Wednesday, August 9, 2017


Continued from previous post.
General geologic map, provided by the South Dakota Geological Survey with my annotations, showing the location of Chamberlain on the Missouri River (C) at the boundary of Cretaceous rocks and glacial drift.  Spearfish is located at the BH symbol at the north end of the Black Hills.
So, it was off to South Dakota and a little down time in one of my favorite locations in the Black Hills—Spearfish.  My Blog is full of postings about the Hills and the list is too long for notice here.  As stated many times, I have a very soft spot in my heart for South Dakota since my two-year stay at the University of South Dakota (1965-1967).  Wow, it has been 50 years since graduation on that hot August Day.

A domed Spearfish Peak, elevation 5796 feet, rising from Northern Black Hills just south of Spearfish, South Dakota.
Spearfish is often touted as the City of Peaks, especially the surrounding Crow Peak, Spearfish Peak and Lookout Mountain.  The first two are Tertiary intrusions (described in posts September 5, 2013 and August 14, 2014) while the latter is a much lesser peak composed of late Paleozoic? and early Mesozoic rocks.  The city of Spearfish sits in a valley of eroded fine grained red rocks, a few limestones, and prominent white gypsum layers termed the Spearfish Formation (type locality).  The exact age of the Formation is unknown but evidently spans the Paleozoic (Permian Period)—Mesozoic (Triassic Period) boundary.  This time was a period of the great Paleozoic continental seas withdrawing from North America (or what we would later call North America) and rocks of the Spearfish indicate deposition from nearshore marine grading into terrestrial deposition along shorelines to restricted circulation and drying marine waters and a variety of others.  This conglomeration of rocks are often called “red beds” by geologists and are found in many similar time zones across the central and western United States.
Redbeds of Permian age, with a cap of massive gypsum, cropping out in northwest Oklahoma.  These beds are similar in age and composition with the Spearfish Formation.
In areas of relief these red beds are easily eroded and in a locality like the Black Hills (domal uplift) a valley is created and often is termed the “race track” or red valley as it essentially encircles the Hills.  I-90 follows the race track from Rapid City north through Spearfish and then northwest around the “top” of the Hills to around Sundance, Wyoming.  It is a prominent geomorphic feature. 
Diagram of the Black Hills uplift showing the Red Valley (Race Track) of easily erodible red shales. This is a well known diagram by A. N. Strahler that has appeared in numerous publications and articles.
At Spearfish, Lookout Mountain (4452 feet) seems to be part of the east escarpment of the race track and is about 800 feet higher than the city. The slope of the Peak is composed of redbeds of the Spearfish Formation and includes a prominent white resistant bed of gypsum.  On top of the Spearfish, in ascending order, are the Gypsum Springs Formation (Middle Jurassic), the Sundance Formation (mostly Middle Jurassic), the Morrison Formation (Upper Jurassic), and the Lakota Formation (Upper Cretaceous) (Lisenbee and others, 2013). The shale beds in these upper layers are sometimes difficult to identify due to erosion and it is tough for me to distinguish between massive gypsum beds of the Spearfish Formation and the overlying Gypsum Springs Formation.  The yellow sandstone below the summit is probably the Hulett Member of the Sundance Formation.
Lookout Peak exposing redbeds and a prominent gypsum bed of the Spearfish Formation.
In terms of geologic interest there is not much really exciting about Lookout Mountain; however, the Peak is the original home of the Thoen Stone.  What stone you shout?  Well, the Thoen Stone with its inscriptions on a slab of sandstone.  The original owners of the Stone were the Thoen brothers who evidently quarried sandstone on the Peak for use in the building industry.  According to numerous stories the slab was found several feet below the surface of the surface in 1887.  The boys noted the Stone had tantalizing inscriptions, written in cursive no less, on both sides.  The front side noted that in 1833 seven prospectors came to the Black Hills:
Came to these hills in 1833 seven of us
Ezra Kind
G.W. Wood
T. Brown
R. Kent
Wm. King
Indian Crow
All dead but me, Ezra Kind. Killed by Ind.
ians beyond the high hill. Got our gold June 1834
The rear inscription: Got all the gold we could carry. Our ponies all got by the Indians. I have lost my gun and nothing to eat and Indians hunting me

So, there you have it, a major gold discovery several decades before the Custer expedition to the Hills in 1874 (see Post October 7, 2016).  Or, was there even a discovery?  Or, was the entire story a hoax?  Was someone pranking the good people of South Dakota?  I don’t have the slightest idea but carving a message in cursive seems a little farfetched when your keister is being hunted by Native Americans and your gun has been misplaced!  But believers there were/are.  I suppose the most ardent believer was one Frank Thomson who spent something like 14 years of his life following clues and then publishing a book detailing the evidence for the cache (Thompson, 1966).

