"I will never kick a rock"

A visit to Olana, Frederic Church’s home overlooking the Hudson 8-19-16

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Passage of the ice

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus


Our Catskill Hudson Valley region is renowned for its artistic heritage. Few specific locations are more historic than Olana, the Moorish Revival mansion of Frederic Church.

Church first visited the site when he was a student, studying under Thomas Cole, founder of the Hudson River school of landscape art. Church would be that school’s greatest artist. When the two of them painted at the future Olana site, it was an agricultural landscape with a fabulous view of the Hudson Valley. Much later in life, when Church had made himself an enormous success, he was able to buy the property and begin building his home. He spent most of the last 40 years of his life living at this wonderfully scenic site. I envy him.

Church was a student of natural history and he painted a good bit of it. Among his many interests was a fascination with the Arctic and he did a number of views of its icy landscapes. He knew something of the ice age history of the Hudson Valley and must have been able to imagine what Olana was like back at that time. But I wonder if he understood the strong connection between Olana and the Ice Age. There really is a remarkable connection, still visible to the mind’s eye of the geologist.

Olana is located on what is today called Church Hill. That is located just south of Mt. Moreno. To stand on either of these hills offers a number of very fine vistas and Church valued each of these views. But the best was denied to him. That best view is from directly above these hills. Such views would not be available until airplanes were invented and that would wait until after his death.

Now we have aerial photography and satellite photography as well. We can look down upon the landscape and see things that Church could not even imagine. And one of those things shows us the ice age heritage of this area. Take a look at the satellite image I present here. You are looking at both Church Hill and Mt. Moreno to its north.  Both are streamlined. Mt. Moreno shows this best. The northeast end of the mountain is the tallest part. Extending off from this end is a very clear and very sharp crest to the mountain. Church Hill is not quite as well streamlined, but it is not bad. There is a blunt northeastern end and the hill is tapered off to the southwest.

What caused this? The answer is the passage of the ice. Between about 20,000 and 14,000 years ago, the Hudson Valley turned cold and a great glacier descended it, swelled to high elevations and flooded the whole valley. For 6,000 years or so, it flowed down the valley. All during that time it scoured and abraded the landscape it passed across. Slowly, what must have been irregularly shaped hills came to be streamlined. Few hills show this better than Mt. Moreno and Church Hill.

This sort of feature is not very common but there are a number of them. They are called rock drumlins and they are emblems of the Ice Age. In future columns I will describe another type of drumlin. These will be ice age hills, streamlined again, but composed of sand and gravel. These are simply called drumlins. They, all of them, whether composed of rock or gravel, speak to us of a very extensive ice age history for the Hudson Valley.

If you visit Olana, you will want to stand upon the south porch of the home. That porch faces down the Hudson Valley. The view is a wonder. Frederic Church was very intentional about this. He deliberately planned his house so that this porch would have this view. Every time you visit it, the view is different. It varies with the time of the day and the seasons of the year. It varies with the weather as well, and each viewing is a separate work of art. Church intended that.

But the mind’s eye of the geologist can see things that the great artist couldn’t. When I stand there, I see a great darkness and I feel a terrible chill. I am at the bottom of an immense and thick glacier. I can feel it moving across Church Hill and I can sense its southward motion. I can hear the popping and cracking of the brittle ice as it lumbers south. I can hear the scraping sound it makes as its ice grinds into the bedrock of the hill and peels off enormous amounts of material.

And then, suddenly, I am back in the present. I gaze southward again and see Church’s grand view for what it is: a gift of the Ice Age. I wonder if Frederic Church knew this.

Reach the author at titusr@hartwick.edu


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The Second Windows Through Time column -view from Mountain House site. 8-12-16

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This was our second Windows Through Time column, from March 2009


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View from the Mountain House ledge

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus


North-South Lake State Park is one of the most scenic landscapes in all of the eastern United States. It is located on the Wall of Manitou, the Catskill Front. The “wall” overlooks a 70 mile stretch of the Hudson Valley – that makes for a lot of very nice views. The absolute best part of it is the Mountain House ledge. That was the location of the famed Catskill Mountain House Hotel which stood there from the 1820’s to the 1960’s. The hotel was located there because of the view. All sorts of people came to visit this very fashionable hotel, but mostly it was a Who’s Who of the American 19th Century: industrialists, businessmen, politicians, and so on. Other guests included some of the most talented of the country’s writers and artists. The Hudson River school of landscape art was founded here. Its artists prowled the nearby mountains searching for and finding wonderful views to paint.

The hotel is gone but the view remains. Artists still come here and they still paint.

Geologists come here too, many of them and often. We prowl the mountains searching for and finding wonderful geological histories. We look at the landscape and we can read its geological heritage. The signs are there. Epic stories of advancing glaciers compete with tales of ancient fossil forests. Petrified rivers flow across fossilized floodplains; it’s all there, if you know what to look for.

