the Alvira WWII bunkers. DAVE KENNEDY/Sun-Gazette

Around 80 years ago, the federal government cleared out an entire town and moved in storage bunkers in the southern backyard of Lycoming County.

Now, the state game commission prioritizes State Game Lands 252, the site of the village of Alvira, as a recreational location for hunting, hiking and history.

Last week, the game commission opened the Alvira game lands for 9-mile self-guided driving tours around the area for visitors to enjoy parts of the gamelands connected on roadways that are typically closed throughout the season.

“We’re showcasing this game lands. The work that we’ve done, the history we have here,” Rob Shirey, a game lands maintenance worker, said.

These gamelands are maintained by a three-person habitat maintenance crew that covers eight state game lands totalling around 17,690 acres in Union and Lycoming County.

The tours passed by several “storage igloos,” some of which were welded shut, that were built to safely store TNT that was created at a factory on the same land during World War II.

The town of Alvira was seized through eminent domain by the federal government and converted into a TNT production and storage facility during World War II. Later, the TNT factory was shut down, and part of the land was sectioned off to make room for the Allenwood Penitentiary, which still stands today.

The rest of the bunkers remain abandoned. Although several are welded shut, a few remain open, and those deeper in the gamelands do not sport graffiti.

Inside one such bunker, a matted carpet of hay turned the interior into an acoustically “dead” area, where there was no echo. Several bird feathers could be found in the otherwise empty and dark dome.

The tour skirted out to the Washington Presbyterian Church and cemetery. The church was constructed in 1790 and was torn down in 1973 — although its foundations remain to be discovered by visitors.

More clearly marked is a cemetery with old family names such as Coates, Oakes and McCormick that all rest underneath a staggeringly tall evergreen tree, while a deteriorating stone wall circles the area. In the distance, the metallic fence of the Allenwood Penitentiary pokes out overtop the brush.

As the tour progressed, visitors saw a variety of wildlife habitats that had been rehabilitated by the game keepers.

“They do an incredible job with the money they are given, and it’s nice showing the public where they money goes,” said Mandy Marconi, an environmental education specialist for the north central region.

Fields ripe for birdwatching dotted the sides of roads, while landmarks presented beautiful natural views. Meanwhile, visitors could also take a look at habitat management techniques the game commission uses to maintain the gamelands.

“A lot of this back here is woodcock restoration,” Shirey said. “The biggest battle we have here is invasive stuff. Get rid of stuff that’s not supposed to be here and get stuff that’s supposed to be here.”

Shirey said the hunting and recreation opportunities at the former town of Alvira present a unique opportunity for Pennsylvanians to enjoy the outdoors.

Steve Hamm, of Loyalsock, said he enjoyed hunting on the gamelands years ago.

“It was interesting to see what is here,” Hamm said.

George and Ruth Cook have lived within 10 minutes of the gamelands for 40 years, and said they enjoyed the setup of the tour and experience.

Shirey also elaborated on the work that went into developing the game lands.

Fields overcome with invasive species, for example, were treated with controlled burns to eradicate non-native plantlife, Shirey said.

Meanwhile, the game commission has attempted to restore habitats and promote the growth of native species of plants to attract native animals, Shirey said.

“I have never been on the back part of the gamelands,” Ruth Cook said. “I am shocked how beautiful the ponds are.”

The Cooks brought their friend, Pearl Stincelli, of Sonoma County, California, to explore the gamelands on the driving route — which they said would have been difficult to do so walking.

“It was nice; in the summertime, it was too hot and had mosquitoes and ticks, but it was just perfect here in October,” George Cook said.

“There are great hunting opportunities here. Hunting opportunities, recreation, there’s just all sorts of stuff here to do,” Shirey said.


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