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Before Bretz

Reconnaissance Geologists of the Columbia Basin & Okanogan Highlands

A significant number of geologists visited Eastern Washington prior to J Harlen Bretz. Their observations on glacial deposits, ore deposits, basalt stratigraphy, the Grand Coulee, White Bluffs, and many others informed Bretz's work.

O.P. Jenkins with binoculars and an assistant at White Bluffs, WA in 1921. WGS photo archive.

J Harlen Bretz (1882-1981) is a colossus in the Missoula flood story. Over the course of seven decades, he published more than a dozen articles containing detailed field observations that gradually built support for an "outrageous hypothesis" (Bretz, 1925). He ultimately triumphed in convincing his stodgy colleagues that gargantuan floods, not glacial ice, carved the Channeled Scabland. Bretz's is a classic American tale of David versus Goliath, well chronicled in a book by Soennichsen (2009). The University of Chicago's Special Collections Research Center quantifies the Bretz archive of field notes, correspondences, photographs, and publications at "19 lineal feet in 31 boxes". But pioneering and consequential as Bretz was, he was not the first geologist to travel widely within and publish on the geology of the Columbia Basin. There were many contributions by men who passed through the region while conducting reconnaissance surveys.

Articles: Bretz (1919, 1923a, 1923b, 1924, 1925, 1927a, 1927b, 1928a, 1929, 1930a, 1930b, 1932a, 1932b, 1959, 1969, 1978, 1980; Bretz et al., 1956). See Nick Zentner's website for a unique collection of Bretz's field notes (

Geologist's wagon in Grand Coulee. USGS photo.

Lieutenant Thomas William Symons (1849-1920) The year Bretz was born, T.W. Symons published the first map of Lake Lewis in his 1882 "Report on an examination of the Upper Columbia River and the territory in its vicinity". Symons' assignment on the Columbia was to identify a navigable waterway for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, but his report contains many observations on the geology. Symons recognized Ice Age glaciers diverted the Columbia River and was first to define the shoreline of Lake Lewis. As a surveyor for the Wheeler Survey (1869-1871), he traveled to the Okanogan Valley and Upper Columbia, developing a love for the place despite its desolation, "All in all, it is a desolation where even the most hopeful can find nothing in its future prospects to cheer.” Symons would help design Spokane's hydropower facilities, the jetty at the mouth of the Columbia River, the Ballard Locks, Everett's industrial harbor, and the Eerie Canal. He also served as a finance officer in Teddy Roosevelt's White House.

Articles: Symons (1882)

Dr. H.E. Culver with students in the Okanogan Valley in 1929. WGS photo archive.

Israel Cook Russell (1852-1906) was a field assistant to Grove Karl Gilbert ("Gilbert's boy Russell"), a member of the Wheeler Survey, leader of two National Geographic Society expeditions to Alaska, a professor of geology, a U.S. Geological Survey geologist, and president of the Geological Society of America. Russell's contributions were broad and substantial, from pioneering work on remote Alaskan glaciers to the Quaternary of the Great Basin including an defining monograph on Mono Lake, CA. Gilbert spoke well of Russell, "Russell was preeminently a scientific observer. His best work was in seeing, recording, and discussing the phenomenon of a new field." (Gilbert, 1906). Russell published "A geological reconnoissance in central Washington" (1893) following his survey by horseback of the Columbia Basin's geology and irrigation potential. The report included early thoughts on the extent and deposits of Lake Lewis. He described an important fossil-bearing locality in the Ringold Fm - then called John Day Fm - at the White Bluffs. His 1898 report on the Great Terrace of the Columbia River remains relevant and instructive today.

Articles: Russell (1893, 1898)

William Herbert Hobbs (1864-1953) was a Greenland expedition leader, professor of geology, glacial geologist for USGS, and journal editor. He replaced I.C. Russell at the University of Michigan after Russell's untimely death in 1906.

Articles: Hobbs (1943, 1947)

Similkameen Valley from Chopaka Mountain. WGS photo archive.

