"I will never kick a rock"


Robert Titus - page 29

Robert Titus has 328 articles published.

Niagara at Philmont May 11, 2017

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Niagara at Philmont

Stories in Stone

The Columbia County Independent

Jan. 19, 2007

Robert Titus


I have been recently working with the Woodstock Land Conservancy so I know what kinds of good work such civic groups do. I wasn’t surprised to see the Columbia County chapter in the news recently. Maybe you read about the new 47 acre parcel of land they have opened up to the public in Philmont. The centerpiece of this site is High Falls.

  High Falls


The falls are well named; they tumble over a precipice of about 150 feet, along a river with the improbable name of Agawamuck Creek. I had not been aware of the site so I snatched my wife and the Professors Titus were soon off to Philmont.

The conservation area is easy to locate off Roxbury Road and there is good parking. The trails are well marked (unless you are color-blind; they only have red and green markers). We followed the green trail out to the overlook with its fine view of High Falls itself. We found a strong flow of water so it was a good view.

But I hadn’t come to see the view; I was there to get a story. As we had hiked the trail we had passed several good outcrops of bedrock. If you take one of these trails here, you will see fine-grained rocks with a dull sheen to them. They are called phyllites. These rocks are metamorphic. That means they had, during some ancient New England mountain building event, been subject to intense heat and pressure. Metamorphism is, quite literally, the cooking of rocks. Sadly, I had not come all the way out to Philmont to do a story on dull looking bedrock; I needed a better story. I will do the rocks another day.

We hiked down to the upper blue trail to the bottom of the canyon. Canyon is the right word for where we were. Very steep slopes, often with rock cliffs, towered above us. That’s were I found my story.

The canyon took me back to the end of the Ice Age, about 14,000 years ago. That was a very, very wet time in the history of Columbia County. It would be fair to describe the whole landscape as soggy from the recently melting glaciers. Agawamuck Creek is a fairly long flow of water today, but back then it must also have been a very powerful, and erosive, stream. That’s when the canyon formed.

If you know anything at all about Niagara Falls, then you will find the story of our little canyon to be a familiar one. Niagara Falls is a rather erosive site. Water flowing over the lip of the falls cascades downward, and is very erosive when it hits bottom. It has carved something called a plunge pool at the bottom. The deep plunge pool undermines the stability of the cliff above and eventually great masses of rock break loose and fall into the pool.

Over long periods of time, in this manner, Niagara Falls has worked its way back, retreating upstream towards Lake Erie. Someday, Niagara will reach Lake Erie, at which point the whole of that great lake will cascade into the St. Lawrence River system. That will be an exciting chapter in the history of the Great Lakes!

Well, my point is that High Falls has, similarly, been working its way back upstream. The canyon below Niagara is miles long; the one here is much shorter, only about a quarter mile in length. So High Falls is a scale model of the greater and far more famous Niagara, complete with a regulation plunge pool. I think that is a notable and that is my story.

But there is a secondary story here; it’s about hydropower. Philmont was once a mill town. The Agawamuck, back in the middle 19th century, was dammed and along with some aqueducts that provided enough hydropower to support a number of mills. We drove up Summit Road to “factory hill” and there we saw a fine old brick mill, just above the falls. It is well-preserved artifact of local 19th century industry. It’s been closed a long time. Perhaps that is unfortunate; we are seeing global climate change associated with the burning of fossil fuels. Maybe the old mill should never have been closed.

Contact the author at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join his facebook page “The Catskills Geologist.” Visit his blog at thecatskillgeologist.com.


Geologic Ghosts at Clermont may 4, 2017

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Ghosts at Clermont

By Johanna and Robert Titus

The Columbia County Independent

May 14, 2004


A GEOLOGIST never knows when he is about to take a trip into our distant past. It’s just part of the job. I began one of those time travels recently when I was visiting the Livingston mansion “Clermont” on the Hudson. Just north of the visitor’s center I saw a fine Honey Locust tree.

The Honey Locust is certainly not the greatest of trees; there are bigger and prettier ones. Nevertheless, there is something very special about this species. Honey Locusts are “armored” with very dangerous looking spikes. These can be three or four inches long, and often they occur in mean-looking clusters. The biggest of those is found on the lower reaches of the tree’s trunk. Up above, there are plenty more strung out on the lower branches.

                                                                                                         Honey locust spikes

Brush up against this tree and you will quickly find out what they are for; they are vicious defense mechanisms. The lower branches hang down, and seem to reach out with their spikes as if intending to do harm. Browsing mammals will soon find out, and long remember, the dangers of trying to eat the foliage of this tree.

But who are these spikes defending against? Your might guess the White-tailed Deer, especially if you are among those who have prized shrubbery in your yard. But White-tailed Deer would hardly be bothered by these spikes. They have slender snouts and they find plenty of space to pick between the spikes. No, locusts have never much worried about deer.

But, if it is not deer, then who? There are no other obvious browsers in today’s woods so why do the trees go to all that trouble of growing those nasty long spikes? Those spikes, also, had to be aimed at something a lot bigger than a deer. And a lot taller too; they reach up to about 15 feet or so above the ground. There is a real problem here; the fact is that there simply are no big creatures in today’s world that threaten our locusts.

But there were some a long time ago. Back at the end of the ice age the Hudson Valley did have a great herbivore which might very well have pestered our Honey Locusts. And it was plenty large enough too. It was the Mastodon.

Modern elephants have a bad reputation for tearing up forests. They love to pull down limbs and they are perfectly capable of stripping bark off the lower trunks of trees as well. In fact elephants can virtually create their own habitat. They destroy so many trees that they break up the forests, creating lots of meadow in between the remaining patches of forest.

That rambunctious behavior creates just exactly the right habitat for Honey Locusts. Locusts like broken forests, preferring to be right on the border between meadow and trees. So, it would seem that evolution had cleverly adapted the locust for life with the Mastodons. These great elephants created the habitat that was just right for locusts. At the same time the spikes protected the locusts from any potential damage from the Mastodons.

And there was more: the Honey Locust seed pods very likely appealed to the Mastodons. Those seed pods hung just above the spikes; the elephants could just reach beyond the spikes, eat the pods and then deposit the seeds elsewhere within their droppings.

All in all the Mastodons and Honey Locusts enjoyed a very fine symbiosis. But then, abruptly, it all ended.

The Mastodons went extinct about 11,000 years ago. The locusts lost the elephants that had helped them so much in reproduction. They have continued to survive to this day, but surely they are not as successful as was once the case. Still, in the end, it is quite the concept to contemplate. These trees and their long spikes vigilantly wait for the elephants that will never ever come again. It is only the ghosts of mastodons that still haunt our forests.