According to Thomson, he traveled to the eastern U.S. and found several descendants of the miners who stated their long-lost relatives never returned home after departing in 1833 from Independence, Missouri, bound for Santa Fe, New Mexico.  Now, Spearfish, South Dakota, is not even remotely near the Santa Fe Trail so how did the boys end up so far north?   One possibility is that a member of the “dead” group, Indian Crow, was a Native American from the northern plains whom the original members picked up along the way and perhaps he regaled them with stories about gold.  Maybe Indian Crow wanted to go home and decided there was safety in numbers and what better way to entice the white men for northern travel than stories about gold? Who knows?  What is known for certain is that Louis Thoen was a local stone mason, and no one on record has found any of the lost cache of gold. 
The Thoen Stone displayed at the Adams Museum.
So, what was the fate of the Thoen Stone?  Thoen’s children loaned the Stone to the Adams Memorial Hall (nearby Deadwood) in the 1930’s and the Adams Museum acquired it permanently in 1965.  It is a popular display in the Black Hills’ oldest history museum.

Now, that Thoen story is more exciting than me trying to explain the origin of redbeds in the Spearfish Formation.  And, I am off to the area around Chamberlain, South Dakota, where I-90 crosses the Missouri River.
Before the construction of I-90 (and the paved Highway 16).  I would not like to drive on a wet and muddy section of Pierre Shale.
I spent the summer of 1966 working for the South Dakota Geological Survey stationed in Chamberlain.  Our group, led by Survey geologist Richard Bruce, was examining and running drilling tests on the Cretaceous Pierre Shale in preparation for building I-90 and the massive bridge over the Missouri River.  The Pierre was notorious for sliding and slumping and the road engineers were quite concerned.  I still get a little nostalgic when driving by our former study sites and remembering our days spent dropping some sort of a magic wand down the pipe and measuring rate of shale movement.  The Survey was also kind enough to furnish a vehicle for my weekend jaunts to west river and thesis work.

An outcrop of the Pierre Shale.
But, the stay was not all work and we usually ate the evening meal out at Chamberlain’s most “famous” eating establishment—Al’s Oasis. The place is still in business but their long-advertised $.05 coffee seems long gone.  However, the best thing about Al’s, and my stay in Chamberlain, was an introduction to a young lady.  Well, that was a half century ago and we have grown together all these years! 
Many travelers visiting Chamberlain remember the steel bridge crossing the channel of the Missouri River.  With rising waters created by Lake Francis Case the road, SD 16, was extended west (right) via a constructed causeway (1953).  Pillars of an even earlier bridge are in the foreground (1925) and parts of that bridge were used in construction of the 1953 bridge.  Today, most traffic crosses the River on the I-90 bridge just down stream.  In addition, a railroad bridge is even further downstream (1918).
I believe this is a photo of the four span 1925 bridge (each span ~335 feet). The 1953 bridge was built to the left of the 1925 bridge and incorporated spans of the old bridge plus spans of the Wheeler Bridge (shown below).  The new bridge also added twin spans due to increased vehicular traffic (five dual spans).  The 1925 bridge was very narrow but was OK for early vehicles.  The 1953 bridge was then replaced by the I-90 bridge constructed in 1974; however, the 1953 bridge is still in use as I-90 Business. During removal of the 1925 bridge for use in the 1953 bridge a Bailey Pony Truss Pontoon Bridge, a temporary structure, was in use.  What confuses me is---what is the bridge to the right of the 1925 bridge?   Any help??
This is a photo from the South Dakota State Historical Society showing the Wheeler Bridge, 70 miles down stream (~Fairfax, SD) from Chamberlain, crossing the Missouri River.  This bridge was floated upstream to Chamberlain for use in the 1953 bridge.`

