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Connect the Dots: Champlain Valley is Filled with Lasting Effects from Supercontinent Pangea

Published March 25, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen

Mt. Philo State Park in Charlotte, Vermont

Q: How does the Champlain Valley connect to the ancient supercontinent Pangea?

A: I climbed to the top of Mt. Philo to see the magnificent view of the Champlain Valley from the top of the cliff face – the pastoral farmland in the foreground, the beautiful lake stretching north and south, and the Adirondacks on the horizon. But I also wanted to get an overview of something much, much bigger. From the top of Mt. Philo, the evidence of two scenes of an ancient global-scale drama can be seen: the formation and break-up of the supercontinent Pangea. 

            The first scene in the drama took place literally under my feet. As I stood there, the cliff rocks seem firmly anchored in place. But hundreds of millions of years ago they had been in motion, pushed by the immense forces of colliding crustal plates as the supercontinent Pangea was forming. As the African and North American plates were moving shoulder to shoulder, the enormous compression folded some of Vermont’s bedrock into the Green Mountains and northwest Africa’s bedrock into the Little Atlas Mountains.   

            Further west of the Green Mountains, some of the bedrock fractured and slid as it was pushed upward and westward over stationary rock. The cliff face I was standing on was the sharp leading edge of one of those moving rock faces that had been thrust many miles westward. In fact, it is part of the westernmost fault line in Vermont created by Pangea’s formation that extends the length of Lake Champlain (called the Champlain Thrust Fault by geologists). Here at the park, it’s about 500 feet higher than the park entrance, even after millions of years of erosion. The pastoral lowlands I can see below me were the stationary rocks that the cliff rocks had over-ridden. When I’m standing on this abrupt cliff, I’m on the westernmost line in Vermont where the extensive, prolonged movement of supercontinent Pangea’s formation ground to a halt.

View from the top of Mt. Philo with Lake Champlain and the Adirondacks in the distance

             After Pangea formed, it stayed together as one supercontinent for many millions of years. During that time, the major geological forces in the area I was looking at were quite quiet.

Then, about 200 million years ago, Pangea started to pull apart and break up into the separate continents we know today. The next scene in the world-scale drama played out in the panorama I was seeing beyond the farmlands out in the long, blue ribbon of Lake Champlain. The lake water’s smooth surface conceals the shape of the land under it. But the lake basin’s shape was created by Pangea coming apart. 

            I could see the Charlotte Ferry route to Essex, NY from the park cliff. When crossing on the 3-mile route from the Vermont side, the lake bottom drops off steadily over the first 2/3 mile to 100 feet deep, then in the next 1/8 mile it suddenly drops to 300 feet deep, then it quickly bottoms out at about 400 feet deep. It is relatively flat mid-lake at the 400-foot depth, then it rises fairly steeply again as you near the New York shore. Scientists who have studied the lake say there are about 300 feet of loose sediment below the current lake bottom. That makes the depth to the bedrock bottom about 700’ below lake level. When I ferry across the lake, I’m riding over a lake basin that is shaped like a very deep, narrow trough with steep sides.  How did this form? 

            When the supercontinent Pangea started to pull apart, the bedrock started to stretch.  In one of the stretching sessions, the bedrock where the lake is now broke on both sides creating a large block. The large bedrock block fell down relative to the surrounding rock, creating the basin. The basin eventually filled with water and formed Lake Champlain. One way to think of the lake basin is that it is one of the stretch marks of Pangea breaking up.

Simplified diagram of the bedrock compression that formed Mt. Philo (1) and the bedrock stretching that formed Lake Champlain (2)

            While I contemplate the view from the park cliff, I know that the supercontinent Pangea was responsible for the major highs and lows of the Vermont landscape before me. Pangea’s forces pushed up the cliff I was standing on as the continental plates squeezed together (now about 500’ up from the park’s front gate), and pulled open the lake’s basin as it was coming apart (now more than 400’ below the shoreline). My magnificent view was shaped by some very large-scale drama, indeed!

