Surficial geology and geomorphology of Potter County, Pennsylvania

Professional Paper 288




Potter County is located in the Appalachian Plateaus of north-central Pennsylvania and contains the headwaters of the Genesee River, the Allegheny River, and the Susquehanna River. Drift of Wisconsin age covers the northeastern part of the county. This study includes a detailed survev of the surficial deposits of the Genesee quadrangle in north-central Potter County and a reconnaissance of the remainder of the county; a soil survey and a botanical survey were carried on concurrently. The region is a deeply dissected plateau having extensive areas of steeply sloping land separated by narrow ridges and valleys; there is very little level land. Near the junction of the three watersheds the uplands rise to altitudes of more than 2,500 feet. The maximum relief in the Susquehanna drainage is more than 1,500 feet; in the Genesee and Allegheny drainage it. is about 800 feet. Valley walls are steep (15° to 30°), and the uplands have gentle slopes (0.5° to 10°). The drainage pattern is trellised. The climate is continental. Temperatures range from about -30° F. to more than 100° F. The average annual precipitation ranges approximately from 34 to 42 inches. Floods may occur at any season of the year. The large volumes of water from rain or melting snow carried by small streams come from springs. There is little precise data on frost in the ground, but it is probable that the ground seldom freezes in forested areas. The soils of Potter County have relatively immature profiles with poorly developed horizons that commonly have many characteristics inherited from their parent materials. At the great soil group level, the zonal soils are divided into Podzol soils and Brown Podzolic soils. Many soils have a high silt content in the upper part of the profile, apparently derived (at least partly) from a mantle of eolian silt. Mos~ of Potter County is covered by second-growth forests consisting of 40- to 60-year-old hardwood stands. The present forests growing on slopes and summits are composed approximately of 25 species of trees. The northern hardwood region includes most of the county, with an oak-forest region near the borders, principally along its southern margin. Potter County is underlain by sandstone, siltstone, shale, conglomerate, and minor amounts of coal and calcareous rock that range in age from Late Devonian to Pennsylvanian. These rocks form broad open folds that strike northeast. South of the border of the Wisconsin drift, and possibly at two localities inside the drift border, are scattered remnants of ancient soils (here called paleosol), that were formed in preWisconsin time-probably during the Sangamon interglacial stage. This paleosol ranges in texture from clay loam to silt loam, ranges in color from yellowish red to red, includes a few percent to more than 25 percent of rock fragments, and apparently contains a small percentage of gibbsite and varying amounts of kaolinite. Known thicknesses range from 1 to 33 feet. Paleosol was developed on diverse kinds of parent material, such as till, stratified drift, colluvium, and residuum, at altitudes ranging from a few hundred to 2,400 feet. The climatic conditions under which the paleosol formed are uncertain; however, these ancient soils may record an episode of subtropical climatic conditions during which lateritic soils were formed. Perhaps these soils are analogous to the Red-Yellow Podzolic soils of southeastern United States. Except for one possible remnant, no pre-Wisconsin drift has been recognized in Potter County. The Wisconsin glacial deposits of Potter County belong to either the Iowan or Tazewell substages and are dominantly till with minor amounts of glaciofluvial deposits. Erratics of igneous or metamorphic rock comprise less than 0.1 percent of the total number of rock fragments. The till is slightly weathered to depths ranging from 3 to about 12 feet. The drift border is indefinite and has been drawn at the southern limit of erratics or well-rounded or striated pebbles and is only locally marked by a terminal moraine or by a distinct change in the surficial deposits. The drift border is relatively straight and crosses the Genesee quadrangle in a northwesterly direction with little regard for the major topographic features, thus suggesting that the Wisconsin ice sheet had a relatively straight and steep front. Over most of the unglaciated part of Potter County, the bedrock is concealed beneath rubble that probably was formed during the Iowan or Tazewell substage, almost contemporaneously with the adjacent drift. In general, the rubble is thickest and most extensive within about 10 miles of the drift border, becoming thinner and less continuous farther away. The apparent parallelism between a belt of thick periglacial deposits and the drift border suggests that the deposits result from climatic factors in operation while the Wisconsin ice sheet was nearby. Ancient soil structures or patterned ground occur at, or near, the surface of both the periglacial deposits and the adjacent drift. These ancient soil structures are so similar to modern forms in arctic or alpine environments that they are considered to be the result of vigorous frost action. Many of the structures are believed to be a result of down-slope movement of debris by solifluction, facilitated by a frozen subsoil as much as 10 feet deep. Perennially frozen ground may have been present, but this is not a prerequisite. The periglacial deposits underlie long smooth slopes that extend from ridge crest to valley bottom. Flood plains are absent near the headwaters of many streams, the valley walls forming a V-shaped profile. While frost action was in progress, forests probably were restricted to flood plains, lower slopes, and scattered upland areas. Large parts of the upland were bare or partly covered by tundra vegetation; elsewhere, there were scattered trees but no dense forest. 