Before construction of Lake Francis Case, the Missouri River was a sinuous, mostly shallow, sandbar-laden stream.  These photos from old postcards, dates unknown, shows a docked steamboat (top), well really tied up, at Chamberlain in perhaps the spring runoff season. The lower photo seems to be in late summer as numerous sandbars may be observed. 
Most travelers remember Chamberlain for the bridge crossing the River with the picturesque exposures of cream-colored limestone underlying a black shale.  Actually, the Missouri River was not nearly as wide as today before construction of dams associated with the Pick-Sloan Missouri Basin Project.  This plan, first approved in 1944 and modified in succeeding years, called for construction of six large dams on the Missouri and several smaller dams on tributaries; all were to be managed by the Corps of Engineers.  Some of the earlier proposals seem rather grandiose as some engineers wanted to build a series of lakes with locks and dams in order for barge traffic to extend into the upper reaches of the River.  That proposal was “shot down” and today the Corps only maintains a nine foot (300 feet wide) navigable channel from St. Louis to Sioux City, Iowa.  The latter city is located about 70 miles downstream from the lowest River dam at Yankton, South Dakota. But, as the early steamboat captains knew, the Missouri River is tough to navigate, especially in low water.  The Kansas City public terminal port (Woodsweather) reopened in 2016 after closing in 2007.  A shipping barge finally pulled into Sioux City in 2014 after an 11-year hiatus.  It was not only the tricky navigation that ground the barge traffic to a stop but lawsuits by environmentalists and upstream governments (keep more water in the lakes for recreation), an economic recession, low commodity prices, etc.  Despite the lack of commercial traffic, the Corps labored on, keeping the 9-foot channel clear.  One can only imagine the cost associated with maintenance of the St. Louis to Sioux City 9-foot channel.
Dams and reservoirs associated with the Pick-Sloan Plan located on the Missouri River. The massive Fort Peck Dam in Montana was constructed previous to the implementation of Pick Sloan.  Map Public Domain from Karte:NordNordWest, Lizenz.
The six major dams on the Missouri River are: 1: Gavins Point near Yankton; 2) Fort Randall near Pickstown, South Dakota; 3) Big Bend Dam at Fort Thompson; 4) Oahe Dam at Pierre; 5) Garrison Dam near Garrison, North Dakota; and 6) Canyon Ferry Dam near Helena, Montana.  Each of these dams produce electricity.  At Chamberlain travelers cross the Missouri River that has been modified into Lake Francis Case, backed up by the downstream Fort Randall Dam (River Mile 880). 
Fort Randall Dam backing up waters of lake Francis Case.  Public Domain photo from Corps of Engineers.

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Evidently the first bridge at Chamberlain was a pontoon bridge that was replaced in 1905 by a railroad pile and barge bridge which was converted to steel in 1918.  It was then replaced by the 1925 bridge, shown below with a paddlewheel ferry in 1936.

The railroad (Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul) came to town in the late 1800s but could not construct a bridge to push west until about 1905--this was a pontoon bridge with pilings holding up the approach.  In 1923 a swing bridge was constructed (would have loved to see that) and then was replaced by the 1953 bridge (needed to span the waters of Lake Francis Case).
Photo courtesy of

Lewis and Clark camped on the shoreline across the River from future Chamberlain on September 17, 1804, very near an island that was heavy forested with “red cedar” (Juniper trees) and with abundant native plumbs (from the journal of Clark: Capt. Lewis went on an Island above our Camp, this Island is abt. one mile long, with a Great purpotion ceder timber near the middle of it).  Later this island became known as American Island and was deeded to the City of Chamberlain.  The City developed a “County Club” with golf course, a park with a swimming pool, a race track (type unknown), picnic grounds, camping spots, and athletic fields.  Many Chamberlain residents still resent the loss of American Island when the waters of Lake Francis Case covered the area in the early 1950s.

I had the opportunity to fish around Chamberlain for 30 years.  At times, the water was very high with a strong current.  But in a few drought years the water was so low that several foundations of American Island buildings were peeking just above water level.  Well, my momma didn’t raise no fools so I steered my boat away from the Island.  One afternoon I was sort of halfway snoozing in the warm sun and heard the roar of a larger outboard motor approaching at a high rate of speed---heading right for the shallows of American Island.  That sucker hit one of the foundations head on.  His boat skimmed over the rocks (probably with substantial damage) but the motor’s lower unit broke completely off the shaft.  Valuable, but expensive, lesson learned!

Fort Randall Dam received its name from Fort Randall, the longest serving U.S Army post on the Missouri River.  The Fort was located on the southern side of the dam, on the west side of the Missouri River and was constructed to replace Fort Pierre. After the Dakota War of 1862 (in Minnesota with the U.S. Army battling Dakota and other Natives) white settlers panicked in neighboring Dakota Territory as many of the Minnesota Dakota factions moved west and joined their related brethren, the Lakota, Santee, Yankton, Yanktonai and others.  Then in rode General H.H. Sibley with his Army expedition (~2000) and pushed the Lakota/Dakota west across the Missouri River in the battles of Dead Buffalo Lake, Big Mound, and Stony Lake.  General Alfred Sully’s troops (~1200) were late getting up river (to be in place for a pincer expedition) but still chased the various tribes in battles at Whitestone Hill (1863), Badlands (1864) and Killdeer Mountain (1864). General Sully's base of operations against the Native Americans in 1863 – 1865 was at Fort Randall. During 1870 - 1872 the post was rebuilt at the present site, one-quarter mile from the original location and just downstream. Only the 1875 Post Chapel was spared from the river damming project, the ruins of which were stabilized in 1953 from original plans. Some of the above from (

