Archive for the ‘Oakland rock types’ Category

The pyrite orebody of Leona Heights

10 May 2021

Through historical accident (or fate), I’ve been a longtime reader of the late Oakland fiction author Jack Vance. As it happens, Vance was exposed to geology by coursework in mining engineering at UC Berkeley, and one of the most charming and memorable features of his Planet of Adventure series, written in the late 1960s, was the mineralogical currency of the planet Tschai, called sequins.

In volume 3 of the four-book series, we learn that sequins grow in a locality controlled by the alien Dirdir species, who amuse, enrich and feed themselves by hunting the sequin hunters. Sequins come in a range of colors, the clear ones being worth the least and the rare purple ones the most. I no longer have the text in front of me, but I remember them growing out of the ground, literally cropping out. Over at Tor.com, reviewer Paul Weimer does have (and loves) the text and reveals the additional detail that sequins consist of “a uranium mineral called chrysospine.”

The name is mineralogical fantasy, and possibly misleading in that “chryso-” refers to a golden or light green color. But come to think of it, uranium impurities often turn minerals brown from radiation damage, and radiation damage to an originally clear or golden mineral might result in a fair purple by analogy with “sun ripened” glass. An analogy with ripening fruit, too, is irresistible.

In populating his planet with this precious crystalline substance that grows in the ground like mushrooms, Vance evokes truly ancient geological notions that are natural among people who know nothing beyond the most basic alchemy. Gold Rush California saw a lot of that pre-industrial thinking among the amateur prospectors who scoured the state, and the Cornish miners who worked in the hard-rock Mother Lode mines brought along their own ancient customs and superstitions.

In Oakland, the people who exploited the pyrite in the Leona Heights mining district didn’t have the advantage of magic. But Fritz Boehmer, the canny Prussian immigrant who spearheaded mining in these hills, was apparently prone to dreams of earthly wealth, a deep California trait. He was not especially well educated, having apprenticed in metalworking. When he learned of the ore underneath his ocher deposit — one story is that he was digging postholes for a cattle fence, another that “a Japanese” was seeking water for a large fish pond — he thought he had an iron and copper mine, but the professionals set him straight. The copper was only a few percent (although later it was by-produced in paying quantities) and the iron was waste; the money from pyrite (FeS2) was in the sulfur. He let the Stauffer Chemical Company run the mines and gave scientists of the time free access to them.


Pyrite on quartz

The mines ran, interrupted by fires, for about 30 years starting in the 1890s. There were at least three of them. Records are confusing and I’m still trying to sort them out.

The best ore in Leona Heights was in pods of hard, dark, solid pyrite yielding 50 percent clean sulfur that sat, like layers of frosting in a chocolate cake, within a zone 12 to 30 feet thick that tilted into the hillside. The people who published papers about this district scratched their heads at the deposits. They all concluded that the Leona volcanics (“Leona rhyolite” as they knew it) was so jammed with pyrite that the upper part weathered into iron oxides (which stayed behind as the ocherous “iron cap” or gossan) and iron sulfate, which leached down in solution and was reduced back to pyrite beneath the water table in the so-called vadose zone, where it was exposed to a lot of carbonaceous material.


Fine-grained pyrite concentrated in the Leona volcanics, Campus Drive

The trouble with the kind of intermittent research these geologists pursued in the operating mines is that each person who visited the workings saw a different set of rocks. The Leona Heights mines were also prone to fires, so parts were off limits for years at a time, or abandoned.

Henry Mulryan, in a 1925 Master’s thesis, summarized the previous work and consulted their authors, but with several parts of the mines closed off by fires he failed to find any of that carbon-rich rock in the areas he had access to. Unable to prove anything one way or the other, he was forced to punt, saying he would rather wait and see what further digging revealed at depth. “If the Leona Orebody is derived under vadose conditions, then it is the only one known to the writer and should take its place in the world’s literature on ore deposits.” (I too am skeptical about this carbonaceous rock, but the Oakland Hills are complicated here so who knows?)

That was a hundred years ago, before geologists made huge strides in understanding this class of “volcanogenic massive sulfide deposit,” not to mention a scientific revolution, in the years between then and now. Meanwhile the mines are long closed and will never be reopened. The samples, if they still exist, are gathering dust in obscure cabinets. I’ve read all the contemporary literature (except for some theses — Leona Heights seemed to be a handy subject for Stanford and Berkeley students at the time), which is an absorbing chore because the records are sketchy by modern standards and the terminology has changed. But there are rewards; Mulryan had some good photos of the Leona sulfur mine circa 1924.


Looking west on the Leona Mine. The hook in the road is at the end of McDonell Avenue. The rail line carried ore cars to the crusher, then to a 1600-foot aerial tram that carried the ore to the train in Laundry Farm canyon. Chabot Observatory in the background.

I’m still scratching my head about the Leona Heights pyrite, and I find myself envying Jack Vance’s freedom of imagination. Reality can be tough; you can’t just make up something wonderful.