Then there is the view from the Mountain House Ledge itself. We stand or sit and we gaze into the east. The Hudson River, below, has been there for possibly hundreds of millions of years. But that’s not enough time; we gaze beyond the river. There, all along the horizon, south to north, are the Taconic Mountains. Today they are a series of not terribly elevated mountains, hills really. They are pretty – not lofty, and scenic more than majestic. They are green all summer and, in that season, never white with Alpine snow. There are few superlatives to use when describing them, but they are nice.

These “mountains” do not conjure up quite the same emotions as do their neighboring Berkshires, but . . . they are nice.

To the mind’s eye of the patient geologist there is much to see from the Mountain House ledge. I planted myself there one summer twilight and slipped into the darkening eastern horizon. As the sun, behind me, retreated and the modern Taconics faded into darkness, I could see into the past.

Out there it was a little more than 450 million years ago. I was startled to see a vast expanse of ocean before me. This is called the Iapetus Sea, sometimes also named the Proto-Atlantic. Its waters stretched all the way to the horizon. I watched as time flew by, millions of years of it. From time to time great eruptions were occurring just over that horizon. Something was happening out there.

That something was a volcanic landmass and it was moving, very slowly. It was drifting eastward towards a collision with North America. I couldn’t see it yet, but something much the same shape, size and form as today’s Japan was crashing into North America. From time to time I could feel the rippling of the earthquakes that accompanied that collision. Then I could see more great plumes of soot rising above distant erupting volcanoes.

There was a day when the peak of a rising volcano poked above the oceanic horizon and now, for the first time, there was visible land out there. I watched as more millions of years passed by. That small peak was joined by more and then many more. They coalesced into a single rising landmass. Something we call the Appalachian realm was in the process of being born – these were the infant Taconic Mountains.

They rose and they rose. They erupted and they shook. Time, millions and millions of years of it, was compressed and speeded up for me as I watched a great mountain range rise to 10,000 feet in elevation and then quite a bit more. But then there was a new motion. The collision was far more advanced and now great thrusting motions shoved masses of rock westward and toward me. The earth shook violently with each of these shoves.

I involuntarily took a few steps backwards whenever the motions were too strong for me to bear. I am a geologist and I knew what was going on, but still it was frightening to watch.

Then, at last the Taconics had risen to their maximum. They towered above what would someday be the Hudson Valley. It was an awesome sight to view.

And . . . then it was over. These mountains stopped rising. The great tectonic shoving had run out of steam. Now this towering landscape began to erode away. First it was a slow process and later the erosion accelerated. Enormous mountain streams clawed away at the steep mountain slopes and brought them down, inch by inch, foot by foot.

When my vision was over I was gazing again across the Hudson Valley and into the Taconics. There, before me, was the serenity of a summer morn, but I knew now the violent makings of that picturesque scene. I had seen something that those long ago Hudson River artists had missed.    Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu

The Mind’s Eye, Our first column -March 2009 – 8-4-16

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This was  Robert’s first column in the Columbia-Greene newspapers, back in March of 2009.


The mind’s eye of a geologist

Windows Through Time

Robert Titus


Welcome to my worlds. I am happy to join the Register-Star chain and I would like to introduce myself and what will be my new Thursday column, “Windows Through Time.” I am a geologist and a professor of geology at Hartwick College. I have been writing about our regional geology, in various publications, for the last 18 years and I have found that to be a fascinating endeavor. There is a lot of history here in the Hudson Valley and throughout the Catskill Mountains as well.

Think about it. Where you are sitting right now is a spot on the globe, it has a longitude and latitude. This spot has always been here and always is a very long time. Our planet is estimated to be about 4.7 billion years old. Your longitude and your latitude have been here all of that time. What was it like a century ago? We have enough history so we can probably answer that question. But what was your spot like a thousand years ago? Our history is not that good. This was a land of Indians way back then but we certainly don’t know what was going on exactly where you sit today.

From here on it only gets worse. What was it like here 10,000 years ago, or 10,000,000? How about a billion years ago? An awful lot of history has been lost. There was a Mar. 24, 9,007,091 year, BC but there is no evidence at all as to what it was like here. It is a shame; we would like to know so much more about the past, it is after all our past.

Geology is the great preserver of history but the great destroyer of it as well. The rocks preserve moments of time, which can be read if you know how. But geology also has its dark and destructive side. The processes of erosion have erased most of history. I am a geologist and it is my job to try to recover as much of the past as possible, and to relate that history to you the general reading public.

Wherever we travel, we geologists live in three worlds. For me the first world is the one that you know as well. It is the land of upstate New York. It is the HudsonValley and the CatskillsMountains. It has beautiful green summers and spectacular autumns. Its winters could be improved, but it is a marvelous place. It is steeped in history and even celebrates a quadricentennial this year.

