7. Geology: Grove Karl Gilbert

IN THE YEARS of the Powell Survey between 1874 and 1879, and later in the eighties when the United States Geological Survey was growing into a major federal bureau, Grove Karl Gilbert was Major Powell’s right hand. Geological ideas that Powell touched and left, sketched and passed on from, Gilbert grappled with and exhausted. Powell’s broad principles were divided, subdivided, reduced to that near-mathematical certainty that was Gilbert’s ideal. A genial, kindly, much-loved man, he was in his own way as brilliantly speculative as Powell, and as far removed from a laboratory drudge, but he operated on some other kind of fuel. He built a bridge of equations where Powell leaped by intuition, and he tidied things up as he went so that everything was solid behind him — a thing that could not, always be said for the Major.

The chapter on erosion in his Geology of the Henry Mountains does not alter Powell’s systematic observations, but it systematizes them further and develops them so fully that that chapter needs practically no revision even today. Neither does his study of those mountains which had been a Powell Survey discovery in geographical terms and which Gilbert made into a discovery of another kind. He described and dissected them so precisely and exactly that they have been known ever since as the classic type of a special kind of mountain structure. Gilbert called them “laccolites” but others corrected his Greek to “laccoliths.” These are “bubble mountains,” formed of strata domed upward by lava masses from beneath, the layers of sedimentary rock interleaved by sheets of lava and penetrated by dikes. Marvine, Holmes, and others had speculated on some such structure;1Gilbert demonstrated it not only for the Henrys but for the La Sals, the Abajo, and Navajo Mountain.

The Geology of the Henry Mountains appeared as a Powell Survey monograph in 1877, at a time when, as we shall see, Powell needed every evidence of scientific accomplishment his survey could muster if he was to induce Congress to prolong its life. Much later, after his own assistants and other geologists had taken some of the bloom from the subject, Gilbert produced a second report, this one on Lake Bonneville,2 and this like his first was so careful, so thorough, so perceptive of those lost or buried or effaced traces by which geological history must be known that it became at once a landmark. The Pleistocene lake that used to spread deep water across much of the western Utah and eastern Nevada desert has needed little study since. But it is worth noting that at the foundation of Gilbert’s reconstruction of the extent, history, drainage, climate, and character of the extinct lake are Powell’s rules of erosion, modified and extended to the habits of lakes rather than rivers, and traceable by shore cliffs, beach terraces, embankments, spits, and bars instead of by canyons, cliffs of erosion, alluvial fans, and cameo buttes. The basic laws are still to some extent Powell‘s, and the focus of attention is still, as with Powell, the land forms, the sculpture of the earth, and the processes by which it is created.

Like several of Major Powell’s later professional colleagues, Gilbert 3 was borrowed, not developed, by the Survey. After graduation from the University of Rochester and a general scientific apprenticeship in Ward’s Natural History Establishment, that fantastic business house, still extant, which provided and will still provide anything from trays of fossils to live black widows, from platypus eggs to relief maps, from laboratory insects to articulated skeletons of men or mastodons, he had worked briefly for the Ohio State Geological Survey and developed an acquaintance with the habits of living lakes that he later used effectively in the study of a dead one. In 1871, with his friend Archibald Marvine, he had gone out with Lieutenant Wheeler’s Geographical Surveys West of the 100th Meridian.

He had not been happy with Wheeler, for Wheeler dragged his geologists from place to place on a leash, covering enormous stretches of country in very hasty reconnoissance so that they barely got to sniff an exciting problem before their noses were dragged away from it. They were not scientists, but assistants to topographers. Late in 1872 Gilbert’s path crossed that of the Powell party when Wheeler’s outfit camped near Kanab, and though Powell was not there at the time, being busy about some Paiute investigations, Gilbert visited with Clem Powell and others, and bought a Navajo rug from Nellie Thompson.4 Apparently he met the Major in Washington, where community of interests and mutual membership in scientific societies would have thrown them together naturally, in that winter or the next. In November, 1874, just after his marriage, Gilbert accepted Powell’s offer of a job, and moved at once out of a restricting, frustrating, military organization into complete freedom.

Under Powell, once the two of them decided on an area for field study, Gilbert went as he pleased, stayed until the budget or the weather chased him home, studied what he wanted, lingered where he wished, returned if he felt like it for another visit or another whole field season. The freedom with which he was allowed to work, and the liberality with which Powell gave away his most illuminating ideas,5 cemented a personal friendship that was as close as any in either man’s life. As ranking geologist and for a time as acting director of the United States Geological Survey, Gilbert loyally subordinated his personal wishes and his own studies to help Powell in one or another promotional scheme. At the end of the eighteen-seventies and again at the end of the eighteen-eighties, as we shall see in later chapters, Powell focused most of his incredible energy on the political fight to establish scientific laws and policies for the administration of the Public Domain. While he did so, his bureaus were expected to run themselves. Translated, this means that Powell’s assistants, notably Gilbert, took over. He let himself, though among geologists he was quite as respected as his chief and more universally liked, become a tail to Powell’s kite. When Powell died it was Gilbert who acted as his executor and Gilbert who was his first and most respectful biographer.6 The only thing he did not do that he might have been expected to do was to succeed the Major in one of his several administrative jobs.

Actually it was pure kindness that Powell did not urge one of these positions on him. Gilbert was a scholar, not a promoter or an administrator. He disliked politics and hated even scientific controversy so much that with evidence enough to hang a man he corrected him hesitantly and apologetically and gave him every opportunity to save face. There was no better loved man in all of Washington’s scientific company. But though he outlived Powell by sixteen years, his productivity in those years was not so great as many would have expected of him — perhaps because with all his virtues he needed the galvanizing influence of his one-armed friend and collaborator. His monographs, though greatly admired by geologists and less in need of modernization or revision than the work of any geologist of his time, make tough reading for the unenlightened.

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