Robert and Johanna Titus will be speaking at Clermont in September. See their website.


Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.

The lost continent of Atlantis ? 4-27-17

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Living on Atlantis

Stories in Stone

The Woodstock Times

Feb. 6, 1997

Robert Titus


It was 2,300 years ago that Plato wrote of a great island, “larger than Libya and Asia taken together.” His island was the fabled Atlantis and it lay out in middle of the Atlantic Ocean, beyond the Straits of Gibraltar. The story went on: fully 9,000 years before Plato’s time Atlantis was a great city state which controlled an empire extending as far east as Italy and Egypt. After fighting and losing a war with the Athenians, Atlantis was consumed by a day and a half of earthquakes and floods. The whole land mass sank into the ocean and it has been lost ever since.

It’s a wonderful story and just the type that we scientists love to debunk. But the word debunk implies ridicule, and when you ridicule a popular myth, you run the risk of appearing arrogant. Now, believe me, arrogance is not exactly unheard of in science, so let’s take a careful look at the story of Atlantis. We will find, as is so often the case, the true story is a lot better than the myth.

You can start by gazing eastward from any prominent high point, preferably the top of the Catskill Front. A lot of geologists have done this. They are looking at Columbia County and the profiles of the Taconic and Berkshire Mountains, but nearly all have pondered the same question: Where did all the rock out there come from? Beneath them, the Catskill Front is made of 17,000 feet of sandstone. That’s only a small part of what is sometimes called the “Appalachian sequence.” The whole sequence consists of sedimentary rocks about 40,000 thousand feet or so thick. It wasn’t always rock, it was once all sediment. Sediment has to come from somewhere and 40,000 feet of it has to come from somewhere big, so you can appreciate the geological curiosity.

James Hall

In the 1840’s James Hall, the great Albany geologist, got very interested in finding where all that sand had come from. He traced these sediments all across North America and soon convinced himself that the thick Appalachian deposits always thinned to the west. It must be, he thought, that if the sediments thinned to the west, then they must have come from a source in the east. Now James Hall had no interests in the myth of Atlantis, but other geologists wondered about that source land. Was this the real Atlantis?

In the late 19th century, Charles Callaway first calculated the total volume of sediment that made up the Appalachian sequence. From this he estimated that there must have once been a source land about the size of Australia out in the North Atlantic. Callaway thought that the weathering and erosion of this source land provided the sediments of the Appalachian sequence and also similar rocks in Europe. Callaway thought that he had come up with the scientific discovery of an ancient lost continent – a real one! He called it “Old Atlantis.” Old indeed, Callaway’s continent was about 400 million years older than Plato’s one.


Callaway’s idea remained popular into the 20th century, but as science progressed, it didn’t hold up all that well. Oceanographers were learning more and more about the floor of the North Atlantic. Surely, they reckoned, if there had once been an Atlantis out there, some remnant would still remain, but none was ever found.

The solution to the “source land problem” came in the late 1960’s and it was a terrific story, much greater than the old myth. Continents and oceans, it turned out, were not eternal. Once there had been no Atlantic Ocean at all, neither was there a North America or Europe. Instead there were great land masses, ancestral to the ones that we are familiar with. Back then, an ancestral Europe was drifting westward and actively colliding with an earlier form of North America. As the two crushed together a great mountain range was thrust up all along the collision zone. Such things do happen and can even be seen today. India is colliding with Asia and the Himalayas are the product of that collision. Our Taconics and Berkshires are part of the 400 million year old ancestral Appalachian system. At their peak they were called the Acadian Mountains and they, not Atlantis, provided the sediments we see today in places like the Catskills.

So the Atlantis of Plato’s myth never did exist. But when we debunk his story, it’s not arrogance, but confidence that science can provide a better story which motivates us. Our story tells of moving and colliding continents. The story speaks of once towering mountain ranges which are no more. It’s a great yarn and one of the most important scientific discoveries of the last century. And to me, the best is that the story comes from the bedrock.

So find the time someday to take a hike up to the top of the Catskill Front and gaze east. Find the Taconics and Berkshires on the distant horizon. That’s Columbia County below  and . . . it’s all “Atlantis!” Adds something to the view, doesn’t it?


Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist,”

The glaciers of Grand Gorge 4-14-17

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Grand Gorge gap

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus

Columbia-Greene Media

June 17, 2010


One of my favorite views in all the Catskills can be seen as you drive south on Rte. 30 on your way towards Grand Gorge. You go around a broad curve in the road and there, off in the distance, is Grand Gorge: not the town but the actual, genuine, authentic gorge itself. If you look in the distance you will see that break in the mountains, a hole in the horizon. This is the gorge; well at least it’s the entrance to that gorge. It’s all just a little bit complex actually. The left, eastern side of the hole in the hills is Irish Mountain. The right, western side is Jump Hill. The two of them combine to create a remarkable landscape form.

What is most interesting about it is that it seems to form an almost perfect semicircle. That may not be an accident. When I geologist sees such a perfect half circle in the landscape, he is very likely to think about the Ice Age and wonder if glaciers had not played a role in this. They very well may have. Let’s learn about what glaciers do in places like this.


When a glacier flows through a relatively narrow valley such as this one, it is likely to modify the landscape. The passing ice grinds away at the bedrock and wears it down. Given enough time – and with geology there is always enough time – the ice will carve a nearly perfect semicircle. It’s always the bottom half of the circle.

There is a reason that this shape develops. The semicircle is the shape that offers the least frictional resistance to the moving ice. The glacier will grind away at the bedrock, shaving off bits and pieces here and there, until it has achieved this semicircle. Then it will have exactly that minimum of frictional drag exerted upon it. It will, in fact, continue to wear away at the bedrock, but that wear serves only to deepen the semicircle, not change it in any other significant way. The ice can continue to flow for years, and decades and centuries. And that is what I was looking at from my Rte. 30 perch. I gazed to the south and, in my mind’s eye, it was many thousands of years ago, and the glaciers were still flowing down the valley.

This glacier is one that I know quite well. It is the Schoharie Creek Valley glacier. It entered the Catskills from the north and flowed south within the confines of the Schoharie Creek Valley.  It passed Middleburgh and flowed through Breakabeen. As it approached Grand Gorge it had a choice. One branch of its ice veered off to the east and continued, through Prattsville and on up the Schoharie Creek Valley toward Kaaterskill Clove. It would reach a location named “Mosquito Point” and there it would collide with another glacier coming from the east. That other glacier had entered the Catskills at Kaaterskill Clove and it had flowed through Tannersville and Lexington on towards its collision at Mosquito Point. The collision of two glaciers might seem like an unlikely notion, but they do occur. And that is the option that brought this branch of the valley glacier to an abrupt halt.

