Monday, December 14, 2020

Chokecherry Farewell

Purple-leaved chokecherry, August 2020.
Yesterday afternoon, I went to LaBonte Park to bid adieu to the chokecherry tree I followed this year. But I forgot my camera. But I had my phone. But it was a brand new (to me) smartphone (AT&T didn't want me and my little flip phone anymore). But by tapping here and there on various screens viewed through dark glasses in bright sunlight, I got what I wanted.

Last night, I learned that with just a few taps, this wondrous device would send photos to my laptop—very cool! But for the next half hour I tapped, searched, read, tapped some more and wondered, while my laptop remained oblivious to the phone "Waiting" just six inches away.
Grrrr ...
Then I heard the boing of digital media arriving. Turns out neither device was to blame—our WiFi had disconnected. But it returned, so off we go to LaBonte Park.

It was a beautiful day—cold, sunny, calm. The pond is frozen and snow-covered. But it's still too early in the season to test it, even along the margins.
Chokecherry from afar.
Sky and canopy, with the last leaves tightly huddled.
Characteristic curving stems and branches. Note the American crow eating something it found on the street (black spot left of tree).
The requisite selfie: me and my tree.

This is my final report for 2020, posted at the monthly gathering of tree-followers kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Now it's time to select a tree for next year :) Want to join in the fun? Information here.

Monday, November 16, 2020

Tweedy's Pussypaws' Tortuous Taxonomic Journey

Tweedy's pussypaws has long challenged plant taxonomists. Should they abandon Darwinian evolution for an alternative? Photo by Hike395.

Tweedy's pussypaws lives here! Tronsen Ridge, Wenatchee Mountains. Photo by brewbooks.

In the summer of 1883, in the Wenatchee Mountains of Washington Territory, Frank Tweedy and T.S. Brandegee went exploring, perhaps hoping to climb Mt. Stuart. En route they spotted striking plants among the rocks, with thick roots, broad fleshy basal leaves, and salmon-pink flowers an inch across. They collected one plant, and once back in camp, arranged it carefully in a plant press for drying. It would be sent to the great North American botanist, Asa Gray, at Harvard.
Specimen 37514, Gray Herbarium, Harvard. Washington Territory, 1883 ("Mt. Stewart" is Mt. Stuart).
Minor damage and loss of color due to long drying time (no other option on early expeditions). Material was removed from the fragment packet for imaging.

Frank Tweedy was a civil engineer, with a degree from Union College (New York). After graduation, he worked as a surveyor in the Adirondack Mountains, followed by a stint as sanitation engineer in Newport, Rhode Island. All the while he collected prodigiously, publishing notable finds in the Bulletin of the Torrey Botanical Club. Then in 1882, he boarded a train and headed west.

Townshend Stith Brandegee was a civil engineer with two degrees from Yale, the second in botany. By the time he collected with Tweedy in the Wenatchees, he was well-respected for his botanical knowledge of the American West, having been on four survey expeditions. Several of Brandegee's articles in the Botanical GazetteFlowers and Snow and Timber Line in the Wasatch Range—show his attentiveness to plant ecology as well as floristics.
Left: Frank Tweedy, 1875. Union College Special Collections. Right: Townshend Stith Brandegee, date unknown. Jepson Herbaria Archives, U. California, Berkeley.
In 1882, Tweedy and Brandegee were hired by Richard U. Goode of the Northern Transcontinental Survey (NTS), which was established to lay out a route for the nation's northern railway. Both men were surveyors professionally, but it was no secret that plants were their passion. In fact, they were encouraged to collect [1]. On August 5, 1893, Goode wrote in his diary, "Yesterday Mr. Tweedy collected for me over 60 kinds of flower-bearing plants within a few rods of camp. They are now being dried ...".

Frank Tweedy found himself in an exciting new botanical world. Not only was the flora unfamiliar to him, it was poorly-known in general, thereby offering fresh thrills—novelties! Unfortunately this term has largely fallen out of use; now we call them "species new to science".

We don't know what Tweedy and Brandegee thought of the plant they found near Mt. Stuart. The oldest label on their specimen (see image below) indicates they didn't realize it was a novelty. Based on the label, it appears Brandegee thought it was Claytonia megarhiza, the fell-fields claytonia—a related plant also found in talus and scree in western mountains.

But attached to the upper right corner of the sheet is a message from botanist William Marriott Canby (head of Economic Botany for the NTS) absolving Brandegee. There was a mixup in labels! Canby wrote, "Tweedy has just sent me his #s 898 and 900 Coll[ected] 1893. #898 is Calandrinia Tweedyi and 900 is Claytonia megarrhiza."