Copyright 2021, Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: Champlain Valley is Filled with Lasting Effects from Supercontinent Pangea

My next Connect the Dots column has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in The Citizen (Hinesburg and Charlotte). From the top of Mt. Philo, it asks the question: How does the Champlain Valley connect to the supercontinent Pangea?

Here is the link:  https://www.vtcng.com/thecitizenvt/opinion/opinion_columns/champlain-valley-is-filled-with-lasting-effects-from-supercontinent-pangea/article_848f5606-8dab-11eb-bc8a-5308f5e6886a.html

Think about the effects of supercontinent Pangea from the top of Mt. Philo in Charlotte.

Connect the Dots: The Journeys of a Milk Can

Published February 4, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in the Shelburne News

Q: What journeys have milk cans taken through the Vermont landscape?

A: While bushwhacking through the woods on an old hill farm recently, I came across a discarded milk can and stopped to have a look. It was weather-beaten, rusty and pocked with holes, and there were some initials embossed on its neck. The broken glass bottles and sap buckets keeping it company looked very old-fashioned, so I guessed that they had all been resting here together in this farm dump for decades. But I knew from interviews I’ve done of retired farmers that the milk can’s earlier days would have been ones of constant movement, both around the farm and through the local community.

            The best milk can stories I’ve collected were shared by a community elder in an interview about his childhood in the 1930s on an Addison County hill farm. After we did our short mutual introductions, he immediately launched into describing his most memorable farm chore as a boy – cooling the milk cans. His family had a small herd of Holsteins that they milked twice a day. With no electricity, he described his family milking the cows by hand into pails, a task he regularly assisted with. But the job he was solely responsible for and the most memorable for him was the next step in the milking process – getting the milk cooled on the farm. 

            The farm had no piped running water, so they used the cool running water in the brook nearby. After the warm milk from each pail was poured into the larger milk can, it was his job to load the cans into the horse-drawn wagon and take them down to the brook. They had lined a section of the brook with stones and built a cover over it, which they called the spring box.  He would open the spring box’s cover, and then lift each milk can out of the wagon and lower it into the cool brook, and close the spring box lid when he was done. He told me that his family usually filled 4 to 6 milk cans per day for him to transport. (They probably used the common 10 gallon can size, which weighed 80 pounds each when full of milk.) He finished his task by taking the horse back to the barn, while the cans were left to slowly cool down in the brook. No matter the weather, this was a daily task for him. As he finished this story, he paused for a few moments, looking off into the distance deep in thought. Clearly, he was back on that hillside reliving the memory.

            His second milk can story involved the trip the cans took off the farm to the local creamery. Each can usually had the name of the creamery stamped onto it, and each day the milk cans were trucked a few miles away to that creamery to be processed. One of the creamery trucks travelled part of the farm boy’s route to school. He described how he learned to time his walks back and forth to school to coincide with the transport of the milk cans so he could ride part way. The driver would let him hop up into the open back of the truck and sit next to the cans. He finished his story by confiding that he much preferred the afternoon run home from school because the cans had been emptied and washed, and were still warm from the washing on the way home. With a twinkle in his eye, he added, “I tried especially hard to catch it in the winter. “

            The milk cans’ daily journey ended by returning to the farmstead by truck, with or without the farm boy sitting amongst them. By night fall, half of the cans were already full from the evening’s milking and cooling in the brook, starting the cycle again. Many versions of this cycle were repeated on the more than 10,000 farms in Vermont in the 1930s.

            Though milk cans were a critical link in the chain for processing dairy milk for decades, their role came to an end when bulk tanks starting arriving in the 1950s. With electricity on the farm, metal refrigerated bulk tanks in the barn became the preferred way to cool milk, and tanker trucks came to the farm to pick it up. Milk cans became obsolete.