But that was only one option. The rest of the Schoharie Creek glacier flowed south through Grand Gorge and on into the East Branch of the Delaware River.  That is the flow of ice I had been watching. It was funneled though the Grand Gorge gap in the mountain and it was forced to carve that gap into the form that had so fascinated me. This glacier would continue on to the south. At Margaretville it would veer to the west and continue across what is the Pepacton Reservoir today. It would pass through Downsville and eventually, somewhere to the west, come to a halt, this time without colliding with any other ice.

As you can see, all this is quite a story. The great valleys of the Catskills all had their own valley glaciers. Each of them flowed mostly to the south and each of them carved their valleys into something resembling a semicircle. Had the Ice Age lasted longer in the Catskills, then all of the valleys would be perfect semicircles. This is commonplace in more heavily glaciated landscapes such as those of the Alps, but our Ice Age was just a little too short.

It is only in a few places that we can see those beautiful and striking semicircles, and the one at Grand Gorge is the easiest to visit. Some day let’s climb up into the mountains and see some other semicircles, some much better ones. Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu or join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”


Remembering the ladies in Kaaterskill Clove – 4-6-17

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Remember the Ladies

Windows Through Time

Robert and Johanna Titus

The Columbia-Greene Media – June 3, 2010

I don’t think there are many of us geologists who are not very fond of the Hudson River School of Art. The artists of this “School” created America’s first ever national style of art. Starting right here in the Catskills, during the 1820’s, these landscape artists painted the American wilderness and they got it right. There is something in the spirit of their images that speaks directly to geologists. We feel what they felt when we are out “there.”

Not surprisingly, then, my wife and I have been active members of the Thomas Cole National Historic Site at Cedar Grove, Cole’s home in Catskill. Thomas Cole is widely thought of as a founder of the Hudson River school. Cedar Grove is dedicated to preserving his memory and to honoring the Hudson River artists in general. In its few years of existence Cedar Grove has established itself as a leading, even prestigious center of art scholarship.

Back in 2010 Cedar Grove has opened a new exhibit of paintings by Hudson River artists. That’s not unusual; they have done so every year since 2004, but this one was different. Called “Remember the Ladies,” it is devoted exclusively to the women artists of the Hudson River School. We didn’t want to miss it so we were there the very first day, and it was well worth the visit. About 25 works of art were on display, including some by Cole’s sister, Sarah, and daughter, Emily. But my wife and I best enjoyed one special canvas by Harriet Cany Peale, the second wife of renowned artist Rembrandt Peale.

Mrs. Peale painted in the Catskills in 1858 and her painting Kaaterskill Clove was chosen for the cover of the exhibit‘s 2010 catalog. It is a gem! We thought that we recognized the location where she did this work and resolved to go find the site. We thought it was just below Fawn’s Leap which you must pass by on your way up the clove on highway, Rt. 23A, just west of Palenville. You have to cross two bridges along the way and Fawn’s Leap is a waterfall just above the second bridge.

If you wish to visit where Harriet Peale did her painting the visit on a weekday morning before many people have yet arrived. There is distant parking uphill and downhill; nothing is available right there. Then walk to the bottom of that second bridge, the uphill one, climb down into the clove and then head upstream about 50 yards. There you will find a spot where a mountain cascade comes crashing down from above. Turn around right there and look back downstream. Like magic, you are transported back to 1858 when Harriet Peale was here. You are standing at the very spot where she worked and you can see what she saw – exactly what she saw.

There is a sense of kinship that this sort of experience brings. She and we came here for the same aesthetic reasons. We and Harriet Peale shared exactly the same sights even though we were separated by more than 150 years of history. The Civil War and two world wars have come and gone during this time. The electric light, the plane, the auto and the computer have all been invented, but this location has remained almost exactly as it was. We were just barely able to see the railings of today’s modern bridge and we could hear the passing traffic. But those were the only perceptible changes. In every other sense nothing has been altered.

But our sense of time was so acute here. We saw the great boulders that she painted and we were transported back to the end of the Ice Age. We understand the Ice Age history of Kaaterskill Clove and we know that, back then, a glacier had entered this clove and advanced up, all the way to South Lake. That glacier probably swept these boulders along with it. They are not just picturesque rocks; they are history, Ice Age history.  These boulders are called glacial erratics. They were plucked loose somewhere up the Hudson Valley and carried to this location by the advancing ice. After the glacier stopped advancing, it began to melt. As it melted away, these boulders emerged from the old ice. They were left at just this spot by the melting ice, and they have not moved an inch since that time.

And “that time” must have been no later than about 13,000 years ago. Now we stopped thinking of this place as it was during the Civil War; we saw it as it was when the pyramids were being built, and then during time much older than even that. We had developed a new appreciation for the scenery of the Catskills. For more about this summer’s exhibit at Cedar Grove go to http://thomascole.org  Find more at https://thecatskillgeologist.com

Brick Red Strata – 3-30-17

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That Brick Red Color

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus

Columbia Greene Media

Oct. 29, 2009


Red strata along road on Franklin Mountain south of Oneonta


The Catskills are among the most scenic regions in eastern North America. You already knew that, but one of the reasons is the brick red color of much of our bedrock. Look around and it won’t take long to find, here and there, a handsome outcropping of brick red sandstone and shale. The tint goes well with the green of the summer foliage and makes a picture perfect landscape. But, with so much of that red rock, there must be some cause, a reason for the tinting. There is and this week let’s learn about it.

The best place to begin to account for the color is to learn what causes it. Our brick red is the color of the mineral hematite, an iron oxide. The “hema” part of that refers to blood. Whoever named the mineral must have lived where there weren’t many bricks. He saw the color as that of blood. The is debatable; real blood has a much more intense hue of red than does hematite.  If I could have named it, I would have called it “brickite,” a silly name but a more descriptive one.

The iron oxide of hematite has the composition of Fe2O3 and it does, almost always, display a brick red color. In fact it is the mineral that does give bricks their color. The more iron in the brick’s clay to begin with, the more iron oxide that forms as it is fired. But we are not talking about bricks; we are speaking of rock. Hematite does not need to be fired in order to form red rocks. It typically forms in the soils of warm tropical terrestrial environments. When ancient soils are porous and well-aerated, then oxygen from the air can combine with iron to make the iron oxide rich red soils. Warm climates speed things up.

Tropical landscapes, in places such as the Amazon Basin and central Africa, commonly produce a red soil type which has been called a laterite. Other warm landscapes, all over the world, very often have red soils. You have probably heard of the Georgia red clays; these are home-grown versions. Where erosion cuts into any of these soils you can see the red hue.