The next oldest label (bottom right corner, below Brandegee's) documents Professor Gray's decision that the plant was a novelty. He named it in Tweedy's honor, writing "Calandrinia tweedyi" on the label—but only after crossing out "brandegei"!
Brandegee label above, Gray annotation below; note edit (red arrow). "TYPE" (blue arrow) marks this specimen as the holotype, the basis for describing the new species, Calandrina tweedyi.
What was the reason for Gray's edit? Perhaps friction between Brandegee and Gray was already developing, one more example of the growing rift between field botanists and "experts" in academic institutions. "they held Gray in high esteem and generally agreed with his scientific principles, [but] the Brandegees [2] eventually claimed a superior ability to classify and appropriately name the plants they had collected ..." (Carter 2011).
Specimen V211615, U. British Columbia Herbarium. Washington, 1996. Faster drying makes better specimens. Note the different name on the label.

In school, budding botanists are taught to use standardized plant names made of Latin(ized) words—known as scientific names. Whereas common names vary from region to region, a plant has only one scientific name ... or so we're assured. But that's only true if taxonomists keep their mitts off it.

Scientific names are intended to reflect evolutionary relationships. For example, species in a given genus are thought to be closely related, evolved from a common ancestor. But sometimes it's hard to decide in which genus a species belongs, and as our understanding evolves, name changes may be needed [3]. Tweedy's pussypaws has been especially difficult in this regard.

Click on image for a "clearer" view.
Asa Gray (far left above) devoted his last decade to his life goal—the Synoptical Flora of North America, a compendium of all known species ordered by evolutionary relationships (Gray was a strong proponent of Darwinism). Several volumes were published before his death in 1888, but volume 1 part 1, which included Tweedy's pussypaws, wouldn't appear until 1895-97 (published in fascicles).

By that time, the pussypaws had been renamed twice! In 1893, Thomas Jefferson Howell, a well-respected self-taught botanist in the Pacific Northwest, moved it and several thick-rooted relatives to a new genus, Oreobroma—"a natural genus, named in allusion to the edible fleshy roots." He made the name change himself, being long frustrated with decisions by experts far away. "... the books and papers [of the experts] relating to these plants present many incongruities, according to the views of field botanists who are better acquainted with the real characteristics of the plants."

But Oreobroma tweedyi didn't last long. The next name change appeared just a few years later in Gray's Synoptical Flora, by then under the leadership of protégé Benjamin Lincoln Robinson. Robinson saw no need for a new genus, instead assigning Tweedy's pussypaws to Lewisia, where it rested for almost a century.

In the mid 1990s, Rafaël Govaerts at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, moved the pussypaws from Lewisia to Lewisiopsis, another new genus. This was one of many name changes he published in the World Checklist of Seed Plants, without explanation! This drew loud criticism, understandably (see Schmid 1996).

Govaerts's decision was not accepted. In Flora of North America (FNA, 2003)—considered the definitive treatment for North American plants—Tweedy's pussypaws became Cistanthe tweedyi [4], based on work by Mark Hershkovitz. However, the FNA authors finished with a warning: based on DNA analyses, "inclusion of [Tweedy's pussypaws] appears to be somewhat equivocal and it might best be treated as a distinct genus."
Tweedy's pussypaws is popular with gardeners, and has received the Royal Horticultural Society’s Award of Garden Merit. From Curtis's Botanical Magazine, 1899 (more here).

This story ends (for now) in Santiago, Chile, where Hershkovitz, who had studied Cistanthe and its relatives for years, was dismissed from the University for lack of funding. Living on the streets with support from friends, strangers, McDonalds employees, and the Reshet Foundation, he "abandoned mathematical interventions and statistical analyses" and considered alternative evolutionary models. Tweedy's pussypaws is likely a hybrid, explaining its similarity to both Lewisia and Cistanthe. Hershkovitz called it Lewisiopsis tweedyi.

Speciation by hybridization is not some wild idea from a crazed street person. In fact, it's now (finally) widely accepted that "The origin of species is more complex than Darwin envisaged ..." For more, see How hybrids have upturned evolutionary theory in The Economist.
Tweedy's pussypaws by any name would be just as lovely! Photo by Richard Droker.


[1] In the mid to late 19th century, natural history was at its heyday in North America. Exploratory expeditions often included a botanist.

[2] Wife Katherine Brandegee also was a botanist. The couple made many important and long-lasting botanical contributions, especially in California and Baja California (see Carter's excellent article).

