The area rocks

Learning about Tri-State area geology through rock collecting, education

Learning about Tri-State area geology through rock collecting, education

October 03, 2004|by ANDREA ROWLAND

CHARLES TOWN, W.Va. - Stanley Dickinson can look at a rock and see the past.

He can envision a molten mass bubbling up through existing rock within the earth's crust, cooling and crystallizing, more than 1 billion years ago, as he holds a piece of metagranite from near Brunswick, Md. Looking at limestone, iron ore and slag fragments, Dickinson recalls the many Tri-State area communities that developed centuries ago around the iron ore deposits flanking the Keedysville Fault from Pennsylvania to Virginia. He sees an ancient beach along an inland sea as he points to a brachiopod fossil - dating to about 385 million years ago - in a piece of sandstone that he found in a quarry near Berkeley Springs, W.Va.

"I find all rocks are interesting just as long as they can tell me stories of how they came to be formed and how they exhibit ancient environments," said Dickinson of Charles Town, who earned a doctoral degree in geology from Harvard University and worked as a geologist for the U.S. Air Force for 40 years. "I know that breaking open a rock and being the only person in many millions of years to find life in it, fossil life that is, can be mind-boggling."


Dickinson, 73, now works to educate the public about the geology of the Tri-State area. He has two rock exhibits in the trolley building at the C&O Canal National Historical Park's Williamsport Visitor Center. His book, "A Celebration of Iron: A History 1609-1892," is available at the Jefferson County Museum in Charles Town. Dickinson recently completed a children's geology book entitled "The Epic Journey of George Quartz." And he authored the section about geology along the C&O Canal on the Web at

The Tri-State area is rich with rock history, Dickinson said.

The Great Valley

About 250 million years ago, all of the continents drifted together to form a supercontinent called Pangaea, said Dale Shelton, naturalist for the Maryland Geological Survey in Baltimore. He said the collision between the ancestral North American and African continents warped and folded the rock formations of western Maryland into structures called anticlines and synclines, thus forming the Appalachian Mountains. More than 200 million years of erosion has worn the Appalachians down to mere roots of what the mountains were at their inception, Shelton said.

Hagerstown rests within the longest valley on earth, longer even than the East African Rift Valley - the Great Valley, which extends from New York to Alabama, he said. Maryland's portion of the Great Valley is named the Hagerstown Valley, while sections in other states - such as Virginia's Shenandoah Valley - are known by local names, Shelton added.

The Hagerstown Valley consists primarily of sedimentary carbonate rocks, limestone and dolomites that were deposited as lime sediments about 500 million years ago during the Cambrian-Ordovician periods of the Paleozoic Era, he said. The carbonate rocks are the oldest rocks in western Maryland.

Conococheague Creek west of Hagerstown flows through the Martinsburg Shale, a noncarbonate rock formation. Tightly folded sedimentary rocks of conglomerates, sandstone, siltstone, shale and limestone characterize the Folded Appalachian Mountains Section just west of the Hagerstown Valley - tight folds of progressively younger rocks exemplified by the Sideling Hill rock exposure west of Hancock, Shelton said.

The rock formations in the Hagerstown Valley and further west in the Appalachians continue into the neighboring states of Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, he said.

Pieces of history

Collecting and studying rocks and fossils can nurture a deeper understanding of the history of the Tri-State area and earth as a whole, Dickinson said.

"I think most young people probably need a little push to become interested in rocks," he said. "My push came from my mother's parents, who were interested in gardening and the earth and 'oohed' and 'aahed' over the pebbles I picked up."

Dickinson offers the following suggestions to bolster kids' interest in geology:

· Teachers can offer field trips to such geology-rich sites as Sideling Hill and the fossil-filled boulder at the C&O Canal's lock No. 55. Dickinson's work with home-schooled children includes meeting at sites in the Potomac Valley, where students can "adopt a rock."

· Kids can join the National Park Service's Junior Ranger program.

· Scouts can learn about rocks to earn a geology merit badge.

· Children can enroll in summer camps that include nature studies.

"Really energetic leaders can have youngsters going home with 'rocks in their eyes' - figuratively, that is - instead of or in addition to 'stars,'" Dickinson said. "It doesn't really matter how technically competent the staff is as long as the staff is dedicated and understands Rockology 101."

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