The twilight of California oil

26 April 2021

Last week the governor ordered a state agency to stop issuing fracking permits to oil drillers, starting as of 2024. This is less of a big deal than it seems. Hydraulic fracturing is rarely used in California because the permitting process was tightened in 2014 and because our earthquake-shaken rocks are already well fractured, and only three oil districts do it at all, accounting for about two percent of the state’s production. One place they still do it is in the Lost Hills area, which is fun to drive through if you like taking pictures like this:

This change won’t affect the California oil industry much, but it sounds great and is worth doing.

The governer also ordered another agency to start plans to shut down all oil production in California as of 2045. This is a big deal. Oil is as much a part of California as gold, Shasta and the redwoods. But our oil production has dropped by half since 1985, and now’s the right time to set a deadline. According to a pair of fresh studies, it won’t even start to hurt business for another decade.

Time to start saying goodbye to our old friend.

Natural seeps of oil and asphalt occur all over the state. The one at McKittrick is famous among geologists.

The tar glaciers at Carpenteria State Beach, near Santa Barbara, are a real spectacle.

These materials were used by the native tribes for things like sealing baskets, waterproofing boats and medicine. I’ll bet they made torches with them too.

Americans mined the deposits at first and distilled kerosene from them. That was a dirty business. Starting in 1860, enterprising men tried drilling wells like the first successful ones in western Pennsylvania. The first California oil well to make a profit was drilled in 1876 near Newhall, and we were off to the races.

Petroleum, oil from the ground, was a huge advance. It meant we could stop leveling forests for firewood. It meant we could stop the deadly, wasteful business of hunting whales to make liquid fuels or roasting coal to make gas. No one knew it at the time, but we could invent plastic. The petroleum-based energy and chemical system was eagerly adopted, popular and universal. But today we know how to do even better without it.

As always with this blog, there’s an Oakland angle. The Bay area is oil country.

There are oil seeps in Wildcat Canyon, and the first oil well in the Bay area was drilled nearby, east of San Pablo, in 1862. A short-lived oil field in Orinda, at the Minor ranch on Lauterwasser Creek, pumped greenish crude in the late 1890s. Oakland boosters like H. A. Aldritch, in 1897, were sanguine: “For many years oil has been oozing out of the shale and sandstone formations, and in every instance this oil has been strongly impregnated with gas. That the near future will produce this most promising industry, affording cheaper fuel for manufacturing purposes, is a settled fact. My prediction is that within the next few years Oakland and other cities and towns of this county will be in the full enjoyment of this, one of nature’s greatest blessings.” He was right, but the profitable wells were in the Central Valley.

A large portion of California’s oil originates in the Monterey Formation, a body of ribbon chert found up and down the coast. Oakland has a thick stripe of its close sibling, the Claremont Shale, running through the high hills.

Wherever you see it, it’s generally bleached-looking like this, but underground it’s black with organic matter, from the diatoms whose microscopic silica shells are what make up chert. Diatoms manufacture and store drops of oil inside their shells to help them float, and that oil is what becomes crude oil after cooking underground for geological periods of time.

When the Caldecott Tunnel bores were being dug, oil and gas wafted off this chert and caught fire more than once. During excavation of the fourth bore a few years ago, nothing that could spark was allowed inside. So let it be known: Oakland’s hills are full of oil. I have yet to find an oil or gas seep here, but it’s on my list. I have a theory that one may have had something to do with the great fire of 1991, which burst out in an area where the Claremont Shale is deeply exposed.

Here or wherever, petroleum will always be something to reckon with in California. But we have to start leaving it in the ground at all costs and return it to being a geological curiosity.

Lake Temescal, the west side

12 April 2021

For one of Oakland’s most rugged places, the west side of Lake Temescal doesn’t expose a lot of rock. But what’s there is unusual for Oakland, and interesting.

I’m talking about this ridge — tectonically, a shutter ridge — across the lake from the swimming beach.

The map of Lake Temescal Regional Park shows two trails there, the low one along the water and the high one up in the woods. An even higher trail, not marked on the map, is off limits and doesn’t expose much rock anyway.

I often wish I’d lived here in the 19th century when Oakland was new. It was in 1868 when Anthony Chabot acquired a steep little canyon back of the hills and built a dam to supply the young city with dependable water service. His technique, perfected in the gold fields of the Sierra, was to take a high-pressure water hose and wash down the sand and gravel from the hillsides to build the dam. I wish I could have inspected the scrubbed slopes at that time, but there were almost no trained geologists in the whole state, let alone me.

The canyon has a flat floor now, after decades of sedimentation, but you can see from the high trail that it’s still steep and narrow.

And the action didn’t end when Chabot finished the dam. He built a control tower in the new reservoir, but a landslide soon took it out. I’m guessing that was probably near the sluicegate where the beach house is today, and I’m guessing that the rainy winters of 1868-69 and 1869-70 plus afterslip and aftershocks of the big 1868 earthquake on the Hayward fault had something to do with it.

Speaking of which, two major strands of the Hayward fault run right through the reservoir. They’re helpfully shown on the map above. This is where the main strand crosses the dam. (Don’t worry, the massive dam will not fail even under the largest possible quake on this fault.)