            When I find old milk cans in the woods, I think of the daily journeys they once took around the farm and on the rural roads nearby. I also remember that someone must have carried this milk can to its last resting place after its constant filling, emptying, and lifting by many hands, large and small.

Milk can from the Shelburne Cooperative Creamery in Shelburne, VT now in the woods

Copyright 2021, Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: The Journeys of a Milk Can

My next Connect the Dots column has been published by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group in the Shelburne News. It asks the question: What journeys have milk cans taken through the Vermont landscape?

Here is the link: https://www.vtcng.com/shelburnenews/opinion/opinion_columns/the-journeys-of-a-milk-can/article_74889350-672f-11eb-ba71-570a9fdcb0ac.html

An old milk can found in the Vermont woods

I will also publish the milk can column in this blog at the end of the week, when the publishing rights revert back to me.

Connect the Dots: Black Locust Column

Published January 21, 2021 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group

Q: How are black locust trees connected to other features in the landscape?

A: When I drive down out of the hills into the Champlain Valley’s lower elevations, I confess that I’m always keeping half an eye out for a very distinctive tree – the black locust. Its unusual bark is thick, heavily furrowed, and runs in sinuous lines, and the tree often grows in close clumps. As soon as I see one, I know I’m likely looking at a place with direct ties to the farm families of the early 1800s and indirect ties to some ancient, deep water.

Black locusts have very distinctive bark

Black locusts are not native to Vermont, but to the southern Appalachians and Ozarks. Although I often see them in front or side yards of an old house, they were not brought here as ornamental trees. They were imported around 1825 because they make excellent fence posts. Black locust wood is rot resistant in contact with the soil, and this unusual quality played a key role in a major Vermont landscape shift.

By the 1820s, Vermont farmers were transitioning from subsistence farming to commercial farming. Merino sheep were brought to Vermont, and farmstead after farmstead established pastures as they raised sheep for their high quality, marketable wool. Thousands of acres of new pasture required fencing, and the farmers looked at the best options available at the time. Field stone was used to build stone walls where it was abundant and stackable. Native white cedar was rot resistant but wasn’t common, and treated wood hadn’t yet been developed. Black locust fence posts ended up filling in the gap. 

Besides their rot resistance, farmers also liked black locusts because they easily regenerate themselves. They stump sprout, so if you cut the main trunk, side stems will sprout from the stump. They also root sucker, frequently sending up new stems from the roots a few feet out from the main trunk. It only takes 10-15 years for these root suckers to become fence-post size, far less than the multiple decades that white cedar needs to grow new post-size stems. 

The black locusts trees could be planted once, harvested periodically, and left to regenerate with almost no maintenance required. It’s hard to imagine a more ideal plant for busy farmers whose livelihood depended on keeping animals well contained.

By 1850, farmers in Vermont had mostly stopped planting new black locusts. The locust borer insect spread into Vermont and started to do significant damage to the trees. Farmers who had established clumps kept them, but new plantings were discontinued. So the clumps of trees we see today mostly date to the early 1800s.

Though virtually the whole state participated in the sheep boom, black locust trees are confined to distinct areas. In the Champlain Valley, their distribution pattern comes down to the effect of some ancient bodies of water more than 10,000 years ago.

 Glaciers had distributed stones generously across virtually all of Vermont as they advanced from the north. But a final chapter in glacial history made those stones unavailable to farmers in the lower elevations of the Champlain Valley. As the last glacier melted, the valley flooded miles wider than the present-day Lake Champlain, with first a huge freshwater lake and then a salt-water arm of the sea. This body of water sloshed for about 5000 years, and finally receded to the present Lake Champlain level about 10,000 years ago.  (The beluga whale skeleton found in Charlotte and now in the UVM Perkins Geology Museum dates to the saltwater portion.) Over these 5000 years, small clay and silt particles were thickly deposited on the lake and sea bottom over the earlier stony deposits. These small particles later formed today’s non-stony soils.  

From the Vermont Geological Survey, Major Glacial Lakes and the Champlain Sea, Vermont, 2020.

