This was our second Windows Through Time column, from March 2009
View from the Mountain House ledge
Windows Through Time
North-South Lake State Park is one of the most scenic landscapes in all of the eastern United States. It is located on the Wall of Manitou, the Catskill Front. The “wall” overlooks a 70 mile stretch of the Hudson Valley – that makes for a lot of very nice views. The absolute best part of it is the Mountain House ledge. That was the location of the famed Catskill Mountain House Hotel which stood there from the 1820’s to the 1960’s. The hotel was located there because of the view. All sorts of people came to visit this very fashionable hotel, but mostly it was a Who’s Who of the American 19th Century: industrialists, businessmen, politicians, and so on. Other guests included some of the most talented of the country’s writers and artists. The Hudson River school of landscape art was founded here. Its artists prowled the nearby mountains searching for and finding wonderful views to paint.
The hotel is gone but the view remains. Artists still come here and they still paint.
Geologists come here too, many of them and often. We prowl the mountains searching for and finding wonderful geological histories. We look at the landscape and we can read its geological heritage. The signs are there. Epic stories of advancing glaciers compete with tales of ancient fossil forests. Petrified rivers flow across fossilized floodplains; it’s all there, if you know what to look for.
Then there is the view from the Mountain House Ledge itself. We stand or sit and we gaze into the east. The Hudson River, below, has been there for possibly hundreds of millions of years. But that’s not enough time; we gaze beyond the river. There, all along the horizon, south to north, are the Taconic Mountains. Today they are a series of not terribly elevated mountains, hills really. They are pretty – not lofty, and scenic more than majestic. They are green all summer and, in that season, never white with Alpine snow. There are few superlatives to use when describing them, but they are nice.
These “mountains” do not conjure up quite the same emotions as do their neighboring Berkshires, but . . . they are nice.
To the mind’s eye of the patient geologist there is much to see from the Mountain House ledge. I planted myself there one summer twilight and slipped into the darkening eastern horizon. As the sun, behind me, retreated and the modern Taconics faded into darkness, I could see into the past.
Out there it was a little more than 450 million years ago. I was startled to see a vast expanse of ocean before me. This is called the Iapetus Sea, sometimes also named the Proto-Atlantic. Its waters stretched all the way to the horizon. I watched as time flew by, millions of years of it. From time to time great eruptions were occurring just over that horizon. Something was happening out there.
That something was a volcanic landmass and it was moving, very slowly. It was drifting eastward towards a collision with North America. I couldn’t see it yet, but something much the same shape, size and form as today’s Japan was crashing into North America. From time to time I could feel the rippling of the earthquakes that accompanied that collision. Then I could see more great plumes of soot rising above distant erupting volcanoes.
There was a day when the peak of a rising volcano poked above the oceanic horizon and now, for the first time, there was visible land out there. I watched as more millions of years passed by. That small peak was joined by more and then many more. They coalesced into a single rising landmass. Something we call the Appalachian realm was in the process of being born – these were the infant Taconic Mountains.
They rose and they rose. They erupted and they shook. Time, millions and millions of years of it, was compressed and speeded up for me as I watched a great mountain range rise to 10,000 feet in elevation and then quite a bit more. But then there was a new motion. The collision was far more advanced and now great thrusting motions shoved masses of rock westward and toward me. The earth shook violently with each of these shoves.
I involuntarily took a few steps backwards whenever the motions were too strong for me to bear. I am a geologist and I knew what was going on, but still it was frightening to watch.
Then, at last the Taconics had risen to their maximum. They towered above what would someday be the Hudson Valley. It was an awesome sight to view.
And . . . then it was over. These mountains stopped rising. The great tectonic shoving had run out of steam. Now this towering landscape began to erode away. First it was a slow process and later the erosion accelerated. Enormous mountain streams clawed away at the steep mountain slopes and brought them down, inch by inch, foot by foot.
When my vision was over I was gazing again across the Hudson Valley and into the Taconics. There, before me, was the serenity of a summer morn, but I knew now the violent makings of that picturesque scene. I had seen something that those long ago Hudson River artists had missed. Contact the author at email@example.com