Travertine from Ilion Gorge, New York

As Published by Rock and Gem Magazine, November 2004


by Michael Walter


   Ilion gorge near Utica New York produces nice quality travertine calcite mineral specimens.     Travertine stalactites and stalagmites are sometimes found at the Ilion travertine location in New York State.

 The closure of mineral collecting localities seems to be more pervasive than ever.  Sites we took for granted in our youth are either closed by concerned land owners, over grown by urban sprawl or kept secret by those few who are still aware of their existence.  Amidst all these difficulties there do remain some sites that are accessible to the average rockhound.  Even in the northeast United States.  Near the city of Utica, New York we can find one such site in a scenic valley south of the town of Ilion.


The location was first brought to my attention in the spring of 2002 by a fellow science teacher and mineral collector.  He told me of a stream which cut through shale like limestone near where he teaches.  Within these formations he was recovering travertine, which is a variety of calcite, and tiny white calcite crystals.  I had seen a couple of pieces of this travertine in old collections so knew the site had been worked for at least several decades. When I looked over the material my friend had recovered I was not overly encouraged.  Being a crystal person myself these root beer colored coatings did little to excite me no matter how interesting their form.  The calcites were very tiny and there seemed to be no further mineral associations.  How lucky we are that first impressions are often misleading. 


The fall of this same year finally allowed me a free day to go take a peek at this location.  It was one of those miserable days, cold and wet, when you can’t even talk the most loyal collecting partners into venturing out.  So, when I awoke at 3 AM to prepare for the three and a half hour drive to Ilion, the only company I could roust out was my dog, Scepter.  Being a Labrador retriever her idea of a nice day for a road trip is very flexible.


The directions I was provided with were straight forward and in no time we were parking the truck just off of Route 51 South.  The three quarters of a mile walk into the dig site was all uphill through a deep valley carved by the small stream which we paralleled the entire way.  The walk was easy because its entire length was paved.  This was Jerusalem Hill road which is blocked off from vehicular travel at its junction with Route 51.  It was foggy, semi-dark and drizzly.  Not a very promising start for a mineral collector who likes to stay dry.  Upon reaching the collecting location it was not clear where I would start digging.  There were spots on both sides of the stream where previous visitors had dug but they left little in the way of “sign” that would tip me off as to a good starting point.  For the first hour or so I simply scouted out the area on the road side of the stream.  After some searching several possibilities presented themselves.  First was a long tube that was about a food wide, cylindrical and extending back into the hillside for at least twenty feet.  This was an impressive feature to say the least.  When I shone my flashlight back into the tube I could see that its interior was coated by a thick layer of translucent, amber colored travertine.  The interior was wet so it made for a flashy show indeed.  Having opened many large crystal pockets in the past, I am not easily impressed.  Viewing the interior of this tube immediately got my heart pumping fast!  Fingers and wavy sheets of thick travertine glowed in the light like a dream world that can only be created by nature.   So, this was the place to start digging, “right?”  Nope, the tubes entry was accessible only to the longest chisels.  Other than getting a few scraps the tube was impossible to collect out of.  The nice thing about this is that it will probably still be there to wonder over in aw when you visit the site.   But back to that wet fall day.


The spot I actually settled on was a small five or six inch opening in a sheer rock face approximately six feet off the valley floor.  Piling some logs and rocks to use as a platform allowed me to climb up to a working level and peer back into the small opening.  The void seemed to worm its way back into the hillside so I thought it a good idea to attempt to widen it further to see if there was any potential here.  The toughness of this solution deposited travertine quickly became apparent.  Much work with chisels, wedges and hammers is required to dig into the material.  The travertine was extremely resistant.  The material seemed to absorb the energy generated by hammering or the penetrating chisel.  The chisels would sink in but seldom crack the spongy rock.  After about an hour of serious work I had a block of white travertine loosened.  When I finally managed to pull it free I found myself peering back into a large void that was nearly five feet long, a foot high and at least four feet wide.  This miniature cave had all the same features that one would see in a real cave.  Tiny stalactites hung form the ceiling below which was dripstone formations.  The walls had coatings of travertine which were white.  Just before heaving the chunk removed to access the opening I notice that it in fact was a larger complex of intergrown stalactites.  I immediately realized I had been a very lucky collector to find a deposit like this one on my first visit to a new location.  Or had I? 


The rest of the day involved my reaching back into the opening and carefully extracting the contents.  Stalactites were sparsely deposited and easy to remove while the coatings on the floor and roof of the opening put up a good fight.  Scepter kept a good eye on what I was up to as I wrapped these fragile pieces in newspaper for the trip out.  Stalactites up to several inches long and plates of travertine up to a foot wide where the treasures that day.  Once home I was also surprised by the fact that most of the material was both fluorescent and phosphorescent.


