"I will never kick a rock"


Robert Titus

Robert Titus has 93 articles published.

Tafini: a geologic mystery March 22, 2018

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Tafoni: A real mystery, and a local one at that

On the rocks

May 29, 2014

Updated by Robert & Johanna Titus


Phoenicia has been in the news a lot over the years. It is best known as a place that has had serious flooding problems. Various northeasters, along with the occasional hurricane, are enough to fill Stony Clove Creek to overflowing. The creek swells up over its banks and makes a mess of the town. Engineering efforts to improve flow beneath the bridge there have been controversial. Their effectiveness is questioned.

But, that’s not the topic of this column.

We were recently invited to go to Phoenicia and take a look at some very strange geological phenomena. Our host was Paul Misko, of the Catskill 4000 hiking club. As a veteran hiker, Paul can be found just about anywhere in the Catskills and he has a real eye for unusual geology, so we paid attention to his “very strange” claim. He had piqued our curiosity and, when we got there, we weren’t disappointed; we found a real puzzle. Across the street from the St. Francis DeSales Roman Catholic Church, is a small park. If you walk into the park from Main Street and bear toward the right (east), you will soon find a small hiking trail. It’s called the Tanbark Trail (you can run a search and get a map of it). Climb up a steep incline, and towards the top you will find a fairly sizable ledge of sandstone. It’s rather commonplace stuff; it is a very typical Catskills bluestone ledge. We recognized what are called cross beds. That is to say that a lot of the strata here dip in one direction or another. They were not very well defined, but they were there. That is normally the case with bluestone that was deposited in river channel sandstones. This ledge is, in essence, the cross section of a very old stream. It’s, like all rocks in the Catskills, Devonian in age, something a bit less than 400 million years old.

None of this surprised us in the least. It was strictly routine stuff. But that’s where we encountered that mystery. Take a look at our photo and see what you think. The first view shows the entire ledge. Commonplace cross-bedded bluestone makes up the whole lower half of the exposure. Up top are a large number of closely spaced and very strange cavities. The close-up view shows a tightly packed cluster of these cavities in the rock. Their shapes vary considerably, but they all show a sort of boxy nature and they seem to form an interlocking network. We would like to use the term honeycomb here, but honeycombs show a consistent hexagonal shape; we don’t see that with these. The rock remaining in between these cavities is narrow. The cavities do not penetrate too far into the rock, just a few inches. And there is no reason to think that there is another horizon of these cavities under the ones that are visible. Thus, they appear to be surficial features. Nevertheless, these cavities seem to be concentrated. Many of these cavities are spaced so close together that they comprise a bigger compound cavity. Whatever it was that formed them was focused.

All in all, this is the most puzzling phenomenon that we have seen in ages. There is no trouble putting a name on what is here; it is called tafoni. Each individual cavity is a tafone; lots of them are tafoni. And the terminology keeps getting better; when tafoni occur on cliff faces, as at Phoenicia, then it is called lateral or sidewall tafoni. But, putting a name on something is not the same as understanding it.

What are these features? They seem to be weathering phenomena. Somehow, they appear on the rock surface and grow slowly into their observed shapes, but exactly how? And, also, how is it that they grow in size until they abut each other but do not grow into each other? How do they grow in size without intersecting? Those are very puzzling questions and just naming these things does not provide answers.

Tafoni have been weakly associated with poorly defined stratification on the sides of cliffs and that is the case here. But that still leaves a lot unsaid. Why does this “association” occur? What are the specifics? Salt is commonly cited as an agent in Tafoni development. They are sometimes found on coastal outcroppings, splashed by ocean waves. But there is certainly no source of salt here on a sandstone cliff in Phoenicia. And that begs the question: what exactly is different about his cliff? We have literally seen hundreds of similar cliffs, all through the Catskills and all composed of the same type of sandstone, all originally deposited in the same Catskills Delta river channels. Why don’t all of those other cliffs have tafoni? Why isn’t it that none of them do? There must be something here, right in front of us, which we have missed. This is the sort of thing that makes science so much fun.

Do you have any ideas or questions? Have you seen tafoni somewhere? Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

The Gilboa Forest March 15, 2018

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Buried alive, the Gilboa Forest

On The Rocks

The Woodstock Times

Oct 10, 1996

Revised by Robert and Johanna Titus

It’s autumn and once again the leaves are in color. This annual event has not always been. Autumn color is a characteristic of today’s advanced deciduous trees, but there was a time when the world’s forests were composed only of the most primitive plants. In fact, there was a time when there were no forests at all. We New York State paleontologists get to see the transition from a world without forests to one with them. We have very old terrestrial deposits here, red sandstones of Silurian age. They formed in habitats where trees should have been common but they have no fossil trees at all. Then there are the Devonian age Catskill red sandstones. They are only about 40 million years younger, but they have a great abundance of fossil trees. During that interval trees evolved and spread out across the Earth as the first and oldest forests.