[3] It has been proposed that plants be given names independent of evolutionary relationships. Then they wouldn't have to be changed as our understanding changes. I have just a vague memory of this, from systematics classes 40 years ago. If you're familiar with such proposals, please leave a Comment.

[4] Currently, three names are commonly used: Lewisia tweedyi; Lewisiopsis tweedyi, e.g., in Wikipedia and among gardeners; and Cistanthe tweedyi, which seems to be the most popular one among taxonomists, at least for now.

Acknowledgements and Sources (in addition to links in post)

Once again, a huge "thanks" to Biodiversity Heritage Library for providing quick and easy access to older botanical literature. I couldn't have done this without you! Tropicos Name Search was essential for tracing the tortuous path of Tweedy's pussypaws—both its names and the characters involved. 

Carter, Nancy Carol (2011). "The Brandegees: Leading Botanists in San Diego." Journal of San Diego History. 14 (4): 191–216. PDF

Goode, R.U. 1883 (1990). Ed. C.W. Tazewell. The Goode Diary: A personal journal of the Northern Transcontinental Survey, 1883. Virginia Beach: WS Dawson Co., 1990.

Govaerts, Rafaël. 1999. (ca. 1996 originally). World Checklist of Seed Plants 3(1): 21. (Lewisiopsis tweedyi)

Gray, A. 1887. Contributions to American botany. Proc. Amer. Acad. Arts 22:270-314. (Calandrinia tweedyi)

Hershkovitz, M.A. 1990. Nomenclatural changes in Portulacaceae. Phytologia 68:267-270. (Cistanthe tweedyi)

Hershkovitz, M.A. 2019. Systematics, evolution, and phylogeography of Montiaceae (Portulacaceae). Phytoneuron 2019-27:1–77. Don't miss the Acknowledgements, p. 65 (Lewisiopsis tweedyi)

Howell, T.J. 1893. Rearrangement of American Portulacaceae. Erythea 1(2): 32. (Oreobroma tweedyi)

Lesica, P., and Kruckeberg, A. 2017. Frank Tweedy (1854-1937); in Potter, R., and Lesica, P., eds. Montana's Pioneer Botanists. Montana Native Plant Society.

Robinson, B.L. 1895-97. Lewisia; in Gray, A. Synoptical flora of North America, v. 1 pt. 1. (Lewisia tweedyi)

Schmid, R.C. 1996. Govaerts, Rafael. "World checklist of seed plants" [book review]. Taxon 45:579-580.

Thursday, November 12, 2020

November News, from leaves to windows

Not surprisingly, the chokecherry tree in LaBonte Park that I've been following this year is mostly bare, only a few dead leaves were hanging on. Just as well, it was much too windy for leaf photography. But it was a good day for black and white.

The photo above shows the major branch damaged by heavy snow in early June after the tree had leaved out. It seemed to do just fine through the summer, with healthy leaves, flowers and fruit. Will it survive winter?

Next I spent time composing with lenticels. Once home, I asked Google if they truly are lenticels. Indeed, they are. Next I asked if it's true that trees "breathe" through their lenticels. Again, affirmative, at least some of the time (more when young?). Air can pass through lenticels because the tissue is spongy, with more space between cells.

Not only was it windy (23 mph with gusts to 36), it was cold, 34º F. Maybe that's why the park was empty of people. Or maybe due to Wyoming's huge spike in covid cases. No longer can folks simply cowboy-up; we really do need to follow safety guidelines.

Even worse, our county—Albany—is second highest in the state in reported cases over the last week. Only Weston County has more. Weston has a prison; we have the state's only university. As of yesterday, students are sent home as soon as they test negative, to continue classes online. 

I wasn't totally alone in the park. American crows foraged in the dried grass. Mr. and Mrs. Mallard sailed among reflected trees on Stink Lake, which never produced much of a stink this year. Maybe the City found a solution.

Yet in spite of the cold, wind and pandemic, I'm happy. As of last Saturday, we have a new president-elect, and I have new well-sealed windows in my sunroom—major upgrades in both cases!
Test-driving the new windows.

This is my contribution to the monthly virtual gathering of tree-followers kindly hosted by The Squirrel Basket. More news here.  New members are always welcome; join us for a good time!

Thursday, October 15, 2020

Our Long Love Affair with the US Mail

Library of Congress (LOC)
Communication is among our greatest desires. Being hyper-social animals, we demand more information, more news whether good or bad, more messages of affection, assurance, sympathy and love, and we want them to travel ever father, faster, and more conveniently. This didn't arrive with the digital age. We've always been that way.