American Island at Chamberlain had an even earlier non-Native history than Fort Randall.  North American Forts (reference above) noted a St. Louis Missouri Fur Co. post, Fort Recovery, was built on American (Cedar) Island in 1822 and lasted until 1830.  However, other references place the Fort on the shore across the water from the Island (see  In addition, Wishart (1979) placed the location of Fort Recovery near the mouth of the White River, a few miles downstream from Chamberlain.  Then there was White River Post, ~1830, (AKA Brule Post) at the mouth of the White River.  There may have been earlier establishments on American Island (Fort aux C├Ędras and Fort Antoine Brasseaux); however, there is some confusion with these names and other camps/forts further upstream.  At any rate, American Island is “underwater” and perhaps we will never know the answer. 
What we do know is that Fort Lower Brule was built in 1870 near Chamberlain and a month or so later was moved north about 15 miles opposite the mouth of Crow Creek and renamed Fort Hale (1878).  The site is now under water, I think, but would have been on the Crow Creek Reservation now occupied mostly by descendants of Mdewakanton heritage chased out of Minnesota after 1862, and some Yankton and Lower Yanktonai Sioux.  The Officers' Quarters at Fort Hale was sold shortly after closing and ultimately became the Taft Hotel in Chamberlain, a building I distinctly remember. It was moved in 1989 to the vicinity of Exit 263 of I-90, to be used as a museum? but burned in 1990. 
Taft Hotel ca. 1940s.  Original photo by O. Barger, a well known Chamberlain photographer.
Between Rapid City and Chamberlain, I-90 crosses a few nice outcrops of the Tertiary White River Group (really spectacular at the adjacent Badlands National Park) and then drops onto a weathered surface of the Cretaceous Pierre Shale.  Good outcrops do not appear until the traveler begins to approach Chamberlain and descends into the valley of the Missouri River.  One particular segment of the of the Pierre is commonly known as the manganese zone due to the presence of numerous manganese nodules.  In the mid-1940s the U.S. Bureau of Mines experimented with mining and production of the manganese—see Posting June 7, 2011.

Zone of manganese nodules in the Pierre Shale.
The Pierre is well exposed in the River valley and is a striking contrast to the underlying Niobrara Formation—a cream-colored limestone and chalky shale.  On the east side of the River (stay on “old 16” through town) the traveler can easily see evidence of slides and slumps in the Pierre, including condemned houses.
A small remnant of the Pierre Shale, along with some reworked shale, on the Niobrara Formation near Chamberlain.
One of the really interesting aspects of the River at Chamberlain is the tremendous number (thousands) of boulder-size rip rap quarried from the Precambrian Sioux Quartzite (see Posting January29, 2014) brought in (by train) to stabilize the shoreline.  Many of rip rap pieces have marine near-shore features such as ripple marks and cross bedding.
Sedimentary structures on rip rap boulder.  Non-directional ripple marks???
Rip rap boulder of quarried Sioux Quartzite.  Generally the quartzite is an orthoquartzite (as opposed to a cooked metaquartzite) that is composed of quartz sand-size grains tightly cemented by a siliceous cement.  Bedding planes are evident up close examination.  I presume the rip rap was quarried near Sioux Falls.
So, it has been an exciting trip thus far as old memories have surged to the front on my mind.  Now, it is off to the glacial county of eastern South Dakota and Iowa.
Lisenbee, A.L., J.A. Redden, and M.D. Fahrenbach, 2013, Geologic Map of the Spearfish Quadrangle, South Dakota: South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources 7.5 Minute Series Geologic Quadrangle Map 21.

Thomson, F.S., 1966, The Thoen Stone: a saga of the Black Hills: Detroit, Harlo Press.

Wishart, D. J.,1979, The fur trade of the American West: Lincoln, Nebraska, University of Nebraska Press.

