"I will never kick a rock"

Pillow talk

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Pillow Talk
On the Rocks
The Woodstock Times
June 3, 1999
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

There is something naturally mysterious about the bottom of the sea. Sea floors are dark, hidden and nearly impossible to get to, so of course they are shrouded in a captivating sort of mystery. But if the bottom of the sea is a puzzle, what about under the bottom of the sea? Who can even guess what goes on beneath the surface of masses of soft sediment lying buried at the bottom of the sea? Nobody, we suppose, and you would wonder who would even care. But things do happen down there and sometimes we geologists get to see the results, left as impressions in the sedimentary rocks. The rocks show deformations which occurred while they were still soft, wet sediments. What caused these deformations? That’s the job of a sedimentologist to figure out. Mind you, we are not trying to build up some great, enormous mystery here. Nothing supernatural lurks down there. In fact, nothing even all that interesting goes on within the sediments. We are just suggesting that, under the pressure of great weight, things happen to soft wet sediment and it’s the nature of we geologists to try to understand what it is.
The problem comes to light where weathering and erosion have cut into sedimentary rock. Road building also does a fine job of slicing cross sections into outcrops and exposing their interesting structures, including the results of deformational processes. We found a good example recently along Rte. 212 at its intersection with Centerville Church Road. Here, long ago, road building cut a number of excellent outcrops, exposing fine cross-sectional views of sedimentary rocks. The rocks belong to the Hamilton Group. They are strata of marine sandstones and shales that were deposited at the bottom of the Catskill Sea during the Devonian time period, nearly 400 million years ago. At the time of deposition these sediments were nothing special, just sands and muds. Today they are still nothing all that special. We looked to see if there were any fossils but found none. There were no special sedimentary structures either, no channel forms, no ripple marks or even the cross bedding of strong currents. It was, for the most part, just a routine outcrop.
  Typical ball and pillar structure

But then something caught our eyes: immediately across the road from a yellow right turn sign we found something called a ball and pillow structure. It’s a mass of sandstone that had become very dramatically deformed while it was still wet. The wet sand had somehow become disturbed and sunk, or foundered into softer muds below, forming a large round-bottomed mass. Because of its rounded structure it has earned its ball and pillow name. Naming something like this is easy, but how did it get here? We can look at these structures all we want to, but we will never figure out exactly how they formed. Rock is sediment “frozen” solid and we cannot replicate the original dynamics. Some sedimentologists, however, have tried to deal with this problem by experimenting with masses of sediment in laboratory tanks and they have duplicated this structure by passing shock waves through them. In nature the best way to induce shock waves in sediments is to have an earthquake. So, are these “fossil earthquakes?” we don’t think anyone knows. But, that’s the way we are betting.

Ball and pillow structures are quite common throughout the Hamilton sandstones. We have seen many of them in many locations. But most of them are rather small; the diameters of the pillows are only a foot or so across. But some are very large and the one on Rte. 212 is about as big as we have ever seen, being three feet, or so, across.

So, once again, we encounter one of those oddities of the rock record, by itself nothing all that special. Some days a geologist finds wonderful things; other days are far more mundane: This is pretty so-so stuff. But spotting ball and pillow structures is all part of that art we like to call “rockcraft.” Maybe ball and pillow structures aren’t all that important, but it is better to know about them than not to.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

A journey through time and space in Cooperstown April 25, 2019

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A First Journey Through Time and Space
The Cooperstown Geologist
The Freeman
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Today let’s wander Cooperstown and visit some of its past. You and we are now the mind’s eye, the human imagination. We are not stuck in one time or place. We can go to any place or any time we desire.
Let’s begin along the shores of Lake Otsego at Lakefront Park. It’s 8:32 AM on the morning of Oct. 12, 21,618 BC. The climate has been very cold for centuries and the landscape of Lake Otsego shows the effects. All along the slopes, east and west of the forests, are dead. Only bare branches are seen where there should be a colorful autumn foliage. The forests are silent. All the birds have flown away, nearly all the insects have died. All fur bearing animals have long ago disappeared. There is no wind this morning and it is so quiet. At the north end of the lake we see the reason for all this. All along the horizon is the image of a great wall of ice. It is the advancing Laurentide Ice Sheet. It rises a few hundred feet above our horizon, but back to the north it is a mile or so in thickness. It extends all the way back to Labrador. At its front two much smaller tongues of ice descend left and right around the hill known as the Sleeping Lion. The sky is gray and very cold.