Fossil trees this old are extremely rare, but you can go see some of them yourself, and enjoy a fine autumn drive at the same time. From Woodstock take Rte. 28 to Rte.42 and drive from from Shandaken to Lexington. Then take Rte. 23A west until you reach Grand Gorge. Take Rt. 30 north 2.8 miles and turn right onto Rte. 990V. Go downhill another 1.2 miles and you will reach Schoharie Creek where it passes through the village of Gilboa. Just beyond the bridge is a little park with some very fine fossil tree trunks. This humble site commemorates one of the world’s most famous fossil locations, the Gilboa forest. After looking at these fossils you can proceed a short distance to the Gilboa Museum. It’s only open on summer weekends but it displays some more very fine fossil trees.

The Gilboa forest was discovered after the terrible Schoharie Creek floods of late 1869. Extensive erosion along the river ripped through soft red shales and exposed a number of fossil tree stumps. The discovery caused quite a stir and well it should have. This was the oldest known fossil forest; before them nobody had ever guessed that trees were this ancient.

It got better in the 1920’s. Excavations for the Schoharie Reservoir revealed about 200 more fossil stumps. The trees in the little park were among these. These famous Gilboa fossils offer us a rare view of what forest ecology was like very early in its history. Gilboa was forest of trees, most of them called progymnosperms. In common terms that means that these were essentially very big ferns with tall wood stems (trunks). In time they would evolve into today’s common cone-bearing trees, called gymnosperms.

Beneath the trees was simple ecology of even more primitive plants. Hiding among them was an animal ecology of simple arthropods. These were an abundance of centipedes, millipedes, and simple insects, along with many truly exotic creatures. One of note is that Gilboa is the home of some of the oldest known fossil spiders. This is certainly a peculiar, but truly remarkable distinction for a small town. Spiders are among the most abundant and successful groups of invertebrates on the planet and some very old ones are right here!

There are ironies in the story of Gilboa. The trees are a metaphor for the great cycles of time. They grew not along the Schoharie Creek, but along some ancient nameless stream of the old Catskill Delta. They were long ago buried in the muds of a long forgotten flood. There must be a story here: What kind of flood was this? How bad was it? There is no answering such questions. For hundreds of millions of years they lay entombed in those flood sediments. During that time they hardened into rock. If it was floodwaters which buried them, then it would be flood waters which would release them. These trees of stone lay in wait for the day when another awful flood would bring them back into the light. The irony came when so many of them were once again submerged in the waters of the Schoharie Reservoir.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”


Ordovician earthquakes 3-7-18

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Cycles of earthquakes?

Windows Through Time

Robert and Johanna Titus

April 14, 2016


A fun part of our job with the Columbia-Greene Newspaper chain is just going out and exploring for some fascinating locations where there is good geology. Recently we were in Saugerties to hear a lecture at the Friends of Saugerties History Group at the town library. Afterwards, we just went exploring. We found ourselves heading south on Partition Street, we crossed the bridge over Esopus Creek, and took the first left onto East Bridge Street. That took us along the Esopus on Ferry Street.

We didn’t expect to see much. You see Esopus Creek, long ago, when it began flowing into the Hudson, formed a pair of peninsulas that pushed out into the larger river. We expected that these would be composed mostly of sand and would be pretty boring stuff. Well, we were wrong.

A little less than a quarter mile down the road we were forced up and over a sizable knob of rock. When they constructed Ferry Street they had to blast through all that rock. And that gave us a beautiful exposure of bedrock.


We recognized the rock unit, immediately. It was the Normanskill Formation. That has some very important and very interesting geology. It dates back about 450 million years and it is big. Much of the middle Hudson Valley is blanketed with the Normanskill. A lot of it is west of the river, but there is more of it on the east side. It’s named after Normanskill Creek where a very large exposure is found. That‘s where Rte. 9W approaches Rte. 787.

