How Ice On The Rocks Reveals Our Destiny (Part II)

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Previously: How Ice On The Rocks Reveals Our Destiny (Part I) |


You wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the glaciers.

No, really. You might be somewhere, but you wouldn’t likely be here.

And you can thank the glaciers for that.

You can’t live in Western New York (in general) and our area (specifically) without recognizing the significance of the glaciers. Our neighborhoods contain the remnants of drumlins, kames, and other glacial debris. You see it in the eskers you walk upon in Mendon Ponds Park. You see it in the cobblestone houses that dot our landscape. In fact, you see it every day, only you probably don’t notice it.

As the once majestic Acadia range eroded into what is now the Greater Western New York region, it buried the marine flora and fauna, leaving the fossil record we see today. But it’s not as easy as that, for intervening events would bury these treasures deeper beneath the surface.

“An awful lot of this is later covered by sediments trapped by the glaciers,” says George McIntosh, Paleontologist, RMSC (Emeritus) who specializes in the geology and fossils of the Devonian Period. “The giant continental glaciers that came in here starting about 2 million years ago, or so. But there are some good exposures. People from all over the world – from China, Australia, Europe, and certainly people from North America – come to Western New York to study our fossils in our rocks. There’s good exposure obviously down at Letchworth and there’s good exposures in a variety of different places.”

The Grand Canyon of the East – Letchworth State Park – stands as a testament to the forces of nature that ultimately guide our lives. The gorge itself stands as a monument to nature’s relentless fury – not just the Genesee River’s role in eroding the various Devonian Period (remember that?) shales, sandstones and siltstones. It’s something bigger, something stronger, something with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men!

“In this part of New York State, everything above the Devonian Period has been eroded from this part of the world by early rivers, but more recently by the glaciers during what we call the Pleistocene Period or the Pleistocene Era,” says Professor Richard Young (Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, SUNY@Geneseo). “And that’s divided into many sub-partitions when the ice advanced across this region, probably at least 10 times roughly every hundred thousand years. But the Pleistocene as it’s defined today is approximately 2.6 million years old.”

Much of the topography we see around us today emerged from beneath the retreating glaciers during the most recent Ice Age. It wasn’t a singular event, but a series of actions over tens of thousands of years.

“The last ice advance during the Pleistocene is called Wisconsin and the Wisconsin is divided into three parts, the early Wisconsin, the middle Wisconsin, and the late Wisconsin,” says Young. “What you see around you and the landscape was all formed pretty much during the late Wisconsin. That was when the ice advanced all the way down to Long Island approximately 25-30,000 years ago.”

Ultimately, two geological forces sculpted the land around us. The pure weight of the mile high ice crushed and depressed the entire landmass and smoothed the ridges. This caused Lake Iroquois – the larger predecessor of Lake Ontario – to empty into the Atlantic Ocean through the Mohawk River rather than the St. Lawrence River as it does today. It’s also why the northern topography of Western New York is much smoother than the jagged landscape of the Southern Tier.

At the same time, moving water chiseled into the earth and carried debris to create new landforms – moraines, eskers, drumlins, kettles, and kames. As the glacier melted its way back to Canada, it unveiled a new landscape, one which would reveal our fate.

“Approximately 16,900 years ago the glacier was in Dansville,” says Young. “Then it slowly retreated northward across the State for about 4,000 years. In the process it created a series of ridges that run east-west. Those regions are places where the ice temporarily was still – it was melting, at the same rate that it was advancing. So it dropped a lot of sand and gravel and there are roughly a dozen moraines between Pennsylvania and Lake Ontario.”

You may recognize some of these familiar features.

“One of the moraines runs through the University of Rochester and that’s called the Pinnacle Hills, where all those radio towers are,” says Young. “One of the more interesting features that formed, along with the moraines, is a whole series of other irregular land forms. We have small ponds which form where ice blocks melted. And we have piles of sand and gravel called kames. Kames are simply places where piles of sand and gravel were dumped more than elsewhere, so they stand above the local landscape. But the moraines are these long ridges and a fairly complex sequence of moraines, kames and kettles formed at the location known as Mendon Ponds.”

Not only do the glaciers reshape the earth, but they can also change the course of mighty rivers.

“The Genesee Valley is formed mostly by the Genesee River, but not only by the modern Genesee River,” says Young. “There was a series of rivers over the last 2 million years. And each time there was a glacier advancing from the north, that would be followed by a reformation of the River after the ice melted.”

“The present course of the River is very complicated,” continues Young. “There are old valleys, like the one at Dansville, and the one through Nunda from the south end of Letchworth Park and Portageville to Nunda. And the newest part of the River system is Letchworth Park, and that’s clear because it’s formed in bedrock.”

We can identify the newly established river paths by the lack of sediment on the ancient rock.

Young says, “The signature for young valleys in this part of the world is that they are formed in bedrock are the ones that formed after the last ice melted. The Genesee River formed a new course that it hadn’t occupied before entirely and that’s the one through Letchworth. Then it continued on past Geneseo and through to the area of Rochester.”

