"I will never kick a rock"

Visions of the past 7 – The Mountain House ledge

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Visions of an Art Trail past – The Catskill Mountain House site.

On the Rocks

May 23, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


There is one single location in the Catskills that fully deserves the word “legendary.” Many of you, we hope most of you, will guess correctly that this is the Catskill Mountain House Hotel site. It is site eight on the Hudson River Art trail. The Mountain House was first constructed in 1824 at a location that had long been known as Pine Orchard, high atop the Catskill Front. The ledge the hotel sat upon had long attracted visitors, lured by the sweeping view of the Hudson Valley. It was thus a natural choice as a place to build a resort hotel. But the very notion of a resort hotel was a novel idea back then. Not surprisingly the hotel was a big success and it became a legendary hotel on a legendary site.

It was not long before artists were attracted to the hotel. Thomas Cole came late in the season of 1825. A soon to be legendary artist was at the legendary hotel. It was all fated to be. Cole would produce a painting of the hotel, but that canvas has been reported as lost. His sister, Sarah Cole, did one too, possibly a copy of Thomas’ work, and it survives. You can easily find images of it online. Our favorite image of the hotel in its early years is a picture by William Henry Bartlett. As a mass produced print, it is something that we could not only find, but also afford to buy – and it is a nice picture.

Curiously the great view always defied efforts to paint it. It is simply too sweeping to place on one canvas. We only like one effort: Frederic Church’s Above the clouds at sunrise, 1849. We think that when it comes to “painting” the Catskill Front, it is the writer who can do best.

When we visit the Mountain House site, which is frequently, we gaze out at the view and fully appreciate that everything we see out there, absolutely everything, was shaped by the glaciers. It is a notion that is almost overwhelming for its impact. We are looking at something that James Fennimore Cooper’s old leatherstocking, Hawkeye, called “all creation” and all that creation was at the hands of the glaciers.

When we stand in front of the Mountain House site we can look about and still trace the outline of the hotel from where its foundation stones had been placed. We can feel the presence of history here and that can be overwhelming. But, when we face north, into the Hudson Valley, our mind’s eyes take us into the deep past of the early Ice Age:


We have gone back more than 20,000 years and we have arrived at a moment in time just before the effects of the Ice Age will be manifest. The valley in front of us is filled with dense primeval forests. All of those tree species are familiar to us; they are oaks and maples and birch. There are a lot of chestnut trees too, and we wish they were still around today, but there is nothing unfamiliar about them.

We are the mind’s eyes and we can drift forward through time. Centuries pass and we begin to sense that things have been changing. The summers seem cooler; we just don’t see those blistering hot days that we used to. Oddly, the winters seem warmer and always very cloudy. It seems to always be about 30 degrees out and snowing, always snowing.

Summers don’t bring all the warm weather birds that they used to, and when they do arrive, it is later in the spring. They disappear earlier in the autumn. We are puzzled and disquieted. Had we kept records we would have found out that we were right. Summers are cooler, bird migrations have changed. But . . . why?

The years and decades pass by and now we notice that the trees up above look unhealthy. Even in August their leaves look pale and small. We climb up and see that they are. Next, we notice that the snow is melting later and later in the spring; the snows are arriving earlier in the autumn. We are perplexed; what is causing all this?

We notice changes in the type of weather; there are stretches of days when the blue skies stay completely free of clouds. A cold dry wind blows, continuously, out of the northeast. We look in that direction and we begin to guess that there is something out there. It must be cold and dry – but what could it be?

Now the forests up above begin to die. Worse, the malady of small pale leaves has spread downhill and the trees below us are turning sick. What is going on? We look up above and now the forests at the top of the Catskills appear to be dead. Even in August it looks like November up there. Our fears and our confusion turn into near panic. We have ancestors in Europe who actually did see this sort of thing. Did they ask the shamans what was going on? What answers were they given?

The cold dry winds continue. The dead trees suffer further indignities. First the twigs dry out and fall. Then the branches and even the limbs do the same and the heavy winds rip them to the ground. The Catskills forests are now dead; nothing but naked trunks still stand. Soon all the birds and insects are gone; it becomes so quiet – so desolate.

Now we look up the Hudson Valley to the north. There, as far away as we can see, there is something. It is dark blue in the morning; it turns green and then yellow as the morning sun rises, and it is brilliantly white at noon. In the afternoon the colors are reversed. What is going on? Months and perhaps years go by, we really can’t tell, and that object, or that material seems closer. Eventually it is close enough; we see what it is and, in a flash, all our questions are suddenly answered.

It is a glacier that has been moving south and starting to fill the whole expanse of the Hudson Valley. An ice age has arrived.

Nobody ever painted this scene.

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


Visions of the past 6 – North and South Lakes

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Visions of an Art Trail past 6 – North and south Lakes

On the Rocks

The Woodstock Times

April 4, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


We continue to follow in the footsteps of the artists of the Hudson River School of Art. We have also been following the Art Trail which honors their memories. We have literally been standing where they stood when they sketched and painted our picturesque Catskill landscapes. In this chapter we are visiting site number six on the Art Trail. That is North and South Lakes.

The lakes were the property of the Catskill Mountain House Hotel when young Thomas Cole visited there in the early autumn of 1825. He must have spent a good bit of time exploring the visual possibilities of the surroundings, and that included the lakes.  He did his sketches for “Lake with Dead Trees” there and put it, along with two other canvases, up for sale – with an asking price of $20 each. It was the making of him as an artist. The three paintings sold quickly and received high praise in newspaper reviews. In short, Thomas Cole wowed the critics. It was, quite literally, the birth of the Hudson River School of Art. And it happened at the lakes.