As luck would have it there would be no further trips to Ilion that year.  Early snow put an instant end to the collecting season by the weekend to follow.  The following year, however, would provide opportunity for a couple more visits to this interesting site.


The second visit in the summer of 2003 found my Father and Scepter along for the ride.  We tried to work the tube previously described without any luck.  Even the specially designed four and 6 foot long chisels I had made were unable to remove the glowing travertine from its home in the hillside.  We did have lots of luck collecting thicker deposits of travertine from the same side of the stream which the road is on.  Between blocks of highly brecciated limestone plates we could find zones where the water had carried travertine.  These coatings were up to several inches thick and tan to deep brown in color.  The root beer colored, translucent travertine was the most attractive.  These coatings formed bulges and waves on the matrix and could be quite aesthetic when properly cleaned.  All the material collected that day was heavily coated by clay.  As a result we hauled back lots of leaverite.  Since the water level was lower in the stream we were also able to collect on the opposite side of the stream which we had not been able to do on our first visit.  It seemed like every spot we selected to dig we were successful.  One variety of travertine or another could be found practically anywhere if we were willing to do a little work.  It appeared that my first visit was not just luck.  This site obviously had lots to offer.  The third visit, however, did see luck on our side. 


Our third trip to Ilion involved the same suspects.  During our usual scouting for the first spot to dig I noticed something that I failed to give any thought to on the first two visits.  On the far side of the stream there was a large area of land that was the remnants of a landslide that appeared to have occurred several years prior.  The hillside was composed of shattered rock, soil and rotting trees.  It looked like about one hundred yards of the hillside had crumbled and slumped down into the valley.  The movement had stopped just before the edge of the stream.  I managed to scramble up to the edge of this mass and started poking around in the loose talus.  One area had lost of staining similar to the clay staining that was prevalent on the specimens we had collected on our last visit.  Hoping that this was a seam where there had been travertine I began digging.  Actually, most of what I was doing was just rolling chunks of rock free from the pile and allowing it to slide or roll further down the slope.  In no time at all I was seeing big chunks of greasy red clay and within this were specimens of travertine.  Initially most of this material was very poor having been banged up on its slide down the valley wall.  It was not long, however, before I began uncovering a large, intact section of what looked like it was once a small cave.  It appeared that this small cave, which looked to have been about 6feet long, several feet wide and who knows how deep, had been collapsed by the landslide.  The inside of the cave must have been filled to capacity by this thick clay which in turn acted as a cushion to the structures within it upon its demise.  Travertine, though very soft, in this situation seemed to have little damage from its tumble down the hill. 


As I dug into the clay it became clear that this find was going to be exceptional.  Almost immediately two large stalactites were pulled from the heavy clay.  I estimated the weights of these two goliaths to be approximately 30 and 70 pounds respectively.  Soon after this the main area of the void started to produce more manageably sized stalactites and chunks of flowstone travertine.  There were even a few long thin soda straw stalactites that were fragile yet still intact.  Much of the material once cleaned did show damage but as it was coming out of the mud, on site, it looked impressive.  


Box after box of material was pulled from the clay.  We had little idea as to which pieces were good and which were poor.  The clay concealed the specimens so well that we were wrapping specimens more based on shape than anything else.  Even when we tried taking the specimens down to the stream to wash them off it was difficult to do a decent job of telling which would be quality pieces.   I did all the digging and specimen recovery that day while Dad spent his entire day simply wrapping the specimens for their trip down the valley.  Once out of the clay the pieces were vulnerable to damage so we took great pain to prep them well for the trip home. 


At home the fun began.  The specimens were sprayed with the garden hose to remove the majority of the clay.  Next came the tedious job of scrubbing every piece down with a plastic bristle brush to remove any remaining clay.  The color of these specimens had a fairly wide range.  Some, like the soda straws, were a creamy white while others like the big stalactites were the dark brown or root beer colored.  Much of the travertine had a grungy overgrowth which showed its final stages of development to have included clay deposited along with the travertine.  It took a good deal of experimentation to come up with an appropriate method to further clean pieces like this in order to bring out their underlying luster.  I found that dipping a tooth brush in vinegar and gently brushing the specimen often removed a good deal of this material.  More harsh treatment, mild acid dips, was used on some specimens.  In most cases acid treatment was avoided because it created pitting or removed structural details of the formations.


