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A Summer Hike with the Mountain Top Historical Society. 5-24-24

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A hike to South Mountain

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle, June 7, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus            


The hiking season has arrived for the Mountain Top Historical Society (2019). The two of us have been members for decades and have long enjoyed going exploring with them. On Saturday, that’s tomorrow, renowned hiker Bob Gildersleeve will be leading a trek to the edge of the Catskill Front at South Mountain. That’s a remarkably scenic location that rises above Kaaterskill Clove and overlooks the vast expanse of the Hudson Valley.

It looks like most of the hike will be on or near the Blue Trail. That path rises up the slope just south of the old Catskill Mountain House Hotel site. That will take the hike up a slope that was carved by the glaciers of the Hudson Valley glacier. Participants can expect to see views of the valley from the tops of sizable cliffs. Today’s scenery is spectacular but try looking at the alley and see it filled with ice! That was perhaps 16,000 years ago.

The Blue trail will pass by ledges of rock called the Twilight Park conglomerate. That’s a thick mass of petrified gravel and cobbles. It will take us another 380 million years into the past. You look at the strata to the west of the trail, and then turn to the east. Now, rising high above you, towers the image of an enormous and ancient mountain range, the Acadian Mountains. Those cobbles and gravels formed as a mass of sediment, that was transported down the old mountain slopes, mostly by gravity. That range is nearly gone. Only the Taconic Mountains, across the valley, remain as remnants of what once were colossal mountains, rising between 15 and 30 thousand feet above the eastern horizon.

The trail and its environs are littered with enormous boulders, most of them left behind by the actions of glaciers. Does Druid Rack sound interesting? How about Boot Jack rock or Sphinx Rock? They are all there, near or along the trail. For the most part, they were yanked out of the ground by passing glaciers and then dragged to where we see them today.

This is a classic trek; it’s been a tourist destination for generations. People have been hiking these pathways since the early 19th century. Visitors to the old hotels enjoyed these trails. Countless postcards were made here. We remember our first visit and the impact it had on us. Have you been? If not, then you should not miss this hike; you will not forget it.

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


Looking into the future. May 16, 2024

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Looking into the future

The Catskill Geologists

Robert and Johanna Titus


We frequently travel about in the Catskills, and we are always on the lookout to find a new topic for one of our columns. One day, recently, we were approaching Mt. Utsayantha from the northeast on County Rte. 14. On the mountain’s slope, rising in front of us, we noticed a fairly nondescript mountainside feature. Take a look at the left center part of our photo. You will see what is sometimes called a niche. That is, there is a depression in the side of the mountain.

Well, “so what,” you might ask, “big deal, what is there to get excited about?” And you would be right; this is not an especially big deal; it is indeed just a depression in the slope. But we are geologists, and we are writers. We are always looking for an angle. After all, we have to send off a column almost every week.

We started taking this image and projecting it into the future, of course we mean the distant geological future. What, we wondered, would happen if another ice age came along? Our niche in the mountain would soon fill up with snow. And that would initiate a sequence of very predictable events, typical of the latest chapter of an ice age.

First that niche would accumulate thicker and ever thicker amounts of snow. Then the thickening snows, under the influence of their own weight, would start compacting. The snow would be squeezed down into a material that would resemble the packed snow of a snowball. Geologists call that material “neve”. But the process would not stop there; the compacting would continue until the neve’ would harden into genuine ice.

Once enough ice accumulated in the Mt. Utsayantha niche, it would start to become dynamic. Ice can flow like a great rigid mass of water. Its flow will be very slow, but it will move. It has become a glacier, in fact it has become an Alpine glacier, at least a future Alpine glacier.

We had slowed down but now, intrigued, we pulled over, got out and stared up at our Alpine glacier. Usually, we gaze into the past but this time we found ourselves looking into the distant future. We had traveled to a time when the Catskills had come to resemble the Alps of today’s Switzerland.

When will this future Switzerland descend upon the Catskills? We don’t know; we haven’t gotten any of the ice age geologists that we know, to commit to a precise prediction. But current ice age theory argues that glaciations occur in cycles that recur about once every 100,000 years. So don’t hold your breath. It gets worse; Alpine glaciers don’t form until late in ice age chapters. After all the ice, everywhere else, has melted away then the cold mountaintops become active and Alpine glaciers form.

