Monthly Archives: November 2018

The Colorado Rockies 6. The Garden of the Gods.

Garden of the Gods

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The main entrance to the park with Pike’s Peak in the distance.

The Garden of the Gods.  What an evocative name.

A geological and scenic marvel, this public park and National Monument lies on the edge of the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies surrounded by the communities of Colorado Springs and Manitou Springs.  Indeed it is so much part of the community that the rock formations and houses coexist in many places.

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Houses nestle among rock formations of the Garden of the Gods

Jagged irregular spires of red and white sandstone, some reaching 300 feet high, tower over the forest creating a fantastical landscape. The whole thing framed by a snow capped mountain range containing one of the highest peaks in Colorado.  The first Europeans to see this terrain proclaimed it as “a fit place for the Gods to assemble. We will call it the Garden of the Gods.”  The name stuck.

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Sunrise

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Jagged spires make for a fantastical vista mimicking the pines.

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Mt Cheyenne range glows at sunrise.  Taken from the front yard of my Airbnb overlooking Colorado Springs.

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North Gateway rock with Pike’s Peak

Of course as you can see from these images it is an incredibly beautiful place but the rocks tell a fascinating geological story that spans a billion years, with almost every geological period represented.  Stick with me.  The story begins with 1 billion year old Pikes Peak granite  intruding into the older 1.7b year old gneiss of the so-called Ancestral Rockies .

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Pike’s Peak looms over the Garden of the Gods Park.  A dusting from a snowfall the previous night. The mountin is comprised of the 1 billion year old Pikes Peak Granite.

These mountains wore down progressively and around 250-300 million years ago the resulting sediment fed into a giant sea that ultimately became a  huge sandy desert. Great dunes of red sand accumulated to create the thick sedimentary rock formations known by geologists as ‘red beds’.

25 million yeas later these then flat lying sediments were covered with a great inland sea until the Jurassic, around 150 million years ago, when the climate changed again creating a rich tropical forest grazed by dinosaurs.  About 65 million years ago an intense period of mountain building began; the orogenic upheaval that built the present day Rockies.  Colossal forces created massive fault lines which stood the sediments upright.

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Red sandstones stood on their end by geological tectonism.  A flat lying reverse thrust fault is visible also in this cutting.

Erosion and then glaciation has selectively removed the softer rocks and left the landscape that we see today – a giant  sculpture in sandstone, conglomerate and limestone.

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Pike’s Peak glows as it catches the first rays of the rising sun

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View from the Red Rock Open Space at the Garden of the Gods.

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Differential erosion in the vertical exposed rocks create these stark contrasting outcrops.  Kissing Camels in the distance and White Rock.

The only way to really appreciate this place is to walk through it and around it, to become part of it, taking it in from different angles and in different light.  I was up at sunrise one day when it glowed in the dawn light.  The reds are redder against the bluest of skies.  There are miles of trails to explore and there are many rewards along the way.  Unique formations have names that reflect their morphology.  Kissing Camels, The Sentinel, Cathedral Rock, White Rock.  There are natural holes, arches and the precarious Balanced Rock.

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Cathedral Rock

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A natural hole

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A natural rock arch

Of course the rock formations are its most obvious and spectacular feature but it is also a mighty challenge to the most technical of rock climbers.  Unfortunately I saw evidence that this activity is not always sympathetic to the natural and geological values of the area.  For example at the Sentinel is an excellent  example of ancient ripple marks insensitively defaced by a drill hole for for a climber’s foothold.

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A rare exposure of ripple marks defaced by rdrill holes.

It is also a haven for wildlife.  I saw deer and a variety of birds, including what appeared to be hawks nesting high on a pinnacle.

The special nature of the place was recognised by the early landowners, most notable among them Charles Perkins, whose family, on his death in 1909, gave their land to the City on condition that it would be a free public park.  That promise has been honored for over a hundred years.

We should be grateful for the foresight of these people, who recognised something that needed to be preserved and shared so that today it is one of the most visited parks, and one of the most loved, in America today.

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The Colorado Rockies 5. Fossils at Florissant, a Petrified Forest and the Singer family.