When we visit South Lake it is quite easy to find our way to the site where Cole must have sat and sketched in preparation for painting “Lake with Dead Trees.” He did it on the north shore of the lake. Curiously, he made that body of water look a good bit smaller than it really is. We were also puzzled by the dead trees and guessed that the Hotel must have recently raised the lake’s dam in order to make it larger. That would have drowned all the trees along the old shoreline. In the far distance was High Point Mountain, looming above the lake. That craggy peak would be featured in countless paintings done in later time; artists cannot resist it. The site has been commemorated with a sign, part of the Art Trail.

Our working hypothesis, in this series, is that it was ice age events that made the landscapes that our famed artists painted. We are arguing that it was the glaciers that created the beauty that they painted and this is certainly true at both North and South Lakes. These basins were carved into the underlying sandstone bedrock by advancing glaciers. These were masses of ice that had risen up out of the Hudson Valley and flowed into the vicinity of the two lakes. To geologists, they are still easily imagined; we certainly “saw” them.

All glaciers are composed of ice and ice is a mineral, just like quartz or feldspar. But it is a very different sort of mineral. It’s silly to think of a quartz glacier advancing across a landscape, but ice can actually perform that nearly miraculous deed. All minerals melt, but ice melts at a very low temperature. That is one of the reasons that it is so dynamic. It does something that you won’t see in other minerals; it moves. At North Lake we see the effect of such movement. All along the eastern shore of the lake we find bedrock that displays the evidence of the motions of the glaciers. The evidence is in the form of westward trending scratches left by the advancing ice. The bottom of the glacier carried large amounts of sand, along with numerous cobbles and boulders. The sand ground and polished the bedrock, and then the cobbles and boulders gouged scratches into it. These scratches are called glacial striations. We see these striations all along the eastern shore of North Lake and also upon the bedrock that separate it from South Lake. If you visit the area, make sure to take a good look at those shoreline rocks; it won’t take you long to see what we have seen. If you have not done this before, you will find it to be quite a revelation. You are looking at the direct evidence of glaciation. The very motions of the ice are manifest before you; it is a marvel. We wonder if Thomas Cole ever noticed this. In 1825 it would have been nearly impossible to have explained these exotic features. Nobody truly understood the Ice Age back then.


The striations have compass directions and all the ones we see tell us the same thing; the glaciers rose out of the Hudson Valley and flowed westward and then southwestward into the vicinity of the two lakes. It was this advancing front of ice that scooped out these two basins and created the very landscape where Thomas Cole would begin his career.

The story gets better; there is at least some evidence of a colossal glacial collision in the South Lake vicinity. We find glacial striations that tell us of another mass of ice that flowed westward up Kaaterskill Clove and then turned north to cross over the Kaaterskill Falls site. That ice, we think, must have advanced until it collided with the ice coming in across North Lake from the east. What an image this gives us to imagine: two sizable glaciers colliding with each other, It’s Nature’s version of a train wreck.


We like to climb up the unmarked trail that runs east and parallel to the shore of South Lake. That trail affords us several locations where we can look down at today’s lake. In our mind’s eyes we can see into the past. Before us, from the northeast and from the southwest, two glaciers advance towards each other and then manifest a slow, grinding collision.

Nobody ever painted that scene.


  Note: most of Thomas Cole’s paintings are easily accessed online, including “Lake with Dead Trees.” Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”


Visions of the past 5 – Kaaterskill Falls

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Visions of an Art Trail past – Kaaterskill Falls.

On the Rocks

Robert and Johanna Titus

Woodstock Times

Mar, 28, 2013


We continue our tour of the Hudson River Art Trail. This week we are at stop five, Kaaterskill Falls. It’s a location where a small stream, some people call it Lake Creek, has created a large waterfall. We come here as the strangest of tourists; we come to see the sites the great landscape artists painted, and they are wondrous. We find our way to the very top of Kaaterskill Falls and we stand and stare at the beauty of this location. We gaze down the canyon below us and see as far as the great clove that lies beyond. But we are not here just to drink in the beauty of the scenes, marvelous as they may be; we are here to discover the ice age past that created what is here. Our theme, all along in this series, has been to argue that it was the Ice Age that shaped the landscapes that the great Hudson River artists painted.

At Kaaterskill Falls we are very conscious that we stand in the very footsteps of those many artists. We know that Thomas Cole visited in the 1820’s. He painted here and that was the making of the man. But there were so many others; they all came here and many of them also painted the spot. Asher Brown Durand, Sanford Robinson Gifford, William Henry Bartlett, Winslow Homer and many others worked at these falls. Currier and Ives also produced several views. Gifford even carved his name into the enormous boulder at the very top of the falls. To stand at the top of Kaaterskill Falls is to be closely crowded by spirits all around you. This is the exact site where the Hudson River School began; it is historic.

