The great Tunnel Road cut

The land on the south side of Hiller Highlands is far from its native state: it’s been extensively quarried for many years, and what’s left is a rocky, weed-choked waste. But the roadcut is also a geological treasure.

It’s one thing to look at a hillside and determine what it’s made of, another to study it carefully enough to determine what formation it belongs to. These are worthy accomplishments to be sure, but a more precious one is to find and study a place where different rock units come in contact.

Here’s where I bring out one of my favorite quotes from the history of geology, in the early 1800s when people were beginning to work out what the rocks were telling them. A party of geologists including the eminent Sir James Hall took the Rev. William Richardson, a notorious opponent of the newfangled Scottish school (now textbook orthodoxy), to the Salisbury Crags in the heart of Edinburgh. There they showed him a contact between traprock (a basalt lava flow) and sandstone, pointing in particular to bits of sandstone that were enclosed within the traprock. This contact was proof positive that the basalt was (1) a formerly molten rock that (2) had intruded into the sandstone long after the sandstone had formed:

“When Sir James had finished his lecture, the Doctor did not attempt to explain the facts before him on any principle of his own; nor did he recur to the shallow evasion of regarding the enclosed sandstone as contemporaneous with the trap; but he burst out into the strongest expressions of contemptuous surprise, that a theory of the earth should be founded on such small and trivial appearances! He had been accustomed, he said, to look at nature in her grandest aspects, and to trace her hand in the gigantic cliffs of the Irish coast; and he could not conceive how opinions thus formed could be shaken by such minute irregularities as those which had been shown to him.”

Contacts among Oakland’s rock units are hard to find because our rocks are poorly exposed to begin with. And even when you do find contacts, they may not preserve the small and trivial appearances that might tell you the most. But the Tunnel Road cut exposes a large area of rock, as seen in this aerial view from Google Maps. The slope is interrupted by several cutbacks that serve to stop runaway boulders and allow access for maintenance — most recently by the herds of goats that helpfully cleared away most of the French broom — and visitors like me last week.

This big cut exposes a significant contact right along the road, just west of the Gateway Emergency Preparedness Exhibit Center (under the word “Hiller”). The geologic map shows the spot as the contact between the Leona volcanics, in pink, and a teeny splinter of olive-green Knoxville Formation directly above the “o” in “Substation.”

The contact today is somewhat obscured by vegetation, so let me show it to you first as it appeared from Tunnel Road in December 2007, when the state last cleaned it up.

From lower left to upper right, the rocks gradually give way from highly altered volcanic rocks, containing some shaly beds, to dark-brown shale. Some of the experts heartily disagree on what exactly is happening here, but it’s widely taken to represent the very top of the Leona volcanics and the very base of the Knoxville Formation, lowest member of the highly sedimentary Great Valley Group.

Here’s how it looked in July 2019. You can tell in both photos that the shale is crumbling down the slope almost as fast as it’s exposed whereas the volcanics stand sturdier.

Along with a few other localities scattered around California, here’s proof that the two rock groups started out as peaceful neighbors, the shale laid gently down upon the volcanics under the Late Jurassic or Early Cretaceous sea. Although later tectonic events wrenched and stretched and broke all of these rocks as California gradually became its present self, this spot remained untouched for geologists to argue over. As an example, I captured Cliff Hopson pressing a point to the late Eldridge Moores at this very outcrop in 2005, no doubt discussing some minute irregularity.

It was a pleasure to stop here in July with John Wakabayashi, leader of that 2005 field trip. He noted how important it is to revisit outcrops: “When you come out, you notice things you didn’t notice before.” And he pointed out features of the volcanics I hadn’t picked up on my own. For instance, the locality is unusual in featuring fairly fresh volcanic glass, which can yield more faithful geochemical data than the altered rocks around it.

He also found something he hadn’t seen before: carbonate veins with shapes that reminded us of soft-sediment deformation. This suggested to him that they may have been original constituents of the rocks and not later alterations, in which case they might preserve microfossils.

Familiar features of the Leona volcanics are well displayed here, including its lumpy and fractured texture, a reminder that the unit is mostly not lava flows but ash beds and landslide deposits, fused and altered by hydrothermal springs.

Slickensides — polished fracture surfaces — testify to much later activity related to the Hayward fault and the rise of the Coast Range.

And I always take pleasure in spotting the green devitrified ash whose color is attributed to celadonite, possibly with other green secondary minerals like prehnite, chlorite and epidote.

Familiar places can still reveal new things, if you keep your eye on seemingly small and trivial appearances.

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