It’s a unit that we should be writing about more often. It is composed of a mixture of thick dark gray sandstones and thinly laminated black shales. Way back during the Ordovician that sandstone was sand and the shale was mud. These sediments accumulated at the bottom of what is sometimes called marine trench or an “oceanic deep.” Deep indeed; that’s a stretch of ocean that can be 20,000 feet deep or more. The best known modern deep is the Marianas Trench in the western Pacific. It is more than 35,000 feet deep! Well, you can easily imagine those rocks caught our attention. They took us down to the deepest parts of the sea—to the very abyss.

But there is more—a lot more. Those black shales speak to us of routine moments on the floor of such deeps. They accumulated one lamination at a time. Silt and clay slowly settled to the floor of the ocean. It takes grains of silt and clay months, even years, to sink that far. So these sediments accumulated very slowly. A few inches of this sort of black shale may represent enormous amounts of time. How much time does a foot of shale represent? Well, in truth, we geologists have no idea, but it is a lot of time.

Not so with those sandstones. They are different. They are a special type of sandstone; they are called greywackes. A greywacke is not just a sandstone; it is a “dirty” sandstone. You are probably used to the clean white sands that we see along the Atlantic coast; those are almost pure quartz sands and quartz is almost white.
But these greywackes are different; there is a lot of quartz in them but they also have a large amounts of silt and clay. That’s the dirt in a “dirty” sandstone.

Greywackes are remarkable for how they form. They are often the products of submarine avalanches. Typically an earthquake strikes the deep sea floor and masses of sediment are thrown up into suspension. Such masses of sediment then, slowly at first, begin to flow down the slopes of the deep. Those avalanches are called turbidity currents and they quickly pick up speed. Soon they are thundering down the steep slopes into the abyss. Eventually they reach the bottom and begin to slow down. When they slow down enough, all that dirty sand slows to a halt and deposition occurs. Hence the greywackes we saw—and probably each one of them.

All this gets us back to the Ferry Street outcrop. It has an eye-catching feature; there are six thick horizons of greywacke and, in between them, are those expected black shales. But the shales are thin, only inches thick. That conjures up quite an image.

We walked along this outcrop and counted those six thick greywackes; we realized that we were likely counting earthquakes. And those thin shales indicated to us that those earthquakes and those turbidity currents had come in relatively short intervals. Those earthquakes were occurring in the nearby rising mountains of New England. Those mountains were in full uplift mode and we saw the results—in Saugerties.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”


Bugs in the house 3-1-18

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Bugs in the house

Windows Through Time

Columbia Greene Media

Sept. 23, 2010

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


We don’t know how it is where you are, but in Freehold we have had one amazing summer for centipedes. They are all over the place! We find lots of them on the undersides of logs we have been using for firewood. We have also seen them scurrying around all over our property. Unfortunately that includes even inside our house where the little creatures have been making some occasional appearances. One of us, Johanna the biologist, has been controlling her professional enthusiasm very well! We wonder what causes such a biological event.

Centipedes are a large group of creepy crawlers. The word centipede roughly means hundred legs. When we were kids we spoke of “thousand leggers” and “hundred leggers.” Millipedes were the former; centipedes were the latter.  They both belong to an extremely large group of animals called the phylum arthropoda. Arthropods also include insects, crustaceans, and spiders. The centipedes are common members.

So, why are centipedes the topic of a geology column? The answer is that they are part of our Catskills geological history. We have written about our Devonian past in this column a number of times. About 375 million years ago a great delta spread out across that which would become New York State and, growing upon it, was something called the Gilboa Forest. That was a great expanse of tropical jungle. Our Catskills are essentially a petrified delta and these mountains possess the fossil remains of the plants and animals that lived on it. This is the oldest well preserved fossil forest ecology known to science so it is important. Paleontologists long ago learned a great deal about the plants of this jungle, but there were real limits on how much we knew about the animals that had lived in this ecology. There should have been a lot of animals living in the Gilboa Forest but they, for the most part, refused to be found.

Then, a quarter century ago, geologists at SUNY Binghamton found a way to dissolve Catskill sandstone so that the rock disappeared and the remains of tiny creatures that had been in them were separated out.  Hydrofluoric acid does a good job of dissolving the silica of rock, but it leaves the cuticle of arthropods alone. Using this technique, those Binghamton paleontologists quickly discovered bits and pieces of the skeletons of numerous arthropods, including quite a few centipedes. This was important research. Now geologists could start to put together lists of the animals that had inhabited this ancient forest. We were getting our first look at early forest ecology.

That list proved to be pretty much what people had expected. Our Devonian forest was populated by relatively primitive animals, and most of them were arthropods. There were very primitive insects and then a fair number of creatures which would be familiar to you: mostly spiders, millipedes and centipedes.

