Geologic Walking Tour of Turners Falls, Mass.

DSCN0997Please feel free to download this Geologic Walking Tour of Turners Falls MA, written by town resident Steve Winters and funded and produced by RiverCulture. Steve is a geologist who teaches at Holyoke Community College. He has taken part in several Jurassic Roadshows and serves on the board of the Friends of Great Falls Discovery Center. His enthusiasm for geology is infectious: he really wants people to understand geology and love it as much as he does, and he’ll go out of his way to help anyone who wants to learn. Here he is at The Trustees of Reservations’s Dinosaur Footprints Site, Holyoke, MA, pointing out a footprint (not visible in photo) to his students on a field trip in 2012.

Turners Falls is nestled in a kink in the Connecticut River just a few miles south of Vermont and New Hampshire. Its geology pokes up everywhere and can be seen in an easy stroll. You don’t need hiking boots–even sandals are fine. Exposures of sandstone strata line the streets, surmounted by brick rowhouses and storefront shops originally built for factory worker housing, beginning around 1870. The dark shales of four successive lakebeds can be clearly discerned in an outcrop running between Third and Fourth streets. Peskeomskut Park (a.k.a. Pesky Park) has picnic tables, benches, a playground, and a lovely sandstone exposure all along one edge, where you can walk right up and look around (if you find anything, please leave it in place for others to enjoy). The tour takes you across the street to the town library (a fine little specimen of Andrew Carnegie’s legacy), up the hill, and down to the river.

Strata all over town contain dinosaur footprints, insect trails, raindrop impressions, and other ichnofossils. No doubt, many an old basement has a trace fossil buried somewhere within its rock slab construction. A bike path follows the river and canal for several miles, starting by First Street. Across the river is Barton Cove, which has the remnant of an old dinosaur track quarry. (It also has a seasonally open campground and canoe/kayak rental.) When the town first industrialized, the John Russell Cutlery moved over from nearby Greenfield, and paper mills, cotton mills, and other industries sprouted up along the canal and riverbank. In the 1930s, as in so many New England towns, the Depression sapped the town’s strength, and factories and businesses closed or moved away. The Cutlery is long gone and this is no longer a factory town, but Turners is now making a comeback as a funky little center for arts and culture, under the impetus and care of RiverCulture. New restaurants and shops have come in, the bike path attracts tourists and locals, birdwatchers bring their binoculars, there are several big annual events (Block Party, Pumpkinfest, Renaissance Fair, Soapbox Derby), and the Great Falls Discovery Center has excellent nature exhibits and programs. Yet with all this going on, Turners Falls retains a slightly gritty charm. It is not self-consciously quaint, but a modern town with old roots, historical and Mesozoic.

James Deane, who played a pivotal role in the 1835 discovery of the fossil impressions, was married to the youngest sister of the founder/owner of the John Russell Cutlery. Deane spent time in this town and across the river at Barton Cove. It’s rather nice to imagine him with his colleagues Dexter Marsh and Roswell Field clambering along, eyes to the ground, chatting among themselves and hoping to spot something. By around 1870, when Turners Falls began to industrialize, Deane and Marsh had been dead for well over a decade, as had Edward Hitchcock, but Roswell Field remained to carry on quarrying and trading in fossil footprints until his death in 1882.


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