But, somewhere along the line, I have to get back to the Catskills and why we have so many red rocks here. The answers take us back about 375 million years to a time when our Catskills were a great tropical delta. This was called the Catskill Delta and it was huge: the size of today’s country of Bangladesh which lies upon the Ganges River Delta. Our Catskill Delta lay in a tropical climate. Back then North America had drifted to about 20 degrees south of the equator and that put it squarely within the warmest climate belts.

The Catskill Delta probably had a seasonally rainy climate (some people debate this). One part of the year saw a lot of rain, the rest of the year was dry. The rainy season made our local soils chemically active, but during the dry seasons, they became parched. That’s when air got into them and that is when the iron oxides began to form. And, of course, that is when the soils became red, brick red. The Catskill Delta must have been a land of red soils and today our Catskills are a land of red sandstones and shales.

So, where is the best place to go and see all this? I recommend the drive up Rte. 23 as it approaches Windham from the east. Let’s take in the whole highway. Starting down in Cornwallville, there is a sequence of fine outcrops which extends for three or four miles along the highway. As you drive up the hill you are passing through about 1,500 feet of sedimentary rock, most of it is red. It is a fine sequence which speaks of the great size and thickness of the Catskill Delta deposits and it makes a most scenic want to take a good look, but you will be rewarded by the effort. Their coloration is wondrous. Once you have trained your eye to notice this sort of thing, it is good to keep the image in the back of your mind as you travel the region. Begin to notice how widespread the red strata are. Let each outcrop take you through a window of time, back to the time of the Catskill Delta. It is a great trip. Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu    Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

A mystery at Olana – 3-23-17

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Mystery at Olana

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus

Columbia-Greene Media

Sept. 9,2011


Once again, this year, I will be doing a Hudson Valley Ramble at Olana (Sat. Sept. 9, 2017, at 10:00 AM).  My topic will be “Unplanned views at Olana.” It’s one of this year’s many Hudson Valley rambles. Olana is Frederic Church’s fabled Persian Revival home, perched high atop Church Hill, across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge from Catskill. Church, the great 19th Century Hudson Valley painter, built Olana and designed its 250 acres of landscape. He decorated the property with what are called “planned views.” Those are locations that were landscaped to enhance the scenic views that had already existed. These are grand panoramas of the Hudson River, the Catskills, and the Taconic Mountains. Church devoted all of his considerable artistic skills to developing these views and they are still, more than a century later, wonders to see.

I will take my participants to see several of these planned views, but my focus in not so much in seeing the modern landscape as in viewing images from the distant geological past.  We will “see” the glaciers that once overrode this hill and we will descend to the depths of the ocean that, so long ago, swept across this site. It’s a fun trek; I have done it many times and I enjoy it very much.

Olana has a rich and varied geological heritage and there is much to explore. But, at the same time, Olana can keep its geological secrets. One of them has defied all my best efforts. That is the mystery of where is the Olana pothole. Potholes are commonly seen in the bedrock floors of powerful rivers. Swirling currents of water pick up cobbles and gravel and sand and use that material to essentially drill a hole into the bedrock. The drilling continues until, in some cases, perfectly circular potholes, 25 feet or more deep, can be formed. These are commonly seen on many streams in the northeast. Many of them probably date back to the late Ice Age when melting glaciers provided vast quantities of meltwater. There is a well known example of numerous potholes at a location called Moss Island at Little Falls on the Mohawk River. It was designated a National Natural Monument in 1976.

Well, sometime back in the 1870’s, excavations were underway at Olana to recover stone for roads which were then being built. Accounts, written back then, indicate that those diggings occurred at the base of a 75 foot tall cliff of black shale. Workmen encountered a pothole that had lain buried, probably for many thousands of years. They reported the find to geologists and sometime thereafter excavations began in serious. After what must have been a lot of hard digging this pothole turned out to be eight feet wide and 25 feet deep. The walls had a polished appearance to them and, still within the hole, were polished and rounded cobbles, the very ones that had been swirled into the ground so long ago. It was an interesting discovery and several articles about it appeared in the scientific literature. Frederic Church appears to have been nonchalant with it all; he remarked in a letter that he was the proud owner of “a hole in the ground.”

The Olana pothole

Well, all this, of course, was of interest to me. How could it not? But the most pressing and immediate question I had was – where was the pothole? There were no precise directions in the articles about it. One said it was about a half mile from the Hudson River. The other placed it at 300 feet above sea level. Both placed it at the bottom of that 75 foot high cliff of black shale. I got out my map and altimeter and put on my boots and went hunting. But after a few hours of searching all likely places, I had come up empty. I don’t know what happened to the hole. It is always possible that it was destroyed by the quarrying activities of the 1870’s. Nobody else has found it either.

But I had some other problems to deal with. There are no bedrock stream channels here. I needed another explanation for the origin of this pothole. And that solution would take me back to the end of the Ice Age. All this conjures up quite an image of what it might have been like at the Olana site at that time. The Hudson Valley had been filled with the ice of a great glacier, but now it was melting away. I could imagine the remnant ice, abutting well up the slopes of Olana. Masses of water were pouring off of the melting glacier and a lot of that was funneled down a hole in the ice. It was that flow that bored the pothole. For me it’s a whole new “unplanned view” at Olana.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu Join his facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.” You might want to visit www.Olana.org

Robert Titus will be running a Hudson Valley Ramble at Olana at   10:00 AM on Sept 9, 2017.

He and his wife Johanna will be doing another Ramble at Clermont at 2:00 on Sept. 10, 2017.

Catskill floods and alluvial fans – 3-16-17

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Yellow alert

The horrible snowfall this middle March was bad enough but it sets us up for serious flooding.

If there is an intense all that snow will turn into floodwaters.

If there is a heavy warm rain storm it will only be worse

This happened in 1995 and it could happen again.

This 2012 Kaatskill Life article explains the problem


Alluvial fans, everywhere

The Kaatskill Geologist

Robert Titus

Kaatskill Life magazine



Science, it is said, is self-correcting. Scientists have a reputation of being intelligent people, but that does not mean they do not make mistakes. That is why it is the nature of scientists to be skeptical; we always challenge established concepts and sometimes, not often but sometimes, we overturn them. This column has done something of this sort ever since Hurricane Irene struck the Catskills. The Catskill Geologist has long argued that many of our regional villages were safely perched up atop ice age features called alluvial fans. Rising often 25 feet or more above flood plain levels, it always seemed that such villages were far too high up for floods to ever reach them. Sadly, Prattsville proved this whole concept to be a false belief. It thus seems that it is appropriate – even necessary – to devote an article to the issue of alluvial fans and reevaluate the hazards associated with them.