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Take Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs. You pass the majestic Pikes Peak (look out for an upcoming blog on this) on your left and after about 50 km you’ll see a turn off to the Florissant Fossil Beds. That sounded interesting so I took it of course. I soon discovered that this place of which I knew nothing (though I should have) is legendary in the annals of American geology and palaeontology.

Within its shales and mudstones is an extraordinarily abundant assemblage of mainly insects and plants dating to the Eocene Period (34 million years old). A combination of unique circumstances has led to a level of preservation normally unheard of for insect and plant fossils.

It’s worth briefly explaining. A lake environment surrounded by redwood forest is determined as the depositional environment here.  A nearby volcano generated volcanic ash which interacted with tiny creatures known as diatoms living in the lake. This caused regular diatom blooms as well as insect and plant die-offs. Dying diatoms would fall to the bottom of the lake and preserve with unrivaled detail the fossils in the finely layered mud and ash. But that’s not all. The volcano also contributed to the formation of some of the finest petrified stumps you will ever see. I’ll come back to that.

You can’t see the fossil beds. They are off limits but there is an excellent display in the museum on site. Invertebrates dominate with over 1,500 species of spiders and insects alone having been identified. Not possible to photograph them properly in their glass cases, so here are a few images from the published scientific record to give you some idea of the quality and depth of the material.

What most people go to Florissant for though is the petrified forest and this you can see.  I’ve always been fascinated by petrified wood. I had a specimen as a young child and I used to count the rings and look under the lens at the cell structure preserved in stone and I would marvel.  Who knows it may have been responsible for firing an interest that saw me spend a lifetime in geology.

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A large petrified stump near the entrance to the park

The Big  Stump.230 feet tall 750 yrs old when covered by volcanic mud

The famous ‘Big Stump’

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The celebrated Trio of redwood stumps

The petrified trees here are among the largest surviving in the world. They have been identified as similar to modern sequoias.  They were killed by a giant lahar (volcanic mud flow) from that volcano we were talking about earlier, flowing through the forest and cutting off the oxygen to the roots. Circulating water containing a lot of silica then percolated through, replacing the organic material in a process known as permineralisation.  The trees were as tall as 60 metres and up to 700 years old when they died.

But I always look for the story behind the story. There is quite a saga here with the discovery, development and preservation of this national treasure; not least because it was owned by an entrepreneurial family, the Singers. I felt personally obliged to investigate this connection further.

But let’s start a little before this, back in the mid 1870s.  Charlotte Hill and husband Adam, acquired and built a homestead near Florissant in 1874 under the Homestead Act. This remarkable woman discovered the fossil beds and collected hundreds of specimens which she brought to the attention of the scientific community. Included in her collection were dozens of previously unrecognised species. Most famous is the spectacular Persephone Butterfly (illustrated above). This led to scientific expeditions but also alerted the world and brought tourists and collectors. Charlotte facilitated this as a guide and joined the many who became collectors and traders in fossils. The Florissant beds were heavily exploited during this time and immense damage done. Thousands of specimens were lost. There was even an attempt to saw up the Big Stump and transport it west; you can still see evidence of this today.

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Saw blades lodged in the “Big Stump’.  An attempt to slice up the tree for specimens.

Then came the railway and thousands of tourists and the pressure only grew.  OK now back to the Singers.  Hill sold her land and homestead and it was eventually bought by the Singer family who set up a tourist attraction around the ‘Big Stump’ Another adjacent landowner opened a second Forest Park with the main attraction being a trio of stumps. They became bitter rivals.

As early as 1915 it had been proposed as a National Park. Some of the owners supported this but the Government was not keen After many false starts, it took 50 years and some torrid court battles for this to become a reality with Singers and the other landowners eventually selling to the Government in the 1960s and the park opening in 1969.

I visited a log cabin nearby. This was the original homestead built by Charlotte and Adam Hill in 1874 and which became the family home of my namesakes, the Singers in the 1920s.  A comfortable cottage giving us a revealing insight into homestead life in the mid west. The walls are lined with layers of newspaper and wallpaper covering many decades. Near the roof line you can see exactly how thick this layering became. Outside the elegant cabin has v-joints and caulking to keep out the icy winds. A central stove heats the whole house.  There is a small kitchen and living areas downstairs and a large bedroom and more sleeping accommodation within the roof upstairs.