But that’s not the way it used to be.

“There’s also an older channel that is often discussed in the literature and that’s where the Genesee River turns to the east in the area of Rush and then flows north into what is today Irondequoit Bay,” says Young. “But that probably happened more than once, and each time the ice advanced, it made the valleys a little bit bigger or shaped them or carved them a little bit deeper so that some of them are actually below sea level, or at least the bedrock of the valley is below sea level. Since the last Ice Age roughly 13,000 years ago, the Genesee River has never flowed to Irondequoit Bay, although it did, in the long ago distant past and maybe more than once, but the present day channel is the one that formed as the ice retreated northward and the River ended up flowing through Rochester.”

Ode to a Once Mighty Oak

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And in that brief moment, its reign ended.

We don’t know how old it really was, but the centuries had exacted their toll. Despite the efforts of the valiant few, the rot that builds with age had eaten its way through the internal fabric that once supported its mighty infrastructure.

When that final gust rushed through, the great citadel had fallen. It had stood for so long that those closest to it, stunned by the fatal reality before their own eyes, could only muster an anemic disbelief.

All that incredulity could not suspend the finality that was. It was gone. Not really. But really.

*          *          *

The Seneca tribe was a fierce warrior tribe. They had to be. They guarded the “west gate” of the Iroquois Confederacy. From that position, they both protected one flank of their Continue Reading “Ode to a Once Mighty Oak”

A Bridge Too Quiet

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I never understood the lure of trains. Don’t get me wrong. I love trains. I just can’t figure out why. I mean, I was born at the dawn of the Space Age, watched Star Trek when it was still on the air and followed NASA’s lunar program with diligent pride. Heck, I even majored in physics and astronomy, served on the Strasenburgh Planetarium’s 40th Anniversary Task Force and created an official astronomy outreach project (AstronomyTop100.com) that received the official endorsement of the United Nations during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.

Many were the times when I thought I was finally done with trains. But, like the mob to Continue Reading “A Bridge Too Quiet”

Greater Western New York’s Split Personality Explained

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To the uninitiated, Batavia might seem like a mere crossroads on the map, but the hustle and bustle of Route 5 (a.k.a. Main Street) tells a much different story. Any visitor will immediately see a testament to a thriving community. Without the telltale skyscrapers of a modern city, the heart of Genesee County clearly doesn’t come across as a quaint nineteenth century town. No, there’s a hint of modernity in its traffic, its business and even in the complexity of its inner city layout.

Yet within this bastion of modest progress lies a jewel with a much deeper backstory than meets the eye of the casual passerby. But before we get there, perhaps it makes Continue Reading “Greater Western New York’s Split Personality Explained”

Such is Fame: The Real Enduring Legacy of Niagara Falls

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In crafting a list of hidden gems of Greater Western New York, it’s apparent one must define what one means by the word “hidden.” Of course, if one of these not-so-hidden gems turns out to have inspired something truly outstanding, well, that would be worth writing about. Before I get to that, though, let me share with you my methodology for compiling this list, but allow me to do this by showing you, not telling you (assuming that’s even possible in the format of the written word).

For example, we have plenty of gems that have received broad national attention. Indeed, several people, events and activities from, in and around the Greater Western New York region have found themselves honored with places in our history books.

What school-aged child doesn’t know the name of Continue Reading “Such is Fame: The Real Enduring Legacy of Niagara Falls”

The Lost Tribe of Western New York

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By the summer of 1679, René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle had approached his wit’s end. His faithful lieutenant, the Neapolitan  Henri de Tonti, had already repulsed one attempt by the Seneca to burn La Salle’s soon-to-be sailing ship Le Griffon. A year earlier, in hopes to attain a promise of peace, La Salle had travelled seventy-five miles east to the Seneca village of Ganondagan, located on present-day Boughton Hill, just outside of the Village of Victor, about 20 miles south of Rochester.1 Peace was promised, but as the attempted arson proved, wasn’t necessarily guaranteed. So, ahead of schedule, on August 7, 1679, La Salle gave the order to weigh anchor and commanded twelve burly sailors to grab tow-lines and walk Le Griffon from the shallow ten-foot waters of Squaw Island, through the rushing rapids of the Niagara River and, with the help of a much hoped for northeast breeze, into the calm waters of what his native tongue called Lac du Chat (Lake Erie).2 Embarking on La Salle’s mission in search of the Northwest Passage, Le Griffon thus became the first large ship to grace the waters of the Great Lakes above the Niagara Falls.

But it also left several intriguing questions: How did the Lake he sailed into get its name? More interestingly, why did he need to travel to the east side of the Genesee River nearly to the other end of Western New York to speak to the Indians? Indeed, what had happened to the native (at least relative to the Europeans) Western New Yorkers?Continue Reading “The Lost Tribe of Western New York”