RICE COUNTY, KANSAS
As to its geology there are few who know the circumstances under which their home county was formed. Those who have delved into the fascinating, age-old problems are for the most part those engaged in work demanding it. The rest of us have ignored them or been content to guess.
It might be possible to return to a period of inestimable age-to the time, say, when the oil deposit was formed. But better than that for practical discussion, let us take as a starting place the creation of our salt beds. "A few million years" is mystifying enough - why engage in further retrospection?
There was a time, geologists tell us, when a vast portion of the North American continent was one huge sea, no doubt a northern extension of the Gulf of Mexico which may be recognized today as a remnant of the older and greater body of water. The human mind even with the benefit of modern science is unable to accurately compute its age or relate the particulars of its origin. It may have been, so far as we can be concerned, simply there forever.
But a change eventually occurred. There was an enormous upheaval somewhere south of us which segregated a northern part of the ocean and left it here in the form of a gigantic, saltwater lake.
Evaporation set in, making inroads upon the water's bulk and the salt contained therein dropped to the ocean's floor where, in century after century, it piled upon itself in the formation of the salt beds to create an important modern industry for Rice county and adjacent localities.
There were times, it is evident, when evaporation was halted, perhaps as the result of climatic change. Instead of salt, dirt carried into the water by streams and winds tumbled down, and is recognizable now in the shale bands or streaks to be found at intervals throughout the salt strata. There seems to have been no regularity in this. It occurred from time to time during the upbuilding of the 285 feet of rock salt, much as our seasons are now subject to change.
The salt leaves off and we are inclined to guess that the ocean had entirely dried up. But we are assured that such was not the case. It had shifted.
To prove this theory is the fact that on top of the salt there is nothing but shale. If the ocean had remained until the last drop had evaporated there should be other salts-the potassium combinations which, being more buoyant, should have fallen last. But they escaped, still in solution, and robbed us of an even more important natural resource, potash. Another upheaval must have taken place to shunt the remaining water away from Rice county.
Immediately above the salt is a formation largely shale. This is mud which has been subjected to pressure for thousands of years. It is present upward for several hundred feet, bespeaking of an age of incomprehensible length.
Then comes evidence of another sea which escaped us even more completely than its predecessor.
Another shifting of the earth's surface somewhere beyond, evidently diverted in this direction a second body of ocean water. With it came its sand and marine life. The sand, as the water shifted southward away from it, was piled by the winds along the northern shore line to form the Dakota sandstone, which is now a surface feature of northern Rice county and Ellsworth county immediately above.
The marine life was left to become the Gommanchean shales which were covered over in time by the upbuilding and subsequent breaking down of the Dakota formation.
In eastern Rice county, in the vicinity of Little River and more particularly south of that city, the Commanchean shale is to be seen at the surface, the result of later erosion, perhaps by some prehistoric stream which occupied the approximate course of the Little Arkansas. It exposes a limestone in which is embedded a conglomerate mass of marine animals, for the most part of the crustacean, mollusk or shell-fish classes.
Ages later the county experienced another change. The Arkansas river, plunging down from the Rocky mountains, swirling and raging in its descent, tore through the very heart of what is now Rice county. It eroded the surface soils and left, in their stead, the deposit from which has been formed the sand hills, an important topographical characteristic of the southeastern and southwestern portions of the county. At the time of its coming it flowed far to the north of its present channel, accounting for the presence of sand deposits reaching almost to the south limits of Lyons. The sand pits on the Blevins and Tobias farms are mute proof that the early bed of the Arkansas was once not far from them.
The Arkansas, like other streams of the state, is now and has always been shifting southward. As it has crept along it has left its burden behind it, and exposed to the prevailing south winds which have swept it northward. It has accumulated on high ridges, safe from the possibility of washing back into the channel.
Throughout the south-central portion of the county, north of Sterling where the land is flat and low, the sand hills have had no opportunity to form. they have been built almost exclusively to the east and west.
In the course of time, thousands of years hence, provided of course that man or unexpected force of nature does not interfere, these dunes may become sandstone exactly as that of the Dakota period has been formed. Iron contained in the sand itself, with water as a carrying agent, forms a cement which tends to bind the granules together. The crusty condition of the sand in some portions of the sand hills proves that the process is already in effect there.