The point we are driving at is that those centipedes, which have been plaguing us this summer, have been around here for a very long time. And they have evolved, but not so much that you would notice it. We like to say that these creatures are “ambassadors from the Devonian.” When we look at them, we feel that we are looking into the past. If we were ever lucky enough to find a fossil centipede we would be thrilled beyond imagining. But, there they are – not fossils made of rock, but real living, breathing centipedes. To people like us this is a bit of a thrill.

Modern centipedes have to live in moist surface layers of soil because their skeletons lack a waxy coating which would keep water inside them. They have always been like this and, back in the Devonian, they inhabited the duff, or the moist humus-rich surface soils. They all have mean looking pincers, located at the most forward portion of their bodies. These pincers are not just mean looking; they are venomous too. These are used to kill and these little creatures are carnivores. They are the saber tooth tigers of the soils. Nobody is exactly sure what they eat as they are only active at night, but small worms are likely candidates for their meals. The largest fossils of these killers were over three feet long, a very frightening notion. We are not sure if any of our local centipedes are powerful enough to penetrate human skin, but we have made no effort to test that hypothesis, and we hope that you won’t either. Some have been reported to harm humans with their bites, especially small children, so we wouldn’t temp fate with any you see. But do take a good look, maybe with a magnifying glass. You are looking into the Devonian. Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.com. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.”


The Schenectady landslide Feb. 22, 2018

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The Schenectady landslide.

The Catskill Geologists

The Mountain Eagle

Feb. 2, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


Have you heard about the recent landslide in Schenectady? A mass of mud slid down a steep hill along Nott Terrace road and did major damage to two houses. It injured at least one person and left perhaps two dozen others looking for a home. This is the type of story that we have been covering for more than ten years now. Landslides are frequent geological hazards up and down the Hudson Valley and throughout parts of the Catskills. We think that this threat should be better known by you, the public.

Albany, Channel ten covers the story. Landslide behind red house


We need to give you a little background first. Back in the later stages of the Ice Age, much of the Hudson Valley was submerged in a body of water called Glacial Lake Albany. That included all of the land that is now Schenectady and Rotterdam. The Mohawk River was a powerful flow back then, carrying large amounts of water from melting glaciers. It flowed into Lake Albany and carried huge amounts of sediment, which were deposited into what became a very sizable delta. Those deposits were mostly sand, silt and clay; when wet enough they become mud.

The lake eventually drained and the delta was left behind, literally high and dry. It provided ideal conditions for people to settle. Delta tops are flat and easy to develop. It was simple to lay out roads. Settlers could build homes with deep, well-drained basements. Those homes were high enough above the Mohawk River so they did not have to fear flooding. It’s a remarkable thing to realize that both Schenectady and Rotterdam are where they are because of the Ice Age.

Schenectady lies on the delta.

Over the millennia, rivers cut canyons into the delta and there lies the problem. Those canyons often have steep slopes and, when the delta deposits become wet from rainfall, they turn into mud and that mud can let go and slide downhill as mudslides. That happens from time to time. One of the most recent such events occurred in the spring of 2004. Heavy rain, the previous autumn, had soaked the ground at 1st Avenue in Western Schenectady. The Mohawk River and an unnamed creek had eroded into the delta deposits there and created a steep slope, 80 or 90 ft. tall. When the slide began, it caused six houses to slowly subside. It is our recollection that they were all condemned. In January of 1996 a similar event occurred on Broadway, near Rte. 890 where Pleasant Valley Creek created a similar steep slope. That landslide, occurring after heavy rains, killed one man. The Nott Terrace slide is an event very similar to these.

As geo-journalists, we have been following this story for years. We have seen similar events in Delmar, Greenport, Rennselaer, Germantown and just a few years ago in New Baltimore. We fear that many more such slides will occur throughout the Hudson Valley, including at historic sites in Hyde Park. All of these slides involved the sediments of Lake Albany. These silty lake sediments soak up a lot of rainwater. When they reach a certain point, they become unstable. Great curved fractures open up and masses of earth slide along the curves of what are called rotational slumps.

All this is important; it is our region’s greatest geo-hazard. This will happen again.

Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” Read their blogs at “thecatskillgeologist.com.” Watch for their columns in Kaatskill Life and Upstate Life magazines. They are frequently in the Woodstock times.