That happened in the past. At the end of the last ice age, Alpine Glaciers formed atop the highest peaks of the eastern Catskills. The best example that we know of are found at North Point, near North Lake Campground and to the south at Overlook Mountain. Another very fine Alpine peak is Hunter Mountain.

But why didn’t Mt. Utsayantha develop some Alpine glaciers the last time? It may be that the mountain is just not tall enough. It reaches an elevation of 3,200 feet; the others are just a bit taller. So, sadly, Mt. Utsayantha may not be tall enough the next time. But we can dream.

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

Planar Cross Beds May 9, 2024

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Something called planar cross beds

The Catskill Geologists; May 18, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


We would like to get you to take closer looks at the rocks you find yourself passing by. We do it all the time. When we are out driving, we pass outcrops along the sides of the roads. It takes a very well-trained eye to see anything at 55 miles per hour, but it can be done. If you are like so many of us, then you will find yourself out hiking in the Catskills. That’s when we want to help train your eyes to see what has always been there, right in front of you. Let’s do some of that today.

Take a look at our photo; it’s a close-up view of some very typical Catskill strata that we took in the western Catskills. It’s something you might see almost anywhere in our mountains. Notice the structure of the strata. There is an obvious horizontal line running across the photo, starting about halfway up. The strata above that line are all horizontal while those in the lower half are sharply inclined. What is going on here?

We always draw a parallel between what we see in the rocks and what we see on roadside signs in a foreign country. Perhaps you have driven through Quebec and have seen signs written in French. Unless you know French you can’t tell what the sign is trying to say. It’s much the same with the strata of sedimentary rocks. The strata in our photo seem to be trying to speak to you, but you have to be able to read rocks in order to find out what they might be saying.

It must be obvious that the strata in the lower half of our photo are telling a different story from those above them. Indeed they are. We need an English/Rock dictionary, don’t we? On one page would be a photo and on the opposite page would be its translation into English. Well, they don’t publish English/Rock dictionaries so we will just have to get along without one. Let’s give it a try.

The strata on the lower half of this photo display what is called planar cross bedding. Each stratum is inclined to the left and all of them are piled up on top of each other. This records a day in the history of the old Devonian age Catskill Delta. We are at the bottom of a stream that flowed across the delta, perhaps 385 million years ago. There had recently been some sort of a flood event and fast flowing water currents had been carrying a lot of sediment. But that flood event was coming to an end and the currents were slowing down. They were losing speed and losing their ability to transport sediment.

That sediment, most of it being sand, was dropping to the river bottom and forming a dune of sorts. More currents, carrying more sand, rose up over the “dune” and deposited sediment in the form of those left sloping strata. Each represented a moment of deposition. That moment was followed by another and then still another until the whole sequence came be as you see it.

There was a momentary return of high speed flow and that eroded the horizontal line which you will see, cutting across all of the planar cross beds. Normal stream conditions then returned and all of those horizontal strata came to be laid down to complete the sequence. Millions of year passed and those sands hardened, petrifying into sandstone. Then hundreds of millions of years passed and the sequence was exposed by processes of erosion and photographed by us.

Keep an eye out and you too will see things like this

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


Tafoni at Prattsville, May 2, 2024

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A real geological mystery, and at Pratt’s Rock

The Catskill Geologists, May 31, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


We were invited to speak at the Pratt Museum recently. Our topic was the glacial geology of the Schoharie Creek Valley. After that, a group of us went to Pratt Rock and climbed up the trail there. We took a look at Colonel Pratt’s carvings and continued on to see some nice ice age features. But, along the way, we ran across one of those mysteries we have long struggled with.

We were first alerted to this particular mystery by Paul Misko, a veteran Catskills hiker. Paul told us of some “very strange structures he had found in Phoenicia. Paul has a real eye for unusual geology, so we paid attention to his “very strange” claim. We saw his Phoenician structures and now we have found more of them at Pratt’s Rock. Take a look at our photo and then climb up the steep incline at Pratts Rock and keep an eye out. Towards the top you will find sizable ledges of sandstone. This is rather commonplace stuff: very typical Catskills bluestone ledges. These ledges are, in essence, the cross sections of a very old streams. 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 but that’s where we encountered that mystery. Take another look at our photo and see what you think. See the cluster of closely spaced and very strange cavities just above the hand. 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. 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 one of the most puzzling phenomena that we have seen in the Catskills. There is no trouble putting a name on what is here; these structures are 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 here, 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 chemical weathering phenomena. Somehow, they appeared on the rock surface and grew 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: sort of. 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 Prattsville, and certainly no waves. And why do only a few Catskill Cliffs display these? That begs the question: what exactly is different about his cliff? Why don’t all cliffs have tafoni? Why isn’t it that none of them do? There must be something here, right in front of our eyes, 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.”

