Monday, June 20, 2011

Google Books Re-Publishes
Original Geology of New York

Google Books has scanned, posted, and essentially re-published — free to the world — the entire, first-pass Geology of New York, as originally put out in four volumes by the State of New York, circa 1842-1843.

Unfortunately, Google's indexing effort currently runs somewhere between amazingly haphazard, and just plain wrong.  And the scanning appears to have been done by a very single-minded machine — fully incapable of handling any curveballs.  As a consequence, each of the books is kinda tricky to pin down exactly, as to which is which, and what is what.  And, worse yet, numerous pages of exquisite, hand-crafted, 19th century illustration have been mishandled by Google archivists — with their fold-out pages scanned in fully folded position.

(I know, right!?!?)

Despite these flaws, and with hopes for an eventual correction, I have killed an entire Sunday going to the trouble of organizing links to the best-available versions for all four of the New York State Geology books.  I'm new to what Google Books has been up to, but it looks to me as though readers can choose between a hyperlinked version, a plain-text version (searchable, but only one page at a time), or a downloadable image-only PDF.

A full set of original bound volumes for these four books at this writing lists for $1,500 "buy it now" on eBay — from an entrepreneurial seller based in Ithaca, NY.

Each of the books features a single, stand-alone page near the front, which reads as follows:
"The copy right of this work is secured for the benefit of the People of the State of New York. [Subscribed by] Samuel Young, Secretary of State.  Albany, 1842"
This was New York State's original geological survey.  It was commissioned by the State Legislature, and paid for with tax dollars, in recognition of the importance such basic physical realities — and such basic natural resources — posed for human life.  The survey first put boots on the ground in the Summer of 1836, and was more or less wrapped up by January 1842 — except for some last-minute galley shuffling, proof-reading, and re-writes, while the printers waited (no-doubt impatiently, their type and their shops all tied up in the project). 

With 1836 as the birth year for its survey, New York can claim the third oldest such government-funded, theoretically ongoing geological inquiry — after only Britain and France.

It was a different time, back then.

This was 30 years after Lewis and Clark made it back safe from having traipsed the Louisiana Purchase.  And yet the citizens of New York — with their very lives much more closely tied to the fates of agriculture, or to any other form of reliance upon natural resources — clamored for still more information on rocks, soils, trees, flora, fauna, weather, and what-have-you — back here, back home, back east. 

Everything — whatever you could get your hands on, and confidently explain — the people wanted to know.  It was the dawning time for the great agricultural societies, for the land-grant colleges, and for the now-quaint notion that objective, deep knowledge from dedicated, compulsive, subject-matter experts could rise you up, as a society.

[Contrast this rich historical atmosphere in support of scholarship to the desperate situation we find today in the Former Empire State — where the current holder of the 175-year-old title of New York State Geologist has a video of his public lecture on Marcellus shale (drafted on the taxpayer's dime, given in a public lecture hall, at a public college) openly censored by SUNY, working in lockstep with the State Education Department.  But you better not get me started...]

In 1836, to survey New York geologically, legislative planners made some hasty decisions to divide the labor by crudely divvying up the state into four districts, or parts — and by putting a different geologist in charge of each.  The four districts ran roughly as follows:

  • First District — covering 21 counties, basically Long Island and downstate, the Hudson River, the Catskills encroaching westerly toward the Susquehanna, the Capital District, and a northerly finger running up along the divide between Lake George and Lake Champlain. 
  • Second District — formed officially from just seven counties in the North Country and Adirondacks, running between Lake Ontario and Lake George, but sometimes also by explanatory necessity poaching into three adjoining counties, Lewis, Herkimer, and Saratoga.
  • Third District — covering the mid-section of upstate, but west of the Catskills, south of the Adirondacks, and east of Cayuga Lake.
  • Fourth District — covering all west of a line running down the center of Cayuga Lake.
I characterize the four-part division as hasty and crude, because — as it became painfully obvious afterwards — the breakdown forced each of the four authors to re-examine, re-interpret, re-cover, and re-explain the entire sedimentary sequence as it lay exposed here and there in New York.  Stratigraphy was then a relatively new explanatory lens, and there wasn't much yet settled about the nomenclature.  In fact, a close reader can see that these four authors were then engaged in a process of working it out on the fly — reading each others' drafts, and running back to re-write their introductions, quibbling on some narrow point or another.

