Archive for the ‘Franciscan rocks’ Category

Mapping rocks never ends

1 February 2021

A few days ago I took part in the latest monthly meeting of my local geological society — we do it via Zoom these days — and our speaker, Christie Rowe of McGill University, reported on three research projects her grad students are doing in the Bay area, specifically the Franciscan Complex. The Franciscan is a scramble of different rocks that has challenged geologists since they first came to California.

Fifty years ago Stanford’s Gary Ernst recognized that the Franciscan represents the mess of material that gathers around a subduction zone, where oceanic crust (a now-extinct neighbor of the Pacific plate, in our case) slides beneath continental crust (the North America plate). So now we know what it is — the tectonic equivalent of the dirt in a bulldozer’s blade — and prompted by that knowledge we can try to unscramble the mixed-up pieces and learn what they might tell us about California’s geologic history or what happens in subduction zones.

Rowe is a Marin County native who’s been working since her PhD days on the latter problem, in the Franciscan rocks of her home ground. Specifically, she’s been looking for preserved bits of ancient earthquake faults. Normally these are buried deep underground, but they’re important because subduction-related earthquakes, so-called megathrust events, are the largest on the planet. Think of the 2011 Tohoku earthquake in Japan, the magnitude-9 monster whose tenth anniversary is coming up on 11 March. The Marin Headlands are full of them, broken in pieces.

Rare bits of the Franciscan have survived being subducted deeper than 25 kilometers and then returned to the surface, without totally wiping out what happened to them down there. The work requires dogged persistence. You have to look hard to find these “high-grade blocks” in the first place, then put your face close to them, magnifiers out, detect signs of slippage, then bring samples to the lab and determine what that slippage means — whether it happened on the way down, on the way up or afterward as the San Andreas fault system wrenched it all sideways.

Heart Rock, at Jenner Beach up the Sonoma coast, is small enough to fit inside a living room. One of Rowe’s grad students is mapping it at centimeter scale, spending a master’s thesis worth of effort on this one outcrop looking at rocks like this.

Seeing all this during Rowe’s talk took my mind, among other places, out to the rocks of Shepherd Canyon and Redwood Peak. The last person to give those strata a PhD-level scrutiny, using all available tools of the time, was a Berkeley grad student named Jim Case around 1960. Yes, 1960, a time when researchers were stuck in a mental framework of now-forgotten concepts and plate tectonics was still years in the future, when optical microscopes, brass seives, fossil correlations and test-tube chemistry were the best tools we had.

Case got his PhD, demonstrating that he’d mastered these tools as well as the literature, but he didn’t accomplish much more than correct a couple of ideas from earlier studies, establish a few new rock units on the map and tentatively correlate them with other units scattered around the East Bay. He put his little brick into the Wall of Science, then went on to a long research and teaching career doing other things.

Since then, other distinguished geologists have been over this territory. Case collaborated with Dorothy Radbruch of the USGS, a sharp and able field geologist. And in the late 1990s when Russ Graymer was putting together the East Bay geologic map that I rely on, he tramped the area with the late Earl Brabb and was ably advised by the late David Jones. Each of these workers found new things and revised their predecessors’ achievements. It always paid to reinspect the rocks. Nevertheless, none of them pulled out all the stops and pioneered a new in-depth reassessment of this interesting area.

We could do much better today. Every tool has advanced. The jigsaw puzzle of ancient California is far enough finished that any piece, if studied closely enough, can be placed on the table near — or even exactly on — its correct position and joined to other pieces. This would be more satisfying than what Case could accomplish in his time. We just need another grad student to take it on, another local who has imprinted on his or her home ground.

Mapping never ends, and geologic mapping always improves. New bits of rock are being exposed all the time. Fresh eyes see new things, and persistence furthers.

Upper Indian Gulch

26 October 2020

When I last featured Indian Gulch on this blog, it was about the easy part, mostly a stroll up Trestle Glen Road. It ended with this glimpse of the living Indian Gulch Creek, bounding down the rock slopes of the Piedmont crustal block on its way to culverted oblivion beneath the elegant Trestle Glen neighborhood.

Upper Indian Gulch lies within Piedmont and the west fringe of Montclair that looks down upon Piedmont. Nowhere is the creek up there accessible to passers-by; if you want to see it you have to buy a house whose lot includes it, or make friends with someone who owns such a house. You’ll have to imagine it running in the dark underneath the street, as it does along La Salle Avenue just above St. James Drive.

