Popular Science Monthly/Volume 22/April 1883/The New York Geological Survey

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By JAMES HALL, LL.D., State Geologist.

THE history of the Geological Survey of New York from 1835, when the Legislature passed a resolution requesting the Secretary of State to report a plan for a geological survey of the State, is very easily traced, through the public documents and published reports made since that period. The events preceding, and which led to that action of the Legislature, are, however, of great interest and importance, and would of themselves form a very interesting chapter in the history of scientific progress in the State of New York, and of the country at large.

The mineral resources of the State had been the subject of discussion and inquiry even during the period of the Revolution; and, soon after the conclusion of peace, societies were formed for the purpose of continuing these investigations, but so little of scientific knowledge was at that time possessed that no systematic progress could be made in this direction. The gradual but constantly increasing interest in agriculture and the arts stimulated inquiry, and there were not wanting men of intelligence, wealth, and position to foster and encourage such investigations.

These indirect influences, which resulted in shaping public opinion and making a geological survey possible, were for many years quietly in operation; and the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures, afterward the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts, instituted in the city of New York in 1791, laid the foundation of scientific inquiry in the State, and its transactions afforded the means of communication between the more intelligent people of the State upon all subjects embraced in its title. Chancellor Robert R. Livingston was the president of this society from its formation till the time of his death, in 1813; and the first volume of the Transactions (1791 to 1799) contains no less than eighteen communications from his pen upon various subjects.

The Annual Address for 1813 was delivered before the Society for the Promotion of Useful Arts, at the Capitol, in Albany, by Dr. Theodoric Romeyn Beck. In the preface to this address he stated that his aim in composing the address had been a special one. "It was to exhibit at one view the mineral riches of the United States, with their various application to the arts, and to demonstrate the practicability of the increase of different manufactures, whose materials are derived from this source."

The most notable and important movement in the progress of scientific study began about 1817, when Professor Amos Eaton, after having prepared himself at Yale College with the best means and instruction then afforded, began his courses of scientific lectures at Williams College, which he afterward extended to the larger towns of New England and New York. In 1818, at the invitation of Governor De Witt Clinton, who was ever a most enlightened and liberal advocate of scientific progress, Professor Eaton gave a course of lectures before the New York Legislature, some of whose members had already been his pupils. At this time much interest was awakened in the subjects of geology and other departments of natural history throughout the State. Professor Eaton's lectures in Troy led to the organization of the Troy Lyceum of Natural History, which at that time could boast of possessing a more extensive collection of geological specimens than could be found in any other institution within the State of New York. In 1820 and 1821 Professor Eaton, with the assistance of Drs. T. Romeyn and Lewis C. Beck, under the patronage of Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, carried out an agricultural and geological survey of Rensselaer and Albany Counties. These surveys, reports of which were published, were intended to be made subservient to the interests of agriculture, and were spoken of in the "American Journal of Science" as being the most extensive and systematic efforts of the kind made up to that period. In 1822, under the patronage of Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, Mr. Eaton undertook a geological and agricultural survey of the district adjoining the Erie Canal. The report upon this work was published in 1824, in a volume of one hundred and sixty-three pages, with a geological profile extending from the Atlantic to Lake Erie, and a "profile of rocks crossing part of Massachusetts" (from Boston Harbor to Plainfield), by Rev. Edward Hitchcock, who also furnished a description of the rocks and minerals crossed by this profile. In 1824 General Van Rensselaer established the Rensselaer School in Troy, and its graduates became efficient aids in the dissemination of scientific knowledge and in the cultivation of those scientific tastes which pervaded all the better classes of communities for many years. Much had already been done, therefore, to prepare the way, and the public mind was fully awake to the interests and importance of a geological survey, when the Albany Institute, in 1834, memorialized the Legislature for some action in that direction.[2]

These memorials were referred to a committee of the Legislature, who recommended a resolution by which the Secretary of State was "requested to report to the Legislature at its next session the most expedient method of obtaining a complete geological survey of the State, which shall furnish a scientific and perfect account of its rocks, soils, and minerals, and of their localities; a list of all its mineralogical, botanical, and zoölogical productions, and provide for procuring and preserving specimens of the same; together with an estimate of the expenses which may attend the prosecution of the design, and of the cost of publication of an edition of three thousand copies of the report, drawings, and geological map of the results."

In pursuance of the request contained in this resolution, the Secretary of State, Hon. John A. Dix, presented a report at the following session of the Legislature, which contained much valuable information with reference to what had already been done toward developing the mineral resources of the State, giving a summary of our knowledge of the subject at that time, and discussing several questions of great interest; for example, the salt and salt-bearing formations, our mineral springs, and the probabilities of finding coal within the limits of the State. He also gave a statement of what had been done in other States, and of work in a similar direction elsewhere in progress or in contemplation.