But there are several ways to enjoy these falls. The view from the top is the easiest to access and it is quite scenic. You take Rte. 23A to County Rte. 16 and follow that to Laurel House Road. Turn onto that road and park at its end. Take the short hike down the old dirt path and you have arrived at the top of the falls. That is a dangerous place; people have fallen to their deaths here so be careful. A well-marked new trail will take you to very safe platform that overlooks the falls. In the long ago past there was another good viewpoint nearby. It was a location called “Prospect Rock.” That was where you could look back at the falls from a high up perch. That view was quite nearly obscured by the trees which had grown back over time. You take the long abandoned railroad line south from the Laurel House parking area, and if you know somebody who can show you where to climb down a bit, you can find your way to that very spot. Recently, those trees have been cut down so the view has been restored.

Another way of enjoying the falls, and one which all area residents should make sure to pursue, is to hike up the yellow trail from below the falls. You drive up Rte. 23A from Palenville, pass by Bastion Falls, and park at the lot just up the road. Hike back down and begin an ascent just to the right of the stream. About a half hour later you will arrive at the bottom of the falls. It’s a grand scene to view from below. Thomas Cole and many others painted this outlook of Kaaterskill Falls.

A geologist looks up and sees several great ledges of sandstone. These are the cross sections of ancient Devonian age river channels up there. Those sands traveled out of the rising Appalachians, perhaps 380 million years ago, and were deposited in stream channels which eventually hardened into the rock that makes up the falls. Sandstone is very resistant to weathering and erosion and that’s one reason why there even is a Kaaterskill Falls. The ledge at the very top is called the “capstone” of the falls.

There is a lot more to the geological story, and that gets us to the falls’ glacial history. That takes us back to some of the latest chapters of the Ice Age. It was late in a time when the glaciers were still melting. Vast amounts of meltwater were pouring out of the high peaks of the Catskills and that includes Lake Creek. For a while, it would be a very busy little stream. There must have been times when the flow of meltwater over the falls would have been truly awesome.

Kaaterskill Falls has been frequently compared to Niagara Falls. The two are almost the same heights. Niagara is just a little bit wider, but they do share some other important similarities. Both lie at the upstream ends of distinct, relatively narrow canyons and that is a clue to their origins. These two canyons are the product of something that might be called waterfall retreat. Each is topped with rugged horizons of stratified rock, their “lips” or capstones. The flows of the two rivers drop off the lips of the two falls. The pounding that occurs at the bottoms of each creates something called a plunge pool. With time the capstone horizon hangs so far over the plunge pool that a collapse in inevitable. With such a collapse the top of the falls has retreated; the process continues and has continued since the end of the Ice Age. Both Niagara and Kaaterskill Falls have thus been retreating, Niagara for almost eight miles; the smaller Kaaterskill for only a little less than one. You can see a similar falls/canyon complex at High Falls in the town of Philmont across the Hudson in Columbia County.

All this is pretty typical waterfall behavior.  But at Kaaterskill Falls there is an unexpected wrinkle. There are features called glacial striations in the canyon, and they appear almost all the way up to the base of the falls. These are scratches that were gouged into the bedrock by an advancing glacier. That suggests that the retreat of Kaaterskill Falls occurred very late in the Ice Age and it was followed by one last re-advance of the ice. A glacier moved up the canyon and added the striations to it. No such thing is likely to have happened at Niagara.

We become time travelers; we stand at the very top of Kaaterskill Falls and look down to see a glacier immediately below us. It is a cloudy day and the ice below has a cold gray look to it. Immense crevasses break up the ice. These fractures formed as the ice made its last advance up the canyon. It is warm now, this late in the Ice Age, and the ice has stopped moving forward; it is melting. We can’t see the meltwater up here; we can only hear it as it drains downslope toward the main body of Kaaterskill Clove. It is a very loud sound that we hear.

Nobody ever painted this scene.

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



Visions of an ice age past 4 – Kaaterskill Clove

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Visions of an Art Trail past – Kaaterskill Clove

On The Rocks

The Woodstock Times

Feb. 28, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have been touring the new Hudson River School Art Trail, visiting those sites where so many of those paintings were inspired. We admire the great artists of the Hudson Valley. We revere the canvases that they painted and the creativity that they brought to our country. We are proud that they worked here, where we have chosen to live.  It is a thrill for us to stand where they stood and see what they saw as we travel though the landscapes of our Catskills and Hudson Valley. But, is it arrogance when we claim that we can see what they couldn’t? Or is it the privilege that comes with gaining a hard earned knowledge of our region’s ice age history? Whatever, we believe that all those who share our pleasure in the great art that was painted here would benefit greatly from understanding the ice age history that preceded it and, we think, made it all possible. Today we visit Kaaterskill Clove, site number four on the Art Trail.


The clove has long invited visitors; there has, it would seem, always been a path ascending it, probably stretching back well into human prehistory. This massive canyon has always been a magnet for artists; Thomas Cole painted it in the 1820s and established his reputation here. Palenville came to be an artist colony long before Woodstock. There was so much to paint.

This great canyon surely belongs somewhere in the American West; it seems too grand to be an eastern landscape. Its measurements are worthy of the Rockies; it is four miles long, almost two miles wide and roughly 2000 feet deep. Its many trails have, for generations, carried hikers to an abundance of scenic views, some wide and awesome, others intimate and of delicate beauty.

It is, every inch of it, the product of the Ice Age. Whole episodes of glaciation have passed by here and each culminated in powerful rushes of water from melting ice. Masses of glacial meltwater provided torrents of erosive might that pounded down the growing canyon and sculpted its awesome landscape. There must have been many days when the flows from high above competed to set new standards for a watery violence as they thundered down the canyon. Such days, warm by ice age standards, generated raging cascades of frightening power. The canyon must have frequently echoed with a truly resounding, hammering, violent cacophony of ear-splitting noise. Hollywood could not have portrayed what must have passed down this canyon. But are we guilty of an excessive and sensational exercise of purple prose? No, we are not exaggerating; this was the unrestrained Nature that carved Kaaterskill Clove.