We are the mind’s eye; we wander away from the ice age scene and head over to where Rtes. 80 and 28 head west, out of town. As the highway ascends the hill, it passes through a canyon. “Sandstone walls rise above the road. The rock is stratified; each horizon was once a bed of sand at the bottom of an ocean called the Catskill Sea. We are the mind’s eye; we travel back in time and visit the floor of that ocean.
It is high noon on August 9, 371,493,628 BC. Just enough light reaches the bottom of the sea to look around. There are shellfish down here, but not very many. Some are familiar to us; we know them as clams. Other shellfish are not clams; the symmetry of their shells marks them as something different. These are called brachiopods and they are the most abundant living sea creatures of this, the Devonian time period. Swimming slowly past us are a few clumsy looking fish. They have a heavy armor of bone and are quite unlike modern scale-bearing fish. Above us a small sea monster passes by. It has a coiled shell, fine eyes and a large number of tentacles. Its descendents will include the squid and the octopus but this is the Devonian, and this creature is called a nautiloid; it is the most intelligent animal of the Catskill Sea. The afternoon advances and the sea floor fades into darkness.
Now it is April 3rd, 13,289 BC. Warm climates have returned, and the ice age is ending. In the hills above Cooperstown the remaining glaciers are melting, and a vast rush of water is thundering down the Rte. 80 canyon. So powerful is the flow that it is actually carving the canyon. The currents wash out onto a growing plain of gravel that will eventually make up the whole western half of Cooperstown. The ice age is actually forming this town.
We are the mind’s eye and we return to a Cooperstown in the late autumn of the year 2006 AD. We have only just begun our journeys through time and space.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net, Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

John Burroughs and Slabsides. April 18, 2019

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Burroughing into Natural History
The Woodstock Times
May 15, 1997
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Throughout our Hudson-Catskill landscapes there are many secluded hollows. All of them have a geological story, but some of them are far more important in other ways. John Burroughs knew many of these Hudson hideaways and he chose one of the best for his own. He built himself a small cabin in one of those hidden hollows. It’s still there, called “Slabsides,” it’s a monument to Burroughs himself.
Burroughs didn’t need Slabsides for shelter, he just wanted a small, personal retreat. He already had a fine family home, called “Riverby.” Riverby was situated nearby in West Park, on the banks of a far more bucolic Hudson than the one we know today. Burroughs even grew grapes on this small Hudson estate.
But it wasn’t grapes that was the primary Burroughs family harvest; it was literature. John was one of 19th century America’s foremost writers. He was a man of letters, the literary critic who virtually discovered Walt Whitman. Burroughs also wrote of philosophy and religion. But it was as a natural history writer that he gained his greatest lasting fame, and as such he is still most fondly remembered.
Burroughs and several late 19th/early 20th century colleagues, made up a literary wing of the turn of the century conservation movement. But the old “Sage of Slabsides” was not an environmental activist. He was well-known to avoid all strife, political and otherwise. To two generations of readers he was the benign figure of America’s grandfather. Not so, many of his close friends. Teddy Roosevelt was never known to have avoided trouble, he thrived on it. And the crusading John Muir’s views on the environment were decidedly activist. Nevertheless, both valued their friendship with John Burroughs and each greatly appreciated his soft, philosophical approach to nature. Both were visitors to Slabsides.
The hollow is a great one for the likes of us. Wherever we look, we can see the images of a particularly rich geologic past. First there are the fine bedrock exposures, sedimentary rocks from the depths of the Silurian sea that was once here. The strata belong to a unit of rock called the Quassaic Group. These well-cemented, brittle old sandstones formed way down at the bottom of that old Silurian age sea. That was more than 400 million years ago. Then there are the scars of glaciation that the jagged rocks reveal. we can easily imagine the flow of ice coming out of the northeast. As glaciers overwhelmed the old hollow, they hacked away at the bedrock and carved the ruggedness into the hollow. Finally, there are the moist, dark earths of the hollow floor. Burroughs grew asparagus here, but there is a much older story to the soils. They accumulated in a poorly-drained swamp that formed here after the ice melted away. Who knows what form of fossil plants and animals may be buried in the fertile black muck that Burroughs prized so greatly.
But it’s hardly the geology that draws people here, it’s Burroughs old cabin and its legacy. Slabsides is in very good condition for an old house, but it’s not likely to ever be featured on “America’s Castles” or in Victorian Homes magazine. It’s not much, just a tiny handmade cabin. Its only real architectural distinctions are the rough bark covered planks that give the house its name. We preserve the great mansions of the Hudson Valley and we should. But many people, a century ago, lived in very modest homes like this one, and very few of those are left. Slabsides is a reminder of the kinds of homes that existed before the invention of row houses, trailer parks or gated communities.