Under their distinctive heads he discussed the botany and zoölogy of the State, and gave reasons why each one should receive due attention. Under the head of Zoölogy the subject was treated under the following subdivisions: Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Testacea,[3] Zoöphytes, etc., and lastly the Insects.

The report concluded with the recommendation of a plan for the Geological Survey by a subdivision of the State into four districts,[4] which plan, with some modifications, was carried out in the final organization. This plan contemplated the employment of two geologists for each district, which was modified to the appointment of one geologist and an assistant for each district. One mineralogist was appointed for the entire State, and also one botanist and one zoölogist.

During the session of 1836 the Legislature passed "an act to provide for a Geological Survey of the State," authorizing and directing the Governor to employ a suitable number of competent persons, whose duty it shall be, under his direction, to make an accurate and complete geological survey of this State, which shall be accompanied with proper maps and diagrams, and furnish a full and scientific description of its rocks, soils, and minerals, and of its botanical and zoological productions, together with specimens of the same; which maps, diagrams, and specimens shall be deposited in the State Library; and similar specimens shall be deposited in such of the literary institutions of this State as the Secretary of State shall direct.[5]

The act further provided for an annual appropriation for defraying the expenses, and required the persons employed to make an annual report to the Legislature on or before the first day of February in each year, setting forth the progress made in the survey.

The magnitude and importance of the work were duly considered by Governor Marcy and his advisers,[6] and the appointments were made only after long deliberation, and extensive correspondence with the prominent scientific men of the country, and with the Governors of other States.

The appointments of the principal geologists were made as follows: Lieutenant W. W. Mather, a native of Connecticut, who had lately resigned from the United States Army, was assigned to the First

District; Professor Ebenezer Emmons, of Williams College, was assigned to the Second District; Mr. T. A. Conrad, of Philadelphia, was assigned to the Third District; and Mr. Lardner Vanuxen, of Bristol, Pennsylvania, to the Fourth District.[7]

The mineralogical department was assigned to Dr. Lewis C. Beck, a native of Albany, but at that time a Professor in Rutgers College, New Jersey. Dr. John Torrey, of New York city, was commissioned as State Botanist, and Dr. James E. De Kay, of Long Island, as State Zoölogist.

The assistants in the geological department commissioned by the Governor were, Caleb Briggs in the First Geological District, James Hall in the Second, George W. Boyd in the Third, and James Eights in the Fourth District.

The instructions given to these officers were essentially the same as recommended in the report of the Secretary of State. Each of the geologists was required to collect, in his own district, eight suites of rock specimens, but no conditions of this kind were imposed upon the mineralogist, botanist, or zoölogist. A special draughtsman was appointed for the zoölogical department and also for the botanical department. The geologists were each allowed a small sum ($300) annually to pay for drawings of sections, maps, etc., which might be required for the illustration of their reports.

This, in brief, was the organization of the Geological Survey at its commencement. At the end of the first year, it became evident to the geologists that the relations of the rock formations, the age and order of superposition, among the then unknown, or very imperfectly understood, stratified deposits, could only be determined on paleontological evidence. They therefore unanimously recommended to the Governor that some competent person be appointed to devote himself to that department. To this position Mr. Conrad was assigned, thus leaving a vacancy in the Third Geological District, which, after a reorganization of its boundaries, as before explained, was assigned to the charge of Mr. Vanuxem, and Mr. Hall was appointed to the Fourth District.

As had been suggested in the report of the Secretary of State, the scientific staff assembled each year, and sometimes twice a year, in spring and in autumn, at the Capitol, to compare notes and observations, to agree upon methods of work, and to receive suggestions from the Governor. These meetings became more important and even essential to the geologists, since they soon found themselves dealing with a series of rocks which, up to that time, had received no full elucidation in any country; hence the necessity of comparing observations and views, with the purpose of agreeing upon some common terms of designation became apparent, and very soon, imperative. The comparison of observations and interchange of views led to the opening of correspondence, by a formal resolution of the New York Board, with other geologists, especially with those engaged in State surveys, of which several were then in progress. This correspondence led to an agreement for a meeting of geologists in Philadelphia in the spring of 1840, and this assemblage of less than a score of persons led to the organization of the American Association of Geologists, which, at a later period, on the occasion of its third meeting, added the term Naturalists; and finally, by expanding its title, it became the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It is due to the State of New York that these facts appear in this connection, and it is but fair to state that her geologists have contributed largely to the subjects of discussion and to the array of new facts which have been brought before the scientific world through the agency of this organization.

