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Geohero or geochump?

A comment at a meeting GG was at got him to thinking about the popular view of scientists.  The comment was that scientists in the 19th century were heroes for Americans because they helped open up the West, while in the 20th century they were more thorns in the sides of growth.  Of course, this is so oversimplified it collapses quickly: John Wesley Powell, a hero for his explorations of the Colorado River, was viewed with great disdain when he closed claims for public lands. And post-WWII America fell in love with science in many ways. But still, when are scientists lauded and when are they scorned? An interesting pair of cases in the late 1860s and 1870s may shed light on this.

In both cases a scientist running a geological survey became aware of claims of major mineral finds within the area of his survey.  In both cases, the scientist claimed that these finds were incorrect. In both cases, the finds were not economic. Yet in one case, the scientist in question, Clarence King, was lauded, became first director of the USGS, and was viewed as one of the best and brightest America had to offer.  The other, Josiah Whitney, lost his survey and spent years grousing about the outcome. Why the difference?

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Book v Paper

Earth scientists today write papers.  Historians write books (well, they write papers, too, but it seems like that is kind of the installment plan for a book). Having completed a book, GG finds it a little frustrating in an odd way.

Professional papers are, in a way, a conversation. You get enough stuff together to say “Hey, this looks interesting.” Somebody else might then have some other observations and say “No, look, the story is different.”  And you are paying attention because that first paper was just the beginning of a research project.  So your next paper might have your new observations and an attempt to come to grips with those other observations that came up in the interim.  And so on.

A book, on the other hand, is kind of the last word. Unless you are writing a popular first-year textbook, publishers are not terribly interested in revised editions of books. And authors aren’t all that thrilled with the prospect of revisiting the whole of a book. In a way, this means that the kinds of conversation and continual revisiting of issues on a topic doesn’t happen. So there really should be a mindset in writing a book that, well, it is going to be sitting out there a long time without correction.

And so in writing about ongoing research, GG left the door open about what might come down the pike, knowing full well the give-and-take of geoscience research.

But it kind of hurts when you, as a book author, realize there was an oversight.  And there is nothing to do about it but wince. For GG, it was the discovery recently of a book, Golden Rules by Mark Kanazawa, that made him wince. It was published in 2015, plenty of time for its lessons on the creation of prior appropriation water law to be incorporated in GG’s manuscript chapter on hydraulic mining. And a quick skim (GG is reading now) suggests there were many lessons.

Does it really change the basic picture in The Mountains that Remade America? Probably not, particularly as the chapter in question focused more on the environmental damage of hydraulic mining. But gosh,it would have been better with this in it.

The sad realization is that this is probably the first of many oversights to be recognized. Who knew being finished writing a book could invoke regret? [Well, other than book authors].


When you look back to find when the Old West died, GG would like to nominate 1906 as that magic year.

In 1906, the last of the classic gold rushes of the West reached its peak.  Goldfield, having been found just a couple years earlier, became the most populous city in Nevada on the basis of its considerable bonanza gold deposits.  It and its companion silver boom town of Tonopah represented the last gasp of big finds by miners wandering the west. As these towns faded out, the state of Nevada would try to find a new economic base.  First they encouraged travel for getting a divorce, and then they removed the restrictions on gambling. That transition from a mainly extractive economy to a mainly tourism based economy began as Goldfield started to empty out. The memory of the mining heritage would live on: nearly every Nevada town seems to have a casino named the Nugget (and most others have some mining theme, like “Bonanza” or “Silver strike”), but it would increasingly be tourists and not mineral veins that would be mined.

Another tourism related event–one most folks overlook these days–occurred in 1906. The first park set aside by the nation was Yosemite Valley; in 1864 it was transferred to the state of California to be protected in perpetuity. In 1890, advocates for protecting the surrounding high country had given up on the state, feeling it had mismanaging the park, and worked to get a federally managed national park created. Thus Yosemite National Park (the federal version) was created as the third national park behind Yellowstone and Sequoia. The state, however, continued to manage the valley. Continued agitation by park advocates finally led the state to relinquish control of the valley in 1906, in essence declaring an end to any possible equivalence of state and federal control of parklands. The transfer to the federal government would also end the state’s practice of allowing Native Americans to continue to live in the valley; though it would take the Park Service decades, they finally removed the last descendant of the Ahwahneechee from the valley. For most of the following century, Native Americans would be denied a modern presence in federal parks; instead they were relegated to colorful descriptions of their ancestors’ historic occupation of the land.

And then in 1906 the San Andreas Fault, only recently named at that point, failed in the catastrophic San Francisco Earthquake.  Between the quake and the fire, much of the city’s Gold Rush heritage was lost–not only buildings but photographs, written records and other memorabilia of a city that grew from a small trading post to an international metropolis on the back of the riches that passed out of the Sierra. As the city rebuilt, it would not be in the mold of the old Gold Rush town but would be the new financial and trade capital of the West Coast, one stylistically different from the city that had just been demolished.

So 1906 saw the loss of much memory of the Gold Rush, both in records in San Francisco and in activity as Goldfield began its decline. The era of modern tourism, with federally managed playgrounds and locally permitted houses of various sins, was grafted onto declining mining camps and previously state-managed land.