The next two worlds are those that I need the mind’s eye to visit, the human imagination takes us all on grand journeys, some of them into the deep past. For me the second world is the one which is preserved in the bedrock which is all around me, wherever I go. The bedrock is usually composed of the sediments that accumulated in very ancient oceans or landscapes that covered our region hundreds of millions of years ago. Then too, there are the bedrock masses that make up the cores of mountain ranges that once towered above our region but no longer exist. With the use of my mind’s eye I can travel to these ancient places and experience what it was like during those times. I really do see them, and feel them and smell them. The mind’s eye is a window through time.

My third mind’s eye world is the one preserved in the landscape itself.  Most of us appreciate the beauty of our region’s landscape, and many of us honor the Hudson Valley school of art that was founded here. But not many appreciate what can be seen geologically. You see, the landscape wears the scars of its recent geological past and a geologist’s mind’s eye can perceive that chapter of time. Around here, that recent past was a time of a great ice age. I marvel when I gaze into the Hudson Valley or into the Catskills and see the glacial features that are always before me. I cannot go anywhere without seeing the scars of the Ice Age and a lot of them. I look at landscape and what my imagination sees are advancing glaciers or, sometimes, great masses of melting ice. It is a wonder to behold.

My task, as I start this column, is simply to take you along. I would like it very much if you were able to see the world around as we geologists do. This is that scary thing called science, but that should not intimidate you; there is much art in this science and it is not all that difficult to come to understand. And, it is so rewarding to see the land in this fashion. If you have loved the landscape already, you will only appreciate it more for understanding its geological heritage. Come along and look into these windows through time with me.

Contact the author at titusr@hartwick.edu or by mail at Department of Geology, Hartwick College, Oneonta, NY 13820


Glacial Lake Schoharie 7-31-16

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Glacial Lake Schoharie and Vroman’s Island

You should first read our other post below


When you look south, down the Schoharie Creek Valley from the top of Vroman’s Nose, you will see a broad and very flat valley floor. In the Catskills this sort of thing is almost always the bottom of a glacial lake. That is the case here. About 14,000 years ago a valley glacier filled the valley from Middleburgh to the north. That dammed the north flowing Schoharie Creek.


Blog 1

See our second photo. It shows the glacier and Glacial Lake Schoharie. The waters of Lake Schoharie reached up almost to the top of Vroman’s Nose. That made it, for a time, Vroman’s Island! Most lakes have to have a place where they drain. In this case the waters drained off through the village of Franklinton. That’s on the far right lower corner of our map. Eventually the glacier melted away and Lake Schoharie drained to leave a dry valley floor, flat like the old lake bottom.


Vromans Island

A visit to Vroman’s Nose 7-31-16

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A visit to Vroman’s Nose


Have you been to the top of  Vroman’s Nose? That’s a hill just a little southwest of Middleburg. You head south, from Middleburg, on Rte. 30 and turn right onto Mill Creek Road. In about a mile there is a parking lot. From there you can climb the “nose.” It’s a town park so there are no trespassing problems. At the top there is the famous “dance floor” which is a glacially scoured surface (see photo below). It has been polished and striated by the passing ice. That was about 14,000 years ago. The cliff just beyond, was plucked by the ice as it passed across the top of the nose.



Blog 2


The nose is a very fine example of what we call “ramp and pluck topography.  Take a look at our second photo. The ramp side is to the left. The right-moving Schoharie Creek glacier advanced up this slope and scoured that side into a gentle incline. As the glacier passed across the top of the nose, it formed a bond with the underlying bedrock and yanked (or plucked) large amounts of rock loose. That left the right side “plucked” slope. You can stop along Rte. 145, just east of town, and see this profile.

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The new Kaaterskill Falls trail. 7-22-16

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Have you been to the trail that climbs from Rte. 23A at Bastion Falls to Kaaterskill Falls?

It has been thoroughly renovated. Several small staircases have been added, but a very large staircase takes hikers around and to the right of the falls. This has been badly needed. Over the decades, foot traffic has been eroding into the slope, damaging it greatly.



Take a look and see the trail as it was. Do you see how “pounded” it had gotten? Now see a photo we took just the other day (below). Looks a lot better, doesn’t it.


The new staircase eventually joins the Blue Trail and takes hikers to the top of Kaaterskill Falls.

This is something that we have been wanting for decades. We plan to do a series of articles, in the Woodstock times, about this.

fond farewell to local papers. 7-16-16

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This would have been our last column for Columbia Greene newspaper chain but they would not run it as we wrote it.