William Clark:

Saturday, July 29, 2017


I have no trouble with my enemies, I can take care of them. It is my . . . friends that are giving me trouble.
Warren Harding

 I have been missing from my Blog for several weeks as a big travel loop through the heartland occupied much of my time.  I needed to clear my mind and physically rest my body in preparation for an upcoming surgery (completed).  Crap! Five surgeries in the last two years with the current event replacing the other hip.  This is from a guy who avoided most hospitals until a couple of years ago.  But, I suppose that one should be happy joint replacements are available.  And, I certainly buzz the ringers in the security lines at airports.
I now have two of these metal beauties, one in each hip.  The physician cut of the head of the femur, pounded in the metal spike, enlarged the socket in the pelvis and stuck in a plastic cup, screwed the ball onto the spike and WHAM O, all done in two hours.  I left the hospital the following day.  Diagram supplied by 
The travel loop, other than I-25 from Colorado Springs to Cheyenne, was restful while camping, and visiting friends/relatives proved peaceful.  As for rockhounding, mostly I simply observed the physiography and landscapes.  This posting will describe some interesting geological features usually not associated with my Blog.  For example, glowing rocks in the campground.

Location of the PBR in northeastern Wyoming.  Public Domain photo fro U.S. Geological Survey.
The wind was quite fierce, but our spirits high, as we left Colorado Springs heading north on I-25.  Traversing that road is always a challenge and the wind just complicated matters (I pull a fifth-wheel RV), so it was a slow trip.  I had reserved a camp site in Douglas, Wyoming, and after landing was looking at the crushed rock (gravel) that comprised the site.  You know that geologists always walk with their heads down looking for treasures.  To my surprise I spotted a colorful piece of microcrystalline quartz, probably chalcedony, encased in a limy matrix (maybe a calcareous claystone).  I stuck it under my loupe and it remined me of some of those Montana agates with inclusions.  I then started to notice other interesting specimens of chalcedony, brown to reddish-brown jasper, and even a chalcedony nodule with bands on the rim (a poor agate).  So, I collected few small pieces and threw them under my small UV light.  Much to my surprise many of the chunks produced a beautiful florescence, mostly yellows and greens.  Well, that was exciting so I took the UV light outdoors and noted that several (lots) of the gravel pieces glowed.  Of course, walking around with a black light often attracts curious strangers and this was no exception!  I guess the moral of the story is that not all nondescript rocks used for road gravel are leaverites.  On a “normal” day I probably would not have paid much attention to the gravel; however, boredom and wind will sometimes drive an old rockhound to do strange things!

The original find, a void in a calcareous claystone filled by translucent/transparent chalcedony.  The top photo uses daylight while the lower UV light.  Unfortunately my camera is not sophisticated enough to produce good photos.  The void in top photo is ~2.1 cm.

Gray to white druzy quartz.  Length of druze ~2.7 cm.
Microcrystalline quartz under UV light..  Width ~2.3 cm.
The Douglas area has produced, from late Paleozoic rocks, some stray Fairburn-type agates (see Posting 6 October 2013) but my small pieces look like translucent chalcedony nodules coming out of the local Tertiary rocks---White River to Arikaree groups.  The campground manager could not tell me where the crushed road aggregate was mine/quarried.  However, near Douglas is a Moss Agate Road and a Moss Agate School. I suppose more than anything my finds resemble well known Wyoming Sweetwater Agates.

The next day saw a journey across a really lonely road, WY 59 north to Gillette through the Powder River Basin (PRB).  It is imperative to start travel with a full tank of fuel and a large cup of coffee—not much out there except cattle and oil wells.  In fact, most of the road traffic is associated with the energy industry. 

The PRB (not to be confused with PBR from Milwaukee) is situated in northeastern Wyoming situated between the Black Hills on the east and the Big Horn Mountains of the west and is one of the more prolific energy resource/production areas in the United States.  Oil production has been strong since the late 1800s and from 2000-2013 the production in PRB averaged about 20 million barrels per year, even thru the massive downturn in 2008.  In 2014, production peaked at nearly 42 million barrels and the area was booming (such as the years before 2008) ---no motel rooms available, crowded places to eat, and tax revenue fueled new public buildings in towns like Gillette, Casper and Douglas while the private sector provided numerous new homes. The narrow highways were a nightmare to drive due to the constant traffic of the industry. Natural gas production was also high but the peak production was a few years earlier, ~577 billion cubic feet in 2008.  The boom time prior to 2008 generally was due to world emerging economies and their demands for fuel; however, a global recession in 2008 drastically dropped the price of crude by about 66%.  An economic recovery started the next year and crude eventually recovered to $100-$120 for a few years. The price of crude dropped again in 2014 as new supplies begin to hit the market.  The relationship to a reduced need by large emerging economies was in the equation as well as the United States ramping up production from “shale oil” using fracking techniques while Canada continued production from heavy oil sands.  Drilling in the PRB slowed again and today one can observed rigs “laid down” and other equipment stored in yards.  Commodity reports seem to indicate the producers are “bullish” on the future of the PRB but other reports note prospective operators leaving the area.  In late July 2017, 12 spudded and active rigs were listed in commodity reports and crude (West Texas International; WTI) hovered around $48 barrel.  That price has sort of moved between $40-$50 since late 2014.  