Bard Rock Part two Feb 16, 2018

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Bard Rock in the Ice Age

Windows Through Time

Columbia Greene Media

July 4, 2013

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


Last week we visited Bard Rock. That’s a large outcropping of sandstone and shale located at the northern end of the Vanderbilt National Historic Site in Hyde Park. The National Park Service operates a number of hiking trails there and you can take one to the Bard Rock site. The rocks here rise to a gentle peak and trees have grown in where soils formed between the rock exposures. It’s a nice location, ideal for picnicking – and for looking at geology.


The two of us were down there filming videos about the geology of the whole Vanderbilt estate and we wanted to include Bard Rock. Last week we wrote about the history recorded in the bedrock. Those sandstones and shales formed in the depths of a very great marine abyss. This week let’s see if we can figure out the ice age history of the same location.

Take a good look at the photo here. You will see horizons of sandstone and shale. The hand is pointing at a fine thick stratum of sandstone while the foot is on a horizon of shale and grass is growing on another shale. The hand is purposely hovering over evidence of the ice age. Notice how polished the sandstone is; that surface, although sloping, is really quite smooth. What happened is that the Hudson Valley glacier, many thousands of years ago, advanced across this outcrop. The glacier carried large amounts of sand, concentrated at its bottom, and that sand did what sand is good at: pressed by all the weight of a very heavy glacier, the sand ground into the bedrock and – sanded it. It smoothed it off into the surface you can see there today. If you visit this site and step back a bit, you can see that this surface extends up and down the outcrop. Or you can look at the photo we published here last week.

You rise up from the outcrop and gaze across the whole Hudson Valley. In your mind’s eye you fill that valley with ice. There is quite a bit of it. It is hundreds and, more likely several thousands of feet thick. We have gone back in time and visited this site at the peak of the Ice Age, changes your perspective on things, doesn’t it?

But there is more. Take another good look at the illustration. Notice that the hand hovers over some scratches in that glaciated surface. These are called glacial striations. The Hudson Valley glacier didn’t just carry sand; it swept along a large number of pieces of gravel and cobbles as well. Every time one of these bits and pieces of rock was dragged across this surface it left a scratch. Most of them have north-to-south compass orientations. That can’t be much of a surprise. Not only do most glaciers travel in a southward direction but the Hudson Valley glacier was confined and funneled within its north-to-south oriented valley.

But there are some exceptions to that rule. A few of those striations trend from the upper right to the lower left. That sounds like it should not be, but there are explanations. Very late in an ice age, it is not uncommon to have one final advance of the ice. That last-gasp glacial advance is likely to be very small and so it is not pushed so much from the north as it is steered by some unknown local feature. Typically glaciated surfaces are like this one; they have a lot of north-to-south striations and a few local exceptions. Those exceptions dress up the exposure and speak of minor events at the very end of the glaciation.

There is nothing all that rare or unusual about this exposure of ice age features. There are a lot of similar sites all up and down the Hudson Valley. In fact there are a lot of such sites all across the northern half of North America. Wherever the glaciers traveled they left features and exposures just like this one. These are among the most widely seen evidences of the Ice Age. They are the sort of thing that all geologists are accustomed to look for and to see. Though common, we never get tired of finding things like this. We like to bring compasses along and measure the compass directions of similar striations. We plot arrows up on maps and thus document the pathways of once advancing ice. What’s special about these striations is the scenic site where they are found and which they helped form.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” The Vanderbilt videos are currently posted there,

Bard Rock – Part One Feb. 28, 2018

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Bard Rock – 450 million years ago

Windows Through Time

Columbia Greene Media

June 27, 2013

Updated by Robert AND Johanna Titus


The two of us have been doing some work for the National Park Service down at Hyde Park. We have shot several videos in which we describe the geology of park lands down there. They have posted this on their website. All this included a visit to Bard Rock and we found an interesting story there, actually two interesting stories. Let’s do one this week and save the other for next week.

Bard Rock is just what it sounds like; it is a sizable outcropping of bedrock. It’s located at the northern end of the Vanderbilt Mansion National Historic Site. That’s the old Vanderbilt estate. It is positioned right on the shores of the Hudson River and that helps make it a very scenic location. You will have to do some walking to visit it; it is on the Bard Rock Hiking trail, part of the park’s system of trails. It’s worth the effort as it really is a pretty location.

But it has a lot of good geology too and that’s why we filmed there. We did a little research before going down and that included looking at the local geological maps. We found, as we expected, that the local bedrock belonged to something called the Normanskill Formation. If you want to be technical, the local rocks belong to the Austin Glen Member of the Normanskill Formation. The two of us are quite familiar with the Normanskill, as we have frequently visited outcrops of this unit. It is one of the most widespread rock units in the Hudson Valley.

