The 7 Ancient Wonders of the Capital District

By Don Rittner


Most people don't have a clue about the earth they walk on or drive over. Folks are always in a hurry, zipping along, trying to get to work, or wherever it is they think they need to be in 3.5 seconds. I suppose as long as the land doesn't move suddenly folks simply don't give it a second thought.

However, for those of you who like to be aware of your surroundings and have a desire to understand the complexities of the world, we have a varied and interesting geological history in the Capital District. It may even startle you to realize that some of the geographic features you think are gneiss to look at, but take for granite everyday, actually were formed thousands of miles from here under totally different environmental conditions.

So, the next time you're at a loss to find a place to take the in-laws, or friends from out of town, try impressing them with a little field trip to the following -- the seven ancient wonders of the Capital District.


Cohoes Falls, (City of Cohoes, Albany County)

A European tourist site as early as 1642, it was well known for thousands of years by Native Americans who came down the Mohawk River by boat. Canoeists would disembark up from the falls and carry their boats down around the falls to trade with the Europeans.

Cohoes is said to be Mohawk for "Overturned Canoe" -- aptly named. The falls is 1,140 feet wide and 86 feet high. It was a major tourist attraction until Niagara Falls became a tourist Mecca starting in the 1820's. Its water power supplied several of the 19th century textile mills nearby.

0ver the last 12,000 years, the Cohoes Falls has migrated 5 km upstream from where the Mohawk meets the Hudson. Best time to view the Falls is early Spring.



Helderberg Escarpment. (Albany County)

Running from Albany to Auburn, the Helderberg Mountains form the northern boundary of the Allegheny Plateau. These Devonian era rocks of 410 million years ago were laid down in an expanding sea that covered New York State. Known as the Helderberg Group it consists of layers of limestone that were heavily mined during the 19th century and continues today.

Emma Treadwell Thacher, the widow of John Thacher, Mayor of Albany, donated the eastern end of the Helderbergs, called Indian Ladder or Thacher Park to the State in 1913. It provides one of the most beautiful views of Albany County. You can see the various limestone formations and even see some fossils here along the Indian Ladder trail.

On top of the escarpment on a road leading to Thacher Park is a large coral reef formed when the area was south of the equator 350 millions of years ago!

Petrified Sea Gardens and Lester Park (Greenfield Town, Saratoga County)

The Petrified Sea Gardens is stepping back to a time about 500 million years ago. This park is about an acre of exposed Cryptozoon Stromatolite fossils - colonial blue green algae that form large concentric formations that have been called "Stone Cabbage".  This huge slab of fossils was once part of an ocean-reef, which existed when our area was at the edge of a warm tropical sea near the equator. Stromatolites are some of the earliest known forms of life on the planet.

The land is owned by a quarry company and is in constant danger of being destroyed. A non-profit 'Friends of Petrified Sea Gardens' manages the park and charges a small fee.

Just up the road is Lester Park where you can also see Stromatolites on the side of the road. This is where James Hall, Father of American Geology and NYS Geologist, first described the genus Cryptozoon. Attorney Willard Lester donated Lester Park to the State Museum in 1914.

From downtown Saratoga Springs take 9N west. Take a left on Middle Grove Road. Then take a left on Lester Park Road (Also known as Petrified Gardens Road). Continue for a few hundred feet, on the right

The Pine Bush, (Albany & Schenectady Counties).

The Pine Bush or Pine Barrens is a large sand delta, originally 40 square miles, that was laid down by the ancient Mohawk River emptying into Lake Albany. Lake Albany was a large glacial Lake that spanned Lake George to New York City, filling the Hudson Valley. It is the home of the endangered Karner Blue Butterfly and hundreds of other rare plants and animals. There are only about 20 Pine Barrens in the world. The Pine Bush ranks in the top five in size, but has been reduced to a few thousands acres by human development.

Saratoga Geyser (Saratoga State Park, Saratoga County)

A geyser is a hot spring that periodically erupts throwing water into the air. Worldwide, there are only a total of seven hundred geysers.

In Saratoga State Park there are two hot springs, the Orenda Spring and Geyser Spring. Both can be seen walking along the creek in the park off Geyser Road. Artesian in formation, the Geyser blows its top regularly and the resulting calcite or carbonate deposits form a huge mound around it. The Orenda Spring has a large flow of carbonate deposit that runs into the creek. The geology of the springs are probably part of the extensive underground springs which run through the Saratoga Fault, some 65 miles between Whitehall and Albany. Scientists are not sure how this geyser works. This is the only spouting geyser east of the Mississippi River.

Stark's Knob (Schuylerville, Saratoga County)

About 2 miles north of Schuylerville at the north end of the Saratoga Battlefield, is Stark's Knob, also known as the Schuylerville Volcano.

Once a dome shaped volcanic knoll, General John Stark had a redoubt (fortification) there and foiled General Burgoyne's attempt to withdraw his troops north during the American Revolution.

Originally thought of as a volcanic dyke, plug or neck when found, it is now known as a pillow basalt (lava) formation that was transported probably by the Taconic thrust, (mountain building event) 4 million years ago. The rock all around the basalt is limestone, so it was most likely a deep warm sea when the lava oozed from the interior of the earth.

The knob was mined for road gravel for a while. It is now owned by the New York State Museum and may be adopted by a local private school for safekeeping and cleanup.

Underground Caverns (Albany and Schoharie Counties.)

Underneath the Capital District region lies miles of subterranean caves filled with stalagmites (down) and stalactites (up), flowstone, underground streams, and unique formations, all carved out of limestone from flowing underground waters. It took millions of years to carve out these caves. Moreover, it takes 100 years to create one cubic centimeter of a stalagmite.

The most famous cave in our area is Howe Caverns ( in Howe Caverns, NY, just west of Albany. Howe Caverns is 156 feet below the surface and was discovered in the 1770's. It's believed to have started forming about 6 million years ago. A tour of the cave tops off with a quarter mile boat ride on a subterranean lake, which is 2 to 8 feet deep.

In the immediate Capital District there are many caves you can visit and are well known to the spelunker (cave explorer): Gage, Bensons, McFails, Knox, Schoharie, Caboose, and Clarksville caves.

John Cook was New York's first caver. He was commissioned in the summer of 1906 by the New York State Science Service to explore and report on the caves of Schoharie and Albany counties.

I use to explore the South Bethlehem cave, which is now closed (quarry blasts made it dangerous). You should never go caving alone - only with experienced spelunkers.

Visit The Northeast Diggers Web site at to learn more about cave exploring and gaining access.

Next week: The Seven Ancient Man Made Wonders of the Capital District.

©1999 Don Rittner