Geologists at Mountain View Cemetery

16 March 2020

Longtime readers will recall my post about Joseph Le Conte’s gravestone, which begins, “Joseph Le Conte (1823–1901) is probably the most eminent geologist in Mountain View Cemetery.” Last week I looked into that statement in more detail. Having made a thorough study — well, fairly thorough — actually pretty cursory, given the difficulties, I can say that Prof. Le Conte is probably not the most eminent geologist buried here. It’s arguable.

Here are all the other geologists I’ve been able to find, in the order of their deaths.

Ezra Slocum Carr (1819-1894) lies in plot 4, in an unmarked grave next to his wife Jeanne Smith Carr (1825-1903).

Ezra is significant in American geology for being part of the 1857 geological survey of Wisconsin, along with James Hall and Josiah Whitney. Ezra was a professor of natural history at the University of Wisconsin when Jeanne met a remarkable young man named John Muir. Together, the Carrs — no other word for it — cultivated him and maintained with him an intimate lifelong connection. Ezra gave Muir his first instruction in geology, something the Scottish-born farmboy must have soaked up like a sponge. When Ezra accepted an appointment to the new University of California in 1869, he became its first professor of agriculture. Muir had already come to California and been smitten with the Yosemite country. Jeanne arranged for Muir to meet Louisa Strenzel, daughter of a wealthy Martinez doctor and orchardist, who became Muir’s wife in 1880. Ezra later became the state Superintendent of Public Instruction.

James Graham Cooper (1830-1902) lies in plot 31, lot 15 right across from the prominent knocker. I haven’t found his stone yet, if there is one.

Cooper was a restless guy, trained as a doctor as so many early American naturalists were. His interests included botany, zoology and fossils, and he made many contributions to paleontology. He served in several Western exploring expeditions, most notably Josiah Whitney’s geological survey of California. He lost out to Joseph Le Conte as first professor of natural history at UC Berkeley, but still crammed a lot of accomplishment into his lifespan.

The remains of John C. Merriam (1869-1945) are in the columbarium, which is hard to navigate so I haven’t visited his niche yet. Instead here’s a fine, unengraved boulder of Franciscan chert in the middle of a plot.

If you’ve heard of California’s tar pits — the major ones in Rancho La Brea in Los Angeles and near McKittrick in the San Joaquin Valley — Merriam was the guy who led the first scientific excavations there on behalf of UC Berkeley. He described Smilodon californicus, the sabertooth cat, our official state fossil. He also co-founded the Save the Redwoods League, ran the Carnegie Institution and was president of the Geological Society of America for a term. The UC Museum of Paleontology has a page about him, as does Wikipedia.

Andrew C. Lawson (1861-1952) was buried at Mountain View but later removed to Toronto, presumably in a family plot up there but that’s where the trail ends. Here’s my favorite outcrop of Franciscan chert at the cemetery — Lawson gave the Franciscan complex its name.

Lawson, another Scottish immigrant, was very influential through his long tenure at UC Berkeley. He was the first decent mapper of Bay area rocks and a demanding instructor, emphasizing rigorous fieldwork. Many of the rock units around here were named by him. And of course he did heroic service after the 1906 earthquake, heading the Carnegie Commission that thoroughly studied the event in the aftermath. His two-volume report, published in 1908, is still known among seismologists as “the Lawson report.” He recognized and named the San Andreas Fault — wags suggest that he’d indirectly named it for himself. The mineral lawsonite is named for him.

But for my money, this guy buried in plot 6 is Mountain View’s leading geologist.

Nicholas Taliaferro (1890-1961), of the old Kentucky Taliaferros, pronounced his name “TALLifer” but his colleagues and students knew him as “Tucky,” presumably because of his accent. At UC Berkeley he succeeded Lawson in teaching field geology, up in these hills. In a Bay Nature piece in 2010, Erik Vance described Taliaferro’s teaching style, a story I used to hear too: “He would walk into the hills with his students, lean back on the head of his axe, stare at a rock, and light a cigarette. The confused students would look around, try to figure out what he was staring at, and start taking measurements. After a bit, Tucky would stand, wander to another rock, and have another smoke. If you missed it, you missed it.”