Your Mail was Delivered by Carrier Today!
(and fresh off the east-bound train)
Hollis Marriott
Laramie Boomerang, September 13, 2020

Laramie, Wyoming was born in the spring of 1868, when Union Pacific Railroad crews arrived with their entourage of gamblers, hustlers, saloon keepers, and ladies of the night. But it wasn't long before signs of civilization began to appear. Just two years later, a literary society and library were established, and Louisa Swain made political history when she voted on September 6. In 1874, the Grand Opening of the Laramie Opera House was a resounding success. No doubt Laramie would soon be a booming metropolis!

But twenty years later, mail service—key to community health—remained primitive. Residents and businesses were forced to go to the post office just to find out if they even had mail. All agreed Laramie deserved better. Information and news were of great import then, just like today. Letters were the era's text messages and tweets.

Connecting the Nation
In 1775, our de facto national government—the Second Continental Congress—was focused on winning the Revolutionary War. Toward that end, a system for secure delivery of letters and intelligence was created under the leadership of Pennsylvania delegate Benjamin Franklin, who was Postmaster for the Crown until he was fired for colonial sympathies. After the Declaration of Independence in July 1776, the system and Franklin became the new nation's postal service and postmaster.
In 1847, Ben Franklin would appear on one of the nation's first postage stamps (trial design here). For 5¢, a half-ounce letter could travel up to 300 miles. National Postal Museum (NPM)
At the end of the War, demand for postal service did not slow one bit. Instead, it increased at an ever-accelerating pace. The nation was expanding by leaps and bounds—into the Midwest, up and down the Mississippi River, west to the Rocky Mountains, and then to the Pacific. Between 1790 and 1860, the population grew from 3.9 million to 31.4 million, an eightfold increase. During that same time, the number of post offices increased 380-fold—from 75 to 28,498!

Why this great disparity? Because in battles over spending that accompanied the nation's growth, advocates for improved communication generally won. When territories, states and communities petitioned for mail service, they usually got it, regardless of cost. Connecting the nation had become the Post Office Department's top priority.

We Want Speed, & Convenience Too!
One factor in the postal service's skyrocketing popularity was innovative use of technology, especially "Mail by Rail". U.S. railroads were designated postal routes in 1838, but it was the rapid expansion of rail lines after 1860, coupled with efficient use, that gave wings to the mail. Railway Post Offices, introduced in the 1860s, greatly accelerated delivery. In specially-designed cars on high speed passenger trains, postal staff sorted mail as they criss-crossed the country.
Postmaster positions outgoing mail for pickup. The mailbag would be snatched by a catcher arm (steel hook and crane) as the train rolled by, avoiding the need to slow down. NPM
Greater convenience was another goal. Before 1863, "delivery" meant from post office to post office (a few cities offered home delivery for one or two cents more). Then in July of that year, free home delivery was introduced in large cities.

Not surprisingly, it was hugely popular and in great demand. Many communities petitioned for free postal delivery—but only if their population was at least 10,000, and annual postal receipts greater than $10,000. Additional requirements included sidewalks and crosswalks, streets with names and lights, and a numbering system for buildings.
The wonderful convenience of home delivery. NPM

Will Laramie be Among Those Selected?
Free postal delivery arrived in Wyoming Territory in 1887, but only in Cheyenne. On August 6, the Cheyenne Daily Leader, arch-rival of the Laramie Boomerang, was beside itself with pride, proclaiming: "Cheyenne is beginning to put on all the frills of a full-blown metropolis." The Boomerang took this in stride. "At the present rate of growth that marks Laramie, this city will be entitled to free delivery inside of two years."

Three years later, in 1890, Laramie still was without delivery service, but there was hope. In October, N.E. Corthell reported to the Board of Trade (chamber of commerce) that Congress had allocated $10,000 to test free delivery in towns with populations between 5000 and 7000. The Board and the Boomerang both were confident that Laramie would be selected. "Cheyenne already has free delivery and Laramie is the next town of importance in the state, and each of the new states will at least be given one test town."

November 7 brought more good news: "Very Encouraging Outlook for a Trial of the System." W.D. Thomas, Secretary of the Board of Trade, happened to be an old friend of John Wanamaker, the nation's Postmaster General. When Thomas contacted him about delivery service in Laramie, Wanamaker expressed interest, requesting more information—such as whether one carrier would suffice.