I have gotten all the maps out, and looked through the Catskills in hopes of developing a much broader view on this issue. My thoughts have been developing as I have written several recent Kaatskill Life articles. Now it is time to summarize these into something scientists call a “synthesis.” I thought that it would be wise to start by identifying the best example of a fan anywhere in the Catskills. That turned out to be easy. It was the fan I first noticed decades ago. This emblematic alluvial fan is the one at Palenville, located at the very bottom of Kaaterskill Clove. A fan is called a fan because its shape looks like the sort of fan a lady would have carried back in the 19th Century. We can go to Palenville and see a splendid example (fig. 1) and come to clearly visualize an alluvial fan and how it formed.

fig. 1. Alluvial fan at Palenville.

   Kaaterskill Clove and its fan formed during the Ice Age, probably during one or more of the great melting events that terminated major phases of glaciation over the course of the last two million years. One likely time occurred about 130,000 years ago, at the end of the Illinoisan Stage of glaciation. For nearly 200,000 years North America had endured the advance of various ice sheets. These swept south and covered much of the continent. But now the climate was changing and the ice was finally melting away. We can only imagine how much meltwater was pouring out of the high peaks of the Catskills at that time. A lot of it came to be funneled into a canyon located where Kaaterskill Clove is today and this began the erosion that would create that great scenic wonder.  All this was likely repeated about 14,000 years ago when the younger Wisconsin Stage of the glaciation came to an end.  Again, enormous amounts of meltwater must have poured out of the mountains and down the growing clove. Thus there were possibly two great episodes of glacial meltwater pouring out of the mountains. These resulted in the creation, deepening and widening of Kaaterskill Clove to its present state.

But, there is more. You have to understand that where today there is the empty space of a clove, back before the Ice Age there had been bedrock. Stand at a location like Inspiration Point, towering above the clove, and imagine all that space below you having once been filled by bedrock. Think of how much meltwater was needed to erode away all that rock in order to create the clove. It’s an awesome notion. But – all that eroded bedrock has been turned into sediment – where did all the sediment go?


Fig. 2. Alluvial fan at Palenville.

   We can actually go and see that sediment. If you have the opportunity to fly south along the Wall of Manitou, the Catskill Front, then you can see it. That sediment makes the Palenville alluvial fan (fig. 2). The Palenville fan has its highest elevation right up at the mouth of Kaaterskill Creek. It displays a gentle incline, sloping to the east and “fanning out” from the mouth of the creek. You can get a closer look at the fan deposits while driving up Rte. 23A in the clove itself. Just downhill from Fawn’s Leap a heap of these sediments are visible down at the bottom of the canyon (fig. 3).


fig. 3. Alluvial fan sediments in Kaaterskill Clove.

   We learn a lot about the origins of alluvial fans at Kaaterskill Clove, but not much about their flood threats. Palenville was established and built on its fan, but it has never faced any serious flood problems for reasons that we will have to deal with soon. Let’s learn more by looking at some other towns lying upon other alluvial fans. Naturally the place to start is at Prattsville.


fig. 4. Prattsville and its alluvial fan from air.

   Prattsville (fig. 4) had its origins way back at the end of the Ice Age. There was a moment in time when this stretch of the Schoharie Creek Valley was at the bottom of something called Glacial Lake Grand Gorge (light blue on figure 5). That lake flooded the valley, but only temporarily. It owed its existence to a glacial dam, far to the north, and when that ice dam melted, the lake drained.  This stretch of the valley became dry, with only an early version of Schoharie Creek flowing through it. But Huntersfield Creek descended the slopes above and it, like Kaaterskill Creek, brought sediment with it. Soon an alluvial fan formed (fig. 4 & yellow on fig. 5).  It was much smaller than the one at Palenville, but it did serve as a location for the establishment of another town. It is easy to imagine pioneers arriving at the Prattsville site and deciding that this was the place to build a town. After all the land, here, rose a good 25 feet above the level of the river. They must have thought that they would never EVER have to face a flood.

fig. 5. Alluvial fan at Prattsville

   There is a real irony here. What attracted settlement was a supposed safety from flooding. In reality that safety was an illusion. The alluvial fan, which should have elevated Prattsville above the flood, instead made things worse, much worse. Look at how wide the blue part of the valley south of town, which is upstream. Now look at how narrow the valley floor is adjacent to Prattsville. As it passed by Prattsville the flow was impeded by the alluvial fan. Water, from behind, shoved it forward. The flow was squeezed and forced to rise up and flood into town. I am making an analogy to the garden hose. When you squeeze its nozzle its power increases. You are only washing a car, but Schoharie Creek, with its fan, did much the same in destroying a town. I call this the “garden hose hypothesis.  I am arguing that it should be applied to all of the Catskills. We found exactly the same when Johanna and I did an article about Margaretville (Kaatskill Life, spring 2012). This town too, was established upon an alluvial fan. Exactly the same garden hose effect helped damage that town.

Since these revelations occurred it has become critical to take another look at all the towns and villages of the Catskills and see if the same threats can be found. They can, and this needs to be understood. What happened in Prattsville may serve as a model for all of the Catskills. Let’s look at Middleburgh (fig. 6). It was badly flooded by Irene and now we can understand why. Most of Middleburgh, like Prattsville, lies upon an alluvial fan that partially blocks the Schoharie creek Valley. To make things worse there is another, smaller fan across the valley (fig. 6).When the floods arrived, the garden hose effect caused rising, squeezing, and speeding up of the waters; the town suffered grievously.  So too was the effect of an alluvial fan at the town of Schoharie. There another fan, lying just north of the town, impeded the flow of the Schoharie Creek. That “squeezed the hose” and flooded the town.

fig. 6. Two alluvial fans at Middleburgh


Windham, at first looked like an exception. Here the valley of the Batavia Kill appears to be too narrow for an alluvial fan, but something akin to one did form here. I was puzzled by Windham; there was no fan there. But I found that, back in the 1930’s, geologist John Lyon Rich had solved the problem for me. He found that Mitchell Hollow Creek, which flows south into Windham, had an interesting history. Back in the Ice Age, Windham lay at the bottom of a glacial lake. Mitchell Hollow Creek flowed into the lake and deposited a delta into its waters. The top of a delta is flat and elevated. Like the alluvial fans, it attracted development, and all of Windham is built upon it. But Batavia Kill was forced to carve a small but narrow canyon through that delta (fig. 7), so the delta behaved like a fan during Irene. Waters were squeezed by the delta sediments; currents were raised and speeded as they careened through Windham, hence the awful flood that occurred there. Windham, like Margaretville, has a long history of flooding; now we understand why.

fig. 7. Batavia Kill at Windham


But now we must look farther, to towns that did not suffer from Irene. There, the floods did not hit, but the threats remain. Let’s look at Delhi, the subject of another “Catskills Geologist” article (Summer, 2011. It is a two alluvial fan town (fig. 8). What would happen to Delhi if very heavy rainfall fell upstream from it, say at Stamford? The garden hose hypothesis would bring a horrible flood into that town.


fig. 8. Two alluvial fans at Delhi

   Then there are Milford and Laurens (fig. 9), in the western Catskills. Each is perched upon a similar fan and each would face certain flooding if only enough rain fell upstream from them. These towns did not suffer the fate of Prattsville because it did not rain enough upstream from them. There are good reasons why we might think that such heavy rain might never occur on this stretch of the Susquehanna, and so those towns may be safe. The heavy rains of Irene were associating with a weather pattern that climbed up and over the steep topography of the Catskill Front and that is a real rain generator. No such obstacle is found near these other villages, and so it is not obvious that such an awful event could occur near them. But . . . Nature loves to surprise us.


fig. 9. The alluvial fan at Laurens.