An Ice Age Torrent. Apr. 4. 2-24

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An ice age torrent – and you can see it

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle; June 8, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have long enjoyed joining in on the hikes sponsored by the Mountain Top Historical Society. This Saturday (2018) there will be one that takes its participants right into the thick of an ice age meltwater torrent. If that sounds like fun then you might consider coming along. The hike will trace the path of what is called the Horse Trail; it can also be called the Harding Road Trail. It ascends from the bottom of Kaaterskill Clove to near the top of South Mountain. It was put together in the 1880’s to bring guests up to the then newly built Hotel Kaaterskill.

The story of the Hotel Kaaterskill is an oft told tale. George Harding had been a long-time guest at the famed Catskill Mountain House, but then there had been an acrimonious argument between him and Mountain House owner Charles Beach. Beach told Harding that if he didn’t like the Mountain House then he should build his own hotel. Harding was a very wealthy man and he did just that; his hotel would be just across South Mountain from the Mountain House. He needed a road to bring guests to his hotel and that was the improbable origin of the Harding Road Trail.

The Harding Road Trail follows a zigzagging path up the south slopes of South Mountain. Take a look at the small, dashed line near the bottom of our map. Our hike will follow the trail and ascend about 1,700 feet before we get to the top. It is billed as a 7.6-mile hike and rated as moderate in difficulty.


But what about that ice age torrent? Well, that will require a little use of the mind’s eye. Can you read a topographic map? Well, once again take a look at our illustration. Our trek will cross a relatively small canyon at an elevation of about 1,400 feet. It has a small stream in it (see the blue line). If you trace the vee-shaped contour lines then you can follow this canyon all the way up to an elevation of about 2,400 feet. But the canyon is mapped as being dry most of the way to the top. It wasn’t always like that. We did an article in Kaatskill Life many years ago about this canyon. We reckoned that it had been an active and powerful torrent of glacial meltwater toward the end of the Ice Age. We are guessing that all of the Hudson Valley, along with Kaaterskill Clove was, at that time, still filled with ice. We see all of the North Lake vicinity and all of North Point and South Mountain as rising above the ice.

There is a lot to the story that we don’t know. We are guessing that there was some sort of ice dammed lake at the top of South Mountain way back then, a larger version of North and South Lakes. But we have not been able to find much physical evidence for the shores of this lake. That remains a mystery.

Our stream was thus a subglacial one. Water from that lake plunged down a hole in the ice, a glacial feature called a Moulin. It’s quite something to imagine. Raging, foaming, pounding, thundering torrents flowed down the subglacial tunnel. It must have been loud, but its sounds were all but muffled in the complete darkness beneath the ice. And our hike will, spiritually, pass through the flow.

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

The Glaciers Got There First – Apr. 18, 2024

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The Glaciers got There First

The Catskill Geologists; May 19, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


Have you been to the Walkway across the Hudson at Poughkeepsie? It’s a pedestrian bridge that, high up in the sky, crosses the river; We promise you, it’s quite the experience. But, opening next week, (2019) is something just as good and a lot closer. That’s the Hudson River Skywalk. The Skywalk also spans the Hudson, this time across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. In so doing, it links two important historic sites: Frederic Church’s onetime home, Olana, and Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole Historic Site. The new trail extends from Cedar Grove, across the bridge. and then it ascends the hill to Olana. Can there be a “theme’ to a walkway? If so, with this one it’s the Hudson River School of Art. Cole and Church were that “School’s” two leading lights.

We said that the Skywalk was just as good as the Walkway, but maybe we can write about something that makes it even better. If you get a chance and you head out over the Hudson, we would like you to look and see how steep the slopes are on either side. We are talking about the slope just beneath the western end of the bridge and the other slope just beneath Olana. That steepness is something that is not always easy to take notice of, but it is important. Shouldn’t there be a floodplain? Rivers are supposed to flow across broad, flat floodplains, aren’t they? So, why not here?