I first encountered this wild area of the PRB in summer 1968 when I worked for an oil company outfitted out of Casper.   A major play was developing in the “Muddy Formation” and my unnamed company came up with a dry hole.  The geologist in charge lost his job and a geologist and I were sent up to the rig for observations on “what went wrong.”   Man, that was scary and we looked at logs and drillings and talked to the driller and sort of decided that the company drilled in the wrong location and missed the sand.  But remember, in those days geologists had logs of past drilled wells and little else to guide them.  I don’t remember any seismic being available for our company but my memory may be fuzzy after 50 years.  The Muddy play was looking for stratigraphic traps in point bar sand deposits in a meandering stream.  Point bars accumulate on the inside of a stream meander and you were probably out of luck if your aim hit the outside of a meander.  The location of these deposits was not an easy job and I was very happy that fall upon returning to the less chaotic world of academe.
A meandering stream with sand point bar deposits forming on the inside of meanders.  Courtesy of U.S Geological Survey.
Petroleum and natural gas are produced from a wide variety of formations in the PRB, almost all of them Cretaceous in age with well depth averaging 8000-11,000+ feet.  Geologists seem to believe the PRB has millions of barrels of oil available for production when the “price is right.” What is that price?  I am way out of my comfort zone acting as an economist!  But here goes.  PRB crude generally sells for about $4 less that WTI (now $48).  So, a couple of active prognosticators have said the break-even price might be $40; however, $44 crude might be profitable but will not make a company rich. Other speculators believe the break-even point is closer to $70-80.  Glad it is not my call.

A more interesting aspect of the PRB, at least in my opinion, was something I studied in 7th grade history class---the Teapot Dome Scandal.  Readers of a certain age might remember this scandal, which until Watergate, was our county’s largest scandal, and one that forever sullied the reputation of President Warren Harding and his administration.
A 1924 cartoon depicting Washington officials racing down an oil-slicked road to the White House, trying to outpace the Teapot Dome Scandal. Photo courtesy of The Granger Collection, New York.
In the early part of the 1900s, especially the teens, the US started conversion from a coal economy to one dominated by petroleum---it was hard to run your autos and tanks on coal.  President William Howard Taft, you know the big guy with the huge mustache, in 1912 decided to name areas in California as Naval Oil Reserves 1 and 2 (to make certain the Navy had fuel in case of a conflict). President Woodrow Wilson followed in 1915 by designating Teapot Dome ( a local landmark) in the PRB as #3. Warren Harding succeeded Wilson and appointed Mr. Albert Fall (rumors were that Fall was Wilson’s poker buddy).  After being rebuffed in his efforts to open Alaska’s resources to private developers, and to transfer federal timber rights (the forest service) to Interior, Fall saw opportunity in the federal oil reserves.  Come 1922 Fall convinced the Secretary of the Navy, Edwin Denby, to transfer control of the Teapot Dome and California reserves to Interior.  Fall then leased the oil reserves to private companies, Mammoth Oil/Sinclair and Pan American.  The non-competitive lease bids (legal) were a real bargain for the oil companies and the plot thickens.  It seems Secretary Fall was suddenly showing signs of wealth;
Q: When you got to Mr. Sinclair's private car, what if anything, did Mr. Sinclair give you?
A: He gave me a package of bonds.
Q: A package of bonds.
A: Yes.
Q: What kind of bonds?
A: They were three and one half percent Liberty Bonds.
Q: Were they counted there in your presence, in his car?
A: No, sir.
Q: Did you open them?
A: No, sir.
Q: Where did you take them?
A: I took them to the Wardman Park Hotel.
Q: Who lived there?
A: Secretary Fall.
Q: To whom did you deliver them?
A: To him.
Trial Transcript, U.S. v. Fall, October 15, 1929.

