A Pioneer History of Becker County

Chapter III.

Geology of Becker County.

My claim to being a geologist is based altogether upon practical work, which consists of three years’ experience as mining engineer in coal mines in Ohio, and three years of gold mining in Montana. While employed as land examiner for the Northern Pacific Railroad Company in 1874, ‘75, ‘76, ‘77 and ‘78, I was especially instructed to explore and report upon the probability of the existence of coal in the valleys of the Missouri, James and Sheyenne Rivers, in what is now North Dakota.

I reported the existence of an abundance of lignite coal in the Missouri Valley, but that there was no probability of its existence in the other two valleys. Subsequent developments have proved the correctness of my report. They are at present mining large quantities of coal in the valley of the Missouri, and the Northern Pacific Railroad Company has since made further explorations in the valleys of the James and Sheyenne Rivers, by numerous deep drillings, but no coal has been found.

In the summer of 1876 I reported the probable existence of small quantities of gold in the Sheyenne Valley, a few miles above where Lisbon is now located, and washed out a few panfuls of gravel, but found no gold. Several years afterward quite an excitement broke out over the discovery of gold in that same place but there was but little of it.

But I am drifting away from Becker County.

My scientific and book knowledge of geology however is somewhat like that of M. V. B. Davis, who one got his geology and architecture somewhat tangled. One day, when they were building the stone schoolhouse in Detroit known as the Holmes Building, Davis stood watching one of the stonecutters who was dressing down a big niggerhead boulder, making it ready for its place in the wall of the building. A reporter for some newspaper came along and inquired what the style of architecture of the building was going to be, whether it would be Gothic or Corinthian or Grecian or Ionic or Doric. Davis replied that he had never heard, but he believed it was going to be principally Dornic. Aside from being a good joke, it was a very truthful reply and will apply equally as well to the geology of Becker County, for all the rocks I have seen in the county belong to the “Dornic” or niggerhead, boulder family. They are principally granite with now and then a magnesian limestone.

All the limestone boulders are of a whitish color and are next to the marble in date of formation. The component parts are carbon, lime and a less proportion of magnesia, and it makes a fair quality of lime. The process of manufacturing lime is known to nearly everyone. The principal involved is the burning up with an intense heat of the carbon that has held the rock together for ages, and which allows the particles of lime to separate and form what is called quick-lime.

There was originally quite a sprinkling of limestone blocks or boulders in some of the western townships, but they were nearly all dug out and burned into lime many years ago by the early settlers. The gray boulders are all granite, and were originally formed down deep in the bowels of the earth and are supposed to have been brought to the surface by upheaval in immense masses. The principal bulk of the mountains in the Rocky Mountain range is granite. It is the foundation stone of the earth, and is in fact the old rock itself.

None of the boulders in Becker County were formed here, but were brought from far distant regions, undoubtedly from some part of the country of a higher altitude, by icebergs or glaciers. Granite is composed of three different ingredients, quartz, feldspar and mica. They do not always exist, however, in the same proportion and sometimes either one or the another of these parts is missing altogether, which accounts for the different appearance of some of these boulders. When the mica predominates the rock is soft, and after long exposure to the atmosphere begins to decompose and the shiny, brassy looking flakes of the mica become very conspicuous, and are sometimes mistaken for gold. Many a tenderfoot in the gold mining regions has been taken in with what old miner’s call “fool’s gold.” When the quartz predominates the rock is much harder than usual, particularly when the mica is missing, and it loses much of its gray color and does not resemble the ordinary granite. Boulders of that character are quite frequent in this county. If there are any beds of rock “in place” in Becker County, which means, if there are any regular layers of stratified rock remaining in the same position, and in the same place in which they were by nature formed, they are down deep in the unknown depths of the earth.

Many years ago, in 1846, Professor Dale Owen, an eminent geologist, was sent by the United States government to make a geological survey of the Red River country. On that expedition he explored the Otter Tail River, and was persistent in his efforts to ascertain if there was any rock “in place” in the country, but found no indication of anything but loose boulders for a long time, although there were some fine blocks of white magnesian limestone found along the river in what is now the town of Maine in Otter Tail County, and a few other localities.

Finally, to his great delight, he found what he pronounced a ledge of stratified limestone in a state of nature, of considerable extent, projecting from a high bank of the river. The location of the quarry was fairly well described, and in 1872, when examining the lands of the Northern Pacific Railroad Company in that vicinity, I made a diligent search of the low bluffs bordering on the Otter Tail River, and a few miles from Fergus Falls I found an immense hole in the river bank made the year before and a deserted limekiln close by, but no sign of any limestone quarry remaining. Professor Owen’s rock “in place” happened to be an immense block of limestone that had been dumped by some iceberg or glacier and which happened to have been left right side up with care; but the settlers had dug it out completely and burned it into lime, leaving nothing but a hole in the ground. With its disappearance went the last probability of any “rocks in place” in the Red River country in Minnesota, including Becker County.

The surface formation of the county was deposited here during the glacier period, and is what geologists term a drift formation, a conglomeration of sand, gravel, some boulders and some clay, in the eastern and central portions of the county, and of clay, some boulders, and a very small amount of sand and gravel in the western part. While these granite boulders are quite generally distributed throughout the county, there are but few localities where they are very plentiful. They are much sought after for foundations for buildings, and are already becoming scarce in the vicinity of the villages of Lake Park, Audubon, Detroit and Frazee. The only localities in the county where they have a surplus to spare are in the eastern part of Erie, the south part of Shell Lake, southwest Carsonville and a few in Toad Lake, Wolf Lake and Runeberg Townships.

It is highly improbable that any stone quarries or any mines of any description will ever be found in the county, excepting perhaps iron ore. Natural gas may exist and possibly petroleum, although we are too far away from any coal fields to render it probable. I have never taken any stock in any of the alleged discoveries of coal like that near Barnesville or in any other part of northwestern Minnesota. There are undoubtedly blocks or boulders of coal under the ground at intervals throughout this drift formation, at no very great depth, that were brought in by glaciers or icebergs from far distant regions, fir I have seen them dug out in North Dakota, and there might be a little pocket of gold-bearing gravel or quartz brought along in the same way; but they will amount to nothing, except to raise a few false hopes and end in disappointment, like the Barnesville coal mines, or the gold mines on the Sheyenne River in North Dakota a few years ago.

There are indications of iron ore around some of the tamarack swamps and springs in the eastern and central parts of the county, and there are light deposits of bog iron ore in many places which have been precipitated from the water, which in many places is strongly impregnated with iron.

What there may be a hundred fathoms or more below the surface we cannot tell; there may possibly be millions of wealth down there, but it will not be fore this generation to possess and probably not for any other, for there is no probability of its existence.

But the geological formation of Becker County has given to her people what is of more value to them than stone quarry or mine; it has given them a surface soil of surpassing richness, and especially in some of the western townships it has given them a soil that for fertility and durability has no superior on the face of the globe.

Dec. 24, 1904.

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