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Piedmont Prospector: A Geological Journey along Red Clay Creek

Returning to Red Clay Creek, Delaware

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Wilmington RR2

Photo credit: J. R. Blackwell

The first day of October brought me back to ride the rails again of the Wilmington and Western Railroad. On several occasions, I have boarded the train, pulled by the magnificent steam locomotive, the American 98, black, formidable and puffing grey steam out from its chimney. The train followed the Red Clay Creek, a mostly shallow winding stream through woodlands and fields.  I photographed several Civil War reenactments along the creek. Now I looked forward to returning for another journey through the Delaware countryside, this time on a geological expedition.

img_4807This would be my first outing with the Delaware Mineralogical Society, joining folks who know a great deal of information about rocks, of which I have almost no knowledge, although I have always picked up a souvenir rock during my travels.

I have an affinity with rocks. Now I was about to get some education on the subject.

Building a Railroad through the Rocks

In 1872 the Wilmington & Western Railroad began service to bring goods and passengers among the mills along the creek. Building the line had many challenges including cutting through significant rock outcroppings.  According to an article in the Delaware Public Media,

They didn’t really understand geology back then, and Delaware’s got a lot of rock and it’s the foothills of the Appalachians. So their construction costs skyrocketed.   Robert Elwood

Not knowing about rocks can cost money!

Robert authored Special 50th Anniversary Historic Timeline: the Wilmington & Western’s Half-Century of Operation and reported that “two massive rock outcrops would require extensive black powder blasting to cut through.” p. 3. One outcropping at Cuba Hill consisted of blue granite; at Wooddale, the rock was more massive but softer.  A powder keg exploded at Wooddale, and three workers died as a result. Even opening a powder keg with a sharp tool could cause a barrel to explode. The names of these workers seem to be lost to history, but their involuntary sacrifice noted in Robert’s timeline.

Subduction Leads to Orogeny . . . Really?

Delaware Geologic Survey scientist William “Sandy” Schenck, presented an introductory lesson to the geologic history of the land beneath our feet. The process is best described in this quote from the Geological History of the Delaware Piedmont,

It is surprising to find that although the Delaware Piedmont has passed through the whole series of tectonic events that formed the Appalachians, the mineralogy and structures preserved in Delaware were formed by the early event that occurred between 470 and 440 million years ago, called the Taconic orogeny. This event was triggered by the formation of a subduction zone off the coast of the ancient North American continent that slid oceanic crust on the ancient North American plate beneath oceanic crust on the overriding plate, produced magma, and fueled an arc-shaped chain of volcanoes.

The expression does make a quirky bumper sticker, if you’re into geological humor.I Love Subduction Leads To Orogeny! Bumper Sticker

We boarded the 1929 railcar, “The Paul Revere,” to view and understand the rock landscape as it exists now.

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If you like the sound of the train, here’s a video as we left the station.

Southeast of Greenbank Station

At our first stop, Sandy pointed out the metamorphosed igneous rocks jutting out along the track. We could see the fractures cause by expansion that crisscrossed along the formation. The third photograph in this series is a close up of the “bright eyes” feldspar surrounding black grains of magnetite, formed by the two tectonic plates colliding.

Studying the Cliffs

The Paul Revere headed back through the Greenback Station, letting us off at several different locations, allowing us to walk through the cliffs on either side of the tracks. It was amazing to imagine the labor necessary in 1870 to carve out a narrow space for the train to pass through what looked like impenetrable rocks.  These metamorphosed rocks were originally sedimentary, now layered and jagged.

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Piedmont Prospectors Pan for Garnets

Part of the fun of rock collecting is panning for something, in this case garnets. Garnets are commonly a reddish-brown colored silicate mineral, which can be polished into a red gemstone.  Prospectors can find garnets in stream-worn pebbles, as they are often found at the earth’s surface. Garnet often forms at convergent plate boundaries, a gift from the collision of the Appalachian Piedmont and the Atlantic Coastal Plain. The prospector uses a pan to wash away the sand, leaving magnetite, which can be pulled out with a magnet, and the garnet crystals. Prospectors enjoyed the hunt for these little treasures. A woodland creek is a wonder in itself, creating the soothing sounds of rippling water over the rocks.

Garnet in the rough. Photo credit, Jeff Chalfant 

A Stepping Stone into the Past

Rocks hold the historical record of the earth. The lowly stones we step over have a history and tell us about earlier environments on our planet. Reading the rocks could uncover how humans used the rocks or dealt with destroying them. The next time I ride the Paul Revere, I’ll recall the history of two plates colliding and the story that the rocks tell us on the hillside landscapes of the Red Creek Valley.

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Many thanks to the Delaware Mineralogical Society for arranging the trip and Sandy Schenck for sharing his expertise.  
“To change in appearance or form, especially strangely or grotesquely; transform.”
Changes in land formations certainly would seem to qualify.

Steam Train Journeys into History: Civil War Skirmish at Red Clay Creek

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A beautiful Fall day provided the backdrop for a journey into history on the Wilmington  & Western Line, which runs through the Red Clay Valley, a watershed area that includes just over fifty square miles from New Castle County, Delaware, to Chester County, Pennsylvania.  “Candy cane” lamps lined up along the platform of the historic Greenbank Station, painted in traditional cream and burgundy colors. A museum near the water tower displayed a model of an amusement park that brought visitors to the area back at the turn of the 20th Century and featured a collection of antique photographs and books of the railroad’s history.

Climbing the steps to board steam train, felt like stepping back in time. The wooden cars, painted royal blue with gold trim, each has its own unique history.  We sat on the benches of the converted open air coach, built in 1912 in Altoona and once part of the Pennsylvania commuter rail network. The train hissed and creaked as the locomotive chugged out of the station, the plaintive whistle sounding at the first crossing. The Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia built the steam engine Number 58 in 1907 and in 1998 the engine was restored. The original route through the valley was laid out in the 1870s. We passed rolling hills, farms and woodlands, following the Red Clay Creek. We arrived at a waterfall and picnic grove where the Union solders and their families, dressed in period dress, strolled along the water’s edge.

Railroads played a significant role during the Civil War. The Jones-Imboden Raid against the B&O Railroad represented one of the largest movements of soldiers to a battlefront by way of the railroad. In June of 1861, Union Forces advanced by train from Falls Church, Virginia; Confederates fired artillery at the train near Vienna, making this the first time a train was engaged in warfare in American history.

The drama at Red Clay Creek unfolded as the Rebels, hiding in the woodlands, attacked the train with cannon and rifle fire. The Union forces poured out of the train, holding positions near the tracks.  At the outset the action seemed almost in slow motion because reloading rifles required that they insert each bullet one at time. While the Union held their line for a short time, Confederate reinforcements emerged from the forest, decimating the Union troops attempting to save the train. Passengers, becoming part of the play, fell under the command of the Confederates who boarded the train and occupied the coaches.

The music video captures this memorable ride into history and the tragic aftermath of the skirmish.

In Appreciation:
Confederate 
9th Virginia Cavalry, Company B
37th Regiment, North Carolina Troops, Company A
1st Regiment, North Carolina Artillery, Battery C

Union
2nd Delaware Volunteer Infantry, Company G
71st Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry Regiment, Company K

Special thanks to John Houck.

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