He ran the department’s Geology Summer Camps for 33 years, training more than a thousand future geologists to make sense of the land around them. And when he wasn’t doing that he patrolled the Coast Range and Sierra foothills, covering some 50,000 miles on foot and mapping 26 whole quadrangles, a land area probably exceeded only by the late Tom Dibblee. Every paper on Coast Range geology of any depth will cite Taliaferro’s work, even today. UC Berkeley has memorialized him on this page.

I would love to learn of other geologists buried at Mountain View. Or, for that matter, at any other Oakland cemeterySt. Mary, Home of Eternity, Home of Peace or Evergreen.

There is one more prominent California geoscientist I found: Eugene Hilgard (1833-1916), UC Berkeley’s first mineralogy professor, but far better known as a pioneer soil scientist. He’s in St. Mary, in the Dormitory B section.

A circumambulation of Temescal Canyon (sort of)

2 March 2020

Temescal Canyon isn’t a name anyone uses. It’s kind of a ghost canyon, even though you’ve all driven through it many times — on Route 24 going to and coming out of the Caldecott Tunnel.

Underneath all the spaghetti and labels on that Google map is what remains of a fine little valley with steep sides and permanent streams that was once the principal water source of Lake Temescal, Oakland’s first surface reservoir. Here’s how the 1897 USGS topo map showed it.

Notice the stream northeast of the lake. The solid blue line signifies a perennial, year-round stream, and by the rules of hydrography it claims the name Temescal Creek given to its lower reaches, and hence comes the name Temescal Canyon. The other stream feeding the lake from the southeast is marked with a dot-dash line, indicating an intermittent stream; the map labels it Kohler Creek after the name of a landowner in Thornhill Canyon, but today that’s the creek called Temescal.

This annotated version shows two things: the arrows mark the Hayward fault and the dots outline the rim of the canyon.

Because the east side of the fault is rising, thanks to a bit of compression across the fault, the stream is forced to dig down harder than your average creek as the hills around it rise, and the long-term result is a watershed that’s wide at the top and narrow at the base — a wineglass canyon. As you know from my previous posts about Claremont Canyon and Shepherd Canyon, I have a thing about hiking around the rims of our wineglass canyons. This post is about that.

I call this a ghost canyon because waves of human intervention have modified it pretty seriously since that 1897 map. The original Kennedy Tunnel was punched through the hill in 1903, with the original Tunnel Road leading up to it. The 1915 topo map shows that when they built the road, the mapmakers added new detail to the contour lines on that side of the canyon. (Also, Oakland annexed all the land uphill from Berkeley.)

In addition to Tunnel Road, the Oakland Antioch & Eastern Railway was pushed through, skirting the lake on its way to the Shepherd Canyon tunnel. It ran over the Temescal Creek arm of the lake on a trestle.

Next came more infrastructure: PG&E constructed a big power line along with the Claremont “K” substation on Landvale Road in 1922, a classic industrial Deco structure, and in the process filled in the Temescal Creek arm of the lake. And then the Broadway Extension leading to the first Caldecott Tunnel bores carved up the sides of the canyon mouth even more in the 1930s. The work consumed huge quantities of rock, which was quarried from the north side of the canyon. Meanwhile residential development began on the north canyon wall. All of this is visible in the 1947 topo map.

Between then and now there was more residential development in Hiller Highlands, the big Parkwoods apartment complex in the canyon, a major expansion of Route 24 (with more quarrying to support the work), and finally the other little valley in the canyon was filled in to make the North Oakland Regional Sports Center. All of that was before the third and fourth Caldecott bores were added in this century. All that mayhem and erasure is what makes me think of it as a ghost canyon.

This patchwork of development has not created a ready set of roads to follow for a circumambulation, but I think I’ve cobbled together a trek route. And while I’ve walked all of it at one time or another over the years, I haven’t done it in one go. In fact I’m not eager to do so because it’s strenuous and a bit fraught and I need to build up strength first.