Chapter by chapter, it all had to be gone through, usually starting with the deepest, oldest, still-findable water-laid rock — Potsdam sandstone (which in New York sits on the metamorphic basement).  (One author chose to cover the layers in reverse chronological order, putting the Potsdam last.)  Layer by layer, the authors would run through all the Ordovician, and all the Silurian, to the shallowest and youngest Devonian layers.  (Or, at least, to the shallowest and youngest Devonian layers not already washed away from New York — a stubborn geological fact which sadly excluded any prospect of finding coal, as they were enjoying in Pennsylvania.)

I know that there is much more to geology than just the sedimentary layers.  But I happen to think this is one of the more interesting parts (along with the impact of glaciers upon the landscape — which seems to have been barely yet guessed at, by the field, in 1842).
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The entrance to Howe's Cave, Cobleskill, NY, as depicted in Prof. Mather's assigned section of the Geology of New York.  This had to have been about what it looked like within a year after Lester Howe's cows revealed the opening — by their preference for the cool, escaping cave air on hot days in the pasture, May 1842.

Geology of New York, Part I, Comprising the Geology of the First Geological District [generally southestern NY], by William W. Mather, Professor of Natural History in the Ohio University, 1843.

The last numbered page on this one is 653, although then there were 46 plates afterwards, which Google has preserved in color as necessary (although here we see the first clues that something has gone terribly wrong with some of the scanning).

Here is Prof. Mather, writing within the Introduction to Chapter 1:
"In developing the geology of the First District of New-York, I have made such progress as my opportunities have permitted; and although little has been accomplished, when compared with what remains open for investigation, the results of these labors may be of some value to the community, as tending to make known the nature of the materials on a small portion of our planet, their position, uses, relative ages, and some of the various physical changes that this portion of the earth's surface has undergone.
"The labor of investigating the rocks in the first district is much greater than in the others, in consequence of their having been broken up by some convulsive action, and turned edgewise through extensive tracts of country, like ice, where broad fields of it crush against each other. This may seem visionary to those who have not investigated the facts of geology; but all can examine the facts in evidence, and draw their own conclusions."
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This is definitely one of the most dramatic depictions of sedimentary geology ever in New York State — the little man, lower left, practically blown away by the columns of Potsdam sandstone, as cut by the Ausable River, at Ausable Chasm, near Plattsburgh, NY.  I've borrowed the image — and reunited it with its caption — from Prof. Emmons' contribution to the four-part Geology of New York — as scanned by Google Books.
Geology of New York, Part II, Comprising the Survey of the Second Geological District [generally northern NY], by Ebenezer Emmons, Professor of Natural History in Williams College, 1842. 

This one ran 437 pages in the original, not counting 15 endplates (only two of which actually appear in the version I have linked here — sorry to say).

Where to start with Prof. Emmons?  The guy either led, or was in on, the first recorded ascent, in 1837, of Mount Marcy — the tallest of the Adirondack High Peaks.  Hell, he named Mount Marcy — in an astute stroke honoring then-NYS Governor William Learned Marcy.  Hell, for that matter, he also named the Adirondacks — being credited as the first to borrow the quasi-derogatory appellation "bark eater," from the Mohawks, applying it to the whole god-forsaken region.

Within the realm of geology, however, Emmons is remembered mostly for having tenaciously stood by the evidence as revealed by the rocks — despite the threat of losing his livelihood, his career, and his place in scholastic history.  Emmons and James Hall (who replaced another to head up the westernmost, fourth district of the NY survey, covered below) were two principals in one of the bitterest, dirtiest disputes in the annals of New World scholarship.  It seems crazy now, to think of it, but these two actually came to legal blows over their differing interpretations of the ages of rocks in the Taconic Mountains, east of the Hudson River.  Lawyers, suits, counter-suits, libel, slander, defamation, and disbarment — you name it — it was all part of the rowdy mix, back in the day.

Emmons was eventually vindicated in having shown that older rocks had, indeed, been flipped over atop younger rocks in an event now known as the Taconic Orogeny.  But, for a time, he was actually legally and politically beaten by the apparently better-connected, more-persuasive Hall — so far as to actually be formally barred from practicing geology in New York State.  He was exiled to North Carolina, which took him on as State Geologist for the latter part of his career.  Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, originally the Rensselaer School of Troy, NY, honors Emmons as its own (both alum and professor) with a detailed biography here.

