The River Falls Over a Hydrothermal Heart

There aren’t many times when you can be in medias res and at the beginning simultaneously, but this is one. It’s the middle of the Quartzville field trip; it’s where the story of Quartzville’s modest mineral wealth begins. A place like this should have a name of suitable grandeur. Visually, it’s rather stunning.

Yellowbottom Falls

So why the hell did people name it Yellowbottom?

Well, there’s the gold in the gravels and silt at the bottom of pools. It’s enough for a desultory bit of placer mining, and kept some folks whole during the Great Depression. And gold’s sort of yellow, so yeah. Yellowbottom. Okay.

The geology’s a bit more interesting than the mere fact of gold-speckled gravels being swept down river. So let’s have a look at the place. Here’s a map, for those who like to get oriented. You can also see a rather more precise location at Flickr.

Lockwood and Aaron inspect the local geology.

As you drive up Quartzville Drive, following the Middle Santiam River, you’ll see progressively more hydrothermically altered rocks. Some of it’s recognizably basalt or andesite, some rhyolite; some of it’s so altered you can’t tell what it used to be. Then you come to this place, just in time for lunch, and the first thing you notice is that you’re not among extrusives anymore. Instead of cooked volcanic materials that erupted onto the surface, you’re standing on something that manifestly cooled underground.

Macro of diorite, thumb for scale.

This is a coarse-grained volcanic rock. Mind you, the river’s plucked a lot of the grains out on this sample, but they’re still there. Knowing the basics of how molten rocks cool and crystallize, you can tell at a glance that this stuff cooled slowly underground. If you know your minerals, you’ll be able to identify most of the dark ones as hornblende, and the lighter ones as plagioclase feldspar. This is diorite, which erupts as andesite. This stuff got so far and no further: it stayed beneath the surface, cooling gradually, although we can’t quite say chillin’.

Left side of the falls.

It’s massive, and it’s very, very hard. It’s resisted the power of the river to wear it down. Lockwood thinks the falls were created by a fault – the region’s littered with them, great and small, and a fault fits the picture. I’m not sure when the last movement would have been, but it’s been a while, judging from the wear and tear on these rocks. Yet they’re still pretty rugged.

Right side of falls.

Did I mention this stuff was hard? Ancient folk had a hard time working it: Egyptians used it to beat granite into submission. And, if Wikipedia is to be believed, it was valued highly enough “that the first great Mesopotamian empire—the Empire of Sargon of Akkad — listed the taking of diorite as a purpose of military expeditions.” One assumes they let some other poor buggers cut it into manageable blocks before they went to war over it.

A tilted block of diorite at the falls.

Diorite tells some interesting stories, not all of them having to do with Egyptians and marauding Akkadians. When you see diorite, you know there’s been a subduction zone nearby. This is a rock of volcanic arcs and cordilleran mountain building, where mafic rock has partially melted, and the result of that partial melt has moseyed up toward the surface. Sometimes, it erupts as andesite. Sometimes, it cools in place, forming plutons and batholiths and stocks. So, even if we didn’t know we’re in the Western Cascades, which were the old volcanic arc above the descending slab of the Juan de Fuca plate before its descent slowed and shallowed and caused the arc to migrate eastward, we’d still know we’re in subduction territory. And if we knew its age – 18 million years or thereabouts – we’d know the subduction zone is likely still nearby.

Lockwood and Aaron explore an interesting bit.

Blobs of this stuff are found in quite a few places in the Quartzville district. The Oregon geologic map I’ve linked list their ages as 8 to 22 million years. And while they intruded, they sent heated fluids circulating through the existing rocks. Hydrothermal fluids cooked the system, deposited all sorts of minerals, including the copious amounts of quartz that gave Quartzville its name, and left the gold that gave the town its brief raison d’être.

But it’s not just flakes of gold and a healthy amount of diorite you’ll find at this spot. Look at the photo above, and notice the rather large chunk missing. Can you guess why there’s a great gouge there?

Here’s a hint:


Looks a bit like a maniacal home improvement addict went through caulking cracks, doesn’t it? And what a lovely, restful, blue-gray-green color they chose! Quite a few cracks in the diorite are filled with this stuff, but it ain’t from the Home Depot.

Dikes-n-diorite. Mah foot for scale.

Figured it out? Yup, that’s basalt, which intruded some time after the diorite cooled. It found cracks and joints and wedged itself right in. The diorite just chuckled indulgently. Silly basalt. Hard as you are, you’re quite soft compared to diorite. The river’s plucked big pieces of you right out.

Basalt boulder. Centimeter pencil for scale.

It’s smoothed and polished you.

Macro of basalt dike.

And in places, it’s just worn you right away, while the diorite still stands.

A neat curvy slot where a basalt dike used to be.

The whole place is riddled with basalt dikes. They invaded every available orifice, and where the river hasn’t finished removing them, they’re quite lovely. Here’s a quite nice one aiming at the falls.

Dike, diorite and falls.

This one shows quite nicely just how soft the basalt is in comparison to the diorite: notice how it’s been partially scoured out, while the diorite remains.

So there you are: the center of the system, the place that created the hydrothermal system that deposited all the pretty shiny things. It’s geologically important and aesthetically pleasing. If you feel like panning the gravels in those cold pools beneath the falls, you might even end up with a little bit of that yellow bottom. It’s a great spot, a perfect place to consume lunch and contemplate the awesome power of plate tectonics.

Last view o’ the falls.

Special thanks to Lockwood DeWitt and Aaron Barth, who made this trip so educational and fun.

The River Falls Over a Hydrothermal Heart

8 thoughts on “The River Falls Over a Hydrothermal Heart

  1. 2

    <pendantic> the correct phrase is in medias res. According to the Latin formulation, medium is an adjective and so must agree in gender, number and case with the noun it is modifying. Res is feminine, plural and in the accusative case, so the adjective would be medias.

    @Brian #1 – Rerum is the plural genetive of res. The preposition in normally takes the accusative case.</pendantic>

    Otherwise… wow. Beautiful geology.

  2. 4

    You beat me to it, Lady Godfrey!

    In the first picture, the stream bottom looks almost yellow. Or at least yellow-green.

    Thanks, Dana, for another great post. Who’d have thought I’d be learning about geology at my age!

  3. 7

    Interesting how that rock Aaron is standing on in the seventh photo resembles these pylons built across a powerful river in Siberia back in the early Twentieth Century. You can let your rock get worn that way or just save yourself the time, I suppose.

  4. 8

    To see a much bigger example of basalt dikes in diorite, take a look at Eagle Cap mountain in the Wallowas of NE Oregon. The view from Mirror Lake is magnificent, and there is a big rusty red streak through the glacier-carved face of the mountain.

    On the south side of the lake, I found a strange inclusion in the diorite. It looks like a chunk of a petrified log had got stuck in to the magma. I figure it would be too hot for the log to remain intact, but that is what it looks like. I have a photo of this thing, but I don’t have it hosted anywhere. I would be happy to supply the photo for your amusement.

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