You can zoom in and explore this route at; this image (click to see it big) uses the OpenCycle viewing option. It starts at the Firestorm Memorial Garden at the foot of Hiller Drive, and right away goes seriously off-piste with a steep climb up the far side of the great Tunnel Road cut.

There are three fairly level stairsteps in the cut to choose from; this is the view back from the second. All three have cool views, and you avoid the heavy traffic on Tunnel Road.

The route veers off Hiller Road into a seekrit pathway that overlooks major features of the lower canyon. The power station and freeway lanes squat on the grave of the creek, with the Hayward fault slashing through the lake toward the notch in the horizon.

The spur across the narrow mouth of the canyon, carved flat for the powerline poles, is the endpoint of this trek.

And the ballfields of the sports complex smother this former stream valley. The woods to the left are an impenetrable eucalyptus thicket.

The next three miles-plus call for cautious walking: cars don’t expect hikers and the roads are narrow. But you’re high in the clean air well above the worst of the road roar. A little past the 3-mile mark, where the power line crosses the road, is an excellent place to stop discreetly and look down the ridge that forms the south wall of the canyon. That road in front of the ridge is Broadway Terrace, perhaps Oakland’s most dangerous road for pedestrians.

The long detour between miles 3 and 4-1/2 is unavoidable (trust me on this), but you can skip the last bit of Grizzly Peak Boulevard by turning right onto a footpath that’s part of the Sibley Preserve.

A little ways down Broadway Terrace is where it might feel a bit hinky. At Pine Needle Drive, you climb over the fence and locate a teeny footpath, almost a deer trail, along the power line that plunges about 200 feet to a fire road, which then climbs all the way back up to the ridgeline past a big landslide. Believe me, that is less fearsome than walking on upper Broadway Terrace.

The last leg, from the ridge down to the powerline tower pad, I can’t really vouch for as I last walked it 11 years ago. Assuming it’s not too overgrown, you should be good, and if not, then go back on the fire road down to the sports center. The pad is at the end of Pali Court, and the view back to the starting point looks like this.

Getting to and from these two endpoints is an exercise left for the reader, and I do mean exercise.

Rocks of Lakeside Park

17 February 2020

Lakeside Park has undergone a lot of changes since Edson Adams put Oakland’s first golf course there. For one thing — and the thing behind this post — over the year the city has brought in rocks to a place that originally had none at all. Some of them are boulders that hold plaques: I won’t be talking about those. This is about the other ones, the working rocks who have the basic job of standing in your way, like the guard rocks down at Middle Harbor Park.

I take a walk around the lake every week, but this last week I took a few extra ones to visit all the working boulders. I think there are three generations of them. Here’s a selection.

The main road through Lakeside Park appears to have the first generation. My working theory is that the city parks department tapped a stash of rocks that were acquired on its own properties, principally Joaquin Miller and Leona Heights Parks. That accounts for the following mix of rock types. The majority belong to the Leona volcanics, probably sourced from Leona Heights Park. They present many different textures with an underlying lithology of light-colored, strongly altered volcaniclastic material that takes on an orange iron-oxide glaze with exposure. These five specimens illustrate the range of this rock unit.

The other boulders include nondescript ones I can’t confidently identify. Behind the rear lawn-bowling field is this laid-back hunk of what sure looks like Sierran granite.

But there’s a specimen of serpentinite, worth a close look, next to the Nature Center.

And right in front is the lake’s special star: this wild, glittering piece of blueschist.

Another generation of boulders sits along the path in front of Children’s Fairyland. It too consists of local stones: besides the Leona volcanics it includes proper sandstone belonging to, if I’m not mistaken, the Oakland Conglomerate in Joaquin Miller Park.

Near the entrance is a splendid serpentinite boulder.

And best of all are some good specimens of the ocher-bearing material from the Leona volcanics that the Ohlone tribes once prized.

The third generation of stones is of recent vintage, installed during the park’s bond-funded upgrade. Their main hangout is on the shore east of the boathouse by the parking lot.

Another grouping is in the brand-new Snow Park extension at the foot of 20th Street.

