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Exploring Golden's Geological Past

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Written by John Bristow

Posted on 01 September 2013

To say that the School of Mines is lucky in terms of its location is quite an understatement. It is perfect for an institution that has world-class earth science departments to be located in such a stunning and resourceful area. On top of all of this, the university is lucky to has geologists such as emeritus professor Dr. Bob Weimer. So when the opportunity arises every fall to go on a walking tour of the geology of Golden with Dr. Weimer, throngs of geoscience students crowd the Geology Trail.

The School of Mines has always had a strong connection with the local geology. The Geology Trail tour began with Dr. Steve Sonnenburg and Dr. Weimer expounding on the number of geoscientists from the institution that either helped out with the original surveys of Colorado, or helped revolutionize the science as a whole. Just a brief glance at the building names across campus reveals some of the more well known geologists and surveyors such as Edward Berthoud, Arthur Lakes, and Ben Parker. While Dr. Weimer's name might not yet be on a campus building, the trail bears his name since he was the one to get it started. As Dr. Weimer explained, when the Geology Museum moved from Berthoud Hall, "I wanted to make a contribution to the museum and the campus at that time." There had been a trail through the area where the current trail exists, but the school has reclaimed them numerous times.

Picture-for-Van-Tuyl-ArticleThe actual tour began with Dr. Weimer explaining the driving forces behind the geology on campus. He explained that the area is a rather typical example of a block mountain uplift with the actual campus sitting right in the deformed zone. The area gains it's dramatic geological flair by the nature of differential erosion. Before the tour moved onwards to the next stop, Dr. Weimer took a brief moment to reflect on the campus as a whole. "I've traveled a lot in my day," he explained, "I've never seen this much geology on one campus," then with an earnest chuckle he added, "If you find one with more, let me know."

Before moving onto the second stop, the tour was given more information on the history of Golden. When Dr. Weimer started at the school, the area where the IM fields are now was originally an abandoned mining area. In order to expand, the school claimed the area and put several buildings on the site. The tour was cautioned about the folly of instantly assuming that experts are always correct, "That was the first reclamation attempt and the first failure," Weimer stated with a sense of disappointment, "those 18 buildings are now gone." Though there are still issues today, they are significantly less severe than in the past.

The second stop on the Geology Trail features a number of incredible fossils, mostly leaf imprints and dinosaur footprints preserved in time; the presence of the latter makes it a great location for young children to explore and get in touch with the past. Since the whole outcrop was brought from horizontal to vertical during the Laramide orogeny, it appears as though the footprints go up and down the steep slope. Dr Weimer explained using this to test children on their reasoning skills, "[I would ask] do you think that the dinosaurs could have gone up that slope," and with a smile he continued, "the kids said no."

Following the second stop, the tour moved on to a location where Dr. Weimer had contributed to the geological history of Golden. Both clay and coal were mined in the city, but it was not exactly known how clay that was perfect for brick making was deposited in the ancient environment. Weimer used his knowledge of the local area, plus the surrounding geology, to deduce that the area had been altered by organic influence, and thus may have been a swampy area on the margin of a freshwater lake. Since there would have been a source of freshwater, the idea also explained how there could have been organic material to form coal. Before moving on to the rock garden, Weimer concluded that the city of Golden was lucky geologically by pointing out all of the ingredients needed to form the infantile industrial hub; "The original industry of Golden started because there was the coal and the clay and the water from Clear Creek."

Of all of the stops on the trail, the best for the tour was the Rock Garden. Dr. Weimer had wanted a location for the geology of Golden to be on display, both in the view and in samples. The overlook on the far side of the old freshman lot proved to be the perfect location. Of course, as Dr. Weimer explained, it wasn't as easy as he thought to set it up. One day while he was preparing the site, a security guard came up and asked what he was doing. With his usual levity, Dr. Weimer retorted "I'm growing a rock garden!" According to Dr. Weimer, the guard wasn't buying it so he asked why he was doing that to which Weimer replied, "President Trefny wants it". After muttering "oh" the guard was not seen again at the site. The Rock Garden displays important rocks from both the Golden area as well as the state of Colorado as a whole. Two rocks were noted in particular, the oil shale and the state rock, Yule Marble. Weimer explained that in the old days campers used to find small rocks of the oil shale and according to Weimer, "They burned pretty well."

Since the whole Geology Trail is open to the public, the site has become part of geological activities beyond the normal campus scope. One of these that Dr. Weimer pointed out is the activity of geocaching. At first, as he explained, he was amazed at how easy the questions were, "The first question was 'what is the state rock of Colorado?' well you could do that without being here," he continued by mentioning that after that question, the quiz became more specific, "the next one though is "'what is the rock to the west of the state rock?' that is much better."

At this point Dr. Sonnenburg took over part of the tour, emphasizing just how dedicated Dr. Weimer has been to the trail, "When Scoggins first came to campus one of the first people in his office was Bob spouting out 'I wanna tell you about the Mines Geology Trail'". It has been extremely opportune that the administration has gone out of its way to maintain the trail. Dr. Sonnenburg explained that to him, the trail is not just a geological experience, but a symbol of how dedicated to excellence the students of the school are. During the construction of the new athletic fields, it became necessary to destroy a large part of the trail. For several years the trail was cut short and there was very little movement to restore the trail. This all changed when a group of students took up the burden of repairing the trail for a community service project. More than a hundred student showed up with shovels and wheelbarrows, and over the course of a day, the trail was restored. Dr. Sonnenburg explained that after the event, "We knew the Mines spirit was alive and well."

The tour concluded with a visit to the final stop which serves as a memorial to the miners lost in the White Ash Coal Mine disaster. In 1889, on a normal day at the mine, one of the shafts flooded with water from a nearby abandoned mine. The incident helped emphasize the need for better mine mapping, something which the School of Mines was heavily involved in.

While most Van Tuyl lectures are a one time event, the Bob Weimer Geology Trail is open every day and guides are available at the Geology Museum.