During the few years of field work, the New York geologists had harmonized the conflicting views before entertained regarding the relations of the geology of the eastern and western parts of the State; they had traced the boundaries of the successive geological formations; had shown the extent and limits of the iron-bearing strata, and had rectified the erroneous views which had been held till some time after the commencement of the survey, regarding the boundaries and distribution of the salt-bearing formation of the State. They had, also, shown the limits of the granitic formations, and their associated mineral products; the thickness and extent of all the limestone, sandstone, and shale formations of the State, and had definitely settled the relations of the rocks of New York to the coal-measures of Pennsylvania and the geological formations of the Western States.

Their labors had in a great degree quieted the feverish anxiety regarding the discovery of coal within the limits of New York, for which frequent explorations had been made in the black slates of the Hudson River Valley and elsewhere, involving the expenditure of much money and loss of time.[8] A rational idea of the general geological structure, and the relations of the geological formations of the State, had been acquired by the intelligent population, through the annual reports of the survey, which presented the results of each season's work in the field.

During these years the New York geologists had accumulated a vast amount of material and of facts regarding the geological formations within the State, proving conclusively that they could not be parallelized with any of the described and well-determined formations of Europe. The Silurian system of Murchison, as described and illustrated in the "Edinburgh Review," in 1838, and as finally published in 1839, although covering a portion of similar ground, was not broad enough to meet the requirements of the geology of New York. Thus failing to find the means of comparison and identification, the term "New York System" was proposed, to embrace the sedimentary formations from the Potsdam sandstone to the base of the carboniferous system; or, as the formations were developed in New York and southerly into Pennsylvania, the upward extension of this term reached to the base of the coal-measures.[9] This term, "New York System," includes the formations ordinarily embraced in the names Cambrian, Silurian, and Devonian of England and the Continent of Europe. The geological series in New York is so complete that the succession leaves no lines or breaks for the establishment of "systems," the whole being but a single system; and had the older rocks of the globe been first studied in this State, no such terms or subdivisions would ever have found their way into geological nomenclature. The strongest line of demarkation, however, or the most marked interruption of continuity in the succession, occurs at the termination of the Hudson River group, where a great conglomerate or a heavy-bedded and well-marked sandstone terminates the physical and biological conditions of the preceding period. This break in the continuity, which is the proposed limit of the Cambrian system, is, however, only of local importance.

Since there was no possibility of identifying the individual rocks and groups of strata with those of Europe, as described, the New York geologists were compelled to give names to the different members of the series; and since the sandstones, limestones, slates, and shales are so similar in different and successive groups, it was impossible to give descriptive names which would discriminate the one from the other. Therefore, local names were proposed and adopted, as, for example: Potsdam sandstone, Trenton limestone, Niagara limestone, and Niagara shale (the two latter, with subordinate beds, making the Niagara group), the Medina sandstone, the Onondaga salt group,[10] the Hamilton, Portage, and Chemung groups, thus giving typical localities of the rock instead of descriptive names. This method or system of nomenclature leaves no possibility of mistake or confusion which might arise from a different appreciation of descriptive terms. The typical locality always remains for study, comparison, and reference, and there need be no difference of opinion or discussion as to what was intended by the use of any one of the terms. The progress of geological science in the country is greatly indebted to this system of nomenclature, and to the absolute working out of the succession of the groups, and the members of the same, to which this system of nomenclature has been applied.

At the final meeting of the Geological Board the adoption of the term "New York System" was considered imperative, because of the impossibility of harmonizing the formations here known with those of Europe. In the adoption of the names of rocks and groups—the nomenclature as now known—there was scarcely a dissenting voice, and the names as then adopted were published in the final reports, and have become the nomenclature of the science in America.

As the field-work of the survey approached completion, the question of publication became a matter of deep interest to every one connected with the work. The incumbents in each one of the departments were desirous of publishing their work in octavo, that the results of the survey might appear in a convenient form, and become hand-books for students in science. This plan, however, was overruled by Governor Seward and his advisers, who considered it due to the dignity and importance of the State of New York that the volumes should be published in quarto form, especially as they were to be presented to other States and foreign governments as emblematical of the greatness of the State. Governor Seward himself wrote an introduction of nearly two hundred pages to the first published volume of the work (Zoölogy—Mammalia) in 1842. This volume was followed by others in the same year. The geological reports were all completed in 1843, and the last volume of Zoölogy, that upon the birds of the State, by Dr. De Kay, was published in 1844.[11]