Most of the time the hollow is quiet, but twice a year the John Burroughs Association meets for “Slabsides Day.” Lisa Breslof, secretary of the group, told us that their main goal was to keep the name of John Burroughs alive and to keep his literature in the public eye. More prosaic goals included maintaining Slabsides and the many Burroughs memorabilia within it.
We have been members for many years now. In his later years, Burroughs was a pretty good geologist as well as naturalist. He wrote quite a bit on geological topics and hence much of our interest. Learn more at johnburroughsassociation.org.


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

The Bearsville fan Apr.11, 2019

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A Big Geology Fan
The Woodstock Times
July 17, 1997
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Striebel Road is one of the those out of the way lanes that you tend not to notice. It’s near Woodstock, but you hardly ever travel upon it. It doesn’t go anywhere in particular and, if you don’t happen to be visiting anyone there, you are not likely to use it. Unless you are a geologist; you see, we like to prowl around everywhere. We look for things. Recently we turned off of the Glasco Pike and onto Striebel Road, and, indeed, we found something.
We rode south on Striebel directly above Rt. 212, which itself runs immediately above the Saw Kill. we found that the landscape to our left was a nondescript plateau, flat and undistinguished. But, to our right, came quite a surprise. Just beyond the road the landscape dropped off a real, no-kidding-around, parachute-type cliff. We had been along Rt. 212, many a time, but we had never realized how steep the slope was here. It’s heavily forested and nearly invisible.
Cliffs aren’t all that unusual, but this one bothered us. A steep cliff is normally composed of bedrock, usually only rock can hold a vertical slope. But this one wasn’t a bedrock cliff; it was composed of a boulder-rich, sandy gravel. It was very likely a glacial deposit, but we wondered what kind of glacial debris would form a cliff along the upper Saw Kill. We knew that there was an interesting glacial story here, but what was it?
As we continued along Striebel Road, it gradually began a descent. The slope steepened and soon we had dropped down into Bearsville. We crossed Rte. 212 and turned onto Cooper Lake Road. As we ascended this other out of the way road, we found ourselves repeating what we had just done on the other road, only in reverse. At first our ascent was steep, then it leveled off higher up the road. So, we knew that the valley of the Saw Kill had once had a large glacial deposit in it. The deposit was composed of course-grained materials, largely boulders, cobbles and gravel. The smooth curved surface of the deposit was relatively flat at its top and then steepened down slope. Long after it had formed, the Saw Kill had gone to work on the deposit. The steep narrow valley of the Saw Kill here was eroded through this mysterious deposit. But, again, what was it?

  Bearsville fan is dotted

The next thing to do was to study the literature, and that’s where we found our solution. A 1930’s New York State Museum Bulletin mentioned the deposit, and the story, as we had guessed, was a good one. It takes us back about 16,000 years to the time when much of the upper Saw Kill still had a glacier within it. Earlier that glacier had descended Overlook Mountain and flowed down the Beaver Kill valley to Mount Tremper. But now it was melting rapidly; only a small portion of the ice remained. The landscape was just starting to recover from its glaciation and there probably were few, if any, trees in the area. Erosion rates, on the bare soils, were very great. The flow of the Saw Kill, brown or gray with sediment, gushed out of the steep mountains and descended to the valley flats at Bearsville. There the rushing flow slowed down, and enormous heaps of sediment were deposited. We call the deposit an alluvial fan. The Saw Kill flowed across this, probably breaking up into a large number of criss-crossing streams which descended the fan. At the bottom there likely were some substantial ponds. Off to the east, where Woodstock is today, the Saw Kill probably reformed and flowed onwards.
This was a big fan, a mile and a half wide, stretching from Byrdcliffe, in the east, to Bearsville in the south, and then halfway back to Cooper Lake. It originally had the form of a partial hemisphere. It would have been relatively flat on top and then sloped downward, maybe steepening. It must have pretty much filled the valley here; the sediments are about 200 feet deep.
Bearsville must have been a bleak sight at this time with its terrible rush of dirty waters in a barren post-glacial landscape. But this time was limited. As forests returned, they stabilized the earth, the rates of erosion slowed, and the glut of sediment ended. That’s when a more sedate Saw Kill began to erode that alluvial fan and it carved the narrow valley with the steep slopes that caught our attention. It is a good story and just another glimpse into the ancient history of our region.