The Skywalk – Picture courtesy of Olana


We got to thinking about that and came up with an answer, a good geological answer. Halfway across the bridge we looked east and west and then north. In our mind’s eyes we saw a glacier. It was perhaps 14,000 years ago and, for the most recent time, an ice age glacier was advancing down the Hudson Valley. That glacier rubbed up against the slopes on both sides of the river. Glaciers can be very erosive and this one was no exception. It cut into Church Hill where Olana is perched. That would greatly improve the view that Frederic Church would eventually paint. It also cut into the western side of the river. All this erosion left no room for any kind of floodplain. Instead, it formed a rather boxy valley with a sizable river flowing down a surprisingly narrow pathway. You probably never noticed this, did you? Well, go out onto the Skyway and take a look.

The official opening is set for June 1st (2019). People will congregate at Olana and at Cedar Grove. Each group will set out on a “parade” to the Skywalk Trail. If all goes well, they will all meet at the middle of the bridge. There will be a ribbon cutting at the park near the bridge’s toll plaza at noon. We don’t think there will be a golden spike, but it should be a fun event.

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


Joints along Rte. 145 – Apr. 11, 2024

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Joints along Rte. 145

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle, May 16, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


Science may seem cut and dried to many. We scientists just know everything, don’t we? We look at things and figure them right away. Don’t we? Well – no, and no again. Sometimes we see things that we just can’t figure out. The two of us have been having that sort of a problem lately and it all began along Rte. 145, That’s at the top of the hills you see as you approach Middleburgh from the south. On the right side of the highway is an impressive outcropping of typical Catskill sandstone. Take a look at our photo.

That outcrop makes up a very fine wall of rock. It actually seems too fine. The rock exposes several nearly perfect, smooth and upright surfaces – too smooth and too upright.  What is going on here? Rocks are supposed to break up into jagged rough blocks, aren’t they? It looks like we have some explaining to do.

These surfaces are fractures in the rock that are called geological joints. There is a good bit of scientific theory behind this. Joints record chapters in the tectonic history of a region. They began to form when the rocks, long ago, came to be compressed during a tectonic event. It may be hard to imagine that rocks can be squeezed, but they can. That requires immense pressures, but such pressures do occur within the Earth’s crust – deep within the crust.

Now the funny thing about all this is that rocks do not fracture when they are being compressed; they have enough “give” to absorb that stress. But compression does not last forever; it eventually does end. Rocks then expand and that is when the fracturing begins. There is a sort of relaxation which occurs as the pressure eases. At that moment we find that rocks are brittle, and it is exactly then that they crack to form joints. So, what triggered all this? We need more scientific theory.

Cycles of compression and relaxation, strong enough to deform and fracture rocks, can only be associated with the truly great tectonic events. These are not just run of the mill earthquakes; these are the towering mountain building events. And the one which triggered our Rte. 145 joints was one of the biggest mountain building events ever. That was the collision of Europe with North America, about 400 million years ago; it made the northern Appalachians. Episodes of compression and relaxation, associated with massive uplift of the crust, is what created these joints.

All this is good sound scientific theory, so what’s the problem? Take another good look at our photo. Do you see how it appears that large masses of jointed rock came to be yanked out of the ground and carried off toward we, the photographers. How on earth did that ever happen? Well, that’s our problem. We can tell you how we would like it to have happened. We stand there and imagine a glacier rising up the valley. The west moving ice passes by and forms a bond with the bedrock. Ice does that; stick your tongue to the bottom of an ice tray and you will find out for yourself. Well, as the ice continued up the valley, it did that yanking; blocks of rock were plucked out of the ground and dragged off toward Middleburgh.

At least we would like that to have happened; it would be such a nice vision of ice age history. But just can’t convince ourselves that it happened that way; road building seems very likely to have helped out, and that takes the Ice Age out of the story. So, where does that leave us? Well – with an unsolved mystery. We’ll figure it out someday -and get back to you about it.