Unfortunately, Corthell's report was not entirely correct. To be eligible, a town had to have 300 to 5000 residents. Late in November, the Board of Trade received official notification that Laramie was too big. However, because postal receipts were close to $10,000, it should qualify under the regular law.

Try, Try Again
In early 1891, systematic numbering of houses and businesses had begun. "Laramie is expected to have the free postal delivery system established during the coming summer" announced the Boomerang. Annual postal revenue currently was $9849.81. Surely it would reach the required $10,000 "if Postmaster [Richard] Butler receives his supply of stamps in time. He is almost out."

In June there was another delay, due to other unmet requirements. Mail deposit boxes needed to be installed across the city, and the post office still lacked work space for carriers. Postmaster Butler should "commence a great big rustle at once," advised the Boomerang.

The article ended with an interesting question. "There are many applicants for the three carrier positions, and the number is increasing every day. Among the number are some ladies. How will the ladies wear uniforms?"

Yet Another Obstacle
Early in 1892, disturbing letters appeared in the Boomerang, from Wyoming's Congressman C.D. Clark and Senator F.E. Warren. Both noted that Laramie's postal revenue was insufficient for free delivery, though not by much ($150.19). But even if it were to increase, the city likely would be rejected. Twenty communities with much larger populations and revenue were on the waiting list.

Yet Senator Warren ended on an optimistic note. Postmaster Wanamaker had assured him that the small deficit in receipts could be overlooked. And after Warren pointed out he was asking on behalf of just one community in the state, he was given Wanamaker's "honest assurance that Laramie's claim should be considered among the very first when proper means have been secured."

Another obstacle arose five months later. New regulations prohibited funding of additional delivery service in Congressional Districts where at least one city already was so served. In 1892, as now, Wyoming had a single district, and it had a city with free delivery—Cheyenne.

Yet Warren remained hopeful; it seemed impossible to dampen his optimism. "... today at the department, I was assured that ... we shall have early and friendly attention. I feel quite sure tonight of final success and think we will be attended to very soon."

He was correct. In late September, the Board of Trade received a telegram: "Order signed today establishing free delivery at Laramie to commence December 1st, with three carriers. Congratulations. F.E. Warren."
Senator Francis E. Warren would use power and pork-barrel politics to secure millions of dollars for Wyoming. He finally left office in 1929, when he died (age 85). LOC

Limited Funding, Limited Service
Initially, only the main part of Laramie had free postal delivery—from the railroad tracks east to 8th St., and from Clark St. south to Park Ave. In response to complaints, Postmaster Butler explained that districts were designed by the Postal Inspector in Cheyenne. If the program was successful (it was), funding and coverage likely would expand (they did).

In Laramie, interest in and enthusiasm for the postal service and everything it provided was tremendous—evidenced by the lengthy Boomerang article the day free delivery was launched. District boundaries were described in detail, and locations of mail drop boxes listed. The carriers' schedule occupied five paragraphs.
Laramie postal districts with carrier names, as of Dec. 1, 1892. Blue dots mark deposit boxes, post office in pink (added to 1894 map).
Mail would be delivered Monday through Saturday, each carrier making three rounds per day. This may seem odd given the sizable portion of town excluded from service, but multiple daily deliveries were common nationwide. The goal was to get a letter to the customer's door as soon as possible (like Walmart's Delivery Express).

Starting at 7:15 a.m., carriers made deliveries in the business district via a special route, and collected mail for the west-bound train, which departed at 9:35 a.m.. After mail brought to Laramie by this train was "overhauled" (sorted), carriers started their second round, at 11 a.m., this time covering their assigned districts. The third and final round commenced at 4 p.m., after mail from the east-bound train and local mail had been sorted and was available for delivery. Each man again covered his entire district.

During this final round, carriers also gathered mail from 18 conveniently-located drop boxes—no longer would it be necessary to go to the post office to mail a letter! A letter could be sent at no charge if the recipient had a box at the Laramie Post Office. Otherwise, the sender attached a 2¢ stamp.
In the 1890s, 2¢ was the cost of 1st-class domestic postage, no matter the distance. George Washington has appeared on more U.S. postage stamps than any other person. NPM

Feel that Metropolitan Air?
On December 6, 1893, Laramie's carriers and Postmaster Butler gathered at Wood's restaurant for oysters, quail, lobster salad, Zinfandel a la mode biscuits, and much more—to celebrate a year of successful free postal delivery. For a full year, they had sorted and delivered several hundred pounds of mail daily, bringing excitement and disappointment, joy and sorrow, good news and bad to a large portion of the population. "The service has given remarkable satisfaction" reported the Boomerang, as well as providing Laramie with "that additional metropolitan air." It was sure to continue!