But we choose to visit the clove during what may have been its quietest moment ever.

We visit it at the peak of one of the last advances of the ice, about 16,000 years ago. We are geologists; we get to pick all the exact dates and the exact times for our journeys. After all, we can sort through thousands of calendar dates and moments, looking for just the right one. After much pondering we have selected a 2:00 AM on a late January night, towards the end of one of the last advances of the ice. We are the mind’s eye and we can do this sort of thing. Our trek begins with us drifting down the Hudson Valley. High above is a full moon. Below is the ice of the glacier that presently fills that valley.

The moon, reflecting off the ice, provides a brilliance of illumination that is rarely matched in our modern world. We look down and see an almost luminous ice, broken by jet black crevasses. The curved nature of those fractures betrays recent movements of the glacier, but there is no such motion tonight. The temperature is a minus 30 degrees Fahrenheit. It’s been cold like that for weeks and the ice has frozen solid and ground to a complete halt. We did, after all, get to pick the time and the date, and we aimed for extremes.

We drift down the valley to where, someday, there will be a Palenville and we turn west and enter this ice age version of Kaaterskill Clove. It has reached midnight and the full moon hangs high in the sky. It again illuminates an ice age scene; now we can see a stream of ice that has turned west and entered the clove. It actually rises up the clove; ice can flow uphill when pushed from behind. We too drift westward and we decide to come to a halt and hang in the air, only a few hundred feet above the glacier.

It is a perfectly still night, with not the slightest breath of air. We hang in the sky and we can feel the cold. But we can, it would seem, also feel the complete silence as well. On some other less frigid night the ice would be moving and making all sorts of a racket, but not on this night; it is so completely hushed.

Above the glacier, cliffs rise up toward the top of the clove. There had been some warmer weather in earlier months and water melted out of the fractured rocks and then briefly drenched those cliffs. But tonight all that lies frozen into immense icicles. The moonlight now illuminates these hangings; they form ghostly draperies all around the walls of the canyon.

We are the mind’s eye; we can go anywhere and do anything. Now we choose to rocket high up into this Arctic sky. As we ascend, a great glacial landscape opens up all around. To the west all of the Catskills lie blanketed in thick ice. It catches the moonlight and reflects it with a brilliant sheen. Behind us, the Hudson Valley is not quite filled with ice. Numerous depressions and crevasses break up its image into a blocky mix of gray and black. Beyond we see the skyline of the Taconic Mountains, shining, almost silvery, against the starry black night. We slowly turn a full 360 degrees in this glacial nocturne. We are not arrogant; we are humbled and privileged by what we see.

Nobody painted this scene.


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


Visions of an ice age past 3 – Catskill Creek

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Visions of an Art Trail past – Catskill Creek

On The Rocks

Woodstock Times

Jan. 31, 2013

Robert and Johanna Titus


We have been traveling the Hudson River Art Trail, seeing the landscapes that so inspired the great American artists of the 19th Century. But ours have not been the journeys of art historians, but those of geologists. We are privileged to see what the artists could not; we can look into the distant past. Last time we visited Frederic Church’s Persian Revival house Olana and we saw the ice age history of that site. In this journey we visit what may have been Thomas Cole’s favorite scene: that is the view of Catskill Creek from Jefferson Heights just west of the Village of Catskill.

That location was just across Catskill Creek from Cole’s home. He frequently hiked there and composed views. In the foreground there was a great bend in the creek as it flowed by below. That was scenic enough, but in the distance it all got better. Out there was the Catskill Front, the fabled Wall of Manitou, lying on the western horizon. In a recess on that distant horizon, but still close enough to be seen, were the lower stretches of Kaaterskill Clove.

Cole seems to have done a dozen or so paintings at this location. Like any good artist he experimented. He tried out the scene at different times of the day and during different seasons of the year. His art can be called luminism; he liked to place the sun in the far distance and paint its light shining down and across the landscape. He could vary the sun’s color with the time of the day, saving deep reds and oranges for late afternoon. He returned to the site as the years went by, and painted changes that had occurred there. Much to his dismay he saw a railroad line put in. He lamented the encroachment of industry on what had been a purely pastoral image.  Landscape artists do not celebrate industrial development.

As the generations have passed since Cole’s time, a different sort of development came along: the forests returned. At least the trees did. They grew up and blocked Cole’s cherished view. When we first searched for it, we could not find it; it was hidden by the foliage. When the Art Trail was developed that posed a problem. The trail guide leads visitors to a nearby restaurant site, but you just cannot obtain a good view there. Thomas Cole’s grand scene seemed to have been lost to the very Nature he painted so well.

But, very recently, that all changed. At the top of the hill, at Jefferson Heights, a new sidewalk was installed. You can walk it and look to the west and, especially during the winter, you can see Cole’s bend in the river, right in front of you, and in the distance, the Catskills are out there too. It’s not as clear a view as Cole had, but it’s pretty good. We were thrilled when we first found this. We were sharing a moment with Thomas Cole and the whole Hudson River School of Art.