   It gets worse. Cooperstown is built upon still another alluvial fan and this one stretches across almost the entire Susquehanna Valley (fig. 10). It nearly blocks that valley and that is what happens when you really put your thumb on the nozzle of a garden hose and squeeze it. That has left a very impressive canyon for the Susquehanna to flow through (fig. 11). The top of the Cooperstown alluvial fan rises about 60 feet above the river and it will be very difficult for flood waters to ever rise that high. But what if there is a very, very heavy rain just off to the north. Suddenly enormous amounts of water would be squeezing into a very narrow canyon. It would be expected that those waters would quickly climb the walls of that canyon and . . . then what? The Bassett Hospital complex lies at the top (fig. 11). All this is nearly unimaginable; it’s just nearly impossible for such rainfall to occur, but “nearly impossible” is not impossible.

fig. 10. Alluvial fan at Cooperstown.

The purpose here is not to promote horrible fears. Instead the purpose is to rationally come to understand what potential flood threats there are in our region. Many of our villages were constructed upon alluvial fans. They date back to times when nobody event knew what such a fan was. They just seemed to be logical places to settle, apparently safe from flooding. The problem is that Prattsville has shown us otherwise.


 fig. 11. Susquehanna River at Cooperstown. Bassett Hospital Complex on left.

   I do not propose that we dismantle Delhi, or Milford or Cooperstown. But, I do argue that we should understand the nature of the landscapes we live upon. They can offer us dangers we never dreamed of and we should recognize those dangers. Many climate scientists fear that powerful storms, like Hurricanes Irene, Lee, and Sandy, will become more commonplace. If they are right then there is much to fear: hazards such as we have never faced before. My message is mostly aimed at zoning boards. They should realize that there are places where homes and other buildings just should not be located.

Hyde Park Delta – revised 3-9-17

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 The Hyde Park Deltas – Part one                                     Thecatskillgeologist.com

Robert and Johanna

 March 2016

Most of the time we are re-running old newspaper columns on this site. But we expect to do some original work as well. That is the case here today. We are publishing the first half of a study we recently did on the geology of the Hyde Park ice age deltas. We hope that you will be able to go to Hyde Park and see what we have seen.

This is a new revised version


The town of Hyde Park is built upon a broad flat platform. It’s a natural landscape feature and it needs to be understood. When you drive into the town, we want you to take note of it. From the north, you pass the Vanderbilt Estate with its endless front lawn. Then the highway passes through the urbanized part of the town. That area is just as flat. Farther south is the Roosevelt Library and Museum. See its expansive and, again, very flat grounds. All this flatness begs to be understood. There is a pattern here, and we always say “when Nature presents scientists with a pattern, she demands an explanation.”

We like to bring a barbeque skewer along with us wherever we go. When we want to investigate this sort of flatland we try to drive it into the ground. If there are rocks, which there usually are, we have little luck. But – if the skewer slides in easily – then we have likely found a glacial lake bottom. That is the case at Hyde Park. Take a look at our map. All the yellow is flatland where there are few, if any, rocks in the ground.

Yellow on map is delta flatland. Base map courtesy of US Geological Survey

   But, is this a simple lake bottom or is there more to the story? Notice that, on our map, the yellow flatlands lie at the downstream end of a stream with the unlikely name of Crum Elbow Creek. Long ago, glacial geologists recognized that that all these flatlands comprised an ice age delta, sometimes called the Hyde Park Delta, the delta of Crum Elbow Creek. The New York State Museum map of ice age features actually portrays two deltas here, one north of Crum Elbow Creek, with a second and larger one, just to the south. This is important, and we should name the two deltas. Let’s call the northern one the Vanderbilt Delta (brown) and call the other the Roosevelt Delta (yellow).

Roosevelt Delta in yellow; Vanderbilt Delta in brown.

   Back during the Ice Age, there was a sizable lake flooding all of this part of the Hudson Valley. It has been called Glacial Lake Albany. Crum Elbow Creek is a long flow of water and, back then it was likely carrying a lot of sediment. Most of that sediment was deposited as the delta where the creek flowed into Lake Albany. The top of a delta is always flat and it roughly corresponds with the old lake level. That’s called the topset of the delta. That would have been at about 180 feet in today’s elevation.

The front of a delta is typically a steep slope called a foreset. That explains another landscape feature that we see throughout Hyde Park. Take a look at our photo from the Vanderbilt mansion. The mansion was located at the top of the steep foreset slope. That offered the Vanderbilt’s a nice view of the Hudson River. Walk north and south from the mansion and enjoy this view.


The Vanderbilt Mansion from the south. Below it is the foreset slope.


Foreset slope, north of the Vanderbilt mansion, with its view of Hudson.

Now we have learned a lot about Hyde Park. You are not likely to be able to pass through town without envisioning yourself in a very different landscape, an ice age one. With your mind’s eye look west and see Glacial Lake Albany spread out before you. It extends all across the Hudson Valley. The lake was almost two miles wide here. That’s about four times as wide as today’s river is.

But, the more we worked the area, the more we saw problems that needed to be explained. For starters, we thought the flow of Crum Elbow Creek was a bit odd. The stream has its head about ten miles north of Hyde Park. It flows in a remarkably straight line, just a little west of south, all the way to Hyde Park. Much of the way, it follows Rte. 9G. But then, at the village of East Park, it turns sharply to the west and flows directly into Hyde Park and, from there, into the river (see our maps).  Back during the Ice Age, that took it right into Glacial Lake Albany. We wondered if there was a story to that sharp westward turn. We are scientists; again, we are supposed to wonder such things.

Then it began to bother us that Crum Elbow Creek did not match the delta all that well. It certainly did a good job of explaining the northern part of the delta, the Vanderbilt Delta. But how was it that the delta spread out so far to the south? How could delta sediments extend a full two miles, south of Crum Elbow Creek? In short we just did not think that Crum Elbow Creek was accounting for the Roosevelt part of the delta complex. Again, we are scientists.