When these went in I thought they were sandstone (and said so here), but upon closer inspection I conclude that they’re some sort of welded tuff, not from anywhere in the Bay area, probably some place across the Central Valley or the desert beyond. That’s OK — Oakland welcomes immigrants. The material is fairly featureless, but these rare clasts look like bits of country rock that got torn off and taken up during the eruptive cataclysm that made this stone.

The lake shore also has plenty of cut and dressed stone, in the form of benches and curbs and capstones. They’re all commercial quarry granite, hardworking stuff that will last forever, but without the personality of real live boulders.

The Merritt sand: A little deeper

3 February 2020

My last post was about the great sand bed that underlies Alameda; now it’s time for a fresh look at the whole geologic unit of which it’s a part: the Merritt sand.

The Merritt sand is mapped in three places: in downtown Oakland, in Alameda and in Bay Farm Island. It’s labeled “Qds” (Quaternary dune sand) on this map of sediment deposits in the Bay area (Open-file Report 2006-1037), largely surrounded by artificial fill on top of Bay mud (afem).

UC Berkeley’s indefatigable Andrew Lawson named the Merritt sand in 1914 “from its occurrence on Lake Merritt, in the city of Oakland.” He considered it a marine deposit, but our understanding has advanced since then. He noted that it was 44 feet thick in a well dug at 665 16th Street (now an apartment complex) near today’s MLK Boulevard. He also mapped it in a long trench on Telegraph Avenue, noting that the top of the sand descended from the surface, just south of today’s 21st Street, to 13 feet deep just north of today’s West Grand Avenue. I’m confident that this is it on the west side of Telegraph at 20th.

The sand ends abruptly to the east of this spot, not appearing at all in the excavation for the upcoming skyscraper on the other side of Telegraph at 20th. That was historically a boggy ground that drained down 20th Street to the lake, and the sediment there is sand and gravel with a good share of clay.

Elsewhere downtown, the eastern edge of the sand is a steep slope, for instance along the lake and at Snow Park.

Since Lawson’s time, the Merritt sand has mainly been of interest to practical geologists concerned with building sites. In the late 1940s, proposals for a second trans-Bay bridge led to a concerted geological investigation of the Bay floor covering two different routes for the bridge. In a 1951 paper, UC Berkeley’s Parker Trask and Jack Rolston reported that the Merritt sand extended across the Bay, reaching a thickness of up to 60 feet. Their cross-section along the route of the Posey Tube shows it well.

Trask and Rolston noted that the sand’s texture “is remarkably uniform” and its grains were typically in the “fine” range, between 1/4 and 1/8 millimeter, although in some places it was extremely fine, forming “material with the characteristics of loess.”

Dorothy Radbruch noted in her 1957 map of the Oakland West quadrangle (USGS I-239) that the Merritt sand reached 65 feet in thickness in a boring where the Crucible sits today. A meticulous worker, she described the material as “Sand, fine-grained, silty, clayey, with lenses of sandy clay and clay. Yellowish-brown to dark yellowish-orange. Grains consist of quartz and feldspar, some magnetite, flakes of white chert from the Claremont [Shale], minor amounts of sandstone, shale, hornblende, pyroxene, biotite. Grains angular to subrounded, frosted. Well-sorted.”

The key word for my purposes is “frosted,” a textbook sign of windblown sand. By 2000, Russ Graymer of the USGS could confidently say that the sand belonged to dunes that “probably began accumulating after the last interglacial high stand of sea level began to recede about 71 ka [thousand years ago], continued to form when sea level dropped to its Wisconsin minimum about 18 ka, and probably ceased to accumulate after sea level reached its present elevation (about 6 ka).” Here “Wisconsin” refers to a formal stage of the North American ice ages.

Large areas of Merritt sand in the Bay, more than 50 feet thick, were exploited by dredgers to build (“reclaim”) land. In one area west of Bay Farm Island, as large as the island itself, some 25 million cubic meters of sand was “borrowed” from the Bay floor and used over the years, most likely, to build up Treasure Island, the Oakland Airport, Bay Farm Island itself and Alameda’s south shore. We owe a lot to this fine sand, and by fine I mean excellent. And as the sea rises, we may need more of this Ice Age resource.