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Story ID:2232
Written by:Frederick William Wickert (bio, link, contact, other stories)
Story type:Period Piece
Location:Gilboa New York USA
Person:Tree Fossils
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By Fred Wickert

The first documented discovery of fossil tree stumps in North America was made by the pastor of the reformed church in Gilboa, New York. Samuel Lockwood (1819-1894) was pastor there from 1852 to 1854. In addition to being a minister, he was an amateur naturalist.

Searching for fossils in the bed of the Schoharie Creek near the village of Gilboa, Lockwood found a sandstone cast of a portion of a Devonian age tree stump and trunk.

Lockwood’s specimen was described and illustrated by McGill University paleontologist John W. Dawson in 1871. The name Caulopteris lockwoodi was given to the specimen by Dawson, to honor Lockwood.

The town of Gilboa was founded in 1848. Following a flash flood in 1870, workmen blasting a site for a stone quarry to repair washed out roadbeds, found more tree stump fossils.

In 1926, New York City began construction of a dam at Gilboa for a water supply reservoir. During rock quarry operations, they found more of the stump fossils.

The Devonian period was a period of dramatic change in the history of life on earth. Much of the evidence for what is known concerning life on earth during this period in North America has come from discoveries made in Gilboa over the past 150 years. The abundance and superb quality of Gilboa area fossils has made it one of the most important Devonian fossil locations in the world.

In the Devonian period, 360 to 400 million years ago, the region was a shallow sea filling up with clay and silt. The sandstones now have been lifted high above sea level, forming the Catskill Mountains, but layers formed in the shallow sea are still visible. Streams have eroded deep valleys into the high plateau. Continental and valley glaciers have repeatedly covered the Catskills from 10,000 to 2 million years ago.

The middle Devonian began about 385 million years ago as a shallow sea that covered all of New York State west of the Hudson River. Gilboa is believed to have been a swampy area at the edge of the sea. It was tropical in climate.

For over one hundred years, scientists had been confounded in their attempts to discover the exact nature of these trees, but trunks above the stump level had never been found, nor had any of the foliage of the trees been found. Theories abounded from the stump fossils, but no one could say for sure, what they looked like.

Two women employed by the New York State Museum in Albany, had an intense interest. They spent many long hours of their time in search of trunks and tops of the trees. One of them was Sharon Mannolini and the other was Linda VanAller Hernick. Sharon was killed in a car accident, and her brother, Frank Mannolini, took her place with the museum, and joined the search with Linda VanAller Hernick.

They have been searching in a stone quarry owned by the state Environmental Conservation Department. In summer of 2004 they hit pay dirt. Two specimens of entire trees, about 26 feet in height were found. They had fallen over on their sides and the trees were complete. Finally, after more than 100 years, there were answers and the trees could be entirely identified.

The trees, named Wattezia, are a fern or palm type tree. Probably reaching a full height of around 30 feet, they had fern type branches rather than leaves. They were a class of big vascular plants, reproducing by spores rather than seeds, part of the original greening of the earth. Possible modern day descendants are ferns and horsetails. They are believed to have predated dinosaurs by 150 million years. These are the oldest known trees on earth.

The Wattieza is 15 million years older than Archaeopteris, identified in 1999 as the worlds oldest tree. Unlike Wattieza, the Archaeopteris had flat round leaves.

Now, a giant fossilized rain forest has been found in an Illinois coal mine. An ancient earthquake preserved the site. Scientists were exploring the mine when the rain forest, covering an area of four square miles was discovered. Displayed are well-preserved images of fallen trees and their leaves, and a mixture of extinct plants. The fossils have been determined to be 300 million years old.

In Iowa, an enormous flood in 1993, below an emergency spillway at Coralville Lake, ripped out a road and campground, and scoured away 15 feet of glacial-age sediments, exposing a large bed of 375 million year old Devonian bedrock. The broad surfaces of limestone are the ancient sea floor. In that sea floor are hundreds of clearly seen fossils of sea dwelling animals. Clam like shells, sea lilies and animals related to starfish.

Primitive fish lived there and fossils of their bones and teeth have been found. The most interesting perhaps, is part of a large, bony head plate of an armored fish. This creature, a predatory giant of its time reached a length of ten feet.

The area has been named, “Devonian Fossil Gorge.”

The Devonian Sea is known to have covered a vast area. It reached all the way from the banks of the Hudson River to Chile and beyond. Fragments of the Wattezia tree have been found not only in South America, but in Australia as well.

How vastly different this world was then. As far as we know, there was only sea life and that was primitive by today’s standards. The continents were different and the climate was different than we see now. There were no animals and there were no people.

Some will tell us that we evolved from those clam like shells and the armor plated fish. Some will say that there is no God or supreme intelligence and that it all came about through evolution. Some will say there was no creation.

I live in Gilboa, and I look around the area. I look at these earliest forms of life preserved in the fossils. I look in the mirror, and I find no resemblance at all. For me, I will put my faith in the story of the book of Genesis. I believe only a supreme being with intelligence could have done all of this. It could not have just happened by accident. The work is not yet finished, as the earth continues to change and reshape itself.

Linda VanAller Hernick and Frank Mannolini plan to continue their search in the area during the summers for some time to come. They believe there are other types of extinct trees and plants to be found. I have heard that Frank plans to take a new chisel with him this summer. The old one it seems is just worn out.

First photo displays the Schoharie Creek bed near where Rev. Sam Lockwood found the first of the tree fossils.

Second and third photo's showing tree stump fossils. The first is inverted showing the root end, the second showing the trunk part of the stump.

Fourth photo, a group of tree fossils discovered in the Gilboa area.

Fifth photo is a picture of a sketch of the newly discovered fossil of the top branches of the Wattezia tree. Sketch by Frank Mannolini of the New York State Museum, co-discoverer of the fossil.