This is my most recent contribution to the Laramie Boomerang's History series. For more information about the birth and evolution of the US Postal Service, see the excellent United States Postal Service: An American History (2020, PDF available here).

Sunday, October 11, 2020

Trees Turning, Trees Burning

With Laramie's trees now changing color, the debate is on. Some claim that chlorophyll, the compound that captures solar energy and also makes leaves green, is breaking down, thereby revealing other pigments—yellow and orange carotenoids. And if conditions are right, trees will manufacture additional pigments—red and purple anthocyanins—for purposes not understood. Perhaps it's an aesthetic choice.

In these dreary demoralizing times, I cling to the tiny-artists hypothesis. Autumn leaves are painted by darting leaf fairies so small that we can't see them, no matter how hard we try. But we can easily appreciate their masterpieces. Toward that end, I headed off to LaBonte Park to find out what the leaf fairies had done to my chokecherry tree.

This particular tree is my tree-following subject this year, the idea being to visit and report on it each month (I've missed a few). I was curious about the leaves because it's a purple-leaf chokecherry. What color do purple leaves turn in autumn? 
LaBonte Park has a nice show of trees currently—yellow and orange deciduous trees, and dark green conifers.
The purple-leaf chokecherries haven't changed much. The leaves are more on the red side of purple, but nothing dramatic.

Have you noticed the "subdued" quality of these photos? I resisted the temptation to photo-enhance. This is what our world looks like much of the time. Actually, this was a relatively good day.
LaBonte Park yesterday afternoon, "unhealthy for sensitive groups".
St. Matthew's Cathedral in Laramie Oct. 5, "very unhealthy". Laramie Boomerang.

On September 17, in the Mullen Creek drainage on the west side of the Medicine Bow Mountains, a spark still being investigated set the forest ablaze. These mountains are thick with standing dead trees, "victims" of pine bark beetles. In many areas, half to three-quarters of the trees are dead. With all this dry fuel and very strong winds, the Mullen Fire raced eastward, consuming 175,00 acres (71,000 hectares) as of this morning.
Mullen Fire, just one of many in the western US (InciWeb, Oct. 11).
Thirty miles south of the Mullen Fire, the Cameron Peak Fire is also burning beetle-killed trees and generating lots of smoke (InciWeb, October 11)).
Fortunately, thirty miles of prairie lie between Laramie and the mountains—grassland where fire can be quickly extinguished. But the smoke will be with us for awhile. Wildfires typically create a mosaic of burned and unburned areas within the overall perimeter. Unburned patches will continue to ignite, producing large amounts of smoke until enough snow falls and stays.
Smoke and airtanker, Mullen Fire. From every news outlet in the region; original source unknown.

Next spring, it will be fascinating to investigate the mosaic of live and dead trees created by the fire ... perhaps a subject for  2021 tree following :)

For more news, visit our monthly gathering of tree-followers kindly hosted by The Squirrelbasket. Want to join in the fun? More here.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Sea Shells in the Church Walls (& other mysteries of the Casper Formation)


For geologist and bishop Nicholaus Steno, science was a way to understand God's work (source).

On the morning of August 13,1894, mason Michael Bergin picked up a stone to add to the new Episcopalian church in Laramie, Wyoming. But upon inspecting it, he spotted a fossil very different from the others he had found.

"CURIOUS FOSSIL. Found in the Sandstone Rock of the Cathedral" announced a headline in the Laramie Boomerang (newspaper) later that day. "It is a shell exactly like a miniature buffalo head ... the solid part corresponding to the head is about an inch in diameter, the horns about an inch long and three inches from tip to tip." Bergin set the stone aside for Professor J.D. Conley, curator of the University of Wyoming Museum.

Stonemasons at St. Matthew’s Cathedral regularly found fossils, saving the better ones for Professor Conley. He had already identified the clam-like allorisma, snail-like bellerophon, and pinna, which resembled a razor shell oyster. "The professor is gathering facts to put into a bulletin on the subject," explained the Boomerang.

But the article ignored the remarkable mystery these creatures implied. They were marine—all inhabitants of oceans. Yet the stones were quarried just east of Laramie. How did sea shells end up so far from a sea, and 7000+ feet above sea level?

A Persistent Question

Four centuries earlier, in the Apennine Mountains of Italy, scientist Nicholaus Steno asked the same question, but in Latin: “Quomodo res marinae in locis a mari remotis derelictae fuere?” How was marine life abandoned in places far from the sea?