The Normanskill is a mix of alternating horizons of dark gray sandstone and black shale. When we got to this outcrop we found it to be a very typical one. There were many nice thick sandstones and an equal number of thinner horizons of black shale. The shales are the indents on our photo. They set up the video camera and we went to work hamming it up, Robert clambered up the outcrop’s slope and with each step said things about “sandstone – shale – sandstone.” Then he got serious and started an explanation of what he was seeing and experiencing here.

The Normanskill Formation is Late Ordovician in age. It takes us back a full 450 million years. That’s a long time ago, and you can understand how we geologists expect that things were different back then. Today these rocks lie on the edge of the Hudson River; back then it was very different. There was no Hudson River during the Ordovician and there were no hills such as we see hereabouts today. The sandstones and shales were here but not as hardened rocks. They were soft sands and very soft muds.

It all gets even more unfamiliar, the more you think about it. We were at the bottom of a very deep ocean. This might be called the Normanskill Basin, but we think it would be better to call it the Normanskill Trench. If you know your way around the Pacific’s geography you will know that there are a number of extremely deep places. Long linear trenches exist and they can be 20 to more than 30 thousand feet deep. The best known, and deepest, is the Marianas Trench, located in the western Pacific adjacent to the Marianas Islands. Trenches form when two great crustal plates collide with each other. They are “creases” between the two plates.

But if you are not familiar with plate tectonics then let’s keep it simple and just say that it was a very deep ocean that accumulated the sediments and sedimentary rocks of Bard Rock. Robert stood up and looked at the camera and then turned a full 360 degrees. He described being on the bottom of this Normanskill Trench. All around him the water was totally black, completely still, silent and very cold. This seemed a lifeless seafloor; almost nothing lived here. Beneath were sticky soft muds. Both of us were “experiencing” the origins of those black shales.

But now he had to explain the thick gray sandstones. He described the striking of an earthquake in some nearby region. The seafloor shook violently all around. Soon masses of sediment, high above in shallower waters, rose up as clouds of sediment. They were, slowly, pulled downslope. Then they picked up speed and became a massive submarine avalanche. For a very unhappy period of time, masses of dirty water passed by. Then things slowed down and settled to a halt. Robert looked around and saw several feet of sand, all deposited by that terrible event.

And then, in a flash, he was back at the edge of the Hudson River on a beautiful late spring day. Geologists live such interesting lives.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” The Vanderbilt videos are currently posted there.

The Haverstraw Landslide – Feb. 1, 2018

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Landslides at Haverstraw

Windows Through Time

Columbia Green Media

Aug. 6, 2015

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus


We continue our series on the landslide threats of the Hudson Valley. Today we head south quite some distance. We arrive at Haverstraw, a town that lies only about 15 miles north of New York City.  Throughout our series we have emphasized that most of the landslides that we see in our region are natural in origin. Usually heavy rains soak into the soft silty clays of something called Glacial Lake Albany. Water pressure, within those sediments, builds up and those deposits become unstable. The clay gives these sediments a brittle component and concave curved fractures open up. Masses of lake sediments rotate downwards, sliding along these fractures and the landslide results. Quite often, a steep slope, cut by the erosion of some nearby river, contributes a great deal to the hazard.

Diagram of a rotational slump

Are these always natural events, or can man play a role? That’s an important question.  There are few, if any, things that we can do to head off natural landslides but, where man is involved, then that is different. At the April 2025 Normans Kill landslide in New Baltimore there is a chance that man’s efforts played a role.  A sizable amount of earth had apparently been dumped at the top of the slope that, soon thereafter, slid. The two of us disagree on whether this led to the slide, but let’s explore the issue in Haverstraw.

Our trip takes us to a location where a terrible landslide once occurred. And, it is among the most undisputed locations where man’s intervention allowed nature to produce a landslide. Haverstraw is located atop a thick sequence of the sediments of Glacial Lake Albany, lying along about three miles of the Hudson’s banks. Lake Albany did extend this far south and more.  A little after the end of the Civil War there was a growing need for bricks to build fire-resistant buildings in New York City. The lake deposits of Haverstraw had been deposited well offshore within Lake Albany and, as a result, they were unusually rich in clay. That made for very good bricks. Not surprisingly, a very substantial brick industry appeared in Haverstraw. As many as 350 million bricks per year were manufactured in dozens of local brickyards. This industry would thrive well into the 20th Century.