Joseph Thomas Pardee (1871-1960) began his working years as an assay office owner and a gold and sapphire miner before joining the USGS. Pardee spent most of his career working in Montana, where he became familiar with the deposits of Glacial Lake Missoula. He was instrumental in citing the Grand Coulee Dam and produced detailed maps of the Glacial Lake Columbia deposits he named the Nespelem Silts, but is best known for corroborating Bretz's flood hypothesis by identifying the source of water (Glacial Lake Missoula).

Articles: Pardee (1910, 1913, 1922, 1942)

The Original Spokane Flood. A 1910 trading card shows a player with last name 'Flood' playing for the minor league Spokane Indians (Northwestern League). Card from the 'Obak Baseball Players' set (T212) issued by the American Tobacco Company to promote Obak Mouthpiece cigarettes. He only apears on the 1910 roster.

Henry Baulig (1877-1962) was a French geomorphologist who studied under William Morris Davis (the Davisian Cycle). He was a pioneer in the study of landforms at a time when the American West was beginning to influence geologists in Europe. He published important works on a morphology of the Massif Central, a book on the geography of North America, and one on the vocabulary of geomorphology in French, English, and German. Like Davis, Baulig was skeptical of quantification, hydrological experiments, and process studies. In Washington, Baulig (1913) wrote on the spectacular erosional bedrock landforms of the Columbia Plateau.

Articles: Baulig (1913)

J.T. Pardee examines varved beds of Glacial Lake Missoula at Moiese, MT in 1953. WGS photo archive and in Alden (1953).

Frank Cathcart Calkins (1878-1974) was an assistant to George Ottis Smith and a master mapping geologist who spent 68 years with the USGS. He mapped ore deposits in central Washington and North Cascades, the Philipsburg District (MT), the John Day basin (OR), the Coeur d'Alene District (ID), the Yosemite Valley and Comstock District (CA), Wasatach Mountains (UT), and Belt rocks of western Montana. He was a fearless editor, an early developer of the K-Ar age dating methods, and the first author of the American Geological Institute's Glossary of Geology. He made important observations along the former glacial margin in the Okanogan Valley and at on Ringold deposits at White Bluffs.

Articles: Smith and Calkins (1904), Calkins (1905), Numerous annual reports of the USGS

Kirk Bryan (1888-1950) was educated at New Mexico and Yale. He began his career mapping geology in California and Washington for the U.S. Geological Survey, but soon established himself at Harvard as a competent and influential field geologist focused on arid Quaternary landscapes. Professor Bryan taught for 25 years and was much beloved by his students, many of which would become faculty elsewhere. Bryan's work included major contributions on arroyo cutting, soil as a climate proxy, the "Palouse Soil" problem, glacial geology, and prehistoric man (Folsom). The Geological Society of America's Kirk Bryan Award is named in his honor. In the course of his work on the Palouse silts, he investigated many flood-swept locations (Old Maid Coulee, Latah Creek, Fishtrap, Washtucna Coulee, etc.) that would later become classic scabland localities. Bryan is credited with bringing periglacial concepts, more thoroughly developed in Europe, to the United States.

Articles: Bryan (1928), Pardee and Bryan (1925)

High gravel terrace above the Pend Oreille River by O.P. Jenkins in 1924. WGS photo archive.

Olaf Pitt Jenkins (1889-1983), the son of a Stanford professor, spent many years as a staff geologist for geological surveys in Arizona, Tennessee, and Washington. He worked as a geology instructor at Washington State College (now WSU) and later became the Director of the California Geological Survey. He is credited with transforming the CGS into a modern scientific organization. Jenkins published several articles on the economic geology of the Okanogan region, one on the White Bluffs, and a 1925 paper on clastic dikes in the Columbia Basin. His 1925 article is the first detailed work on the dikes, which he followed with another on the creation of clastic dikes in the lab (Jenkins, 1930). His 1930 AAPG Bulletin article on sandstone dikes as conduits for migrating petroleum is important, but often overlooked.