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

Bash Bish Falls Apr. 4, 2019

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Bash Bish Falls
The Columbia County Independent
April 16, 2004
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Taconic Park is one of the leading scenic areas of Columbia County and Bash Bish Falls is the centerpiece of the park. It’s certainly a fine place just to go and enjoy the outdoors, but of course, people like us can’t just enjoy themselves like that. We are compelled to look at the rocks and there is much to see at this location.
When we visited the falls, we went up to the parking lot at the top of the road and descended the stairs down towards the falls. It didn’t take long to start seeing rocks and to start seeing a geological past. We have talked about mountain building events that affected our area hundreds of millions of years ago. These rocks seem to have gone through two episodes of uplift and they wear the scars of those events. The rocks here are called metamorphic rocks. They once lay many thousands of feet (perhaps miles) beneath the surface of the rising mountain range. It’s very hot that deep into the crust and, not surprisingly, these rocks came to be baked. They were subject to very high pressures as well; imagine just how hot it is and how high the pressure is that far down within the earth’s crust.

That’s why these rocks are metamorphosed. The term means, literally, to alter the rock from its original state. You can see what happened. These rocks are layered; we geologist prefer to say that they are foliated. If you look at them, you can see the layering. If you had a high-powered magnifying glass, you could see that the metamorphism had resulted and large numbers of crystals growing into this layered fabric. The rock is called a schist and within it are many crystals of a pale mica called muscovite. These give the rock its layering. You may know muscovite as the “glass” of old pot belied stove windows. The morphology of the rock reflects its metamorphic history. This sort of thing doesn’t just happen, there had to be a lot of heat and pressure back then. And “back then” was probably in the Devonian Time Period, almost 400 million years ago
Back then a land mass, that today we would probably call Europe, was colliding with New England. This is going on today where India has been colliding with Asia. Today, the result is the Himalaya Range, back then it was the Acadian Mountains of New England. You can imagine the pressures on our rocks at this time. But you don’t have to imagine them at all. Take another look at the rocks. Many of them are intensely folded. We hadn’t gone much farther than the bottom of the first staircase before we saw very intensely folded schists in a knob of rock just left of the stairs.
There was more, we saw folded, (contorted is actually a better word for it) horizons of white quartz. These seem to have formed when fractures opened up within the schist. As the fractures widened, the quartz crystals formed and filled up the space. This is simply another testimony to how dynamic rocks can become when they are buried that deeply within the earth.
We kept going down the staircase and we noticed that there was something else in the silvery schists. We saw speckles of a Coca Cola colored mineral which we recognized as garnet. Garnet is a gemstone, but these were too small to be of any value. They did indicate to us that this had been a relatively low grade of metamorphism. Our Bash Bish Falls rocks had not been all that deeply buried, and the amount of metamorphism could have been a lot worse.
The staircase and trail continued downward and twisted back and forth until, at last, we arrived at the base of Bash Bish Falls itself. This had been our goal, so we were happy to be there. The falls tumble over a massive outcrop of schist, https://www.facebook.com/?ref=logobut they spoke of a different moment in geological time. We suspect that Bash Bish Falls formed as a glacial spillway. Most falls in our area have an ice age origin and we bet these falls do as well. We gazed at the thunderous flow and imagined a time, about 14,000 years ago when even more water rushed out of the mountains above. This was when the ice age glaciers had only partly melted. Up in the hills above there would still have been a lot of ice and it was melting quickly. Most of the valley in front of the falls was still filled with ice. The flow of meltwater quite likely dwarfed today’s Bash Bish Falls. This must have been a glorious sight in its time.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

