One of the few positive attributes that winter has to offer is the ability to open up the green foliage draperies and get a good look at your surroundings. Perhaps most profound is the opportunity to follow old road traces in the Park and allow them to take you back in time to when the last residents left their marks on the environment. Stove parts, wagon and carriage chassis, galvanized buckets and broken china, all relate to a way of life when man lived closely with the natural elements of nature.
Man has historically always been closely tied to the natural resources, including geologically. In fact, one of the earliest known settlements in North America is in our area. Approximately 12,000 years ago, just south of Front Royal, a Paleo-Indian Clovis culture made a camp on the narrow floodplain near the confluence of Flint Run and the South Fork of the Shenandoah River, at what is now known as the Thunderbird site. At that time, with the recent Ice Age still in the process of releasing it’s grip, extensive grasslands and spruce dominated the valley, permanent snowcaps covered the peaks of Hawksbill and Stony Man, and mastodons roamed the valley. Work done by Dr. William Gardner of Catholic University, found evidence of at least one structure at Thunderbird, supported by the discovery of post molds, or circular earth discoloration's where posts were driven to support a framework. This is the earliest evidence of any type of structure on the North American continent.
These prehistoric Indians established a base camp at this site for several reasons. The Shenandoah River, entrenched in the soft Martinsburg shale formation, was a source of food, transportation, trading and warring. The fertile valley was ideal for game. But, most important, it was where they could fashion tools and weapons from stone quarried from the jasper nodules found in the higher eastern bank within the older, yet more resistant, Edinburg and New Market limestones. Less than a mile upstream from the base camp was a hunting camp, now known as the Fifty site. Artifacts found in this area consist almost entirely of weapons and tools used to kill and butcher game and to process by-products. A bog was located in the floodplain just below the Fifty site where animals were driven for the kill. The recent replacement of the spear by the technologically advanced atlatl perhaps enabled the hunters to pierce the tough skin of the mastodon, adding it to their diet.
Native Americans became aware of the natural attributes of certain minerals for reasons beyond their flint knapping or ornamentation capabilities. Around 3000 BC, the use of the mineral steatite, or soapstone, was discovered to make the ideal cooking pot. You may be familiar with soapstone, used for chemical lab sinks in high school, because of its neutral reaction to various chemicals. Our grandparents were familiar with its use as foot warmers, stoves, griddles and boot dryers. Soapstone was cut in large blocks and placed by wood fires; whence its heat-holding capacity enabled it to radiate heat for many hours after the fire had expired. Being closely related to talc, soapstone was relatively easy to carve into bowls, which would easily transfer its heat to cook foods without cracking. For the next two thousand years (until the invention of kiln-fired clay pottery), the location and quarrying of soapstone had a profound affect on the colonization of eastern North America.
Situated in Rock Creek, less than a mile and a half apart, are two Native American quarries, found in the 1890’s by William Henry Holmes. Near the confluence of Piney Branch and Rock Creek, thousands of percussion-flakes of quartzite littered the site; byproducts of the process of creating stone projectile points, knives, and other tools. To the east, where Connecticut Ave and the Bureau of Standards building exists, Holmes found a steatite quarry, with the shapes of incipient stone bowls clearly visible in the bedrock. These two quarries formed the basis of an industry that produced tools and implements that supported the lower Potomac River valley Native American populations for over two thousand years. In fact, it is very reasonable to imagine these people knapping crude tools from the quartzite site and traveling to the steatite quarry to rough out the soapstone for future bowls. The finished products would be traded with other tribes for copper from the Great Lakes region and gold and gems from North Carolina.
From the Gaspe’ Peninsula to Georgia, along the eastern flanks of the Appalachians, deposits of steatite can be found. Almost without exception, where steatite is found, a very closely related rock, serpentine, can be found. Both have similar origins. These rocks are metamorphosed igneous rocks from deep within the Earths’ mantle, brought to the surface by tectonic plate movements. Steatite, a much softer rock than serpentine, has been subjected to a deep, underground hydrous, or watery, thus cooler, environment.
Serpentine outcrops have long been known to botanists for their unusual and depauperous vegetation. Near Baltimore is the protected 2,000-acre serpentine barrens known as “Soldier’s Delight.” Here, due to the high levels of iron, magnesium, nickel, chromium and cobalt, and conversely low levels of nitrogen, phosphorous and potassium, vegetation is severely restricted. In addition to the chemical deficiencies, the structure of the soil is unfavorable to plant growth, being coarse and shallow, thus precluding moisture retention. In such a limiting environment, botanists search for rare endemic plants that find such edaphic conditions tolerable. The first description of the serpentine barrens was made by the famous botanist John Bartram in 1760. To the Native Americans, these sparsely vegetated areas were known for briars and rabbits. Only able to support pitch pines and blackjack oaks, the early farmers found the land unsuitable for crops and not even adequate for pasturage or timber, so the barrens have remained relatively untouched by humans. The exceptions to this are the few chromite and magnesite mines that had only short-lived economic success over the years, and the asbestos mines; a fibrous form of serpentine, most notably from the Belvidere Mines of northern Vermont.
Soapstone quarries have played a role in our lives in ways we might not have expected. The entrance footsteps to Independence Hall in Philadelphia are made of soapstone. After two hundred years of foot traffic, the worn steps were replaced a few years ago by soapstone quarried from the Alberene quarries at Schuyler, Virginia. The mantels in the White House were also replaced by Harry Truman with black steatite from the Schuyler quarries. And, if Schuyler, Virginia sounds familiar, it may be because you, like me, may had been a fan of the TV show “The Waltons”. In fact, wood used for the boilers at the Alberene plant was cut and supplied by Colonel Earl Hamner, the father of Earl Hamner, Jr., the creator of “The Waltons”. The grandfather character in the TV series was based on the Colonel, except Jr. changed it so he carved wood instead of cutting cordwood.