That’s when another problem appeared. We were now looking more carefully at the map and we suddenly noticed that, while there were two deltas at Hyde Park, they were also of two different elevations. The Roosevelt Delta, south of Crum Elbow Creek, had a topset at about 180 feet in elevation, but the Vanderbilt Delta, north of the creek, lay at just about 170 feet. We were, clearly, looking at two separate events.

This is when it started getting exciting. We soon had a flash; all of a sudden we saw what had happened, and that was a genuine epiphany. We will be back next Thursday with the solutions to these problems, but in the meantime we want you to have a chance to ponder them, and see if you can come up with the solution yourself. We leave you with a blown-up version of our map, focusing on the southern part of the Roosevelt Delta. Take a good look

  Do you have some ideas? That is , before you read the second column – just below.

Close-up of the southern delta.





       The Hyde Park Deltas – Part two


Robert and Johanna Titus

March 2016 revised version


This is the second of two new articles about the Hyde Park deltas.


   Last time, we began investigating the Hyde Park Deltas. These ice age features have been recognized by glacial geologists for decades and they are seen on the New York State Museum’s map of New York State glacial geology. That map recognizes two deltas.  But we have found something remarkable and, we feel, revealing. Those two deltas represent two chapters of delta formation. That needs to be explained. So – we are going to, herein, record the sequence of events that we have deduced to, we hope, explain all this. We are, in short, going to record a sequential history of the formation of the Hyde Park Deltas – and thus Hyde Park itself.

1) It all began sometime close to the end of the Ice Age. The Hudson Valley glacier had been melting and vacating the valley, and it left behind a sizable lake. That has long been recognized as Glacial Lake Albany. The lake stretched across the Hudson Valley and, at Hyde Park, it was nearly two miles wide.

   2) Crum Elbow Creek was flowing south by southwest, east of, and parallel to, the lake. This took it across a newly deglaciated landscape. We suspect that, at least at first, it was a far more powerful stream than it is today. It does not amount to much today, but back then, it may have been swollen with very dirty meltwater. It, we think, it (must) have been a very erosive stream.


Crum Elbow Creek today, upstream.


3)  If so, then Crum Elbow Creek had to have carried a very substantial load of sediment which came to be deposited in Lake Albany. Most of that sediment formed what we are calling the Roosevelt Delta (see yellow on our map). The waters of Lake Albany, at that time, reached a level of 180 feet in modern elevation. The delta’s topset was, likewise, at today’s 180 feet.

The Hyde Park deltas; Roosevelt Delta in yellow; Vanderbilt Delta in brown.


4) We conclude that, back then, Crum Elbow Creek did not turn sharply to the west as it does today. Instead, it continued its southwest path which took it past today’s Wallace Center and onward, just a little north of the Roosevelt mansion, Springwood. Its old channel can still be seen adjacent to the parking lot at the Wallace Center (see map and see photo). This is the time when the stream deposited the Roosevelt Delta (again, see our map).

“Old” Crum Elbow Creek, highlighted in red. “New” Crum Elbow Creek (blue) extends off to the west.


Now dry channel of “Old” Crum Elbow Creek, just north of Wallace Center. “Old” Crum Elbow Creek once flowed at the bottom of this small valley.


   5) Next, there came a time when Lake Albany (suddenly?) drained down to a level of 170 feet. We do not know why, but with that lowering, a remarkable event ensued. A small stream, one that had just begun flowing along the northern edge of the Roosevelt Delta, became quite erosive and, by headward erosion, it worked its way up along that northern flank of the Roosevelt Delta. Stream piracy was now occurring. The path of this stream, “New” Crum Elbow Creek, can be followed along East Market Street (aka County Route 41). It can be seen that this stream had been erosive enough to cut down into the bedrock there (see our photo) and create something of a canyon.

East Market Road follows canyon of “New” Crum Elbow Creek. The creek is just out of sight on the far right; it presumably cut the steep slopes of this canyon.


6) With time, this growing creek would intersect “Old” Crum Elbow Creek and divert its waters into the present-day path of “New” Crum Elbow Creek.  Also, a new delta, our “Vanderbilt” Delta, began to form. This younger episode of delta building apparently did not last as long as the previous one, and the new delta never got to be as large as its predecessor. The old Roosevelt Delta leveled off at 180 feet; the new Vanderbilt one at 170.

7) During the period of stream piracy, “Old” Crum Elbow Creek continued flowing in its old path. But that path was about ten feet higher above the new level of Lake Albany. This higher level promoted active erosion of the “Old” Crum Elbow channel. This old channel is the one visible just north of the Wallace Center parking lot. More of the old channel can be traced through Hyde Park.


More channel of “Old” Crum Elbow Creek (left center) on the Yellow Trail at the Winnakee Nature Preserve, just north of Rte. 9.


8) After stream Piracy was complete, the “Old” Crum Elbow channel was left high and dry as is seen at the Wallace Center today (our photo, above). Another dry channel can be seen immediately north of the old Roosevelt family stables. (See our photo below). That had been a tributary of Old Crum Elbow Creek.

Dry canyon of a tributary of Old Crum Elbow Creek, just north of Roosevelt family stables on the Cove Trail.


Sometime later, Lake Albany dropped the remaining 170 feet, down to its present level. Today’s “New” Crum Elbow Creek came into its modern form by eroding those 170 feet. This is best seen where the bridge crosses the creek at the south end of the Vanderbilt Estate.


Crum Elbow Creek at the Vanderbilt Estate.

We believe that this history accounts for pretty much all the landscapes we see, today, at Hyde Park. It is an account that describes the very origins of Hyde Park itself and is thus a fascinating history. We invite you to tour the town and see the geologic sites that we describe here. Then, take Rte. 9, north and south of Hyde Park, and see what the vicinity would have looked like if the deltas had never formed.

We have long been impressed with how ice age events explain so much of what we see in our scenic Hudson Valley. This is a fine example.

Elephant’s Graveyard – 3-2-17

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Elephant’s Graveyard

The Greenville Press

Oct. 3, 2002

Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus




   The Hyde Park Mastodon on display at Paleontological Research Association in Ithaca


In recent years there has been a small flurry of discoveries of ice age elephants in New York State. You may well have read about the mastodon discovered in Hyde Park; it made quite a stir down there. The bones were found quite by accident in a small pond in the family’s backyard. All they had wanted was to enlarge that pond, what they got was an ice age treasure. Researchers spent the summer of the year 2000 excavating the skeleton and most of it was recovered. Such events are very exciting and people come from all over to see the bones as they emerge from the muds. Some even got involved in the project, there is never a shortage of local volunteers to help out in this sort of dig.