John Burroughs birthday blog Mar. 29, 2019

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Burroughs’ Boyhood Rock
Poughkeepsie Journal
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus

Every rock has a story within it that can be read if you just know how to. As geologists, we know that this is so. Like so many of us we learned, long ago, how to read these tales of the distant past. So, it was no surprise that, upon visiting “Boyhood Rock,” we found a story worth repeating. This is certainly one of the Catskills best known rocks. It’s at Woodchuck Lodge, John Burroughs’ hideaway home in the western Catskills. Burroughs was the beloved turn of the 20th Century nature writer. His boulder is on his old family farm. He spent many an hour sitting upon it, gazing at its magnificent view and pondering the natural history all around him. Best known for his writing about birds, Burroughs, especially late in life, was an avid amateur geologist. He understood at least part of the story of Boyhood rock. He knew that the boulder was a glacial erratic. There is a photo of him, proudly pointing out to Charles Edison the nearby glacial striations.

The boulder is from the Oneonta Formation which makes up the local bedrock of the upper Pepacton Valley. The Oneonta sandstones are, for the most part, river deposits of the old Catskill Delta. The fossil delta is very well known within the geological community; it was an enormous complex of streams that originated in the Acadian Mountains in what is western now New England. From there these rivers flowed westward down into the Catskill Sea of today’s New York State.
There was a problem, however, that bothered us for a while. We were puzzled by the many small holes that littered the boulder’s surface. At first. we guessed that these were fossil animal burrows. Could these be the burrows of Burroughs rock? Alas the gods of nature writing would not be that kind to us. No, they just did not look right for burrows. Eventually, we found an especially well-preserved one and quickly recognized it as the cast of a fossil tree root. They were fossils of the Gilboa trees from one of the world’s oldest fossil forests. These were tropical plants, and so Boyhood Rock, a product of the ice age, must have had an older, equatorial ancestry.
Gilboa tree roots are common in the Catskills, but it was the first time we had ever seen them in a river sandstone. How could trees have been growing in the channel of a fossil river? In science, the solution of one problem often leads to another. A possible answer is that this stretch of the old channel had once been a great bend in the river. During an especially bad flood, the river carved a new route and the old bend was abandoned, leaving a large, curved lake called an oxbow. The lake gradually filled with sediment, and then trees began to grow, their roots penetrating the old river sands. That’s what we see today.
But there was another mystery that bothered us a lot. There are three boulders here, all of which match each other in terms of lithology, and all have fossil tree roots. This can’t be a coincidence as the odds are too great; the three rocks must once have been joined. Our guess is that there once was a much larger Boyhood Rock, transported not beneath a glacier but within it. As the ice melted this boulder was lowered toward the ground. Stresses generated at this time caused the original rock to break up into the three pieces, each of which “landed” near each other and remain as we see them today.
And, so it was that Boyhood Rock gave up its geological secrets. There is a great deal of satisfaction that comes from cracking a scientific problem, even if it is a problem of absolutely no practical significance.
Contact the authors at rndjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Geology at the Vanderbilt mansion Mar. 21, 2019

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The Fall of the House of Vanderbilt
Stories in Stone
Oct. 29, 2004
Robert and Johanna Titus