Like today, someone stated “let’s form a congressional committee to investigate” and so they did (Committee of Public Lands and Surveys, Senate resolution 282, 67th Congress).  Poor ole Harding died in 1923 as the investigation was heating up and several of his cronies were being investigated for taking bribes and otherwise involving themselves in scandalous things.  Succeeding Harding, Calvin Coolidge appointed two special prosecutors and the public clamored for news.  After a lengthy investigation and some superb sleuthing, Fall lost his ranch and essentially his “life” and was sentenced to the spend time in the Big House. On the other hand, Harry Sinclair spent a few months in the District of Columbia Jail, was released and returned as president of Sinclair Oil and lived a long (d. 1956) and good a life as lots of money can bring.  The other alleged money gifter, Edward Doheny (a close friend of Falls), was acquitted of bribery charges.  As for the oil, the U.S. Courts, in 1927, invalidated the leases to Sinclair and Pan American and Teapot Dome was returned to the Navy and later managed by the Department of the Energy.

As usual, I have a couple of corollary points about the scandal.  Harry Sinclair decided that he did not want to answer some of the committee’s questions on the grounds that Congress had no jurisdiction in asking.  In 1929 the Supreme Court (Sinclair v. United States) ruled that the Senate had every right to investigate the effects of laws it had passed.  About the same time, the Court ruled in 1927 (McGrain v. Daughtery) that congress had the power to investigate the lives and activities of private citizens as it carried out its constitutional duty to legislate (Daughtery had refused to appear before a Senate Committee) (Cherny, unknown date).  So, when you watch the Congressional hearings populating the air today and wonder how Congress can compel a person to testify, just remember the Teapot Dome Scandal!

I like to read books and articles describing life in the late 19th century southwest.  Of course, tales about Billy the Kid and the Lincoln County War (New Mexico) seem everywhere.  One episode involved the Kid being chased around New Mexico by posses often commanded by his nemesis Pat Garrett.  The Kid was wanted for murder.  Finally, the now-captured Kid, and others, went to trial in Mesilla, New Mexico.  Convicted in April 1881, the Kid was sentenced to hang (some pundits believe the Judge said hang, hang, hang).  The Kid’s attorney for the trial was Albert Jennings Fountain.
Fountain was a leading Republican in New Mexico and was elected to the New Mexico Territorial Legislature in 1888.  Fountain’s opponent was a man named (wait for it) Albert B. Fall.  In 1896 Fountain was helping prosecute suspected cattle rustlers, including Oliver Lee.  Their attorney, Albert B. Fall, was a close friend of Lee and defended him at the trial.  So, it was Fountain vs. Lee and Fall for the position and power of top political boss.  On February 1, 1896, Fountain and his nine-year-old son were ambushed and killed near White Sands, New Mexico.  Suspicion for the murders centered on Oliver Lee and in the trial, he again was defended by Fall.  In fact, many citizens thought Fall played a substantial part in the murders; however, no one was convicted of the crimes. Later, through some political chicanery, Albert B. Fall became the first U.S. Senator from New Mexico and ultimately became Secretary of the Interior.  So now you know, that is the relationship between the Teapot Dome Scandal and Billy the Kid!

Near the north center part of the PRB is Gillette, the center of a massive coal mining district situated along I 90.  The coals of the eastern PRB are near surface veins that were deposited/formed in the very early Tertiary (Paleocene Epoch ~65--55Ma).  Specifically, the seams generally belong to the Tongue River Member of the Fort Union Formation (upper part of formation) and some veins reach 200 feet in thickness.  The Paleocene was hot, humid and wet in the PRB and coal precursor peat beds formed in low-lying swamps, higher level swamps, stream flood plains, abandoned stream channels and interchannel environments (Flores, 1986; Flores and others, 1985).  The massive open pit mines near Gillette are impressive and the Wyoming Geological Survey noted that in peak production the coal is mined at a rate of 12 tons per second, filling 50-70 coal trains per day.  However, in recent years coal has taken a hit due to many power plants switching to natural gas.  History is always repeating itself in the fossil fuel industry—boom to bust then to boom, etc. On March 31, 2016, Peabody Energy and Arch Coal terminated over 500 workers. Peabody, Arch and Alpha Coal have undergone bankruptcies and by 2017 perhaps 2500-3000 workers had been laid off.  Today, in a bust time, energy industries are developing ways to bring manufacturing jobs to the coal rather than shipping the coal to them.  They also are working on ways to capture coal bed methane gas.  The President has promised to loosen environmental regulations that many residents view as the major source of job loss.  However, one statistic stands out: ten years ago coal produced 50% of the nation's power while natural gas produced 20%.  Today, both coal and natural gas each produce about 32% of the nation's power.  And, the price  of natural gas is decreasing even as numerous power plants are switching over.
The Dry Fork Mine near Gillette is managed by Western Fuels.
There are also massive coal seams in the central and western part of the PRB; however, those deposits are fresh water swamp deposits of the Eocene (Tertiary) Wasatch Formation (younger than the Fort Union Formation).  These two formations also contain substantial amounts of uranium that was first mined in the 1950s along the western edge of the PRB.  Today any production of uranium will be/is from in situ leaching (pumping hot water down a pipe to the enriched bed, dissolving the selected minerals, and then pumping the pregnant solution back to the surface for mineral recovery). There seems a good possibility that the uranium was leached downward from Tertiary colcanic tuffs and ash falls (see Posting August, 22, 2013).