But we also saw this view as Cole couldn’t; we saw it about 15,000 years ago, at the close of the Ice Age. As geologists we get to pick exactly what times we go back to and visit. With our mind’s eyes we can witness those moments. And, for this journey, we picked a very good moment to visit. We wanted to see the Cole view as it was when the ice was melting. But we also wanted to see that view on the day when the melting reached its all-time peak. There had to have been a day and an hour when a warming climate was melting an absolute maximum of ice. That was the very moment when more water was cascading down Catskill and Kaaterskill Creeks than ever had before or ever would again. The channels and valleys of these streams strained to contain the flow – and failed.

We stood upon the same Jefferson Heights site, but for us it was that exact moment, 15,000 years ago. Below us, a vastness of water was pouring down the creek. It ignored the bend in the river as its flow rose and swelled up to overwhelm the whole valley. What we saw was a horizontal waterfall. The water presented a mixed image, contrasting its own gray brown colors with whitecap whites. This torrent swirled, and foamed, and thundered as it rushed by. The power of the flow was frightening; the sound was deafening. This was the full fury of Nature, displayed in a riotous image.

We looked up, all the way beyond to distant Kaaterskill Creek. Even in our mind’s eyes we could not travel that far. It must have been much worse out there, with a still greater flow of water coming down that steep canyon. We strained to see and were frustrated that we could not. We debated it and finally convinced ourselves that we were seeing a large rainbow rising above the mouth of the Clove. It was too distant for us to be sure. We were awed by all that we beheld and we fully understood that we were seeing history in the making. What we were watching was nothing less than the great rising crescendo of an ending Ice Age.

Nobody ever painted this scene.

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


Visions of the Past 2 – Olana

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Visions of the Past – Olana

On The Rocks

The Woodstock Times

Robert and Johanna Titus

Jan. 13, 2013


We have been, in this column, following the new Hudson Valley Art Trail and highlighting some of the great landscape art that was done in our region. Our focus, however, is to see how this landscape was influenced by the Ice Age. Our thesis is that it was the glaciers that sculpted these landscapes long before they were ever painted. We are scientists who have a deep appreciation for the broad and gradational boundaries where science blends into art. Stay with us on this theme as we write this series. Today let’s go to Olana, Frederic Church’s Persian Revival mansion high atop a hill overlooking a sweeping vista of the Hudson Valley. It’s stop number two on the Art Trail.

Church was, arguably, the most successful of all the Hudson Valley artists. His career began when he was a student of Thomas Cole. It was Cole who guided the young Church in developing his skills and he certainly influenced Church into becoming the great landscape artist that history remembers. One of those influential moments occurred when Cole and Church climbed what would come to be called “Church Hill,” east of what is today the Rip Van Winkle Bridge. Church must have been most impressed with the view; you look south and see, before you, the Hudson River and much of the Hudson Valley. In the distance was an unsurpassed vista of the Catskill Front and beyond the Shawangunks. The view is a natural kaleidoscope; it is never exactly the same from one moment to the next. As the sun and clouds pass across the sky, the light and shadows change continuously. The experience is compelling; your gaze is irresistibly drawn towards the valley view and you drift into an almost hypnotic state.

   View from Olana

   Frederic Church would someday own that view. He would build his palace, Olana, there. It would become a work of landscape art. His south porch would face that hypnotic view and it still does. Church, during the last third of his life, developed a number of locations on his property as “planned views.” These were sites where the trees were cleared and view opened up, purely for the art of it. Since his time, those clearings slowly became overgrown with trees and shrubs, blocking those magnificent views. But in recent years some of them have been restored. The 200 or so acres that are Olana will again be the work of art that Church intended all along.


Church Hill is the product of the Ice Age – entirely.

Church hill, when seen from high above, is a beautifully sculpted, symmetrical, teardrop shaped hill. It almost seems unnatural; surely some manmade process shaped it. But it is quite natural; it is an ice age feature called a rock drumlin. Starting more than 20,000 years ago, the Hudson Valley glacier began overriding this sizable knob of bedrock. That rock is part of the Normanskill Formation, and it is largely dark sandstone and black shale. By rock standards, that is actually pretty soft stuff, so it was not surprising that the passing ice might begin to cut into it.

Satellite image of Mt. Moreno and Church Hill


For 10,000 years or so that advance of the ice continued, on and off, during several major chapters of glaciation. Each advance of the ice brought a new episode of erosion into the bedrock. And each episode improved the shaping of the hill. Most drumlins are not composed of bedrock; they are made mostly of sand, gravel, and cobbles. This material comes to be shaped into a very predictable form. We liken that to the shape of an upside down teaspoon bowl. These typical drumlins are stretched out, north to south. The north-facing slopes are the steepest; the south facing ones taper down at a more gentle angle. The left and right flanks of drumlins are symmetrical, with steep slopes and a sharp crest in between. Rock drumlins are the same, just composed of shaped bedrock, not gravel.

Olana was placed at the top of the spoon bowl, at the crest of the drumlin. Its south porch faces the south, tapered slope and that afforded it its spectacular view. Two of the other planned views that you can visit today are on the Ridge Road. They are perched on the flanks of the rock drumlin. One looks west across the Rip Van Winkle Bridge, while the other looks northeast. More will be developed with time.

Frederic Church certainly appreciated his landscapes, but did he understand the ice age nature of this all? That is not entirely clear.  Church was fascinated by the polar landscapes of today’s world. He painted them in some of his most memorable works. See his Aurora Borealis (1865) or The icebergs (1861.) Church did know something about geology and he lived in a time when geologists had learned a great deal about our ice age history. But how much did Church understand about the ice age history of Olana? We really don’t know. His library contains several geology books but they do not offer inscriptions that might help us fathom his thinking on this matter.