Do you remember the story of that neighborhood in Schenectady that suffered the slump late last winter (2018)? Two houses and the earth beneath them suddenly began a slow collapse. A dozen or so people had to be evacuated. It made quite the splash in local news, for a while, and then faded from our regional consciousness. Well, we have followed the story and the end was sad, but predictable. It was ordered that both houses be razed. The danger was deemed too great to allow people to return to their homes.
We wrote about this back then and warned that this was no isolated event. Slides of this sort are common where there is uniformly fine-grained sediment, and that is throughout much of the Hudson Valley, including many areas in Columbia County. Our valley once lay beneath the waters of Glacial Lake Albany. Thick sequences of soft clayey sediment accumulated and, periodically, masses of this stuff slide downhill. The formal term is earth flow. It has happened in a lot of places. It will happen again.
You can go and see for yourself one other place where this has been going on and get a good look at how it affects the landscape. At the same time, you can see how a fine piece of architecture is threatened by a future earth flow. Head south down Rte. 9 to Hyde Park and visit the grounds of the Vanderbilt mansion there. The place belongs in Newport, Rhode Island, a great edifice of Indiana limestone. Around it, and to the north and south, is a sprawling estate that lies on a great bluff towering above the Hudson River. The Vanderbilts had a fine view of the Hudson and that must be why they chose this location. In the long term it may have been a fatal choice.
If you look around the mansion you will quickly notice that the grounds are smooth and flat. It might seem unnatural and you might suspect that the landscape was bulldozed, but Nature did this herself. There is an ice age heritage here. About 14,000 years ago this was Glacial Lake Albany. And back then the local stream, “Crum Elbow Creek,” flowed into the lake. This little stream carried a lot of sediment and deposited it in the form of a large delta that expanded out into the lake. It is the nature of deltas to have flat tops and very steep fronts. That accounts for the flat landscape here and also the steep slopes that face the Hudson Valley. The Vanderbilt mansion was built on the edge of the ice age delta. While you are walking the grounds, imagine yourself in chest deep icy lake waters.

Walk south from the mansion, towards the formal garden, and notice that the forested slope has a scalloped appearance; it looks as if a large ice cream scoop took out masses of earth. This is typical earth flow landscape. Each “scoop” represents an old slide. These have had the time to “heal” with the return of the forest.

Return to the south end of the mansion and take the dirt path downhill. Beyond is a long grassy meadow. If you look along the edge of this meadow you will, once again, see that scalloped appearance.
Now head north from the visitor’s center on the estate driveway. Soon you will find a very nice vista of the Hudson Valley. It’s worth the trip by itself. But, once again, look over the edge of the steep slope here and see the scalloped appearance. Over the eons many earth flows have occurred all along the edge of the old Crum Elbow Delta.
There is no reason to think that any of this has stopped. We would expect that every century or so, more of these events will occur. Now look and see how close to the edge of the delta the great mansion is. We are predicting that someday, much as was the case in Schenectady, a sizable portion of the Vanderbilt mansion will begin a downhill slide. Earth movements are very egalitarian; they affect the rich as well as the poor.
Contact the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net. Join their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.”

Kaaterskill Clove by air March 14, 2019

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Palenville by air
The Catskill Geologists
The Mountain Eagle – June 15, 2017
Robert and Johanna Titus

We would like to welcome what we hope are a large number of new readers from Palenville. The Mountain Eagle has expanded its coverage to your town. Palenville has an extensive historical heritage. It has been a place where visitors have long begun their ascent into scenic Kaaterskill Clove. Originally a tough trek, nowadays there is a modern highway so the journey is easy. In the 19th Century Palenville became an artist’s colony. Landscape painters of the famed Hudson Valley School of Art commonly spent their summers there and devoted themselves to sketching and painting the area’s scenic landscape. A lot of very good work was done in the vicinity of the clove. Palenville has always seen a great number of tourists passing through on their ways to the mountains.
Let’s visit the town of Palenville as geologists; and, let’s ask a deceptively simple question: why does it exist? The answer takes us back to the Ice Age. Geologists have long been drawn to Kaaterskill clove to view its landscape with a more scientific eye. That’s where we fit into the story. We love to hike the clove and the mountains north and south of it. There is an awful lot of very good geology to be seen there. So, when we got the chance to fly over it, we welcomed the opportunity. We had a pretty good idea of what we would see. Kaaterskill Clove is a great gash in the Catskill Front. Most of it was carved during the Ice Age, especially during the closing phases of that time. Melting glaciers provided enormous amounts of water that cascaded down the canyon, eroding it. Think of it as an oversized gulley!