Introductory geology textbooks inform students that coal is divided into four different groups based upon the heat produced, fixed carbon, and volatile material: classification ranks are often gradational.   Lignite produces the least amount of heat, has a high moisture content, and is sort of a lithified peat (the parent decayed plant material) but is used in some power plants.  Wyoming’s coal is a rank higher and termed sub-bituminous.  It is used extensively in the production of power in many western and mid-western states. Bituminous coal is also a desired coal for use in power generation and is the major coal rank found in Appalachia.  Anthracite is a very hard metamorphic rock with a high heat content, high carbon content and was often used in the past to heat homes.  In fact, one can still purchase bags of anthracite coal for home heating.  Perhaps coal trucks still deliver anthracite to rural home locations and dump it down the chute into the basement of the home.  I have seen numerous older homes with the chute but am unaware of trucks still delivering coal.  Of course, my knowledge about such is restricted to the Plains and western states.  Anthracite is an uncommon coal today, is expensive (too prohibitive for use in power plants), and mining is generally restricted to small parts of Pennsylvania.  The latest production figures I could locate from the U.S. Energy Information Administration ( indicated that in 2015 anthracite production in the U.S (all from Pennsylvania) was 1953 thousand short tons (TST) compared to 419,515 (TST) of sub-bituminous rank coal.

Wyoming coals are valued for many reasons, not the least of which is their low sulfur content.  Generally speaking, low sulfur coal was formed in areas where fresh water dominated, such as the PRB swamps described above.  High sulfur coal forms in marine water swamps and contains high amounts of SO2 that needs removal by treatment of exhaust gasses (usually scrubbers) in order to not pollute the environment. 

So, I have wandered all over the place in this posting.  In summary, the Powder River Basin is a storehouse of energy products—crude oil, methane coal gas, natural gas, uranium and coal.  It is also a beautiful area when the grasses are green, wild flowers are blooming and animals are roaming.  The open pit coal mine near Gillette deserves a looky for anyone traveling in the area.  So now I am off to South Dakota and the postings will continue.

Bits of trivia:

  • How much is a short ton: the standard ton terminology used in the U.S., that is 2000 pounds.
  • How man gallons in a barrel of crude oil: 42 gallons of crude compared to 31 gallons of beer in a barrel.
  • As a youngster working in my father’s gasoline station (a filling station), I sold “coal oil.”  What is that substance:  Coal oil is a liquid extracted from cannal or candle coal, a high bitumen but soft coal.  What I sold was kerosene, a liquid extracted from petroleum.  Both were used in lanterns and in the “olden days” the terms seemed interchangeable.
  • What about coal oil that I read about today:  today’s coal oil is a fuel extracted from harder coal via chemical wizardry. 
  • Which states are the biggest users of Wyoming:  Illinois and Texas; however, 30 states use Wyoming coal. 
  • How much coal does Wyoming produce:  about 40% of U.S. coal production comes from Wyoming.  Eight of the ten largest coal mines in the U.S. are in the PRB.
  • Does Wyoming produce electricity:  Wyoming is a big producer of electricity and exports about 67% of production and most is from coal or gas fueled plant; however, the number of wind turbines is increasing. .   

Cherney, R.W., date unknown, Graft and oil: How Teapot Dome became the greatest political scandal of its time: History Now; The Journal of the Gilder Lehrman Institute.

Flores, R.M., 1986, Styles of coal deposition in Tertiary alluvial deposits, Powder River Basin, Montana and Wyoming, in Lyons, P.C., and C.L. Rice, eds., Paleoenvironmental and Tectonic Controls in Coal-forming Basins of the United States:  Geological Society of America, Special Paper 210.

Flores, R.M., and F.G. Ethridge, l985, Evolution of intermontane fluvial systems of Tertiary Powder River Basin, Montana and Wyoming, in Flores, R.M., and S.S. Kaplan, eds., Cenozoic Paleogeography of the West-Central United States:  Society of Economic Paleontologists and Mineralogists, Rocky Mountain Section, Symposium 3.