 The higher elevation areas of the valley above the high water level (the eastern halves of Hinesburg, St. George, and Williston, and a few scattered islands) have lots of stones in the soil which were used in the old stone walls. The lower elevation areas that were underwater (including most of Charlotte, Shelburne, and South Burlington, and the western halves of Hinesburg, St. George, and Williston) have almost no stones in their clay and silt soils, so black locusts were planted. So the distributions of black locusts and old stone walls usually don’t overlap.                

As I drive by black locusts on an old farmstead now, I think of them as touchstones to the past. I think about the farmer’s hand that planted the trees more than 150 years ago near their house or barn, and the bleating of many, many sheep. When I reach back even further, I imagine the deep water that once covered it all, and the whistling and clicking whales that were swimming over those future farmsteads.

Connect the Dots: Shelburne Falls

Published December 3, 2020 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group

Q: How is Shelburne Falls connected to Vergennes and Winooski?

A: When I cross the concrete bridge over the LaPlatte River in Shelburne Falls, I always remember the very first bridge built here. Built in the 1780s before covered bridges were invented, it’s described in town histories as a “rudely constructed log bridge.” But the log bridge was more than just a crossing for the locals. It was part of the first road north from Vergennes connecting a trio of waterfalls on three different rivers: Otter Creek, LaPlatte, and Winooski. When I learned the story, I had to dramatically rethink my mental map of western Vermont.

The first key to the story is the waterfalls, since water power was the main energy source at that time. The LaPlatte falls are Shelburne’s only falls of any size, making them strategic. The second key is that, not coincidentally, all three waterfalls were also the last falls on their rivers. The LaPlatte falls are about a mile from the lake, so the lake connection isn’t obvious at the bridge. But all three locations could be reached by boat from Lake Champlain, the main transportation in that era. These three falls meant both water power and access to transportation – a powerful combination at the time. 

The Shelburne Falls story begins where many Vermont village stories start:  a dam was built across the river. It was built upstream of the bridge, and a saw mill was built near it. The saw mill fashioned the surrounding old-growth forest trees into lumber for new wooden infrastructure. The eight European families in Shelburne before the mill was constructed had built log houses for shelter. But early settlers wanted sawn-lumber frame houses as soon as possible, so they considered a saw mill an absolute requirement.

The LaPlatte waterfall wasn’t done yet, though. The following year, another dam was constructed lower down, and soon a grist mill was built to grind grain. 

The families who settled here established farms, bringing with them the grain-based farming culture of southern New England. The Spear family arrived in Shelburne in 1783, four years before the grist mill was built. They cleared and planted a few acres around the log house they built. To grind their grain the first few years, they took it by boat to the nearest accessible grist mills in New York and Quebec, and then to Winooski. When the Shelburne Falls grist mill was built, their trips were significantly shortened. It’s little wonder the grist mill was usually the second industry built in early Vermont towns. 

While this was happening in Shelburne, what was happening elsewhere on the new north-south road? Vergennes’ and Winooski’s stories are remarkably parallel to Shelburne’s, although they started earlier and were interrupted by the Revolutionary War. At the Vergennes waterfall, a dam and saw mill were built about fifteen years before Shelburne’s.  Next, the grist mill was built, and it was such a critical industry that the New York and New Hampshire grantees destroyed it twice as they fought over sovereignty there. In Winooski, Ira Allen arrived by boat from Whitehall in the early 1770s to scout, and walked back south through the forest. The next year, he sailed back to Winooski, built a blockhouse for defense, then walked south marking trees for a road connecting Winooski Falls to the other two waterfalls (going along roughly what is now Spear Street to Shelburne). 

The Revolutionary War drove early settlers in northern Vermont back south to the Pittsford area until the hostilities ended in 1783. When they returned, Vergennes restarted its saw mill, and rebuilt its grist mill within a few years. In Winooski, saw mills were built at both ends of a new dam, and a grist mill was soon built. By the time the Shelburne grist mill had been built in 1787, all three places had the two critical mills running like three pairs of beads on a string. 