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

Brachiopods April 4, 2024

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The Catskill Geologists; May 25, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


If you do a lot of fossil hunting in the Catskills then you probably already know much about what we will be writing this week. But, even if you do, you may well find our column worth reading. It’s about a group of invertebrate shellfish that lived right here. And we mean right here. Look around you. Where you are now was once the bottom of an ocean called the Catskill Sea. That sea takes us back roughly 400 million years ago to the Devonian time period. Now take a look at our photo; it’s a piece of sandstone. Its flat surface is a petrified bit of that sea floor. And, just as it was hundreds of millions of years ago, it is littered with shellfish, now fossils. They are brachiopods. We see them on this rock – right where they lived and right where they died.

These animals, in life, lived within two shells so you might be tempted to call them clams. The similarity to clams is accidental. Brachiopods are a very different group of animals. Their internal, soft anatomy is entirely different from that of clams. Brachiopods are not even mollusks. We have blown up the image of one of these brachiopods in our second photo. Notice that there is a plane of symmetry running down the center of the shell. With clams there are also planes of symmetry but they are found in between the shells, not down their centers. Using symmetry you can always quickly tell apart clams from brachiopods. All this is important because these two groups are the most common fossils found in the deposits of the Catskill Sea. You need to know the difference. With experience that will soon become second nature.

All but one of these fossils belongs to a form of brachiopods called Mucrospirifer. Mucrospirifer shells are categorized by their heavy ridges and those two – tapering left and right – extensions, sometimes informally called “wings.” Mucrospirifer is a very common brachiopod in our region’s marine sedimentary rocks. It enjoyed great success during the Devonian. There is a second species of brachiopod in the upper right corner of our first photo. It too has a plane of symmetry running down the center of its shell.

There are more things that need to be explained here. First, notice how many Mucrospirifers are seen on this bit of that ancient sea floor. And also notice that they are all just about the same size. We are guessing that this represents something that is common among marine invertebrate animals. Such creatures commonly begin life as single fertilized cells, zygotes that were cast out by their mothers. Alternatively, they may have been early and primitive larva. But in the end it was all the same; these very young invertebrates drifted with seafloor currents until they detected a suitable ecology and, then and there, they settled to the bottom and began their lives. A group of invertebrates of this sort, all the same size, is called a spatfall.

Another thing about these spatfalls is that they seem to us to be commonly found on very dark shales. Geologists generally assume that dark shales represent a quiet sea floor with a low oxygen content. If so, then much of the success of Mucrospirifer came from its ability to survive in a wide variety of environments, places that other animals found inhospitable.

But, in the end, what is important here is for you to learn about a common form of fossil, typical of our Catskills. Don’t your feel just a little smarter now that you have read our column?

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

A visit to an old cement mine. Mar. 28, 2024

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A visit to an old cement mine

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle May 9, 2019

Robert and Johanna Titus


One of the most sizable among today’s Catskills regional industries is the manufacturing of cement. Its operations lie mostly at Coeymans. It is thriving today but dates back to a distant past. The history of cement in the Hudson Valley began with our country’s entry into the industrial revolution. One of the great projects that heralded our industrial revolution was the building of the Erie Canal. Canals would help make America grow into a great economic powerhouse. But the building of canal systems required a lot of cement; where would it all come from?

Enter an important man, Canvass White. He patented a method for making durable, waterproof hydraulic cement, also known as “natural cement.” That’s a type of cement that, when mixed with water and allowed to set, becomes impermeable to water. It was made from two types of sedimentary rocks: limestone and its close cousin dolostone. When these rock types also have significant amounts of clay in them, then they can be manufactured into natural cement.

In 1825 large quantities of such rock were discovered in and around Rosendale. Canvass White went into the business. He was not alone; by the 1840’s there were a dozen or more cement operations in the Rosendale area. And, for the rest of the 19th century, this industry would only expand; it became big business.

Today, the old Rosendale cement industry is memorialized and partially preserved at the Snyder Estate Natural Cement Historic District which covers about 275 acres. At the heart of this is the Century House Historical Society. They possess 18 acres of land which displays some of the old Rosendale facilities. A visit can be a bit of an underground adventure that we highly recommend.

Coming this Sunday, May 12th, 2019 you can be taken for a tour of the Widow Jane Mine by society member Steve Schimmrich, professor of geology at Ulster County Community College. Steve knows his way around the site. When we joined him there, years ago, he took us to a sizable cliff, penetrated by mine entrances. We entered and found ourselves in what is called a “pillar and room” mine. Way back in the 19th century, miners had excavated shafts into the mountain and then they expanded them until only the pillars were left behind. That allowed the removal of as much cement-producing rock as possible, leaving the pillars to prevent cave-ins. Back then, this was pretty impressive engineering.