This was not a time when there were many refined environmental attitudes. Nor was it a time when there were many carefully thought out strategies to avoid what are sometime called “geo-hazards.” The sprawling brick industry here was sowing the

seeds of its own destruction. The banks of the Hudson had been tall and steep long before the brickyards arrived. Steep slopes, of course, favor landslides. It got worse. To

Haverstraw after the landslide

mine the clays people dug into the deposits and created even taller and steeper, and more dangerous, slopes.

Then it got still worse. The downtown section of Haverstraw, along with the brick yards, came to be developed right up against the land excavated for clay. Take a look at our photo, taken just after the landslide, and see how precipitous the slopes were. Then things got completely out of hand. Tunnels were cut under the downtown area, and the brick yards. They were actually mining clay! This foolishness only made an already unstable landscape even worse.

Our journey takes us back to the winter of 1905 and 1906. Early on, it had been a harsh, cold and snowy winter, but then there were heavy rains. It must have warmed up and the rain is likely to have fallen onto the snows, melting them.  You see the problem; great volumes of water had to have been soaking into the ground, making it more and more unstable. And below those increasingly unstable grounds there were tunnels.  A disaster was about to occur!

This brings us to the night of Jan 7th and 8th, 1906. The collapse began in the middle of the night. A full six square city blocks sank into an expanding pit. There were electricity and gas lines in Haverstraw at that time, and they made things worse. The gas lines broke and sparks set the leaking gas ablaze. Most of the town burned. One pauses and thinks of the San Francisco earthquake and fire which also occurred in 1906.

A modern geologist reads the accounts of this awful event and wants to scream. They broke all the rules in Haverstraw. They cut steep slopes into the glacial clays; we call this over-steepening. The tunnels only made it worse, and we just cannot imagine such a thing being allowed nowadays. Then they brought development of the town and the brick yards so close to that steep slope. We shake our heads in disbelief.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist”

I found a rock, Part two 1-25-18

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I found a rock! Part two    Jan. 25, 2018

Windows through time

Dec. 20. 2012

Updated by Robert and Johanne Titus


Last week we rose to the challenge. An English professor at Hartwick College had wondered “What could a person ever write about a rock?” It took a while but we found a good story-telling rock on the Titus family home, and last week we devoted a column to describing that rock. This week we would like to continue the story and talk about that rock’s life history. What has it been doing over the course of the last billion or so years? It’s a good story, maybe not as good as Shakespeare, but still interesting.

We needed help so we went to Dr. Eric Johnson, a colleague at the Geology Department at Hartwick College. He has spent most of his career studying similar rocks in New England and the Adirondacks. He understands rocks such as ours. It was his judgment that our rock dated back to the early history of the Green Mountains in New England. There they were incorporated into a mountain building event geologists call the Grenville Orogeny. This very ancient event involved the collision of masses of the earth’s crust resulting in the uplift of very sizable mountains. These were, of course, called the Grenville Mountains.
They stretched along the eastern edge of the early North American continent, from today’s Maritime Provinces of Canada, southwest all the way to northern Mexico. They rose up many thousands of feet above the landscape just west of today’s Appalachian Mountains. Today, our rock is something called gneiss, an intensely baked rock. Back then there is no telling just what it was.

But for a long while this rock lay, quite possibly, miles beneath the surface of those mountains. Under the extreme pressures and high temperatures down there it became “cooked.” Actually geologists use the term metamorphosed to describe the deformation that occurred. All around, the crust was quite active. Of course mountain building was going on but, more importantly, several great crustal masses were colliding with each other to assemble something we call a “supercontinent.” That is a continent composed of other continents all stuck together. This one has a name; it is called Rodinia.

Given time Rodinia would break up into smaller continents, but much more was in store. About a half billion years ago another land mass collided with North America and another great mountain range rose up. This was called the Taconic mountain building event and it formed the early Taconic Mountains. A good fifty million years later all was repeated in something called the Acadian mountain building event. A piece of what you might call Europe collided with North America. Are all these mountain building events starting to make you dizzy? It gets worse; all this happened still another time when Africa collided with North America to make most of what we call the Appalachians. That was about a quarter of a billion years ago.

All this must have been a bumpy ride for our rock but then things settled down. No other great mountain building events would follow over the course of the last couple of hundred million years. During this time all of New England’s mountains gradually eroded away. Our rock broke loose and came close to being exposed as overlying bedrock was weathered and eroded away. Our rock might have been turned into dust, but something intervened. The most interesting history still lay ahead. That was the Ice Age.