Here’s an overview of the upper creek from Google Maps terrain view. The creek has three branches; the west fork is the main branch. To be a stickler, that fork should properly be called Indian Gulch Creek and the other two are just tributaries. The old property line between the two middle Peralta ranchos ran up this valley, Vicente’s on the left and Antonio’s on the right. Later the same line separated the Oakland and Brooklyn Townships of Alameda County. Today neither the ranchos nor the townships are relevant any more, but the boundary influenced the pattern of land ownership a century ago as Oakland expanded its territory and developers shaped the outskirts.

A stroll here is a workout. Part of my Ramble 4, Uptown to Montclair, goes up the creek’s middle fork but the steepest part is pedestrian-unfriendly. Three years ago I featured an excursion into the valley of the east fork. That pretty much exhausts the possibilities in those two valleys. In the west branch, two dead-end roads will take you to the floor of the valley, though the creek is not accessible. Indian Gulch Road leads down from Glen Alpine Road, just above the word “West”:

And Calvert Court swoops from Blair Avenue down into the creek’s highest watershed, where Oakland’s most isolated properties lie.

Here and there, you can get a look at the bedrock under the watershed: sandstone and mudstone of the Franciscan Complex.

And it’s hard, on Piedmont’s winding streets, to grasp the contours of the land. This view across the middle fork at Hampton Park is about as good as it gets.

Really, the best experience of these headwaters is on the rim roads that encircle the watershed. They aren’t photogenic in ways that my camera have caught many times over the years, but the views glimpsed through the trees and past the homes have always pleased my eye.

Looking east-northeast up Hampton Road at Sea View is a good view of the high rim of the east branch, topped by Pershing Drive.

By all means visit Oakland’s best bedrock there.

And don’t miss Wood Drive, along the north rim, where this excellent outcrop of Franciscan metachert awaits.

Indian Gulch is a good candidate for a circumambulation.

Rocks of the Bilger Quarry

6 July 2020

It’s been twelve years since I wrote about the former quarry where the Rockridge Shopping Center sits today. Except for the pond, the whole space has gotten a makeover and it’s time for a fresh look. But first, some nostalgia. Back in 2008 the 24-hour “Big Long’s” was still there. I used to shop there; it had everything.

And flanking it was the big old Safeway with more businesses between and beyond, and the bank in the far corner. I used to bank there.

All of this is now gone, and the site is under intermittent redevelopment. Decades ago this was a giant rock pit, active for more than 70 years, that for a long time was the largest rock quarry in Alameda County. It was started by the Oakland Paving Company in 1870, and the name of Frank Bilger was associated with the succession of enterprises that produced crushed rock here, so it’s usually referred to as the Bilger Quarry. (Bilger learned the trade from his father, a German immigrant, and he surely pronounced his name the German way with a hard G.)

Now the Long’s site is a big Safeway, and the old Safeway and bank buildings are part of an empty lot. Only the water-filled pit on the east side is unchanged, and the walls show no sign of decay, which is a very good thing because it’s right next to St. Mary Cemetery.

The whole quarry site occupies a small body of quartz diorite, an intrusive (meaning it didn’t erupt) igneous rock that’s unusual but not unheard-of for the Franciscan Complex. It’s mapped as the purplish blob in the center labeled “Kfgm.”

It happens to be excellent rock for industrial and engineering purposes. The Tribune in 1890 wrote, “The material used by the Oakland Paving Company is a crushed blue rock, a trap dyke that is practically indestructible, submitting without injury to the hardest usage for eight or ten years without repairs, and with proper care, such as any pavement requires, lasting three or four times longer.”

The east end of the quarry exposes the bluish stuff. This exposure, right behind the Safeway, also has flaky veins of calcite. It’s very tough — not that I’ve used a hammer on it lately, but after seeing lots of rock you get a feel for this.

The west side consists of a much lighter material, a bit coarser grained and slightly less durable.

Between them is a contact zone that I recall as being black and sheared, with mineralization that was probably iron-manganese oxides. It was covered up when the new Safeway went in and parts of the rock face were fixed up for safety. I took this photo in 2018 from the roof parking lot.

There’s chainlink netting on the rock face, just in case it decides to start crumbling onto the roadway.

You’re always cautious about building inside an abandoned quarry, because rocks don’t last forever — that’s why they’re mostly underground, covered with soil. The experts have assured us it’s OK, and I trust them pretty well. The cemetery will last a good long while, and the former California College of the Arts campus, while it looks precarious perched above the other side, has passed muster too and someday will be apartments with good views.

What continues to impress me, every time I visit, is how different Oakland used to be. Throughout the late 1800s, the cemetery on one side and the CCA site (then it was the Treadwell estate) on the other were cheek-by-jowl with this huge operation that blasted three times a day, starting at six in the morning, and employed hundreds of men in producing crushed rock. But back then, rocks were money.

The great Tunnel Road cut

2 September 2019

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.