A coda helps to illustrate the transition. The 1906 quake triggered avalanches in the Sierra Nevada, including in the remote Mineral King valley high in the southern Sierra, where many of the buildings of a small resort were smashed.  The resort’s owner was seeking a patent on land being claimed as a mill site for associated mineral claims, a request opposed by the Sierra Forest’s supervisor, who pointed out that no mining was actually occurring. Despite the destruction of much of the resort, Arthur Crowley pushed together remains of two buildings to continue operations as he continued his quest for a paten. A court held that Crowley’s claim was valid, and the patent was granted. Mining law had opened up a tourism future; the driver of the West in the 19th century was giving way to that of the 20th century.

Textbook helper?

One of the questions from the staff at UC Press about GG’s upcoming book was, could this be used in a class? GG’s first response was, well no, it wasn’t written that way. But thinking on it, maybe there is a role there.  This is more a reference post to consider the possibility…

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Mountains that Remade America

For those who come hoping to see material related to the Grumpy Geophysicist’s upcoming trade book on the Sierra Nevada, The Mountains that Remade America, here are a few quick pointers. Read More…

A Range of Opinion

…or, perhaps, when engineers and geologists collide. (This is one of those little episodes GG had pulled up for possible inclusion in his book The Mountains that Remade America only to find it something of an orphan).

In 1863, the Big Four responsible for construction of the Central Pacific Railroad were in desperate need of funds. The 1862 Pacific Railroad bill allowed $48,000/mile to be loaned once the railroad entered the Sierra Nevada but only $16,000/mile before then. Up to 150 miles of mountainous terrain could be claimed.  Eager to get the most money possible, Charles Crocker got the state geologist, Josiah Whitney, to go on a buggy ride to decide where the western edge of the range might be. Whitney allowed that the Sacramento River might be the most appropriate spot, but both he and Crocker could see the terrain was quite flat.  So they rode off some 6 or 7 miles east to Arcade Creek where some reddish sedimentary rock was exposed, and Whitney allowed that this was an appropriate spot to claim the edge of the range. But when Theodore Judah, who was director of the line and was responsible for identifying the route and who had shepherded the 1862 bill through Congress heard, he was appalled. This was 21 miles west of where the line would encounter its first real grades.

This episode is widely derided as Whitney engaging in deception to aid the railroad.  Was this another example of Josiah being a total ninny, as when he accepted the Calaveras Man claims, or when he said there had never been glaciers in Yosemite Valley?


Detail of Wagner et al., 1981, Geologic map of the Sacramento quadrangle, California, 1:250,000.

On the map above, the Sacramento River is at the left and the edges of crystalline rock of the Sierra is at the right. The Central Pacific runs under the “r” in the Arcade Creek label. The orange patterned unit on the map is the Turlock Lake Formation.  According to Unruh (1991), the 0.6 Ma Turlock Lake is tilted 0.19° to the west. For a geologist, this western edge of tilted and eroded Tertiary and Quaternary rock is indeed the most likely spot to mark the edge of the range. (Geologists today would not go along with the Sacramento River as the edge as its floodplain extends well east of Sacramento).

Whitney had, in fact, chosen a perfectly appropriate spot even though it was one that Stanford and Crocker had decided upon by measuring backwards 150 miles from the Truckee Meadows on the east side of the range. That this was not the essence of “mountains” as envisioned by an engineer like Judah was not Whitney’s fault; indeed, had the bill been written to assure that only truly mountainous terrain be included, Judah should have inserted minimum railroad grades or some other direct measure.

Whitney’s written acceptance of the Arcade Creek edge to the Sierra was seconded by two government surveyors in California and sent on to Washington, where Abraham Lincoln agreed that this was the appropriate point for the mountains to start. The Central Pacific got their higher loans earlier, but more through the ambiguity of the original legislation than deliberate misrepresentation on the part of the state geologist.


Making Yosemite

Driving across Yosemite National Park made GG wonder once again about the origin of Yosemite Valley.  Within the valley, the basic story is the variety of rock types that allowed the valley glacier to cut so deeply.  But there is another part that is more subtle.

If you hike the valley floor, you would think the main stem river would be Tenaya Creek, which heads up the valley under Half Dome with only a small rise in elevation, and not the Merced River, which rises dramatically over the Giant Staircase of Vernal and Nevada Falls to Little Yosemite Valley.  This is quite odd, and what it tells you is that a really large amount of ice came pouring in over Tenaya Creek.

This ice was not created by snowfall in the relatively small Tenaya Creek drainage.  The vast majority had fallen in the Tuolumne Meadows area on the immense ice sheet that capped the upper Tuolumne River watershed. The natural drain for this ice was, of course, down the Tuolumne River.

This is where things get interesting.  Had the Tuolumne Glacier knifed down through what is now the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, there would have been a large conduit for ice to descend down the river channel.  But in fact the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, despite having the longest glacier in the Sierra churning down it, remains essentially a V-shaped fluvial river canyon.

What this means is that the ice would pile higher and deeper near Tuolumne Meadows than you might normally expect, which means that more ice could escape over drainage divides.  One was to the east, where this ice poured through Tioga Pass and carved the truly impressive canyon to the east. Another was to the southwest, over the divide into tiny Tenaya Creek’s drainage.  Here the ice found rock more willing to yield to glacial erosion, and the deep hole thus created in Yosemite Valley reinforced the diversion of ice into that valley.

So while the diversity of rock types–particularly the weak diorites of the Rockslides area in Yosemite–was probably essential to getting Yosemite carved to its present dimensions, equal tribute should be paid to the Yosemite Creek, El Capitan, and Sentinel intrusions to the north which did not yield to the glacial ice, forcing most substantial erosion in Yosemite itself.