It felt just a little bit weird walking through this house that may have been lived in by distant relatives.

The homestead is part of the Fossil Park and well preserved and can be visited if someone happens to be around to unlock it for you.

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The homestead built by Charlotte Hill and later the Singer family home.

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Inside the Hill homestead

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Roof shingles on the Charlotte Hill homestead

The geologist in me wanted to see the fossils in situ but of course that was impossible; but seeing those massive petrified trunks was remarkable enough and the Colorado Rockies delivered yet another amazing experience.

And finding another group of Singers with links into the geological world! Now I wonder if any of them played the fiddle .

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The Colorado Rockies 4. Independence – a Ghost Town.

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In my last blog on my road trip through the Colorado Rockies, I talked about Independence Pass and its close connection with the discovery of gold. Gold in this part of Colorado was discovered on 4th July 1879 at Roaring Fork River about four miles from the top of the Independence Pass and a town soon sprung upon the banks of the river and in the shadow of Mt Independence. It started as a tent city and one year later there were 300 people living in the camp.  The following year a single company, Farwell Mining Company, had acquired the leading mines such as Independence No 1, 2 and 3, Last Dollar, Legal Tender, Mammoth, Mount Hope, Champion, Sheba, Friday, and Dolly Varden.

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The ghost town of Independence at the foot of Mt Independence in the valley of the Roaring Fork River

Various competing interests battled over the name of the town.  During its short life it was variously known as Belden, Chipeta, Sidney, Farwell, Sparkhill and in its fading days optimistically Mammoth City and Mount Hope.  Ironically though and for obvious reasons, it was widely known as Independence though there was never a post office of that name.

By summer of 1881 there were 500 people and many permanent buildings including grocery stores, boarding houses and three saloons. It reached its peak in 1882 when there were 90 buildings containing 40 businesses and a population of 1,500.

As with most mining booms, the bust followed quickly when the gold ran out and by 1888 there were only 100 citizens eking out an existence at an elevation of nearly 11,000 feet and under a blanket of snow from October to the end of May.  The worst storm in Colorado’s history hit in 1899 and those residents still there were completely cut off for months. Running out of food, they dismantled their houses to make skis and 75 residents skied their way to Aspen. Only one resident remained after this. Jack Williams was caretaker of the stamper battery and treatment plant.  In 1912 Jack finally left and that was the end of the town of Belden-Independence-Chipeta-Sidney-Farewell-Sparkhill-Mammoth City-Mount Hope.

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A restored miner’s cabin now used as a summer residence.

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Incredibly a number of buildings have survived to varying degrees in this spectacular location. Some remain relatively intact and have been restored and some are piles of timber or just depressions in the ground. Ted Ackerman’s Hotel was one of five during its hey-day. Little remains of this establishment where miners could find a room for $2 a day.

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Ruins of Ted Ackerman’s Hotel

A general store stands proud, restored in the 1980s and a remarkable testament to the courage of these men (and a few women) and the lure of gold.

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Restored general store

As a geologist with a strong interest in the company history and social history of gold mining in my home country I have seen many Australian ‘ghost towns’ from the gold rush days. They were much more transient and rarely does any structure survive as here. Australians built with hessian and stone and corrugated iron, rather than timber, which is so abundant here, and material was transported to the next town following abandonment.  You’d have to say that heat was more of a problem than cold generally.  Its hard not to be impressed though by the simplicity of construction of the log cabin and its durability.  140 years later the v-notch joints still hold the structures together.

 

Just downstream from the town is the timber framework of a large stamper battery and on the slopes above there is a bit more mine infrastructure, the head of a mine shaft and a patch of Aspen covering what was obviously a spoil dump.  I would love to have had time to explore more.

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Remains of a  large stamper battery.  The treatment plant would have been on the flat area below.

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An old mine site.  The mound in the distance was the head of a shaft and the patch of aspen covers a spoil dump.

Preservation of these sites is essential.  They are one of the few tangible links to a hugely important part of the development of countries such as USA and Australia.  As in Australia, mining was responsible for opening up large tracts of the country and for the beginnings of many towns, some gone like Independence, some still surviving like Aspen, Leadville or Cañon City.  I’ll come back to this in a later blog.

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