In the Footsteps of Giants

Helderberg Escarpment

Helderberg Escarpment

In a hidden corner of Upstate NY, near Voorheesville, and just outside of Albany, lies John Boyd Thatcher State Park.  The major feature of this park is the Helderberg Escarpment, a cliff face consisting of Silurian and Devonian limestone.  The most prominent units are the Manlius and Coeymans limestone, consisting of Silurian deposits in the lower Manlius, and early Devonian deposits in the upper Manlius and Coeymans (click here for more information).  The landscape is dynamic, with caves and waterfalls, rockfalls, and gorgeous views from the cliffs.  The topography is pleasing to the eye.

waterfall, with Coeymans Limestone on top, and Manlius below it (the lower layers that have eroded more)

waterfall, with Coeymans Limestone on top, and Manlius below it (the lower layers that have eroded more)

The geology of the Helderberg Escarpment is intriguing, both for the strata itself and also for the fossils present, which consist of tentaculites and other small shells in the Manlius and more diverse brachiopods, bryzoans, trilobites, crinoids, and horn coral in the upper units (mainly the Coeymans and New Scotland Beds).  However, the historical significance of the location is perhaps even more intriguing.  The period of time from 1819 to 1850 saw visits to the escarpment by the likes of Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, James Hall, James Dwight Dana, and Benjamin Silliman, among others.  These scientists were all extremely influential geologists.  Let’s take a look at what they accomplished in their scientific careers.
Lower Devonian Brachiopods (from New Scotland beds)

Lower Devonian Brachiopods (from New Scotland beds)

Upper Silurian tentaculites from Manlius beds

Upper Silurian tentaculites from Manlius beds

Plaque at JBT State Park

Plaque at JBT State Park

Charles Lyell is perhaps the best known geologist on this list.  His book “Principles of Geology” was extremely influential, both to the geologic community and to Charles Darwin (Darwin read it while travelling on the HMS Beagle).  While James Hutton is credited with laying the foundation for modern geology (most famously, through his visit to Siccar Point), Lyell is the scientist most responsible for making geology popular as a science to the general public.  He was on friendly terms with Darwin, and encouraged a young Charles Darwin to present his theory of natural selection jointly with Alfred Russel Wallace in 1858.  Charles Lyell is best known for his work on the concept of uniformitarianism.  While a strict form of uniformitarianism is rejected by today’s geologists (in some instances, we know that catastrophic events have occurred on  a global scale, such as the asteroid impact that formed Meteor Crater in Arizona), Lyell’s contributions to geology are still extremely important to geology as a science.-
Louis Agassiz is remembered as one of the last great Creationist scientists; he still embraced a Biblical view of geology, even after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species. However, Agassiz did other things besides argue for a Biblical view of geology.  Agassiz did significant work on glaciers, which he saw as forming instantaneously.  While partially wrong, his work on glaciers helped to seal the end of Flood Geology as a scientific mindset. The Helderberg Escarpment and surrounding areas showcase some pretty interesting glacial features, thus perhaps leading to Agassiz’s interest in the region.  Agassiz is also remembered for his research on fossil fish. —
James Hall is the least recognized scientist that will be discussed here.  He studied under Amos Eaton at Rensselaer Polytecnic Institute in New York, and became the first state paleontologist of New York in 1841. James Hall helped bring the New York State Museum to national prominence as a paleontology institute for a number of years, and also discovered that fossil stromatolites were once living organisms.  Hall was Lyell’s guide to upstate NY, the Helderberg Escarpment, and is remembered as a decent scientist with an often flamboyant and short-tempered personality, as evidenced here:-                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                             
“In one notable instance in 1849, Hall became outraged at discovering that James T. Foster, a school teacher in Greenbush, New York, had ordered the publication of a popularized—though by Hall’s standards, vague and inaccurate—geological chart for distribution in public schools. When he learned that copies of the map were to be shipped via the Hudson River Night Line to New York City, Hall stole aboard and threw the entire printing into the Hudson River!”-                                                                                                                                                                                                                
James Dwight Dana should be a familiar name to anyone who has ever taken a minerology course.  Dana was born in Utica, NY in 1813. Like Darwin, Dana participated in a scientific voyage, the American Wilkes Expedition.  Dana, like Darwin, also did some research on coral reefs.  While on the Wilkes Expedition, Dana read Darwin’s Voyage of the Beagle, ironically enough.  Dana also corresponded with Darwin, ran the American Journal of Science, and laid the foundation for modern minerology.  Darwin respected Dana as an intellectual, and sent him a copy of the Origin of Species in 1859 for feedback. The two men eventually developed a close relationship.-                                                                                                                                                   
Benjamin Silliman, while forgotten by many, is responsible for some relatively influential research.  Dana was a chemist and geologist, and was the first person to distill petroleum. Silliman’s father was a general in the Revolutionary War, and was taken prisoner by the British in 1779. Benjamin Silliman’s collections helped to lay the foundation for Yale’s Peabody Museum.  Silliman also was extremely influential in the development of science programs at Yale.-                                                                                                                                                                                                         
While the Helderberg Escarpment is unknown to most people today, it was known to many of the most prominent geologists of the 1800s. The historical players that visited this locality in Upstate New York helped to formulate the basic framework of modern geology.  Their research lies at the core of what we know about the geologic record. Some of the scientists that visited this location (James Dana, James Hall) corresponded with Darwin.  Charles Lyell often saw Darwin in person.  Perhaps Darwin learned about the Helderberg Escarpment through discussion with Lyell (although this is pure speculation). Locations such as this one are fascinating to visit, especially with the awareness that one is walking in the footsteps of some of the most important scientists of the 19th Century. 
Explore posts in the same categories: 1800s, geology, history of science

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4 Comments on “In the Footsteps of Giants”

  1. chriscolose Says:

    And don’t forget to go off the trail, down steep cliffs to see the Ordovician desposits…was fun.

  2. darwinaia Says:

    Those Ordovician deposits (the huge black slope with no trees in the top picture) are amazing (that hike was awesome by the way). It’s totally weird to stand on dry land on the side of a mountain and realize that the area was once underwater. Then when you start to think about the period of time contained in the rock record there (from the Ordovician to the Early Devonian; a pretty big chunk of time geologically speaking), it really gets you, especially the first time. Frankly, I can’t imagine someone like Lyell not enjoying himself there.

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