A fossil trip to western Maryland

Posted by on June 22, 2012 in Collecting | 0 comments

One of Jones Geological Services’ biggest goals is educational programs, including field trips. One organization that has been using our talents is Renfrew Institute of Cultural History in Waynesboro, Pa.  This is probably the 10th year that we have provided the public in Waynesboro with an indoor program followed by a field trip with some sort of theme.  We discovered several years ago that the public loves to go collecting for either minerals or fossils. This is also a great way for a family to spend a day together discovering natural finds such as fossils. After doing programs for nearly 30 years, I can tell you that there is still nothing that outdoes the smile on a 10-year old child’s face after he or she found his or her first fossil.  It is one of those experiences when you say to yourself, “This type of work is really worth it.”

For 2012, the Renfrew Institute’s education committee decided to arrange a fossil trip to western Maryland.  Yes, that region is relatively close to Waynesboro, but another 1.5 hours longer from York.  Liking challenges, I thought, “Oh, why not? Let’s go to the Frostburg, Md., area and do some exploring for potential fossil sites.” 

Luckily we started the recon trips in December. A total of three trips had to be made to finalize all of the details and confirm the sites for collecting. That was a total of 920 miles and several full days.  Although we found a good site for marine animals near Rocky Gap State Park relatively fast, it was the second stop in the coal regions around Frostburg that created issues.  Yes, there are active coal mines in the region, most of which do not allow folks to come onto their lands due to insurance issues.  As you know, mines and quarries are extremely dangerous areas, and these operations don’t want to face any insurance issues.

After some Internet research on property owners of coal mines (both active and inactive) in the Frostburg area, we finally hit pay dirt. A company that owns a large amount of acreage containing several coal mines returned my telephone call and put me in touch with a mine operator who was leasing property from him.  Another phone call yielded permission to look over the mine “dumps” to see if there were any fossils and whether the property was good enough to host a group of 40 people. We did find some fossils on that recon trip, but nothing that would have set the world on fire. However, with no choice of another stop, I decided to take them to this site.  (By the way, this coal mine is directly across the street from Frostburg University and wow, what a view of the campus from high atop the ridge.)

Here I am with group at Sideling Hill. Photo by Kelsey Frey.

The day of the trip came on us. Families loaded onto the deluxe school bus with hammers in hand and collecting bags in the storage compartment, wetting their lips for great fossils. Our first scheduled stop was at Sideling Hill on Interstate 68. Information provided to us from the State of Maryland was that the rest area at Sideling Hill would be open for the year and yes, folks could use the facilities. Well, guess what? When we climbed the hill in our school bus on the Interstate to Sideling Hill, the gates were closed and the area would be officially open two days after our arrival.  For those of you who never drove Interstate 68 through Sideling Hill, it is without debate the best exposed syncline in the region.  In fact, it was so spectacular that the State of Maryland constructed a great interpretive center there to discuss its geology and exhibit minerals and fossils from the area. Unfortunately, because of budget restraints, the center has been closed and the geologic display has been moved to a building in Hancock that is still open to the public.  Oh well! We got off of the bus to stretch our legs, and, from the off-ramp into the rest area, I did my scheduled 15 minutes dissertation of how Sideling Hill became a syncline.

The famous Sideling Hill roadcut containing a syncline. Photo by Kelsey Frey

Yes, we did find restrooms down the road at Rocky Gap State Park. Our next stop was the coal mine near Frostburg University. After giving the group their rules and showing them several examples of the plant fossils and petrified wood found there, we cut them loose for a 90-minute scavenger hunt. Within minutes folks were finding better fossils than we found on our recon trip. The fossils are found in a dark gray and greenish shale, some of which splits like slate. If you found the right rock with abundant fossils, you could retrieve some nice slabs of fossils that represented a time during the Pennsylvanian Period when that area was in a tropical climate similar to the Everglades.

A youngster with his first fern fossil find. Photo by Kelsey Frey

The coal mine dumps at Frostburg. Photo by Kelsey Frey

Oh yes, here at this site on our recon mission, I had lost one of my geologic hammers. Although my friend Dick Copper and I searched the area for 30 minutes, we could not locate my hammer. Well, in my introductory comments here to the group, I challenged them to find my hammer. Within 30 minutes, a youngster had overturned a rock, and “poof!” There it was

By the time I was reunited with my hammer, another youngster came to me asking if I had a spare. Guess what? Off went my hammer into the piles of rock.

I did get it back at the end of the day.

Youngsters talking over their strategy for finding fossils. Photo by Kelsey Frey

Before we departed for the site near Rocky Gap State Park, one of the owners of the mine stopped in to check on us. He was very pleased with the group’s behavior and welcomed us back anytime. That is a very positive situation for both myself and Renfrew Institute.

Top of the hill with Frostburg University in background. Photo by Kelsey Frey

One of the many fern fossil specimens found. Photo by Kelsey Frey

It was a comforting feeling that everyone had collected fossils from a property that was questionable at first. I guess 80 eyes are better than 2 pairs of eyes.

Rocky Gap Road exposure. Photo by Kelsey Frey

Bryzoan fossil from Rocky Gap Road

At the road cut on Rocky Gap Road just north of Interstate 68, again we showed families examples of shells, bryzoan and crinoids that we found there. Off the group went climbing the bare hillside that contains a number of shale and sandstone exposures. Again, like the first fossil site, folks found plentiful examples in the 90 minutes we had here. These fossils represent animals that lived in an ancient ocean during the Silurian Period (about 417 – 410 million years ago). These are probably some of the oldest antiques that these folks will collect.

Crinoids from Rocky Gap Road

Shells from Rocky Gap Road

With everyone happy with their finds of the day and tired, we loaded up into the school bus and headed to Hancock for supper. Along the way, I closed my commentary saying, “Just think, when you break the rock open and find a fossil, you are the first person to see that specimen.” Who knows if any of the youngsters that were along on the trip will turn into a geologist, but I believe it is an experience that most will always remember. In fact, I overheard a child who was only accompanied by his father on the trip, say “Boy, I can’t wait to get home and show mommy all of our fossils.”

On one of the recon trips, we visited a sandstone quarry where the rock is weathering back to what else, sand? Photo by Donna Bromley

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