Kaaterskill Clove had been there before our most recent ice age. It probably began eroding at the end of the Ice Age’s previous chapter. But about 13,000 or 14,000 thousand years ago there was another time of melting . . . and another time of erosion. You have to visit the clove and imagine it with deafening masses of raging, foaming, pounding whitewater thundering down its canyon. Erosion would have been going on at an alarming rate. Where there is erosion, the destruction of rock, then there must also be the production of large masses of sediment. Rock is converted into sediment, and it must be deposited somewhere. That is exactly what we were going to see.
Palenville has long been recognized by geologists as something that is called an “alluvial fan.” That is a large, fan-shaped heap of earth. Such fans spread out across a dry valley floor at the bottom of the sediment’s source. In this case, large amounts of sediment traveled down an eroding Kaaterskill Clove, and then spread out into a fan shaped heap at the bottom of that clove
A trained geologist can recognize such a feature on any good topographical map, and we did this a long time ago. But now, we were up in a plane, and there it was. As we flew by, we gazed into the great wide yawning clove. And spread out before it was the alluvial fan. We could recognize three roads that we knew. These were Bogart Road, Rt. 23A, and Rt. 32A. The three of them radiated out from the bottom of the canyon and spread out across the top of the fan. Nobody knew it at the time but, as laid out, those roads all descend the gentle slopes of the alluvial fan. The fan made an ideal location to build homes and, one by one, they appeared. And that is the geological story behind the origins of Palenville.
Reach the authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net and see more at their facebook page “The Catskill Geologist.

The Cohoes Waterfalls March 7, 2019

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Family Day Trip: Cohoes Falls
Windows Through Time
The Register Star
Robert and Johanna Titus
Nov. 27, 2015

There’s probably some good weather ahead of us so let’s go for another “family day trip.” That’s when we tell you how to get to some wonderful geological location that just happens to be far enough away so that you have to spend the day getting there, seeing it, and coming back. That’s something that the two of us enjoy doing, especially when the children and grandchildren are visiting. This time let’s go to the town of Cohoes.
You have probably heard of Cohoes, but perhaps you have not visited it. The town is famed for three things: 1) the Cohoes mastodon, whose skeleton is now housed at the New York State Museum; 2) the old Harmony Mills factory, which was one of our state’s premier industrial centers back during the 19th Century; and 3) the Cohoes Falls which the Mohawk River tumbles over. As it happens those all three are very closely associated with each other. An elephant, a factory, and a waterfall? How could they have anything in common, never mind a lot? Obviously, we have a great deal of explaining to do. Today let’s hold off on the mastodon and focus on the other two.
Harmony Mills is typical of New York State industrial might, not so much today, but back in the 19th Century when the “Empire State” was almost truly imperial. You have to go there and see them to believe them. To properly describe Harmony Mills we have to use two words that we usually hate to use: the Mills are an awesome icon of 19th Century industry. Those words have come to be used far too often in modern vernacular. They should only be employed when they are truly needed; here they are. The mills were based on water power and all that water power came from just a little upstream; that’s where the falls are. In the 19th Century waterfalls were an important component of our energy needs. Where there were awesome waterfalls then there would soon be large iconic factories. Harmony Mills was an enormous textile mill complex. It was constructed in 1872; it fell into hard times and closed in 1988. Today, it has been converted into upscale lofts.

The falls were harnessed to provide the awesome amounts of energy needed, so let’s talk about them. You can visit a site that has been developed to provide the most awesome possible view of this natural icon. Find your way to North Mohawk St. and head north through town until you can turn right onto Cataract Road. There you can park, get out and walk to the viewing stand. It provides an iconic vista of the falls, which lie maybe a mile to the northwest. Why are they there?
The falls are mapped as belonging to one of the most important rock units in all of the Hudson Valley – that is the Normanskill Formation. It is a mass of dark gray sandstone and black shale. The sediments that formed these first accumulated in an awesomely deep marine basin. The Normanskill Basin was likely tens of thousands of feet deep. Sediments, mostly awesome amounts of sand, tumbled down its steep slopes as submarine landslides, and piled up at the bottom. Those sediments eventually hardened into dark gray sandstones. During the awesome stretches of time that passed in between the landslides, muds accumulated and those hardened into the black shales.
When, and just after they were deposited, these materials formed flat sheets of sediment. But, if you look at our photo, you will see that the once horizontal strata are now steeply inclined. They were deformed during one of several mountain building events that shaped the Appalachian Mountains as they are today. A geologist looks at such deformation and interprets it as evidence for ancient mountain building. Our guess is that this event was the one called the Taconic Orogeny and that it occurred during a time called the Late Ordovician, about 450 million years ago.
If we could we would climb down to the falls and take a good look at the rock types that make them up, our guess is that a lot of those strata are composed of those dark sandstones. Sandstone is mostly composed of quartz and that’s a very resistant mineral. It makes very good cliffs and even better waterfalls.
We are guessing that, a long time ago, those strata came to be tilted during that mountain building event. Many hundreds of millions of years later, the Mohawk River started cutting across the Normanskill rocks. When the river encountered those tough sandstones, it had a very difficult time cutting through them. The result was the waterfalls.