In the years to come, the LaPlatte waterfall remained the center of the Shelburne Falls mill village. Both mills operated into the 1920s, and continued to be the farming community’s cornerstones. The waterfalls at Vergennes and Winooski became city nuclei, both places eclipsing Shelburne Falls in size because of their rivers’ much larger water volumes.

Whenever I look at Shelburne’s waterfall, I remember how this feature created two cornerstones of the town’s early farm life. But, I also remember the bigger story. Instead of modern Shelburne organized around Rt. 7 in Burlington’s orbit, I’m back in the 1780s on the rude log bridge of the first road cut north through a densely forested area. I’m in one of three new villages all connected through waterpower, and downtown Burlington was barely a dream.

Copyright 2020, Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots: East Woods

Published November 19, 2020 by the Vermont Community Newspaper Group

Q: What are the long earthworks in the East Woods Natural Area in South Burlington connected to?

A: It takes only ten minutes for me to walk through the East Woods Natural Area to get to the long earthworks. But the walk along the trail is also a walk back in time to the late nineteenth century when this area was poised to significantly change how people traveled. 

I start at the Swift Street parking lot, where I’ve navigated some of South Burlington’s 100 miles of roads to park my twenty-first century car. The current road network gives city residents access to thousands of places very quickly, but it’s very different from the horse and buggy days I’m about to dip into.

As I start on the trail, I’m quickly engulfed by the tall white pines. Soon, I stop at a blow-down that’s been cut up, and count about 100 rings. The first 20 are noticeably wider than the later ones, signaling abundant sunlight as it got started. That fits with the old photographs of this area as all farmland in the early 1900s.

After ten minutes of level walking, the trail starts a sharp descent that also brings a dive deeper into the past. Just ahead are the earthworks I had heard about – two parallel mounds stretching off to the left. They are much larger than I expected: 8-10 feet high and about 30 feet wide at the base, and separated by flat-bottomed troughs about 15-20 feet wide. Local history tells me I’m looking at some nineteenth-century railroad beds, but I can’t quite interpret it all.  So, I get out my LiDAR image to help me. 

LiDAR is a new type of hi-tech aerial imagery that uses pulses of laser light to let you see “through the trees” to the ground surface below. The LiDAR image of East Woods shows the ground features in striking relief and makes them much easier to understand. Besides the roadways that frame the photo, the image focuses on a broad northerly bend of Potash Brook with its steep banks crossed twice by some sweeping, parallel linear earthworks. 

As I look back and forth between the LiDAR image and the undulating mounds and troughs around me, I begin to understand that the railroad beds ran through the troughs, not on the mounds. The mound tops are the original ground level and the troughs were cut down through that. If I follow the rail beds as they cross the trail and go to the right toward the brook, I see that they are built out over the stream bank and stop suddenly at the brook edge. Looking carefully, I can see matching embankments on the brook’s other side. Suddenly all the pieces make sense. I can erase the trees in my mind’s eye and see how it would have looked back in the 1890s.

The LiDAR image shows the two rail embankments on the brook’s farther side clearly – they spread apart just beyond the brook edge. The northerly one bends off toward Essex Junction where it was to join other regional rail lines. The southerly one goes east and then eventually curves south toward its goals of Hinesburg and Bristol. Both Hinesburg and Bristol were bypassed when the original railroad was built into Burlington around 1850, despite both towns being water-powered manufacturing centers with populations larger than Shelburne or South Burlington. When this rail line was being planned, public transportation from Hinesburg to Burlington was a daily horse-drawn stagecoach trip along what is Rte. 116 today. The stagecoach schedule says it was a 3-hour journey over the 13 miles of dirt roadway (not paved until the 1930s). The newly planned railroad trip would have taken 15-20 minutes – a dramatic improvement for manufacturers and day passengers alike. But after construction began, the financing fell through. The rail beds to Hinesburg and Bristol were never finished, nor were the tracks ever laid. The rail line to Essex Junction ran for just a few years.  The embankments and cuttings here were abandoned, and eventually the forest claimed this area.