Here is Prof. Emmons, in Chapter 2 of his NYS efforts, attempting to contrast — without too much show of vanity — what little was known of the geology of the Adirondack region, prior to his survey — but in the process one can see that he's taking a swipe at Prof. Amos Eaton, his old mentor at Troy:
"Previous to the year 1837, nothing exact was known of the geology of the Northern District. Mr. Eaton, who was the oldest laborer in geology in New-York, had not extended his observations far into this field. He had, however, represented the McCombe Mountains [now known as Macomb, one of the famous Adirondack High Peaks] as composed of ranges of gneiss, extending from the valley of the Mohawk to the Provincial line, and the intermediate valleys, of limestone extending along their bases and around their northern extremities; and the whole section as being composed of two principal formations, a carboniferous slate, denominated primary, and a calcareous formation, denominated secondary.
"It is sufficiently evident that all this was imaginary; it is even difficult to conceive how imagination could have carried even a partial observer so far from the truth."
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Geology of New York, Part 3, Comprising the Survey of the Third Geological District [generally CNY], by Lardner Vanuxem, 1842.
This one ran 307 pages in the original.

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If you notice there's something wrong with this picture, then you should definitely be working for Google Books.  This is a hand-colored plate — reunited with its black and white caption by me — depicting erosion along the shoreline of Lake Erie.  It's from the back end of Prof. Hall's 500-plus-page contribution to the original geological survey of New York — except, see, the fold-out page was scanned in folded-in position.

This one runs 525 pages in the original print, before tables and figures and exhibits start piling up.

In a section entitled, "Springs Evolving Carburetted Hydrogen And Petroleum (Burning Springs)," I choose to quote Prof. Hall extensively — by way of counter-acting a modern-day misconception, running to the effect that every time you have methane in water, you have a problem caused by the oil and gas industry:
"Springs of this character are numerous in the Fourth District. Sometimes the gas alone is the only product; and in others it is accompanied by petroleum, or liquid bitumen, which spreads over the surface of the water, and can be collected in considerable quantities. These are the 'burning springs' which in our younger days were such a marvel as a part of geographical knowledge.

"...A mile south of the village of Rushville, in Yates county, there are one or two springs which emit a considerable quantity of this gas; and when ignited, it continues to burn as it rises to the surface of the water. It was formerly conducted to a house near by, and used for lighting and warming the apartments. It is a popular belief, that wherever this gas rises, coal exists beneath the surface; and accordingly an excavation was commenced at this place, which of course resulted in disappointment. The geological situation is in shales of the Portage group.

"...In Chautauque county, a larger quantity of the gas issues from springs, streams and pools, than elsewhere in the district. In many instances the gas is accompanied by petroleum, which forms a thin pellicle upon the surface of the water; in other places the gas rises alone, and sometimes the petroleum occurs where there is no visible evolution of the gas.

"Near Forrestville, there is a copious emission of this gas; and it has been in contemplation to convey it to the village, for the purpose of lighting the houses and stores. At Laona there is a stratum of highly bituminous sandstone, and the water, rising to the surface, is accompanied by petroleum and gas. The sandstone appears to be charged with this fluid : it issues from the pores on fresh fracture; and specimens, after remaining for two years in the cabinet, still emit a strong bituminous odor.

"The village of Fredonia is lighted with this gas, which issues from fissures in the shale forming the bed of the stream at this place. During the day, it is collected in a reservoir, and furnishes sufficient for purposes required.

"At Portland harbor, the Light-house is illuminated with this gas, supplied from the margin of a small stream on the lake shore, half a mile northeast of the harbor. The quantity at this place is so great that no reservoir is required ; and I was informed, that during the night, as much passed off by the 'escape pipe' as was consumed.

"Large quantities of this gas issue from the waters of the lake near the shore, for three miles northeast of Portland harbor, and in numerous other places farther north and east. At Buffington's well,* it is constantly rising from the lake near the shore, apparently sufficient in the space of a few rods to illuminate a city. This product will doubtless be turned to important account when the population shall increase, and villages be formed in the vicinity. It could even at the present time be used in the village of Portland harbor, and with small expense conducted to Westfield. The only requisite expense will be the fixtures for collecting and purifying : the supply is constant, and probably inexhaustible.

"This gas doubtless issues from the earth in equal quantities in other places, but they cannot be readily detected except on the presence of water. Along the sheltered banks of the lake, the odor of the gas is constantly perceptible for miles, and its presence is thus manifest when the water is too rough to render its escape perceptible."

[Footnote: "*This is a deep boring (642 feet), made in search of salt water, on the supposition that if the level of tide water was reached, the salt water would be found. This is not the only similar ignis fatuus which has been followed in searching for coal, salt water and the precious metals; neither have these visionary projects ended at the present time."]

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