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

Name your Poison Feb 28, 2019

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Name Your Poison
On the Rocks/
Updated by Robert and Johanna Titus
June 18, 1998

Black sedimentary rocks are occasionally seen in the Hudson Valley. Recently, we described some along Rt. 209, south of Sawkill. The dark appearance of these strata makes them remarkably eye-catching and, when they make up tall cliffs, they loom, dark and menacing, over the landscapes.
It’s the shiny, jet-black shales that we are talking about. They are often rich in undecayed organic matter; it’s the carbon that makes these rocks black. This generally suggests to the geologist that there were low-oxygen conditions in the sea waters at the time of deposition. Without oxygen, most decay bacteria cannot function; they die before they can completely destroy the organic matter. But why low oxygen? That takes us back in time.
Back in the early Devonian Period, these shales were accumulating in a deep sea, immediately adjacent to the rising Acadian Mountains of western New England. Thick soils formed on the rapidly weathering mountainsides. The soils were easily and rapidly eroded and provided sediments that were eventually transported into the nearby Catskill Sea. This material was rich in dissolved nutrients, such as nitrates and phosphates. They fertilized the water and that led to the next step in what was to be a complex chain of events.

The fertilized waters were ideal for algae; they experienced algal blooms, great population explosions in the surface waters of the Catskill Sea. A whole ecology became established as dense mats of floating, or planktonic, plants and animals grew, somewhat similar to that of today’s Sargasso Sea. While all this was great for the plankton it was deadly for just about every other category of marine organisms. As the plankton died, they were attacked by decay bacteria; the algae bloom led to a bacteria bloom. But the decay process consumed so much oxygen that the seas soon became oxygen-depleted. The hapless bacteria had, in effect, poisoned their own habitat, because they needed oxygen too. Their numbers quickly plummeted and very soon, all types of animals, as well, suffocated in the oxygen depleted sea. But the algae just kept on proliferating in the surface waters where there was plenty of oxygen, diffusing in from the air above. Soon, large masses of undecayed biological material were sinking to the floor of the ocean. The climate was tropical, and the nearby coastal lowlands provided lots of vegetation, much of which drifted into the basin, adding more organic matter to the black shales. Almost all of these organics accumulated as thinly laminated, shiny black shales.


Back then, the Catskill Sea was largely isolated from other deep bodies of water; it was nearly surrounded by land or very shallow water. To its east, land blocked weather patterns and shielded the basin from most storm activity. All of these conditions promoted what are called stagnant, thermally-stratified waters. The sunbaked surface layer was hot, while deeper water remained cool. Depth stratification and a dense planktonic mat combined to prevent agitation and mixing of the waters, causing stagnant sea floor conditions to develop. Virtually nothing could live in this sea, except at the surface where there was always plenty of oxygen. This was truly the poison sea.
Many of the earliest Catskill shales are jet black, and they form the Bakoven Shale at the base of what is called the lower Marcellus Group. As we have seen, they are the record of the Catskill poison seas. The upper beds of the Marcellus Group are similar looking but very different deposits. These are fossiliferous black shales and dark gray sandstones. They sometimes have rich assemblages of brachiopods, clams and even corals. These were still mud-bottomed seas, but they were deposited at times when there was a fairly large amount of oxygen in the water, at least enough to allow marine shellfish to survive and even flourish. These can be fun rocks to poke through as they are occasionally richly fossiliferous, and the preservation of those fossils can be very good.
See the Bakoven Shale on Rt. 23A where it crosses Kaaterskill Creek east of Kiskatom. Go visit that large outcrop along Rt. 209, between Kingston and Sawkill. The far south end is the real poison sea; as you travel upwards and north from those beds you are looking at shallower waters which had more oxygen.

Contact he authors at randjtitus@prodigy.net

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