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A fond farewell

Windows Through Time

Robert and Johanna Titus


This is our 385th consecutive week in your newspaper. We have been writing Windows Through Time for more than seven years. But this is also our last visit with you. The newspaper business has grown increasingly difficult and things change. We have no regrets and we are looking to the future, not the past.

Still, we think we owe it to you to sum things up today and say good bye. What have we wished to impart upon you, our readers? We have been on some most remarkable journeys together. We have been traveling though half a billion years of history. Do you live east of the Hudson? Then most of the rocks around you are about 450 million years old. Take a good look. Do you see black shales and dark gray sandstones? Then you are looking at the Normanskill Formation. Those sedimentary rocks accumulated as sediments on the bottom of a very deep sea, The Normanskill Sea.

You would have to travel out into the middle of the Pacific Ocean so see oceans this deep in today’s world – that would be the Marianas Deep. But you are not at the bottom of the Pacific; you are perhaps in Chatham. That’s typical of the journeys we have taken you on. Our column has always been about seeing our region in terms of what it has been like throughout time.

Do you live in the Hudson Valley? Then look east and up at the Taconic Mountains. They are all that is left of a mountain range that probably rose up to elevations of 15,000 feet or so. Can you envision these mountains in your mind’s eye? Then you are looking through another “window through time.” Now turn west and look up at the Catskills. The mountains you see before you are a petrified delta. We wrote about this delta many times. It is science’s oldest known fossil forest. About 385 million years ago trees grew up there! In fact, there was even a tropical jungle up there. Now this is all gone. Except, of course, as fossils.

How often have you driven west on Rte. 23 from the Rip Van Winkle Bridge? We took you there many times these last seven years. Great outcrops of gray rock tower above the highway. We have learned that these rocks transport us back through time about 400 million years. They take us to the shallow bottoms of the tropical seas that once covered all of New York State. We went to John Boyd Thacher State Park and saw the same inviting ocean. Our New York State once closely resembled today’s Bahamas! You learned that right here.

Look out your nearest window. Use your mind’s eyes and see the deep ocean that was once right out there. You can see the shallow tropical sea and the jungles that were once there too. Ours have been wonderful journeys.

If our land was once a tropical paradise, it was also an arctic wasteland. It doesn’t much matter where you are right now, look north then you can travel back through time and watch glaciers advancing toward you. Had you known that before? They reach us and pass us by. Eventually the climate warmed and they all melted away. That was the fun part as enormous volumes of raging, foaming, thundering torrents cascaded out of the mountains. Those waters created a lake that filled the lower Hudson Valley. Stand atop the hill at Olana and look down upon this enormous lake – another journey through time!

Did you join us when we climbed up to the top of the Mountain House Ledge on a full moon January midnight during the Ice Age? Did you look down into the frozen Hudson Valley and see the moonlight reflecting off the ice? Well then you learned what our lives are like all the time. We enjoyed bringing you along.

The world can be a dangerous place, even where we live. We traveled up and down the Hudson Valley and looked at many locations where landslides have occurred or are likely to occur. We felt it was important to inform you of these threats. Windows Through Time always sought to educate you, our readers about these sorts of thing.

Will you miss us? Well we will still be around. Come and see us at the Catskill Interpretive Center on August 13. We will be at the Mountain Top Historical Center on September 10th, and we will be doing a Hudson Valley Ramble at Olana on September 24. Join our Facebook page and you will hear of other events. Follow our new blog “Thecatskillgeologist.com.” We are NOT going away.

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


A New Exhibit in Arkville 5-16-16

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We have, up and running, an exhibit at the Erpf Center. That’s at the Catskill Center for Conservation and Development in Arkville. The exhibit is devoted to describing the stratigraphy and Devonian geological history of the Catskills. We have a number of posters describing the different stratigraphic units of the Catskills. And we have a number of rock specimens too; these mostly show the fossils of the Catskills. We are jointed by noted photographer Art Murphy. Art has made a name for himself photographing mostly Devonian fossils. Our exhibit will be up until July 30. We hope that you can come and see it.


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A First Post on a New Blog 6-16-16

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                            Welcome to our brand spanking new blog site “The Catskill Geologist


We are just starting out so we will be a little rough at first. We have some learning to do. Let’s visit a nice glacial moraine. Take Route 23A east from its intersection with Rte. 32 Turn left onto Ramsey Schoolhouse Rd.1 Palenville moraine

and head north. You will pass onto Paul Saxe Road and continue north. As you approach Cauterskill Road look to your right. There is a lovely moraine. See the kettle pond and rising above it a small knoll. We call that knoll a kame. This is kame and kettle topography. Look north and, in your mind’s eye, see a glacier rising above the moraine.

Now, let’s turn around and go a short distance back down the road. Look to your right (west) and you will see a cross section of a moraine, exposed along the side of the road. See the large boulders, something typical of a moraine.

4 Palenville C

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