Students of geology have observed that some of the sand on the older or northern extremities of the Arkansas deposit is of a different character than the bulk, which includes that of the present river bed. The individual granule is irregular in form instead of almost globular as that now brought down from the mountains. It conveys to the geologist an important thought: The water which brought it was running faster than in later ages; the particles had less time in which to become rounded through friction. The Rocky mountain range was once much higher and the water's descent accordingly more swift.
Time and erosion have dealt harshly with the Rockies. Eventually, who knows, they may be flattened out entirely.
When it is remembered that the two Rice county sand deposits were left here thousands of years apart, one would not expect conditions of the two ages to have been similar. But the winds must have been of similar velocity, for the granules are of similar size.
The following interesting account of the prehistoric fauna of Rice county was prepared especially for use in this book by M. V. Walker of Kansas State Teachers College at Hays, the assignment having been turned over to him by George F. Sternberg, paleontologist of the same school, probably because of Mr. Walker's familiarity with, and interest in, this county. That he has handled his subject in a non-technical and entertaining manner will be readily seen. Mr. Walker was born near Alden. His maternal grandfather was Harvey Vincent and his paternal great grandfather Reason Walker.
Many years ago Kansas sloped toward the west or southwest instead of toward the southeast as it does today. The layers of rock laid down then made almost a saucer of this state and Colorado. Western Kansas was about the bottom of the saucer. But at approximately this time the Rocky mountains 'arose to the occasion' and started streams flowing toward the east and south. These currents literally tore down the hills and carried them toward the great Mississippi valley.
In the ages that followed, many streams were born and continued to be vigorous rivers, until they gradually leveled up the country and united to the extent that we now have only a comparatively few all-year, flowing streams. We have many signs of these extinct rivers. The signs are the numerous sand and gravel pits, representing the accumulations of great masses of sand and gravel washed and rolled many and many a mile, the bulk of it being carried from the eastern slope of the Rocky mountains. No wonder, then, that the rocks are worn smooth and round.
At the time these ancient rivers were competing for control, there was probably more moisture than at present and also much more plant life. No doubt there were a good many swamps with borders of luxuriant vegetation. Many animals that are no longer known in Kansas then wandered from swamp to swamp, 'grazing on the uplands, browsing on the succulent vegetation near the swamp or crowding into it to obtain water. Many came down to the banks of the streams to drink. Some perhaps mired in the marshes. Probably more were caught in the quicksand and held fast while others, still, might have died near the beds of these streams. Here their bones were buried under the deposit of sand and gravel as it accumulated year after year, until finally the bones were buried far below the surface. They soon, geologically speaking, became petrified or fossil bones.
Now we are in the midst of a great building age in which the materials used are largely steel and concrete. The concrete is made up of parts of cement and sand, over half or more being the latter. Our great road-building programs have called for miles of gravelled and sanded roads. All these have demanded tons and tons of the materials and as a result numerous sand and gravel pits have been opened up and the owners have sold thousands of dollars worth of the Rocky mountains, now broken up and transported and deposited here in Rice county.
As load after load is taken from the pits, workmen occasionally find bones and teeth of large animals.
Usually they are scattered and more often broken or badly shattered because, we must remember, they may have been washed and rolled many a rocky mile. These large bones and teeth always arouse curiosity, and questions are sure to follow. Two of the most common questions are: How many years ago did these animals live? And: What kind of animals were they and what did they look like?
The first question can be answered only in a general way by saying that geologists tell us they have all been dead at least 500,000 years. That was, of course, many centuries before the pyramids were started and ages before America was discovered.
In answering the second question, let us look over a list taken from the Kansas State Geological Survey. These animals have all been found in such deposits as those just mentioned, scattered throughout the state, and many have been identified by only a few bones or a few teeth. They are as follows:
1. Mastadon Americanus, a large mastodon.
After glancing over this modern-named list of animals let us turn back our time about a half million years and go on an imaginary sightseeing trip just to watch these 'old timers' at their everyday duties.
Let us move quickly and quietly over to that little clump of trees on yonder hill. From our vantage point we can see a broad valley before us. There is a wide stream winding its way toward the southeast. Every few miles along the stream are small creeks which feed the river great volumes of water and debris during heavy rains. The streams are all bordered with trees and thick underbrush and the rolling uplands are covered with prairie grasses. The grasses are green and luxuriant and taking advantage of the abundance of moisture.