In 1842 Mr. Conrad resigned his position as paleontologist of the survey without communicating any report to the Governor, and the four geologists who had expected to avail themselves of the results of his investigations were left to their own resources. In this state of affairs each one of the geologists illustrated his own report, as best he could, by figures of characteristic fossils of the rocks and groups which he had studied in his own district. By this means a very considerable number of the more common and characteristic fossils were illustrated in woodcuts, which were printed in the text, thus giving authentic guides for the determination of all the more important members of the series. The incompleteness of the contemplated Natural History of the State was recognized by the Governor and Legislature, and it was also claimed that agricultural interests had not been sufficiently considered in the work already published. It was, therefore, determined that the department of paleontology should be re-established, and that of agriculture be added to the plan of the work. Under the latter title Dr. Emmons published five volumes; the first being devoted to the general relations of the topography and geology of the State to its agriculture and agricultural products; the second, to the chemical analysis of the soils and agricultural products, with extended observations upon the temperature of the air, soil, etc.; the third and fourth (text and plates), to the description and illustration of the cultivated fruits of the State; and the fifth, to insects, chiefly those injurious to vegetation.[12]

The paleontology was committed to Mr. James Hall, who entered upon the work in 1844.[13] Volumes one and two had been substantially completed and the third considerably advanced, when, in 1850, further appropriations were withheld and the work virtually suspended. In 1855, through the influence of the Hon. E. W. Leavenworth, Secretary of State, the work was revived and a plan for its completion proposed. A provision was also inserted that an appropriation from the State for the collection of fossils should be made annually for eight years. Through this means large collections were made and a great amount of new material added to that previously obtained, and this necessarily and unavoidably expanded the work much beyond what was originally contemplated, and beyond what could have been expected before such collections were made.

At the present time, five volumes of the Paleontology have been published, two of which were bound in two parts, making the entire number of seven bound volumes. These volumes contain about twenty-seven hundred pages of text and five hundred and sixteen plates. At the time of this writing the work has been virtually suspended for the past two years, with one hundred and seventy-five plates already lithographed and printed, and more than sixteen hundred pages of manuscript ready for the printer, besides drawings for more than one hundred and twenty-five plates.[14] Up to the present time the entire publication of the Natural History of the State, exclusive of the Annual Reports of the Survey and thirty-five Annual Reports of the State Museum, may be enumerated as below:

Botany, in two volumes bound in 2 volumes.
Zoölogy "" 5 "
Mineralogy "" 1 "
Geology "" 4 "
Agriculture "" 5 "
Paleontology, five volumes "" 7 "
24 volumes.

Of these twenty-four volumes, three thousand copies each have been published, making the entire number of seventy-two thousand quarto volumes, which have been published and distributed as the result of the Geological Survey of the State.

At the close of the field-work of the survey, the question of the disposition of the collections which had been made became a subject of much interest. It had been originally suggested that these might occupy a room in the State Library, or be arranged in some of the unused committee-rooms in the Capitol. The amount of material, however, was so great, and the importance of its proper arrangement so manifest, that the old State Hall, at that time about to be vacated, was appropriated for the purpose of a State Museum. At a later period (1857) the old building was demolished, and a more commodious one erected en the same site; and this is now filled to overflowing, and a large amount of collections remain unprovided for. In nearly all respects the survey has been carried out according to the original conception and plan. It has resulted in far larger and more interesting collections, and in far more interesting and valuable publications, than could ever have been anticipated by its original promoters. It has laid the foundations of geological science in our country, and made the State of New York the classic ground for the study of palæozoic geology.

The cost of the survey being computed in dollars, the value of the results is sometimes estimated by a similar standard; but the

people of the State of New York might with equal propriety measure the value of the common-school system by the commercial value of their school-houses and grounds. The absurdity would be equally as great in the one as in the other case. Like the system of public education, the results of the Geological Survey have penetrated into every school district and into every corner of the State; and these results are not to be measured by the figures representing dollars, but by the increased intelligence of the people, and the proud satisfaction that we have been able to lay broad and deep the foundations of geological science in the soil of a people whose motto is "Excelsior."