It is my hope that the specimens will speak for themselves.  True cave collecting is something I would consider irresponsible and unethical.  Preservation of caves should always be attempted.  In this situation I was happy to be able to preserve specimens that if left where they were would be lost to the ravages of weathering in a short time.  The landslide found on the third collecting trip provided us with a rare collecting opportunity which I am unlikely to be part of again in my lifetime. 


Selection of tools for digging at the Ilion travertine site is important.  The most important tool is a good wheelbarrow.   Because you reach the location along a paved surface all your tools can be hauled up hill to the location in the wheelbarrow and tools and specimens out in the same.  There are spots where you can dig in the soil or loose rock and also places to dig directly into ledge rock.  As a result all forms of hammers and chisels are handy as well as digging tools like shovels, trowels and pick axes.  In other words, a large arsenal of equipment can come in handy.  Especially useful are tools that are longer such as long chisels and long screwdrivers.  Plenty of wrapping and packing material is a must because specimens are often thin or soft.  Newspapers, paper towels and boxes will all be used.  Natural springs seem to be dripping down many of the banks and ledges even in dry weather so rain gear could make your collecting day a more pleasant one.


During my few visits to the Ilion Gorge I have come across a large diversity of colors and forms of travertine.  It sometimes forms thin coatings on the area rocks while at other times is thickly deposited from many years of deposition.  The material would appear to deposit itself much faster than traditional calcite in cave environments.  Cave deposits take as much as 100 years to accumulate 1 cubic centimeter of calcite on a single stalactite or stalagmite.  The travertine at Ilion, when viewed in cross section in stalactites and flowstone formations, shows annual growth rings similar to those found in trees.  I have observed these growth rings carefully and found them to range between several millimeters and up to a centimeter in thickness.  This would indicate a far faster rate of deposition than one might expect.   The rings also have an unusual habit of changing color within the same specimen.  Light yellow to amber to root beer represents the most common color combinations. 


As can be seen in the photos the colors and forms of travertine from Ilion Gorge can be quite striking.  The luster can range from dull to a bright, almost oily appearance.  Sometimes the surfaces of specimens have a satin like appearance which give a holographic type of effect when turned in good light.  Most of the material is translucent when in thinner pieces. Specimens can be found that have huge proportions.  Seams and openings of all sizes appear to be present at the location so expect that you may recover some large specimens. 


There was something unusual that I encountered in a number of the specimens collected in one spot at Ilion that took me some time to figure out.  I was running into small stalactites that had sharp beds of about 45 degrees.  The bends were present in quite a few specimens from one spot where they were found loose in the mud and none were attached to wall rock.  Even those found in clusters of two or more had the same unusual habit and in these the bents actually all went the same direction.  It is quite obvious that stalactites, which hang from the ceilings of any openings in the rock, grow in a downward direction due to the pull of gravity on the water which deposits the travertine.  These, however seemed to defy this method of formation.   The mystery solved itself when I found a small opening in which similar stalactites were found in situe on the roof of the opening.  They had this same type of bend, as well.  They were only a few inches in length at there maximum but I noticed that there tips were growing downward while there bodies were tilted.  What had caused this unusual change in growth direction was a displacement of the entire void.  The opening was located in a large block of rock which had tilted in a downhill direction due to slumping of the surrounding land.  Throughout the gorge one can see enormous blocks, almost the size of homes, which have broken free and begun to roll down into the valley.  If there are opening within these the direction of growth for structures inside those openings changes.  One might think that there source of water for deposition of travertine would in turn be cut off.  Sometimes that does not seem to be the case.  Springs are everywhere and they often seem to continue to drip into these blocks allowing for solution flow and deposition to continue. 


As for calcite crystal, to date, I have found note.  When encountered they appear as white dogtooth crystals which form in tiny clusters and druses on the travertine.  Their maximum size seems to only reach a few millimeters. 


To reach the Ilion Gorge one can exit off of interstate 90 at exit 30 for Herkimer.  Head east on route 5S for Ilion, New York and take the first of two exits into the town of Ilion.  This exit takes you directly to an intersection with route 51.  Follow route 51 south through town and continue on it for about 5.8 miles.   On your right you will see a gate blocking the endurance to Jerusalem Hill Road.  The road is blocked because the town’s drinking water supply comes from this stream.  Follow the paved surface, uphill for 3/4ths of a mile.  At this point you will see numerous locations where you can collect.  Take great care navigating on the scree and loose boulders.  Soil and rock both are often loose and hazardous.  Overhanging rock can be seen on the banks of the opposite side of the stream from the road.  Great care should be taken in this area to be aware of potential rock falls.  In the spring of the year the stream will be high and difficult or impossible to cross.   Both sides of the stream offer opportunities for finding quality travertine specimens.


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