As we gaze across the valley, marveling at the grandeur, our attention is attracted to a small herd of animals galloping toward us. They emerge from a grove of scattered trees near the low flat by one of the little creeks. They rush out upon the rolling plains and are lost to view behind a low mound, but suddenly appear immediately in front of us in one of the ravines. Now we can see that they are small horses. Their hoofs are not very well developed but such racing as we have just seen will soon strengthen them. The herd comes to a sudden stop. The animals raise their heads to the wind and snort and blow. An old individual comes straggling in with a decided limp. He must have been far behind. As he draws nearer we can see blood trickling from his hip and one hind leg. There must have been something after the herd down there in the grove of trees. Let us move quietly down that way and watch for further signs of animal life.
As we advance from our cover the horses scent us and go dashing over the plains again. We move quietly along and enter the edge of the grove. We have been following a dim trail and we can see it leading to a small pond of water in the bed of the creek. As we move up closer we hear barking and growling sounding like dogs. They seem to be over near the water hole. Now we can see through the thicket and the water hole comes into good view. Over near the edge is an old horse vainly trying to free himself from the quicksands that are holding him. The other horses may have crowded him into the sand in their rush from the watering place. He makes a weak attempt to rise as two large wolves spring toward him. They venture closer and flounder through the tricky waters near enough to snap and bite him severely. The blood trickles out over the water and we can see that a feast will soon be theirs.
We move slowly away for we know that soon even his bones will be dragged out over the sand and fought for by rival wolf bands, only to be left in the end to be buried in the bed of the stream when the next heavy rain brings sand and gravel from the neighboring slopes.
Again we move slowly along the margins of the underbrush. We hear great trumpetings downstream and an occasional crashing of branches. We see a rocky ledge covered with small boulders not far away, and thinking it will give us a good view of the stream we hasten toward it. We climb it quickly and crawl to the far edge. Our attention is at first attracted to a group of long, hairy, bristly beasts rooting among the damp leaves and roots.
They are only Peccaries or Hedgehogs after their
meal of roots. Our attention is again attracted by the trumpeting of great beasts and suddenly there appears a
herd of huge elephants. They move slowly towards us with a regular tread as if the advance guard of a great circus.
They seem to be heading for a long, narrow water hole on the far side of the stream. As they near the water hole
the leader suddenly halts, sways his massive head from side to side and then makes a wide detour of the place.
He continues with his herd until they come to another watering place farther up the creek where they hesitate long
enough to drink their fill of the cool, refreshing water. We wonder why they have passed up the first spot, so
we move over toward it. As we near it we see a heap of bones partly covered by the sand. They are the massive bones
of a great elephant. Only one lower jaw is present and it holds two huge teeth, still in place. The bones are scattered,
showing that the wolves had feasted upon this giant beast when he was made prisoner in the never releasing quicksands,
probably months before.
Our time is nearly up so we must hasten back to the hill from which we started. Besides, a storm seems to be approaching from the northwest. As we reach the rolling uplands we are met by a great herd of roving Bison, which have perhaps scented the approaching storm and are hurrying to some sheltered ravine or break near the river. They are majestic beasts, these mighty Bison or buffaloes, as we may choose to call them. Their shaggy manes and bodies and long, curved horns fill us with a sense of fear, and we hurry toward the safety of the trees on the hill. As we scramble up the slope we see that a violent rainstorm has burst forth back up in the hills and its flood waters will soon be dashing down the small creeks. As we glance back we see that most of the Bison have gathered behind a sheltering ledge while a few have ventured into the creek bed merely to investigate.
As we wait for the storm to pass, we hear the roar of water coming down the valley and soon the little creek is a raging torrent. It is bringing with it tons of sand and gravel and other debris, which rapidly covers the remains of the little horse left by the wolves. As it rushes on it catches a large Bison in the currents and he goes struggling on down the stream to be finally dropped in some side eddy or whirlpool and covered with sand and gravel. At last the water reaches the swamp and it is soon inundated. Then the bones of the great elephant are strewn about by the current and finally buried.
We at last reach the grove overlooking the valley and are back again to our starting place after only a glimpse of the animals of the day.
Now let us turn our time up about 500,000 years and continue our trip. We are at a great sand and gravel pit where workmen are digging and hauling away load after load, to be used in a modern structure. Suddenly a workman's shovel strikes something solid. He digs out around it and brushes the loose sand away from it. It is a fragment of a jaw with two great teeth in it. They are hard as rock and he remarks that it looks like petrified bone. He wonders about it and we tell him the long, long story.
Some learned men are standing by and we quote a verse to them from a book of their acquaintance. It is from Job xii:8, and says in part: Speak to the earth and it shall teach thee.