No answer was immediately forthcoming. In the 1600s, geology did not exist, and knowledge was strongly shaped by church teachings, which did not address things like sea shells high in the mountains. Steno had to rely on field work and his own clever mind to solve the puzzle.

After examining many specimens, all of which looked like sea shells down to the finest level of detail, he concluded they were sea shells, now entombed in rock. They must have risen from sea level, thousands of vertical feet! This meant the surface of the Earth was dynamic, changing dramatically since the Creation. Steno's findings contradicted strict biblical interpretation—that God had created an immutable Earth—but the Church did not object. Science was increasingly seen as a way to understand and appreciate God's work.

Steno's interpretation of an angular unconformity, from his Prodromus, 1671.


How appropriate then that St. Matthew’s Cathedral contributed to our understanding of local geology. Specifically, the fossils revealed when the rock formed. "These specimens all serve to identify and locate more definitely [in time] the geological formation of the sandrock lying east of the city ... This is the carboniferous [Period] in the upper Paleozoic [Era]."

But the Boomerang mentioned none of the immense numbers geologists love—millions, hundreds of millions, billions of years. That's because in 1894 there was no way to determine absolute ages of rocks. We now know the Cathedral sandstone formed sometime between 325 and 300 million years ago, when much of southeast Wyoming was submerged.

For millions of years sand, shells, and limey muck accumulated on the floor of that Paleozoic sea. Then they lay buried for several hundred million years more, gradually changed to sandstone and limestone.

The Rocks Rise

While Nicolaus Steno was convinced that rocks could rise thousands of feet, he never came up with an explanation for how. In fact, how mountains rise proved to be a most persistent question. It wasn't until the mid 20th century that it was answered satisfactorily: The Earth's surface consists of giant shifting plates that collide, sink, override, fuse, and more. The effects can be dramatic.

Between 70 and 30 million years ago, the Pacific plate was diving under the North American plate, compressing and crumpling the interior of the continent, creating among other things the Rocky Mountains. With uplift of the Laramie Range, ancient marine limestones and sandstones, carrying fossil shells, rose thousands of vertical feet. Erosion later exposed these rocks, setting the stage for Laramie's promising building stone industry.

Quarrying stone just east of Laramie; date unknown.
American Heritage Center, University of Wyoming (AHC).

Inexhaustible Supply of Rock

On May 11, 1886, the Boomerang proudly announced "Vast Deposits of Sandstone Only Three Miles from Laramie." This was great news. Planning was underway for the University of Wyoming's first building, to be constructed entirely of sandstone. However the nearest quarries were in Rawlins and Ft. Collins; transportation probably would be too costly.

Ever the civic promoter, the Boomerang declared Laramie's stone to be "equal to any in the world. ... It is useless to send to Colorado at great expense for rock which is not one particle superior, either in strength, beauty, evenness ..." The local quarries were inspected, the stone tested. In August, a contract was signed. The University Building (today's Old Main) rose quickly, completed in time for the first classes in September 1887.

Old Main under construction, University of Wyoming, ca. Dec. 1868 (AHC).
Though the industry never became a booming business, Laramie's dimensional stone was used in local buildings into the 1950s. These included the Albany County Courthouse, Ivinson Mansion (Laramie Plains Museum), Ivinson Home for Ladies, many buildings on campus, and perhaps most spectacularly, St. Matthew's Cathedral.

"One of the Most Beautiful and Complete Churches in the entire Western Country"

In 1892, on September 21 (St. Matthew's Day), the Boomerang gave front-page coverage to the laying of the cornerstone of St. Matthew's Cathedral. In the recently completed basement, hundreds listened to distinguished clergymen speak eloquently and at length. Then three officers from the Grand Lodge of the Free Masons—equipped with square, level, and plumb—set the stone.

St. Matthew’s Cathedral as originally planned; the final was somewhat smaller. Laramie Boomerang, Sep 22, 1892.

It was said that the Cathedral would be completed within a year. But the walls would rise in spurts, as funding waxed and waned. Bishop Ethelbert Talbot traveled far afield in his fund-raising. Big donors included friends in the east, such as Cornelius Vanderbilt ($1500) and J.P. Morgan ($1000), and the Mother Church in England.

By the end of 1896, the grand structure was ready to serve its congregation and was dedicated before a crowd of almost a thousand on December 17. Twenty years later, Edward Ivinson made a large donation in memory of his wife, Jane, to finish the towers.