Continuing on the trail as it hugs Potash Brook’s northerly loop, I eventually come to the west end of the same undulating mound system. Here again the cuttings are the rail beds. As they approach the brook, they are built out level to meet the rail bridge crossings to the Burlington waterfront. 

As I continue the trail circuit, I leave the nineteenth-century earthworks behind and return to the present-day and feel the refreshment that forest time can bring. Though the mounds and troughs are certainly intriguing, I realize that maybe it was a lucky thing for us that the 1890s rail lines were abandoned. If they hadn’t been, we might not be able to walk through what has become a lovely forested natural area.

Copyright 2020, Jane Dorney

Connect the Dots Column Started

I am now writing a monthly column I’m calling Connect the Dots for the Vermont Community Newspaper Group (VTCNG) that helps people connect to the local landscape of southern Chittenden County. Each month I pose a question about an everyday Vermont landscape feature, and then explain why it is where it is and how it relates to other natural and cultural features.

Two columns have been published already this fall, and will be posted soon in this blog, as well. The November column asked the question: What are the long earthworks in the East Woods Natural Area in South Burlington connected to? The December column asked the question: How is Shelburne Falls connected to Vergennes and Winooski?

Future columns will be published in one or more of the VTCNG’s weekly town papers: The Other Paper (South Burlington), Shelburne News (Shelburne), and The Citizen (Charlotte and Hinesburg), and on their website: https://www.vtcng.com/.

I’ll be posting about the publication of new columns in my Instagram (@jane.dorney) and Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/JaneDorneyVermontGeographer/) accounts. I will also be posting them here in this blog one week after they have been published.

Huntington’s Sense of Place

Miles Farm Landscape

“To belong to a place and a group of people saves our lives.”  Terry Tempest Williams

This quote crossed my desk as I was working on a project for the Huntington Historical and Community Trust.  I found it echoing around my head as I corresponded and met with the board to refine the task I had contracted to do for them – create an illustrated presentation for the public on the evolution of the Huntington landscape over the last 250 years.  As I ran ideas past them for possible topics to include, I could tell that this board really cared about the place they lived and they understood their role as the collective keepers of its memories.  The same feeling continued as I interviewed local people, walked the land with some of them, did archival research, and collected photographs and maps to share.

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But it was the evening of the presentation that Williams’ sentiments and how they applied to Huntingtonians really hit home for me. More than 120 people filled the Town Hall that evening. The set-up crew ran out of chairs and 10 people even stood in the back prepared to lean against the wall for the duration.  The enthusiasm continued throughout the next hour as I shared photos and maps and interpretations of how their landscape had evolved.  Whether it was old barns, the stone wall patterns in the old hill farms, the 1830 map of the dam and mills in the Lower Village, the road the ice cutters’ took from the creameries to Gillett Pond, the forest fire observation table on the top of Camel’s Hump, or the CCC camp site, the audience was really with me and eager to take it all in.  (To watch the presentation, go here.)

Johnson Map for Blog
Base map from UVM Special Collections

After my presentation, people stayed for the homemade refreshments and to talk with their neighbors.  Some came to talk with me one-on-one to share personal landscape connections they had, as well.  Even though it was a week night, it was more than an hour before the hall cleared and the set-up crew could go home.  After I loaded up my equipment and sank into the car seat, I paused for moment to reflect.  At the same time as the evening was giving me a feeling of depth and grounding in people and place, it was also leaving me with a feeling of buoyant optimism for the future of this community’s life together.  Here, indeed, was a living example of Williams’ sentiment.

Hotel on Camels Hump
Hotel on the top of Camel’s Hump in 1865, from UVM Special Collections