Saturday, December 5, 2009

Elephant Rocks

Geological tourism is subtle. Merry and I love it. Often the sights require special attention because they are not apparent to the casual passer-by. Over the years we have bagged much of the really big game of the geologically motivated: the Grand Canyon, of course; the Utah marvels of Bryce, Zion and Arches along with the lesser known but truly amazing Capital Reef; the stratovolcanos of the Northwest, Crater Lake, Mt. Hood, Mt. Baker and Mt. St. Helens; the magnitude one springs of Florida and Missouri ... I could go on. Many of the most memorable places, however, are of more subtle form. Last Saturday we toured two of the marvels of the St. Francois [pronounced Francis] Mountains.

The St. Francois Mountains are the tallest and only true mountains in Missouri. They run through part of southeastern Missouri beginning about 50 miles south of St. Louis. They are between the eastern edge of the Ozarks and the Mississippi. Any geologist worth his or her salt will tell you the Ozark “mountains” are not proper mountains at all, but a plateau deeply dissected by valleys. The St. Francois range contains the highest point in the state, Taum Sauk, at a modest height of 1772 feet (540 meters). These rounded hills are actually among the oldest mountains on earth having been formed by volcanic activity about 1.5 billion years ago. By comparison the Appalachian range started to lift about 460 million years ago, the Rockies about 70 million years ago and our beloved Adirondacks only 5 million years ago. The St. Francois are so modest today because they've sustained a lot of wear over the eons. They are probably the only area of of the midwest not to have been submerged during the Paleozoic era. Ancient corals along their base indicate they probably were a solitary island chain at the time. They were also never scraped clean by glaciers during the ice ages.

The St. Francois Mountains are the center of Missouri commercial mining. Mineral deposits in and near the mountains yield lead, iron, baryte, zinc, silver, manganese, cobalt, and nickel ores. The area today accounts for over 90% of primary lead production in the United States. I wrote about that in last weekend's post on the Bonne Terre mine. Granite has also been commercially quarried in the area since 1869. The area around Elephant Rocks State Park produces a deep red tone granite that was used for the towers of the first bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis as well as for the thousands of shoebox sized paving blocks on the St. Louis waterfront. Granite mining continues in the area today producing primarily Missouri Red monument stone.

People generally don't come upon Elephant Rocks by accident. It's miles off any Interstate tucked back the Acadia valley near the small towns of Pilot Knob, Ironton, and Graniteville. Technically Elephant Rocks is a “tor” or weathered outcropping of rock along a ridge line. A mile or so of the north ridge here has a line of pink, lichen encrusted granite outcroppings topped with giant rounded boulders. Granite erodes very slowly, so these boulders were a long time in the making. Because many of the boulders are in a line, nearly touching, they remind people of circus elephants.

On the fine warm day we visited people were everywhere but it was not really crowded. There are a lot of rocks to scramble around on, a human jungle gym. Back in the 19th century small entrepreneurs decided this was an excellent and easy place to mine building stone. Two abandoned granite quarries are on the park property and a few more small quarries, one still in operation, are nearby. There are piles and piles of large blocks of granite everywhere. The woods are full of stone, cut but never used. Down one side trail is an old railroad engine repair shop, its roof long gone but its double thick walls of pink granite as solid as the day they were laid by skilled masons more than 100 years ago. It's a minor miracle that the stone cutters didn't finish the job of taking this formation apart block by block.

Joli, the dog ambassador, greeted everyone on the trail, especially the kids. Once she was surrounded by about 10 pre-teen boys who were finally ordered to stop petting her by their grumpy adult group leader. On top of the ridge among the Elephants Rocks are a series of depressions filled with rain water that she found made great drinking dishes and also worked as a serviceable cooling bath.

Back when this area was the exclusive realm of the stonecutter, the quarry workers must have taken their lunch breaks up with the Elephants. They used their quarry tools to carefully carve their names in the granite underfoot all along the ridge. The letters are still clear and sharp. The lettering is familiar, exactly what you would see on a grave stone. It's an unusual form of graffiti, slowly turning into a landmark. We even found a handsome “Edward” carved by a long forgotten stonecutter. I'm sure his view of these mountains in the late fall was nearly the same as ours.

1 comment:

  1. I love the story of the stonecutter
    Benjamin Hoff from The Tao Of Pooh