The dam itself was raised and then lowered during the next few decades, and presumably the lake rose and fell too. Meanwhile trees and brush moved in upon the slopes where the Ohlone had previously maintained grassy meadows, and the rocks decayed and soil built up.

And the rocks themselves embody the complicated history of starting out in a vigorous subduction zone, being deeply buried and exhumed probably more than once, then being torn up and shoved around by the San Andreas fault system of which the Hayward fault is part.

All that is to say that Lake Temescal is a dynamic area at all time scales. It’s more complex than the small-scale geologic maps can show, even though it’s complex enough on that map.


KJfm, Franciscan melange; ch, chert block; af, artificial fill; sc, silica-carbonate rock; sp, serpentinite; Jsv, Leona volcanics; fs, Franciscan sandstone; KJkm, Knoxville Formation

The west side is mapped as melange, which is basically a mess of mashed-up sandstone with big blocks of other rocks, each with its own separate history, suspended in it. The little blip labeled “ch” is this block of chert at the top of Hill Road. So when I visited the west side trails last week, I expected to find things I didn’t expect. And most of the rock along the trails appears to be nondescript sandstone — I say appears because since hammering is forbidden, it’s hard to find a fresh surface. But lo and behold, along the high path coming down from Broadway Terrace, there’s the telltale gleam of blueschist in the exposed subsoil.

The color really comes out when you wet a piece.

Other apparently high-grade metamorphic rocks include this hard, glittering schist. Not having access to thin sections and petrographic microscopes, I can’t check for the presence of jadeite, which has been reported in blocks from this melange.

And over at the north end of the train is a distinctive outcrop of another schist. Hard rock supports slow-growing lichens, and the species differ depending on the rock’s chemistry.

Underneath the lichens, the rock is a bluish-gray mixture with a strongly folded texture, both signs of a rock that’s been through a lot of distortion at high pressure and temperature. These photos are from exposures by the lawn. The first shows the folding and the second shows fault-related crushing on the left side. The crushed material is called gouge, and bits of it are common in this sector.

My authority on Oakland’s Franciscan rocks, John Wakabayashi, holds that the west side of the lake hides the same ancient major thrust fault — a megathrust, in fact — that’s famously exposed in El Cerrito above the recycling center, where high-grade rocks have been pushed above lower-grade rocks. Unfortunately the fault itself appears to be in “a brush-filled gully with no exposure,” so it may be a while before we ever learn more.

But I did learn something more last week, about the beach house.

It is made with the local rock, namely the Leona volcanics. Whether the stones came from the hill just upslope to the east, the one that collapsed in the 1870s landslide, or from across the freeway in the great Tunnel Road cut during the 1930s, I do not know. I’m guessing the former, but I would be happy to be wrong if it means I can be certain. Putting the building and the roadcut in the same photo, there is a resemblance.

The fun thing is, both locations can be closely inspected. That sounds like a good afternoon project.

Rock garden coming to Lake Merritt

29 March 2021

The Gardens at Lake Merritt are building a rock garden in the heart of the grounds. They have plenty of gardens with stones in them already, but this will be a proper rockery. This post is about the work in progress. I know almost nothing about the plants they’ll be featuring, but I do know a little about rocks.

As we enter yet another year of drought, it’s important to note that rock gardens are made to conserve water. The stones and gravel offer solid shade to the underlying soil, and the typical plantings are small, hardy species from alpine or desert settings. As you bend down to admire these plants, have a look at the stones.

The location is between the community plots and the Torii gate, the crossroads of our remarkable garden complex. Just across the path is the hill-and-pond garden, where the turtles hang out.

This view toward the lake shows the layout. In the background is the entry to the Sensory Garden, which has had a thorough going-over during the shutdown.

The foreground containers in both photos showcase rounded river stones, blue-green argillite most likely from the northern Coast Range. I would not be surprised if some of the rock nuts of the Suiseki Societies of Northern California contributed to this project.

The center of the garden is a mound of sandstone tablets, with some accent stones, oriented north-south for optimal sun. Rings of different colored gravel surround it. Note the “do not climb” sign.

Some of the basins echo the brown sandstone of the central mound, offering textural contrast.

Others contrast more strongly. Here rough greenstone is set in crushed marble.

And what would a Northern California rock garden be without some red chert?

All of these rock types are typical of the Franciscan Complex, a lithological scrapple that makes up the bulk of the northern Coast Range, including San Francisco and the hill that Piedmont sits on. Get to know them, and you’ll see them all over the place.

The Gardens at Lake Merritt have several sectors that artfully mix plants and stones. The water garden I mentioned earlier is one, and there’s the cactus garden and the bonsai garden (which has just added a suiseki section) and the enclosed Japanese garden by the Community Center building. They’re all looking great right now, but check the hours before you go; weekends are still closed.

A few years back I wrote about the remarkable rock garden assembled by Ruth Asawa in San Francisco. As the world reopens, I hope to visit it again.