Articles: Jenkins (1925, 1926, 1930), photographs in Washington Geological Survey archives

Jenkins' photo of Burlingame Canyon near Lowden, WA.

Richard Foster Flint (1902-1976) was an imminent Quaternary geologist, Yale professor, and author of textbooks. Flint is known as the "father of Quaternary science" and "Pope of the Pleistocene". In his youth, he served in the U.S. Air Force Arctic Section and later published notable works on the glacial geology of Connecticut and the Rocky Mountains. Flint was an early leader in radiocarbon dating and an editor of the American Journal of Science for 46 years. He lead the charge against Bretz's outrageous flood hypothesis, but was ultimately defeated. Flint made numerous observations in the Columbia Basin and Okanogan Highlands, many of which remain relevant and influential today. He named the Touchet Beds and described them at their type section along the Walla Walla River at Touchet, WA.

Articles: Flint (1935, 1936, 1937, 1938, 1939)

The Great Terrace from Chelan Butte by J. Whitmer in 2012.

Ralph Leonard Lupher (1904-1979) Educated at University of Oregon and CalTech, Lupher established himself as a professor of geology and vertebrate paleontology at the State College of Washington (1931-45), now WSU. His dissertation and post-doctoral work was on the Jurassic of central Oregon. He discovered a new species of rudistid (Plicatostylus gregarius) and the pelecypod (clam) Lupherella is named after him. In 1946, Lupher left his faculty job aat WSC to join Shell Oil Company, where he compiled the known stratigraphy of California and assessed the petroleum potential of southwestern Washington. Late in his career, he served as Shell's Supervisor of Field Geology. His article on clastic dikes in eastern Washington remains the most detailed and descriptive to date.

Articles: Lupher (1944)

Geologists gather at Frenchman Coulee. WGS photo archive.

Excerpt from letter to Bretz from F.J. Pettijohn, July 1978. Thank you Nick Zentner for bringing this archive to light.

Below is a list of authors of early papers on the geology of the Columbia Basin, Grand Coulee, the former glacial margin, and the Okanogan Highlands. If you work in the region, you should read their work.

Thomas Large, High school teacher in Spokane

William Clinton Alden (1927, 1953)

Thomas Chrowder Chamberlain (summarized in G.O. Smith, 1901)

Harold Eugene Culver

William L. Dawson (1898)

Otis Willard Freeman (

Richard W. Galster

Edwin Thomas Hodge (1925, 1928, 1932, 1934, 1936, 1938, 1940)

Fred Oscar Jones (1950, 1954, 1961, 1966)

Charles R. Keyes (1935)

Edwin Thor McKnight (1927)

Oscar Edward Meinzer (1918, 1927)

George E. Neff (Amara and Neff, 1996; Bretz et al., 1956)

Johann Wilhelm "Karl" Oestereich (1915)

Rollin Daniel Salisbury (1901)

George Otis Smith (1901, 1903; Smith and Calkins, 1904)

Harold Theodore Uhr Smith (Bretz et al., 1956)

William David Thornbury (1954, 1965, 1969)

Donald Eldon Trimble (1963)

Aaron Clement Waters (1941, 1955, 1960, 1961)

Bretz's bungalow among the firs near the University of Washington campus in Seattle was called 'Maronook' by its architect and exactly no one else. Total cost: $3,571. Bungalow Magazine September 1914.

According to the article, the cozy Craftsman-style home held many surprises and tasteful design cues including rough-surfaced beams, a Pullman (gasp!) breakfast nook, a sleeping porch, and the professor's library fitted with a good door and shelves to recieve rolls of geological maps. "Here a fellow would like to sit and read."

"The lack of roads, trails, and inhabitants over many square miles forces the investigator to shoulder his pack of blankets and food, and travel the country on foot." - J Harlan Bretz (1911)

Boxing poster from UW archives c. 1911.


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