An enormous sheet of ice formed in Labrador and gradually expanded southward. It entered into New England and rose up to become thousands of feet thick. It was so thick that it likely overtopped the Green Mountains. On some long forgotten date the ice scraped up our rock and carried it off to the south. The direction was a little west of south and our rock crossed the Taconics and entered the upper Hudson Valley. From there it continued to work its way southwestward until it reached the vicinity of the town of Catskill.

That’s when its odyssey took another strange twist. It was getting late in the Ice Age and, at this stage, a glacier began to rise up the valley of today’s Catskill Creek. Our gneiss came along for the ride. It was so late in the Ice Age that the climate began a serious warming. The glacier had dragged our rock to today’s village of Freehold and then to land that would be owned by us.

There must have been a day when, for the first time in centuries, the rock emerged as ice all around it melted away. Then, with the ice disappearing below, it settled to the ground of our home.

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I found a rock! 1-18-18

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I found a rock! Part one.

Windows Through Time

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Dec. 13, 2012

Columbia-Greene Media


Many years ago, a colleague of ours in the Hartwick College English Department expressed surprise that we could be a geology columnists. We will never forget what he said: “There is no end to what someone can write about Shakespeare, but what can you ever say about a rock?” Well, if you have been reading Windows Through Time long enough then you know what we “can write about a rock.” The answer is a lot of things. Still, we have been waiting to find just the right rock, and we think it has turned up. A few weeks ago we were doing our last yard work of the season. There, just beyond the edge of the grass, we picked up an interesting looking rock. It was a cobble, a little bigger than a very large potato. It was banded with horizons of light and dark minerals, a type of rock called gneiss. That is a rock which has spent a lot of deep within the earth’s crust. During its burial it was “cooked,” heated up to very high temperatures and subjected to enormous pressures. We are amateurs when it comes to such rocks, but we could recognize that the light banding was probably the minerals quartz and feldspar while the dark bands were probably amphibole and or pyroxene. We saw some crystals of garnet in there too. All this mineralogy had originated during the time the rock had been cooking. Geologists call this metamorphism of a rock. There was also a pair of broad light colored horizons at one end. They lay parallel to all that other banding. The single most interesting thing about it was that it simply did not come from around our Catskills. It was not a native rock; it was an exotic, alien sort of rock. It came from far away. But from where and how did it get here?


We knew that it had been dragged onto our property by a glacier, probably about 15,000 years ago. It is something we call a glacial erratic: it simply does not match the local rocks or belong in the local stratigraphy. It was carried to where we found it by a slowly moving glacier. After the ice melted away, it was left behind, waiting many thousands of years for us to find it. Now we had and wer wanted to write a column about it. We needed help.

We brought my gneiss to a Hartwick College colleague Dr. Eric Johnson. Eric has spent his career studying rocks such as these throughout New England. We wondered what he could tell me. Eric liked the rock and pronounced it to be something called a tectonite. That is a rock which had long been involved in a lot of crustal (tectonic) activities. It was an old rock which had experienced a lot of mountain building events, and all the volcanic eruptions and earthquakes that come with them.

He agreed that it was a metamorphic rock but had a lot more to say. One thing that impressed us was that he was sure that this rock had once lain miles beneath the peaks of some ancient mountain range. We asked him if he could tell me where it had come from. He couldn’t be sure, but guessed that our gneiss had once been part of the Green Mountains of today’s Vermont, coming from the deep innards of taller and very ancient versions of those mountains. It was then that the rock had come to be metamorphosed.

But there was more. Those two light colored horizons had been volcanic intrusions. The Green Mountains, way back when, had been volcanically active and injections of molten rock had penetrated the older gneisses.

We was intrigued by the history that was emerging. When had all this happened? Eric thought that had been more than a billion years ago. That was when a great mountain building event had occurred in an early version of North America. Our continent was then called Laurentia and it was colliding with other landmasses. Such collisions have occurred throughout geological time and each results in a mountain range; this one was called the Grenville mountain building event.

This was just a single humble rock. Bit what a story it had to tell! It had been caught up in the core of a rising mountain range when two land masses had collided. It had been cooked by the heat of the deep crust and penetrated by volcanic intrusions.  Over the course of millions of years it had grown the crystals that it now displayed. It was a very venerable rock. Is that what you can say about a rock? It’s a start. To be continued. Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

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