St. Matthew's Cathedral before towers were completed (in 1916); photo ca. 1910-1915 (AHC).
St. Matt's in 1935 (AHC).

According to common knowledge, the cathedral stones came from the university quarry, nine miles northeast of Laramie. But an 1894 Boomerang article about a proposed railroad building suggests otherwise. Planners noted that cathedral stone was less expensive than university stone, as the cathedral quarry was closer to town. But which of today's abandoned quarries it was remains a mystery.

Adding to the puzzle is confusion regarding rock type. Cathedral descriptions variously refer to limestone, silicious limestone, limey sandstone, or sandstone. The Casper Formation, where Laramie's quarries were developed, contains all of these.

Reading the Casper Formation

To a geologist, a formation is a group of rocks that is both recognizable and extensive enough to map. The Casper Formation extends from Casper Mountain south along both sides of the Laramie Range into Colorado. It's a mix of limestone, sandstone and everything in between. Herein lie important geological clues!

Geologists say they study the past by "reading the rocks." What have they learned by reading the Casper Formation? We already know from its fossilized sea shells that there was an ocean here 300 million years ago. But there's more.

Let's start with limestone, which forms from limey muck deposited in deep water far from shore, out of reach of sediments from land. The northern part of the Casper Formation is dominated by limestone, indicating the area around the towns of Casper and Douglas was submerged in deep water during much of the Paleozoic Era (tour map below shows features mentioned here).

But in the Laramie area, the Casper is mainly sandstone with occasional beds of limestone. Sand, being coarse, doesn't travel far, so sandstone is a sign of shallower water closer to shore. The limestone beds are a bit of a mystery, with geologists still debating the details. Most likely they formed when the sea advanced, perhaps with rising sea level. So Laramie probably was in deep water occasionally, the shoreline farther away.

The Casper Formation also contains clues about the shoreline itself. Not far south of Laramie are outcrops of cross-bedded sandstone (criss-crossed layers). These are remains of sand dunes deposited by wind along the ancient shore.

Just beyond the dune field was the Ancestral Front Range. We know of these ghostly mountains because the Casper sandstone contains abundant feldspar. Feldspar is a soft mineral that breaks down quickly. It must have been carried to the sea by fast-flowing streams from mountains close by.

Tour Paleozoic Laramie

Yellow very roughly outlines the Casper Formation (above and below ground).

With an able imagination, you can tour the Laramie area 300 million years ago. Start in a dune field at the foot of the Ancestral Front Range. Venture into shallow waters of the Paleozoic sea and then to its depths. At the final stop, careful beach combing should turn up some of its ancient inhabitants.

1. Sand Creek National Natural Landmark straddles the state line along Sand Creek Rd. (CR 34; gravel) about 19 mi south of Laramie. Amidst monuments and hoodoos of cross-bedded sandstone, imagine yourself in a field of dunes at the base of a rugged mountain range, looking north across the Paleozoic sea. The Landmark is mostly private with two small parcels of WY state land; an ownership map is needed to explore beyond the road.
"Grotto at Sand Creek"—S.H. Knight photo, 1899 (AHC).

2. Visit Roger Canyon to see the Paleozoic seafloor up close. From Reynolds St. in Laramie, go north on 9th about 0.7 mi to where it becomes Roger Canyon Rd. ZERO YOUR TRIP ODOMETER HERE. At 6.9 mi ("No Winter Maintenance" sign) stop in the tiny turnout right (private land; stay on shoulder). Across the road is the reclaimed university quarry. Here the Casper is limey sandstone (well-cemented). Head up the canyon. At 8.0 mi, you will enter public land and limestone—having traveled back in time to when the water was deeper and the seafloor covered in limey muck. Public land continues for about a mile.
Chris and Ed of Laramie brave the smokey air to ascend lithified seafloor muck in Roger Canyon.

3.  St. Matthew's Cathedral stands on the northeast corner of Ivinson and 3rd. Wander the grounds to admire Laramie's fine dimensional stone in the walls of the highest Cathedral in the US (steeple reaches 7276 feet above sea level). Search for sea shells in the exterior stone, but please don't touch (binoculars are handy).

About that Miniature Buffalo ... any ideas?
Professor Conley reportedly left Laramie in a huff in 1896, having been passed over for department head. The fate of the Cathedral specimens is unknown, and no bulletin was published. Michael Bergin’s curious fossil remains among the mysteries of the Casper Formation ... unless you recognize it. If so, please leave a Comment below!

This is my latest contribution (with extra photos) to the Laramie History series in the Laramie Boomerang (published August 30, 2020).