We hope he did; we would like it if he could have seen Olana as we do. When we stand on the south porch at Olana we are, like anyone else, captivated by the view. We sit and watch as it changes before us, and it is a wonder. We are envious of Church’s 30 years living here and his experiencing all this for all that time. But we probably see the view differently from how he did. In our mind’s eyes we travel to this site when it was at the bottom of a moving glacier. The cold is unbearable, but worse is the absence of sunlight. At the bottom of the thick ice all is in pitch black darkness. But although we cannot see, we can hear the sounds above as the glacier moves, making low groans and sudden sharp cracks. But below and all around we hear grinding noises. Cobbles and boulders are being dragged across the bedrock.

Nobody painted this scene.

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


A vision into the past 1 – Cedar Grove

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Visions of the past 1, the Porch at Cedar Grove

On The Rocks

The Woodstock Times

Dec. 2012

Robert and Johanna Titus


One of the cultural landmarks of our region is the renowned Hudson Valley School of Art. Its artists explored the Hudson Valley and the eastern Catskills during the middle two quarters of the 19th Century. The canvases they painted captured the region when much of it was still wilderness. The word “sublime” has been used to describe the raw natural scenery that they sought to portray.  We admire the works of these artistic genius’ and we revere the landscapes that, to a great extent, have still not yet lost their wild natural states.

The recently conceived of Hudson Valley Art Trail is at once an honor to this artistic tradition and also an opportunity, even inducement to go out and explore the natural beauty that inspired the art. The two of us have been closely involved with Cedar Grove, the Thomas Cole National Historic Site, pretty much since it was founded, a bit more than ten years ago. It is only natural for us to participate in the art trail, bringing our own visions to it. We pause at the various locations on the trail and gaze at the scenery that was painted at each one.

But we bring very different visions to each site. We are scientists and we see each one for its geological heritage. We look into the past and see a certain sublimity that was denied to most of these artists. We feel privileged to see what they could not, and we have strived to portray what we see in some of the Art Trail literature. We are not artists; we serve as geologists who “paint” with words our visions of the past. We would like to, starting here, bring you back to many of the sites on the Art Trail and transport you visually to our version of these landscapes.

The view from the porch at Cedar Grove. Catskills in distance.


We begin where the Art Trail begins, on the porch of Cedar Grove, Thomas Cole’s home in the village of Catskill. The porch faces west and commands a view of the Hudson Valley and the distant east-facing slopes of the Catskill Mountains. Today’s view is noisy with highway sounds, and urban in its modern setting, but it is still a very fine experience. Thomas Cole enjoyed a far more rural version; he would likely have been appalled by what is here today.

But we can do Thomas Cole one better. He was last here in 1848; we can travel back to 15,848 BP and enjoy the very same view at a very different time. Back then the Cole porch site did exist; one could have found it using GPS devices. We don’t need that technology; we have the benefits of something far better – the mind’s eye.  We travel back to an August 9th of that year and stand exactly where the Cole porch is and gaze west.

What happens immediately is that all the traffic noises go silent. It is a quiet day, with no wind. There are a few late summer insects but no birds. All around us is a thin foliage of young pine and spruce. None rise high enough to block our view to the west. Out there, across the valley, lie the Catskill Mountains. We see shapes that are familiar. We spy Windham High Peak and Cairo Round Top. To the south lie Stoppel Point, then North and South Mountains. We strain to see High Point and Round Top and the distant Overlook Mountain. All these form a familiar skyline, but still – something is wrong with our view.

Below these peaks there is no greenery. The slopes of our Catskills lack trees. This landscape is just starting to recover from the Ice Age. Forests, and even lone trees, have not yet had time to repopulate our Catskills. This is such an uncomfortably austere view of the Catskills; we can scarcely believe it. But it is so.

Now we look down a little. The whole of the Hudson Valley in front of us is flooded. Stretching out across the valley for nearly ten miles is a grand glacial lake. It has a name; it is Glacial Lake Albany. We cannot see that far, but it extends off to the south, all the way to today’s New York City. Most of the way, it is about 60 feet deep, so it is a large lake. Cold too; it all formed from recently melted ice.

Maybe we cannot see to its southern end, but just to the right of our view is its current northern boundary. The waters of Lake Albany abut the edge of a valley glacier which is spread out across the entire expanse of the Hudson, west to east. This is the Hudson Valley glacier and, on this summer day, it is melting and in full retreat. Though warm, it’s a gray day. The glacier is in various shades of gray, broken by large black fissures. Enormous volumes of meltwater are pouring off of, and out of the glacier.

Suddenly we see the breaking off of a great chunk of ice. The disintegrating ice has become fragmented and unstable. A huge ice berg has broken loose and plummeted into the lake below. That berg sinks quickly into the waters and then, in a flash, rockets up again. Now it has fragmented into a hundred smaller bits. This miniature cataclysm had set loose a new natural disaster. The great splash has generated a tidal wave that is billowing off to the south. A chaos of foaming water, bobbing up and down with a host of small bergs, is expanding off to the south. The tumult rocks back in forth in the confines of Lake Albany, but in an hour or so, all settles down again.

None of this will ever be painted.


The escarpment at Thacher Park July 6, 2017

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The escarpment

Windows Through Time

Columbia-Greene Media.

