Chittenango Falls State Park Field Trip
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The Physical Geology classes at Onondaga Community College routinely take a field trip to Chittenango Falls State Park. The park is about a forty minute drive from campus and can be reached by taking Route 173 East to Chittenango, and then Route 13 South for approximately six miles to the entrance.
The Chittenango Creek Valley cuts through a thick section of Paleozoic strata, starting with the Silurian, Bertie Waterlime at the base. Traveling south up Route 13 toward the falls there are outcrops of the Oxbow Waterlime, the Cobleskill Formation and then the Chrysler Formations. The largest roadside cliff is well known for its vugs filled with dog-tooth spar calcite, blue celestite and white barite crystals.
The base of the falls exposes the various members of the Manlius Formation overlain by the Onondaga, its Edgecliff Member forming the lip of the falls. Further upstream the Moorehouse and the Seneca Members are exposed in the creek bed. The surrounding hillsides are underlain by the Hamilton Group with the Marcellus and the Skaneateles Formations accessable in the steep ravines that dissect the hillside.
The layers of limestone rock exposed in the face of Chittenango Falls are a record of marine environments that existed here in Central New York long before any dinosaurs walked the Earth. Over 390 million years ago the North American continent was taking shape in a spot directly over the equator. The low lying landmass was periodically flooded as sea levels rose and fell, turning central NY into a tropical island paradise similar to the Bahamas of today.
The shallow waters were teaming with life forms that were the ancestors of our present day species of corals, sponges, shellfish, snails and fishes. As sea level ebbed and waned, and ocean currents and tides shifted across the area, the character of the sea floor environment changed over time. This story can be read from the rocks as one examines the layers exposed along the trails in the park.
The lower level of the falls consists of the Thatcher Member (thin bedded) and Olney Member (massive) of the Manlius Formation. Abundant coral, sponge and crinoid fossils indicate there was a healthy population of reef building animals. Just above the lower level, the Elmwood layer tells a story of much shallower water, changing tides and periodic dry spells. As one moves upward, the higher layers record a return of deeper ocean waters and the animals that thrive in those conditions.
The upper lip of the falls drops from the Edgecliff Member of the Onondaga Formation. The exposures of this layer at the overlook and along the trails contain many fossil remains of colonial and solitary corals as well as crinoids and mollusks.
Since Devonian time, when these layers formed, the process of plate tectonics has caused North America to gradually grow larger by the addition of mountain ranges along it’s margins, and the continent has been ever so slowly transported northward to our present day position.
The last 2 million years this area has been subjected to freezing temperatures and the advances and retreats of massive continental ice sheets. Evidence of these glacial attacks can be witnessed in the steeply carved hills of shale in the distance and the broad flat valley floor. Running water, flowing in the creek between glacial episodes, has slowly carved the narrow gorge into the underlying limestone bedrock.