  1. From advance sheets of "The Public Service of the State of New York."
  2. Senate Document No. 15, 1834.
  3. Under this head the Secretary of State said: "Our shells, whether of marine, lake, river, or land production, deserve a very critical examination, more especially as the fossil remains of this extensive tribe of animals, both of living and extinct species, are considered as affording the most certain criteria for determining the priority of existing geological formations in the order of time. There is no department of our natural history which, for scientific purposes, requires more careful investigation. Specimens should be preserved for systematic classification and arrangement; and it is by no means improbable that these collections, with the fossil specimens, which may be found imbedded in our rocks and soils, will be instrumental in showing the identity of formations here and in the Old World, which have hitherto been considered entirely different in their geological character."
  4. The First District consisted of the counties of Suffolk, Queens, Kings, Richmond, New York, Westchester, Rockland, Putnam, Dutchess, Orange, Sullivan, Delaware, Ulster Greene, Columbia, Rensselaer, Albany, Schoharie, Schenectady, Saratoga, and Washington containing an area of 12,263 square miles
    The Second District consisted of the counties of Warren, Essex, Clinton, Franklin Hamilton, and St. Lawrence, to which was afterward added the county of Jefferson making 10,817 square miles.
    The Third District comprised the counties of Montgomery, Herkimer, Oneida, Lewis Jefferson (afterward added to the Second District), Oswego, Madison, Onondaga, Cayuga, Wayne, Ontario, Monroe, Orleans, Genesee, and Livingston, making, as reorganized 11,468 square miles.
    The Fourth District consisted of the counties of Otsego, Chenango, Broome, Tioga, Cortland, Tompkins, Seneca, Yates, Steuben, Allegany, Cattaraugus, Chautauqua, Erie and Niagara, embracing an area of 11,594 square miles.
    The Third and Fourth Districts were afterward reorganized, making all the counties to the west of Cayuga Lake, and a line drawn north and south from its two extremities, the Fourth District, which contained 11,060 square miles.
  5. Laws of fifty-ninth session, chapter 142.
  6. Among these gentlemen were Hon. John A. Dix, Secretary of State, Hon. Stephen Van Rensselaer, Dr. T. Romeyn Beck, Professor Amos Eaton, and Edwin Croswell, Esq., who had frequent meetings, which were continued at intervals through several months.
  7. It will be seen that neither of the principal geologists was a native or resident of the State of New York, though Lieutenant Mather had previously been instructor in the Natural Sciences in the Military Academy at West Point. Nor should it be forgotten that no inquiry was ever made regarding the political opinions of these gentlemen, and it proved that, of the seven principals of departments thus appointed, six were in political opposition to Governor Marcy.
  8. Professor Mather has estimated, from what he regarded as reliable data, that the fruitless coal-mining enterprises which had been undertaken in the Hudson Valley alone, during the fifty years preceding 1840, had cost more than a quarter of a million of dollars. The sums thus expended in other parts of the State, though doubtless much less, must, nevertheless, have been very large.
  9. In Southern New York and adjacent Pennsylvania the highest member of the New York system is the Upper Catskill gray sandstone and conglomerate. The rocks pertaining to the coal-measures supervene, without the presence of the great carboniferous limestone and associated strata of this age in the States of the West and bordering the Mississippi Valley.
  10. The term "Onondaga salt group" was regarded as objectionable on account of its length, and the term Salina was not adopted simply because the rocks of the formation or group are not visible nor accessible in the town of Salina.
  11. The work thus completed embraced the following subjects: botany, two quarto volumes; zoölogy, five quarto volumes; mineralogy, one quarto volume; geology, four quarto volumes, of each and all of which three thousand copies were published.
  12. Many of the results obtained by the late Dr. Fitch, of Salem, New York, and by Dr. Harris, of Cambridge, are incorporated in this volume.
  13. The work was begun almost without collections of fossils of any kind, without a library for reference, without artists or any of the appliances or resources considered necessary in scientific investigation and illustration. It became necessary to create the department from the beginning. No appropriations of money were made by the State for the collection of fossils until 1856, and this burden of labor and expense bore heavily upon the author of the work.
  14. No printing has been done for three years (since 1879), and no lithographic work for about two years. The delays in the publication of the volumes during the past are not chargeable to the author. The work was virtually suspended from 1850 to 1856. Great delay occurred in the completion of the plates of volume three after the text had been printed. The fourth volume was greatly delayed, both in the printing of the text and the lithography of the plates, owing to the enhanced price of all materials and labor during the war; and for the same reason very little progress was made with the fifth volume until a modification of the printing contract was made in 1871, which enabled the printer to go on with the work. Fully four years were lost on this account. The manuscript for volume five was, according to contract, deposited in the State Library in 1866, but after these years of delay it became necessary to revise and expand the same to include new material, which had been obtained and investigated during this interval. In the end, therefore, it became necessary to make two parts of this volume, one of which has already been published, and the other has been for three years ready for printing.