May 2010

Robert Titus


You have probably seen the news of a woman who was struck by a falling rock at John Boyd Thacher Park. I hope she has a speedy recovery. But, what drew her to the trail where this accident occurred?

John Boyd Thacher Park is one of our region’s scenic gems. It occupies a position high up at the top of the Helderberg Mountains. The whole park is one great overlook. The view is a sweeping panorama of a broad rural landscape. There are apple orchards down there and all sorts of beautiful countryside. Fifteen miles, or so, off to the northeast lies Albany, the nearest urban area. You can see it quite well, without it messing up the scenic nature of what is close by.

The park has been there for very nearly a century. It was the gift of Mrs. Emma Thacher, wife of an Albany mayor. It, of course, is named for her husband. It has always been a state park and a popular one. The view is its leading draw. You can see much of the Hudson Valley from up there, as well as parts of the Mohawk Valley. There have been a number of facilities, including a swimming pool, play areas, picnic and barbeque facilities. These are joined by 25 miles of trails, the best known one is the Indian Ladder Trail which drops down off the escarpment and follows a tall cliff off to the west. The trail passes waterfalls and the openings of caves. It’s not a hard hike, having well laid out staircases and footings. The park is well suited for nearly everybody in the family.

The Helderberg Mountains form what is called an escarpment.  That is a great ledge of rock facing a broad open landscape.  You are aware of this wherever you are in the park. All the roads and sidewalks follow the edge of the escarpment and all of them offer views.

What, exactly, is an escarpment? It’s not just a ledge of rock; it is a ledge of very hard rock. Something about it makes it far more resistant than horizons of strata above and below. In this case, those strata belong to the Helderberg Limestone. You will see the Helderberg as soon as you arrive. The rocks have a dull gray color to them. I hate to admit it, but these are really boring looking rocks. In this column, we have visited the Helderberg a number of times. It is one of the most important units of rock in our region. At Thacher we find out how important.

In short, it produces a lot of important landscape. I would like you to keep in mind this concept of an escarpment as you travel to Albany and back. Coming south from Albany on any number of highways you will look ahead and up and see the breath of the Helderberg Escarpment. It spreads across the entire horizon when viewed from most locations. That makes it big and Thacher occupies just a very small part of it.

Some highways, like Rt. 32, will take you right up the steep slope of the escarpment and, after you have crossed the top, you will soon find your way to another escarpment. This one is smaller but it is there. And, after passing that one, soon you will find your way to still another. It doesn’t seem to ever end. With time, you will look ahead and see the northeast Catskills. These mountains make up one more escarpment. And it is for the same reason; the northeastern Catskills are composed of stratified rocks almost as tough and resistant as the Helderberg Limestone.

We are learning something about stratigraphy itself. Our region is composed of layers of rock, strata, which all tilt just a little to the southwest. Some horizons are composed of tough stuff and they have eroded into escarpments. Other horizons are composed of strata that are much softer and they become lowlands or swales, lying between the escarpments. Once we understand this and we travel around and notice it all, then we have a better sense of the lay of the land. We become much more knowledgeable and attuned to the landscape all around us.

Then there is time, the endless amounts of geological time that all this represents. We drive south on Rt. 32, from Albany to the Catskills. We pass one escarpment after another, one horizon of stratified sedimentary rock after another. And it slowly sinks in how much time it must have taken to accumulate all these horizons of rock. It is reckoned by geologists that we are looking at tens of millions of years.

The season is up and running at Thacher. May 1st was the usual opening day for the Indian Ladder Trail. That will give you a chance to go visit this fine escarpment. Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu Visit his website “The Catskill Geologist.”


South by southwest June 29, 2017

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South by Southwest

Windows Through Time

July 16. 2009

Robert Titus


I mention the compass direction south, 30 degrees west from time to time in my columns. That’s a pattern that shows up a lot in the Hudson Valley and also throughout the Catskills. Long, straight fractures, called joints, commonly show orientations the same or similar to this. Folded bedrock strata, in the region, dip into the ground on this orientation. Even the Wall of Manitou, the great Catskill Front, displays roughly this same compass direction. The south, 30 degrees west compass reading is nearly everywhere in our region. It is Nature presenting us with a pattern. Nature does that to piqué our curiosity. She knows how to do that; she is good at it!

   Hikers stand near to a southwest oriented joint

The Wall of Manitou with its SW orientation


The job of a scientist, when confronted with a pattern like this, is to search for a theory to explain it. Let’s find a theory.

I need to say something first though. The proper scientific meaning of the word theory is widely misunderstood. A theory, to we scientists, is not a guess or a hunch. It is an explanation which is in accord with a wide variety of observations. It is an explanation that fits the facts. A well founded theory has been subjected to a lot of study. We say it has been “tested” and it has passed all of its tests. A good, well-tested theory is regarded as fact.

And we are going to need one very good theory to explain all that we have seen. We need to find a single event that folded all the rocks of our region, all in the same direction. That marvelous theory must explain all that joint fracturing as well. Finally, it would be good if it accounted for the Wall of Manitou. That’s not going to be easy. Our theory is going to have to be a jack of all trades.

Geologists were stumped by all this for a very long time. Decades ago, it was not unusual for very talented geologists to stand on the highest ledge of the Catskill Front, gaze out to the east, and wonder just how those folds, joints and the great escarpment itself had formed. We began to come to an understanding in the middle and late 1960’s. That was the exciting time when we first recognized the theory of plate tectonics, the greatest geological discovery of the last century.  That provided the key to the problem.

