Early Scientific Research at Howard Falls

Over the past 200 years Howard Falls and the Falls Run Gorge has attracted scientists of varied interests. Most recently the Falls Run area has been investigated extensively by the Western PA Conservancy, resulting in The Falls Run Gorge being named a Natural Heritage Area of Pennsylvania.

But in the 1800’s and early 1900’s several others were attracted here to investigate the geology, the fossiliferous rock, the quarrying of stone, and even the potential for commercial quantities of oil beneath the strata. In the 1820’s the area was still very sparsely settled. There were no bridges over Elk Creek, none of the roads present today even existed, and the only road into the region was the Old State Road, running
from Waterford to Lexington (present day Platea). It was variously described as ‘an unbroken wilderness’ and early maps of the region were grossly incomplete. It was to be the last area of Erie County to be settled.

Anecdotal accounts of how the area was first explored suggest that Elijah Smith and his nephew, Henry Howard were some of the first into the area; reaching it by following Falls Run upstream from its confluence with Elk Creek. In doing so, they came to the Falls and began to explore the sandstone outcroppings, looking for suitable stone to support Elijah’s masonry business.

From that, a significant business of quarrying stone began. Henry’s brother, Levi, and his family moved here in 1839 from Connecticut to work the stone. By the 1860’s, maps of the area show it called the village of “Stone Quarry”. As the business flourished, Levi Howard provided stone for the Erie County Court House, the Erie Extension Canal, and many other building projects in the area.

1870’s Oil Well:
In early quarrying of the stone outcroppings at Howard Falls, it was often noted that the sandstone layers contained modest amounts of petroleum oil, a drop or 2, –here or there. This oil could give some of the stone an undesirable odor, making those pieces unacceptable for some building uses. It was more a nuisance than an attribute, although some was collected for ‘medicinal’ purposes.

Then in 1859, drillings at Titusville, PA showed that there could be vast quantities of petroleum below the surface. The first successful well found oil at only 69 feet below the surface of the shores of Oil Creek. By 1870, 5 million barrels of oil per year were being produced in western Pennsylvania.

This intrigued the Howard family, and George Howard, son of Levi, decided to drill an exploratory well. To take advantage of the depth of the Gorge, he lowered a rig into the Gorge and began drilling at the base of the Falls. Nonetheless, no matter how deep the well went, no oil was found, and at a depth of 100 feet the effort was abandoned.

Later in life, George would be quoted when asked why no oil was found. He replied, “This quarry is the northern outcrop of the Pennsylvania third oil sand about five hundred feet above the surface of Lake Erie. These rocks are the highest part of the strata, so hard and so fine that they can contain no oil. As the stratum dips down under the surface toward the oilfields it becomes softer and coarser and so porous that it can hold an ocean of oil.” For George, it was a lesson hard earned.

1881 Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania:
The Second Geological Survey of Pennsylvania (1874-1889) produced an unprecedented volume and quality of geologic reports. As part of that, Erie County was extensively surveyed by Israel Charles White, PhD. Dr. White had received his PhD in 1880, and began his career as assistant geologist for the state of Pennsylvania.

Photograph of I.C. White, Professor at University of West Virginia Geology Department and first State Geologist for West Virginia circa 1898

He spent a good deal of his time here at Howard Falls, as extensive descriptions of his surveys of the geology of the face of the Falls and various quarry outcroppings are found in Volume Q4 of the 2nd Geological Survey of PA, authored by him and published in 1881.

White would go on to become the first state geologist of West Virginia, and is considered a preeminent international geologist and professor of his era.

1891 Visit of Natural History Society:
The publication of the Second Geological Survey in 1881 increased interest in the area around Howard Falls, and in 1891 the Natural History Society of Erie arranged for a visit. George Howard, born at Howard Falls in 1842, was now 49 years old, and the proprietor of the Stone Quarry, having taken over the operation from his late father, Levi.

George met the Society members one morning at the Fairview train station, and brought them to his home “Falls Run” at Howard Falls for the day. A full account of that visit, including their travel here on a four-horse wagon and the sites they visited, is found in our blog “A Visit to Howard Falls, 1891.”

George’s home “Falls Run” is still in the family, and with descendants living there today, 130 years later.

1910’s Visits of Edwin James Armstrong:
Edwin Armstrong was active in the American Society of Mechanical Engineers between 1901 and 1921. Much of his career was spent in Erie, PA as a mechanical engineer for the Ball Co. He had a passion for natural history and was an avid collector of fossils. Between 1908 and 1924 Mr. Armstrong assembled a large collection of fossils.

He was particularly drawn to the Howard Quarry sandstone and was given access to survey the fossiliferous stone. From that work he made what has been described as “a wonderfully fine collection of the fossils of this quarry rock”. Eventually this collection made its way to Antioch College, Yellow Springs, OH, where it was on display for several years. The fate of the collection is not yet known.

Mr. Armstrong’s personal papers are archived at Wright State University, Special Collections and Archives in Dayton, OH.

The Russians have a name for it, “Zapovednost”. To fully protect an ecological sensitive area with Zapovednost, the exclusion of people and prohibition of economic activity is practiced. The only exceptions are non-intrusive access for scientists and stewards of the area.

At Howard Falls this is what we practice too. While the Falls can be readily viewed from Falls Road, that is the limit of ‘access’. While many ask for permission to go to the base of the Falls and on into the Falls Run Gorge, such access is not granted.

The Falls Run Gorge needs to be left alone. It is pristine there, and while threats exist from road drainage and invasive species, the Gorge is doing just fine left on its own. It has thrived on its own for 12,000 years and we suspect it will do just fine like that well into the future.

Nonetheless it is a magical place and we have plans to bring it to you virtually in the future. Stay tuned.


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