Steve showed us the stratigraphy of the site. The cement producing rock is called the Rondout Formation and it is composed of three horizons of rock: the lower and older Rosendale Dolostone, the middle Glasco Limestone, and the upper and youngest Whiteport Dolostone. The Glasco Limestone was of no economic value, but it was fascinating to see. The Glasco accumulated at the bottom of a very shallow tropical sea and it was richly fossiliferous. Steve pointed out fossil corals that were very common in it. We were traveling abmost 420 million years into the past and looking at Rosendale when it was a shallow tropical sea, dotted with small coral reefs. Steve showed us an abundance of fossil shellfish too. We were thus able to see this ocean and its inhabitants. We saw a wave-swept and agitated sea floor, with an abundance of marine algae and colorful shellfish; it was a wonderful experience.

But it was the other two units of rock that had made all the cement. We looked up at another cliff and saw two horizons penetrated with rectangular mine openings. The lower one was the Rosendale and the upper level was the Whiteport.

Our tour continued, back outdoors, with Steve showing us the remains of the conveyer belt that once carried the dolostone out of the mine to where it was processed. That processing continued in kilns that are still present; there the rock was heated and eventually would be turned into cement.

All in all, the Schneider Estate does a very good job of preserving what it must have been like here when the last cement miner closed up shop and walked away. Time has decayed the site a bit, but it has not destroyed it. The industry began a rapid decline in the early 20th century and the last production ended in 1970. Today all that is left is a well-preserved historic site; our thanks go to the Society for all their hard work.

Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net.

A Fossil Soil – Mar. 21, 2024

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A fossil soil?

The Catskill Geologists; The Mountain Eagle, May 11, 2018

Robert and Johanna Titus


The intersection of Rtes. 23 and 32 is one of those locations that we just happen to pass all the time. We typically drive west on 23 and then turn right onto 32. But there is an outcrop on 23, just east of that crossroads. The strata there record the deposits of the outer edge of the old Catskill Delta. We are transported through time back about 385 million years, and find ourselves surrounded by a low, almost flat landscape, covered with a scrubby foliage of very primitive plants. Off, a short distance to the west, is the shore of something called the Catskill Sea. We can’t see those waters but we know they are there. We can smell the saltwater.

We stand on the shore of a sizable river which has flowed across the delta and is headed toward that sea. Its currents flow by us, right to left. The channel bottom is blanketed in soft light-colored sand. All around us is that foliage; it consists of relatively short tree-like plants; we would have to call them shrubs. They reach up to chest level. They are very exotic looking plants; none of them are alive today. To our eyes, they seem very primitive; we can’t guess why at first, but soon we notice that they do not have proper looking leaves, nor any flowers. Their bark is covered with a closely spaced ornamentation of diamond shaped scars. Nothing like them can be seen in the Catskills today.

We look down and see that the soil, beneath us, has the shade of a dull brick red. It is warm on this ancient day in this distant past, and that red soil tells us that this is the norm for these times. Not only have we traveled into the distant past but the climate here is tropical. The soil is a tropical one.

And, POOF, our journey into the past is over and we have traveled, in an instant, back to the present. We are again standing along the side of Rte. 23 – and we haven’t moved an inch. We look at that outcropping once again and see, for the first time, just exactly what is in front of us. There is a horizon of red strata. It is cut by vertical structures.

We are looking at a fossil soil. Above it, lies the gray sandstone strata of an old river channel, those other gray sandstones, below, are from another such river channel. But, it is that reddish horizon that captivates us. They document something that we are familiar with. Those vertical structures are shrinkage cracks. They form within soils that are subjects to alternately wet and dry seasonality. During wet seasons of the year, they soak up water and expand. But, during dry seasons, they desiccate and shrink. That’s when the cracks form.

Today, such soils are called vertisols, named after their vertical cracks. Now, we look at this soil profile again, and realize that we have been there. Just a short time ago we had traveled back in time and stood on the shore of one of those two rivers. And we had stood upon that very soil. We reach out and touch the top of that red soil horizon. And then we lean forward and look closely; we are searching for our own footprints. But we can’t find them; time travelers do not leave footprints in the past.

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

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