Many of you likely know the elements of plate tectonic theory. It argues that the Earth’s crust is broken up into many large pieces, called plates. North America is one plate. Europe is another, and so is Africa. The plates are mobile and drift across the globe, occasionally colliding with each other. The collisions of two large plates can result in a great mountain building event, something we call an orogeny. Over the past several tens of millions of years, for example, an eastern Pacific plate has been colliding with South America; the results are the Andes of the Andean Orogeny.

We had a major collision east of the Hudson. This event has been named the Acadian Orogeny. It began a little less than 400 million years ago when North America experienced an immense collision with another huge landmass, something you would likely call Europe. The best way to come to understand such things is to look at today’s world and visit a place where analogous events are currently going on. That place would be southern Asia.

Starting tens of millions of years ago, the plate we call India drifted across the Indian Ocean and collided with southern Asia. The collision of two land masses of this sort began an enormous mountain building event. The rocks caught between the two, were compressed and squeezed for millions of years. An enormous mountain range, the Himalayas, is the product of all this. The folding of its rocks is likely to be roughly parallel the collision. Many tens of millions of years later it is not uncommon to see the breakup of such an enormous “supercontinent.” Imagine, for a minute, if India detached from Asia and drifted back out into the Indian Ocean.

All this is what seems to have happened here. A landmass, much like India, collided with North America. We call that colliding landmass Avalonia and it approached from the southeast. The collision compressed rocks into the northeast-southwest pattern that we have been looking at. Later Avalonia split and drifted back to the east. With that, the long compressed rocks experienced the relaxation which triggered the brittle fracturing that made up the joints, again with the same compass reading.

Our theory fits the facts and explains our observations. It explains why south, 30 degrees west is so important around here. That’s what makes this theory so powerful. We haven’t yet, however, fully explained the Wall of Manitou. We may need another theory for that.

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

Valley of the kings June 22, 2017

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The Valley of the Kings

Stories in Stone

Robert Titus


It is a special vicinity, the eastern side of the Hudson Valley. It became a fabled land of America’s 19th century gentry. This has a culture of its own: an American aristocracy made up of the Montgomerys, Roosevelts, Delanos, and even the upstart Asters and Vanderbilts There were others, but mostly, it is the land of Livingstons. It was all these whose lives were lightly fictionalized by Edith Wharton. But, to many, this is also the land of Andrew Jackson Downing, Alexander Jackson Davis and Calvert Vaux. They were the founders of American landscape architecture and they made the valley what it became. Here they created landscape motifs that spread across all of America.

And what a landscape they had to work with and what wonderful sceneries they created. Many of their grand old mansions are hidden along the forested banks of the great river. But a number are now open to the public. You can visit and experience effects that were planned by these great architects. There weren’t just driveways; there were great sweeping circular drives, generally leading up to imposing porte cocheres or colonnaded facades.


                                                                       Front lawn of Montgomery Place with circular driveway.

There weren’t just grounds planted with grass. These were landscapes where each tree and shrub was selected for its effect. Commonly, each was planned, planted and carefully tended to make it an integral part of a grand landscape plan. These farsighted architects thought to the future and the future is now. The old trees have grown into the majesty of old age. Their aged limbs often hang down, draping manicured lawns below.  Sadly, these architects could never hope to live long enough to experience the full results of their labors.


                                                                            Trees at the Vanderbilt Mansion at Hyde Park

Scenic views would be assured, but more was required to achieve a splendid perfection. Trees were left uncut or actually grown in order to frame some particularly desired view. Driveways and footpaths were deliberately routed in order to lead the visitor to some special vantage point. Even the homes themselves might be coyly veiled in forest until the drive rounded some special bend. Ponds were created in just the right place for just the right effect. And there were the gardens.

And then there were the “planned views.” The inhabitants of these wonderful homes would be able to enjoy vistas that were actually carefully integrated into grand plans. The Hudson Valley provided most of the raw material for that. This broad and serene river had cut handsome steep banks into its shores. Picturesque ravines descended to the riverbanks. Beyond were the Catskill Mountains whose imposing front, the “Wall of Manitou,” kept changing color with the time of the day and season of the year.

But more than anything else it was the abundance of beautiful flat riverside platforms that made the landscape. Nature seems to have chosen the eastern bank as the ideal setting for a special land. But why? It all has to do with the geology. A mere 14,000 years ago this verdant and green stretch of valley was a land of melting glaciers, it was the ice age carved the Catskill Front and also made the east bank of the lower Hudson.

I have written about Glacial Lake Albany before. It drowned much of the eastern bank of the Hudson in Rennselaer, Columbia and Dutchess Counties. The lake was elevated high above today’s Hudson and so too was its lake bottom. Lake floors come to be blanketed by thick sequences of monotonously flat mud. Our lake bottom emerged as the ice melted away and its waters drained into the Atlantic. That left a flat platform towering high above the eastern Hudson. It offered splendid vistas of the river and they attracted the wealthy. Visit Montgomery Place, Wilderstein, Springwood or the Vanderbilt mansion and appreciate the views and the landscape architecture. Please notice that which is flat. It’s all of it a gift of the ice age.

                                                               Springwood, the Roosevelt mansion on lake bottom sediments.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu. Join the Titus facebook page “The Catskill Geologist”


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