Excavation of farm pond

Less well known was a similar discovery near Ithaca, the year before. Another swampy area yielded the bones of an ice age elephant. This one were parts of a woolly mammoth, and this dig attracted dozens of Cornell students. A big surprise awaited them when, during the excavation, the remains of a second skeleton, this one being another mastodon, came to light. You can imagine the excitement that accompanied this “twofer.”

Such discoveries are always big news stories in the local area. They should be; they are rare and exciting events. But, during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries very many more such discoveries were made. In those times it was common for farmers to drain their swamplands and this frequently led to the discovery of large bones. The Hudson Valley of New York State became something of a world capital for mastodons, as these relatives of the modern elephant were apparently very common here, especially in Orange County in the lower Hudson Valley.

Excavating mastodons in Orange County in early 1800s

Painting by Charles Wilson Peale


The hunting has not been nearly as good in the upper Hudson Valley, but some very historic finds have been made there. What may surprise you, as it did us, is that Columbia County was the very first place where a mastodon was ever found.  This story takes us all the way back to the year 1705. That’s when a mastodon tooth was found by a Dutch tenant farmer in what was then called Claverack Manor, which may well be Greenport today. Spring floods washed it out of a bluff, about 60 feet above the Hudson River. The remains were fragmentary, but they impressed the English colonists of the time. The big find was a tooth that weighed five pounds.

Today, such a tooth would be quickly identified as belonging to a mastodon, but back then nobody knew of such animals. There was great debate over just exactly what kind of creature had possessed such a large tooth. Lord Cornbury, then the English governor of New York, pronounced it to be from a human giant. His interpretation was greatly influenced by his religion. Genesis stated that there “were giants on the Earth in those days” and Cornbury thought this had been one of them. He sent people to search the site again and soon a fair number of very decayed bone fragments were discovered to go with the tooth. The corpse appeared to have been 30 feet long. A single thigh bone seemed to measure 17 feet. Those numbers were badly in error.

There were others who thought that the remains must belong some sort of animal or even a fish, but they could not tell just what kind. Congregationalist minister Edward Taylor was the first to suggest that the animal had been an elephant. But what kind of elephant? Back in the early 1700s nobody understood the concept of extinction and so nobody was going to suggest that the Claverack Giant was anything other than a modern form and there are, of course, no living wild elephants in New York State

Edward Taylor had other ideas however. He thought that there might have been some thoroughly un-Christian giants. He cited Indian legends of ancient human giants. They had been as tall as trees and hunted bears. But, to profess pagan Indian myths was not wise in eighteenth century New England, and these views were best kept to himself.

In 1706 some more mastodon remains were found and these were shown to Massachusetts Governor Dudley. He thought that they were the eyeteeth of a human, and he added the notion that the specimen had been a victim of Noah’s great deluge! His acquaintance, the influential Puritan Cotton Mather, of Witch Trial fame, embraced this notion enthusiastically. Despite his association with witch trials, Mather was something of a naturalist and, in his theology, he sought to focus on scientific rationalism. He saw the Claverack giant as empirical proof of the Biblical story that there had been giants living in the pre Deluge Earth.

It is true that there are some resemblances between the human molar and the mastodon’s tooth and, back then, little was known of fossil elephants, but Dudley’s opinion is still just a little hard to understand. As the decades passed, other mastodons were found from time to time.

Dudley’s speculations had long faded into history by 1838 when parts of another mastodon were found across the Hudson River in Greenville. This was, at the time, considered an important discovery. New York’s famous paleontologist, James Hall, brought along the even more famous English geologist, Charles Lyell, to visit the site in 1841.

It wasn’t long before another mastodon turned up in Greenville. A partial skeleton was found somewhere along Rte. 32, maybe about a mile south of Greenville. This was within a “small swampy depression” on the farm of Charles Coonley. It is not clear exactly what was found here and the bones seem to have become scattered, but it appears that a number of bones, perhaps from several elephants, came to light. This was long before careful excavations were done and so this discovery will probably never be well understood.

A few more Hudson Valley mastodons would come to light during the next 160 years, and we still think that there are more waiting to be found. These discoveries have been made mostly in the sediments of old glacial lakes and there were a lot of those in the Hudson Valley, in fact most of the valley was once a single great glacial lake, called Lake Albany.

After the Ice Age ended, those lakes generally drained, and a large number of pools and wetlands were left behind. If you travel around the Hudson Valley area you will see these in abundance. Some of those wetlands have been dammed to create artificial ponds, but many of the pools and all of the swamps are natural.

As the glaciers melted, forests gradually invaded our vicinity. The forests attracted mastodons. These animals fed on the vegetation and apparently enjoyed living among the trees. Mastodon teeth seem adapted for gnawing such foliage. Mammoths, on the other hand, were apparently better fitted for life on the bleak and barren tundras. They would have avoided forests. The whole post ice age Hudson valley was forested and populated by many mastodons but probably no mammoths.

We must do a lot of speculation as we consider the skeletons that have been found. The typical fossil mastodon is a young bull. Young males of most species are reckless and foolish so it is so easy to imagine many of them wandering out into small ponds in a quest for pond weeds. The sticky muds at the bottoms of these ponds seem to have trapped many of these poor creatures Elephants are bright animals, but they don’t rescue each other. Getting stuck would have led to a likely death and eventual preservation as a fossil skeleton in the pond sediments. As the millennia passed, the ponds turned into swamps and, in time, some of the skeletons were discovered. People dredged their swamps with the purpose of creating farm ponds and encountered the sleeping giants of long ago.


    Skeleton of mastodon buried in ice age lake deposit.

What we find so interesting about all this is that everything we know about this tells us that there are still a lot of undiscovered mastodon skeletons around here. Any swamp or pool of water is a potential hiding place for a mastodon, and there are a lot of swamps and pools.  And make no mistake about it, a lot of mastodons died in a lot of those old ponds. They are still there to be found.

Finding a mastodon is not easy, it requires luck, but it also requires that people know what to look for. Typically, somebody needs to make an excavation and that work cuts into the old muds. Large bones are found, but too often people dismiss them as being cow or horse in origin. It’s often the case that the significance of such discoveries is only understood when the tusks of the mastodon are found. It’s pretty hard to confuse tusks with the remains of a cow!

So, what we are saying is that if you have seen some large bones in a local excavation, it is time to take another look, you might have found the bones of an ice age mastodon and that should be known about. Good skeletons are worth a lot of money too. We are told that a complete skeleton is worth about $50,000. We are also told that it costs a lot to properly excavate one: you guessed it, about $50,000.

If you want to learn more about the history of American fossil mastodons, please read the book “American Monster” by Paul Semonin.


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