A Catskill Catalog: September 28, 2011

The discovery of the Gilboa fossils happened quietly. An interested and curious amateur found evidence of the oldest forest on earth. His name was Samuel Lockwood.

Today’s hamlet of Gilboa is a watery reflection of its former self. The original village, a thriving mill town, was drowned by the construction of the Gilboa Dam, creating New York City’s second Catskill Mountain reservoir. Digging for the dam began in 1917. The old village became history in 1926.
But that was all in the future when Samuel Lockwood came to Gilboa, at Christmas time in 1852, to take up his duties as pastor of Gilboa’s Dutch Reformed Church. Samuel was 33, two years from his ordination, when he and his wife, Elizabeth, came to the Catskills.

A natural gorge squeezed the waters of the Schoharie Creek just below the spots where the Manorkill and Plattekill creeks washed into it from the east. This gorge contained rapids and waterfalls that, when harnessed, provided significant waterpower.

Jacob and Matthew Dies first harnessed that power, erecting a mill there in 1764.
In the Bible, Mt. Gilboa is the site of King Saul’s death, in battle, at the hands of the Philistines. The Catskills’ non-biblical Gilboa quickly became a commercial center, home to several mills, a tannery, a foundry, a couple of hotels, a creamery, a local newspaper, stores, shops, a school, and three churches.

In 1840, a textile manufacturer built the huge Gilboa Cotton Mill, 100 looms housed in a four-story building along the creek side. Raw cotton, from the south, was wagon-carried, along the old Catskill Turnpike, from the Hudson River port at Catskill. Finished cloth went out the same way.

When young Samuel Lockwood was called to Gilboa’s Reformed Church, natural history was the cutting-edge science that fascinated academics and amateur scholars alike. Charles Darwin’s groundbreaking book, On the Origin of the Species, had been published in 1859, the year before Samuel’s ordination. Reverend Lockwood, like many educated Christian believers of his time, saw no reason scientific inquiry into the history of the earth should be in conflict with his deep Christian faith.

So, as the spring thaw opened the countryside to exploration, Samuel Lockwood began a systematic field-study of the geology of Gilboa. He was aware of the work of Hugh Miller, Scottish evangelist and self-taught geologist, who had discovered fossils in ancient sedimentary rock he termed Old Red Sandstone, the title of his 1841 book outlining his discoveries.

The rock around Gilboa seemed similar to Miller’s British sandstone. Rev. Lockwood’s searched for materials similar to what Miller had found. One day, he found what he was looking for: a fossil tree stump in the bed of the Schoharie Creek!

Lockwood reported his discovery by letter to Miller, who died before he could respond. In August, 1854, the Lockwoods were called to a church in Keyport, New Jersey, where the minister served for 15 years before turning to an academic career. His discovery got little attention.

Catskill streams flood, we know all too well. In 1869, a big flood swelled the Schoharie Creek and ravaged the Village of Gilboa, destroying mills and homes, roads and bridges. Locals began blasting stone from the creek bed to use in road and bridge repair. There, they blasted away surface rock that revealed several fossil tree stumps, in life position.

A Mr. Mackey had been a congregant and friend of Samuel Lockwood. He was familiar with Samuel’s discoveries and recognized the value of what had been found. He wrote to James Hall, state paleontologist and first director of the state museum. The Gilboa Fossils were introduced to the world.

What had been discovered in Gilboa was fossil evidence of the world’s oldest forest, 350,000,000 years old. The fossils were from the Middle Devonian Period of Geologic time, the period when life in the seas was gradually giving way to life on land, and plants were proliferating, changing the quality of the atmosphere through their production of oxygen. The fossils found in Gilboa were the oldest trees on earth.

Today, those fossils can be seen in an open-air, roadside museum display on state Route 990V. The Gilboa Museum, on Stryker Road nearby, offers additional information about the earth’s first forest, right here in our Catskill Mountains.

After 15 years as pastor of the Reformed Church in Keyport, Lockwood got a doctoral degree, resigned his pastorate, and spent the rest of his life as a writer, educational leader, and naturalist. He wrote many articles on natural history, many in Popular Science Monthly, a project aimed at bringing new scientific thinking to a wide audience.
The discoverer of the world’s oldest forest died in 1894.