Geology of New York City and Its Vicinity

What the Rocks Tell About New York in Ages Past

rocking stone

The “rocking stone,” New York Zoölogical Park, an ice-transported bowlder resting on a glaciated surface

The relief features of the New York City district consist of several distinctly different types, which have been developed by natural forces on rocks of unequal hardness. Some of the rocks are unconsolidated sands and muds and are of comparatively recent date; others are stratified with alternating hard and soft beds, which lave been tilted or slightly folded and are older; still others of the same origin but far older have been so much altered and deformed during certain geologic periods that they have become crystalline and entirely changed in appearance, that is, metamorphosed. Volcanic rocks thick and homogeneous in character have also been injected into the area at different times, some very early, others later, but none very recently. These and some of the crystalline ones form the most resistant ridges. The distribution of the rocks is in the form of belts with a prevailing northeast-southwest direction.

The essential relief features and physiographic provinces of the area are shown in a graphic manner on the relief map. They may be summarized as follows:

  1. The continental shelf, which represents the submerged margin of the continent, extends eastward from the New Jersey shore for about 100 miles to the 100 fathom line. Beyond that point the sea floor drops rapidly to the great and extensive oceanic depths of 2000–4600 fathoms.
  2. The Coastal Plain is that portion of the former submerged continental shelf which has been raised above the sea without apparent deformation. Three well defined elements of this plain appear:
    1. Its inner lowland, partly drowned in Long Island Sound, Lower New York and Sandy Hook bays, extends southwestward along the main railway lines through New Brunswick, Trenton, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Washington;
    2. Its fall line features appear on the Delaware at Trenton, on the Schuylkill at Philadelphia, on the Potomac at the Great Falls above Washington, D.C, and on the James River at Richmond;
    3. Its cuesta forms the foundation of Long Island, the Atlantic Highlands, and the ragged front making up the hilly belt of southern New Jersey.
  3. The Newark Lowland is a plain developed on inclined weak strata consisting of red sandstones and shales of Triassic age. The intrusive sheets of resistant volcanic rock form the prominent residual ridges known as the Palisades, Watchung, Hook, Cushetunk and Sourland mountains, and Long and Rocky hills.
  4. The New England Upland is represented in the district by the Manhattan and Reading prongs. This upland consists of dissected and disordered crystalline rocks. The Manhattan prong extends down the east bank of the Hudson estuary from the Highlands to and including Manhattan Island. The north central portion of Staten Island is an outlier. The Reading prong extends as highlands from the gorge of the Hudson southwestward across New York and New Jersey to Reading, Pennsylvania.
  5. The broad valley to the west occupied by the Wallkill and Paulins Kill is a part of the great Appalachian Valley, which extends from Birmingham, Alabama, to Lake Champlain. It is one of the prominent subdivisions of the Newer Appalachian phvsiographic province.
  6. The narrow Kittatinny Mountain ridge dipping westward, represents the northeastern extension of the belt of newer and folded Appalachians of central Pennsylvania.
  7. The Alleghany Plateau appears west of the Delaware River. Farther north in New York State the Catskill Mountains represent a subdivision of this plateau.

Glaciation: The northern portion of the New York City district has been traversed at least four times by great sheets of ice which moved down from the Labrador center. These continental glaciers modified the drainage and the surface of the land over which they passed. The terminal moraine which represents the southernmost extent of the last ice field appears as a conspicuous ridge consisting of knobs and kettle holes on Long Island, Staten Island and New Jersey. It continues westward across the United States to the Pacific ocean near Seattle, Washington.

The drift bowlders and unsorted rock débris in the terminal moraine and northward give a clue as to the direction of ice movement. Large bowlders of crystalline rock from Jamaica and Hollis, Long Island, indicate that they were plucked out of the bed rock in the vicinity of Yonkers, Mt. Vernon, and other places in Westchester County, New York. Glacial-borne pebbles containing fossils and oolites have been found at Broadway and 191st Street. The fossils represent minute fragments of bryozoa and corals, of Devonian age, which are similar to those found at present in the Catskill Mountain region. The oolites, which are small, concentric spheres cemented together, resemble fish roe. They, too, come from up-state New York. On Staten Island, Long Island, and Short Hills, New Jersey, many large drift bowlders of sedimentary origin and containing numerous marine fossils were derived from the exposures in east central New York State.

Each of the four continental glaciers of the Pleistocene epoch consisted of ice thousands of feet thick. They not only plucked out huge bowlders the size of a house and transported them long distances, but they also scoured off the soilcover in many places and left bare rock surfaces, roches moutonnées, little deserts in fact, on which no plants other than lichens can grow. A good example of a glaciated surface with an ice-transported bowlder resting upon it is the "rocking stone” in the New York Zoölogical Park, Bronx, pictured above.

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