2002 Denver Annual Meeting (October 27-30, 2002)

Paper No. 2
Presentation Time: 1:15 PM


CHAMPLIN, Peggy, 2169 Linda Flora Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90077, champc@aol.com

After he graduated from Yale in 1839, Josiah Dwight Whitney was studying for the law when he heard Lyell's lectures on geology in Boston and decided to become a geologist instead. His first work experience was as an apprentice on the New Hampshire survey, where Charles Jackson directed his assistants to observe and map the direction of mountain ranges following the theories of the eminent French geologist Elie de Beaumont (theories that Whitney's biographer Edwin Brewster thought were "quite erroneous"). While studying in Europe from 1842 to 1847, Whitney attended lectures of Elie de Beaumont at the Ecole des Mines in Paris. Whitney then worked for a federal survey of the copper and iron regions of Northern Michigan, surveyed the lead regions of the midwest for the Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois surveys, and in 1860 was named head of the new California survey, recommended by several of America's most eminent scientists as the person best qualified for the position. Whitney and his assistants climbed and measured the heights of many of California's highest moiuntains, and developed methods of topographical surveying by triangulation that were widely adopted by other states as well as the USGS.

This paper will examine the source of Whitney's views about mountain building and the origin of Yosemite Valley. Whitney thought the valley had been formed when the bottom of the valley dropped during a series of "convulsive" upheavals of the mountain chain. Geologists now accept John Muir's ideas that the valley was shaped by glacial action operating over long periods of time and Whitney is ridiculed for his stubborn refusal to accept the glacial explanation. I will explore the possibility that Whitney's early exposure to the theories of Elie de Beaumont explains why he refused to accept the excavative power of glaciers and was so inflexible in holding to the more "catastrophic" interpretation.