1 2 SURFICIAL GEOLOGY AND GEOMORPHOLOGY OF POTTER COUNTY, PENNSYLVANIA Recent alluvium and alluvial fans include sand and sandy loams, 1 to 3 feet thick, that overlie gravel. The alluvium contains organic matter and lenses of finer materials. Thickness ranges from a few to more than 100 feet. Along the principal streams the alluvium probably overlies Pleistocene deposits. Most of the alluvial fans are composed of unstratified rubbly, pebbly, cobbly. or bouldery sandy loams to silty clay loams with local lenses of stratified sand and gravel. The alluvial fans mapped in the Genesee quadrangle probably include both Wisconsin stage and Recent deposits. The summits of the A.ppalachian Plateaus in north-central Pennsylvania have long been recognized as the remnants or traces of one or more peneplains. To test this hypothesis, a restored contour map was prepared to show the configuration of a supposed peneplain on the assumption that the plateau tops are remnants of such an old erosion surface. The restored contours delineate a surface that corresponds roughly to rock structure. In general, the uplands slope parallel to the dip of the bedrock. The major streams, such as the West Branch Susquehanna River, cross the ridges and valleys of the restored surface in such a way that it is difficult to suppose that the restored surface was ever graded to these streams. On the contrary, it is probable that the restored surface never existed and that the plateau tops are structurally controlled surfaces held up by sandstone and conglomerate beds in the Pottsville and Pocono formations. The plateau tops may have been lowered by erosion as much as 200 feet during the Pleistocene-in other words, after the major streams were incised. If this portion of the Appalachian Plateaus was ever reduced to a peneplain, such a hypothetical surface must have lain many hundreds of feet above the uplands of the present day. The only alternative that might involve peneplanation is the improbable hypothesis that the plateau tops are remnants of a slightly deformed peneplain and that the peneplain was folded along the axes of the Appalachian orogeny. This remote possibility is not supported by any known evidence. The geomorphic analysis yields no new data on the origin of the cross-axial drainage. Regardless of whether the plateaus are peneplain remnants or are structurally controlled surfaces, the beginning of the major southeastward-flowing streams long antedates the existing landscape. The geomorphic history of Potter County begins with an assumed long interval of erosion during the Mesozoic and early Cenozoic eras, for which no record remains in this area. The southeast master drainage was established by the latter part of the Tertiary period (perhaps at a much earlier date), probably as the result of the northwestward migration of the Atlanticinterior divide. In late Pliocene(?) time, areas adjacent to parts of the West Branch Susquehanna River-and probably elsewhere-had a moderate relief ranging from 300 to 700 feet. Some segments of the West Branch meandered across a broad valley that lay about 900 feet above the present streams. The landscape probably was covered by deep residual soils, perhaps by saprolite. The early Pleistocene history of Potter County is essentially unknown. No deposits of the Kansan stage are known except for a possible trace of pre-Illinoian drift on the uplands in central Potter County (Ayers Hill quadrangle). Some deposits in central and eastern Pennsylvania may be of Kansan age. It is probable that the assumed Aftonian regolith was removed by mass movements and other processes during the Kansan stage, thus resulting in a lowering of the plateau tops by as much as 10 feet. By the close of the Yarmouth(?) interglacial stage the major streams were incised to essentially their present depths. The climates of the Yarmouth interglacial stage probably produced deep residual soils over the landscape, parts of which may still be preserved in the paleosol remnants of the present day. No Illinoian drift is known in Potter County, but drift assigned to this stage occurs in areas to the northwest and to the southeast. Some valleys, such as Kettle Creek valley, were filled with sand and gravel alluvium to depths of as much as 150 feet above their present flood plains. It is assumed that the Yarmouth residual soils were removed by mass movements and other processes induced by a periglacial climate, thus lowering the plateau tops by as much as 10 feet. During the Sangamon interglacial stage, deep (10-to-20 foot) residual soils or paleosol were developed in Potter County and probably throughout much of Pennsylvania, perhaps as a result of lateritic weathering in a subtropical climate. It is possible that the paleosol was largely removed by mass movements and by running water during late Sangamon time. During either the Iowan or Tazewell substages of the Wisconsin (perhaps the Iowan), the ice sheet advanced into the northeastern part of Potter County. The drift is similar to the Olean drift (local usage). The paleosol was almost completely removed by mass movements and other processes induced· by a periglacial climate, prior to drift deposition. This removal probably resulted in a lowering of the plateau tops by as much as 10 feet since Sangamon time. Nearly contemporaneously with drift deposition, the periglacial deposits were formed by frost heaving, solifluction, and fluvial transport in areas outside the drift border. Soil structures or patterned ground were developed on both the drift and the periglacial deposits. It is probable that the forests in the periglacial area were greatly restricted and that large areas on the uplands were essentially treeless. Little is known about the history of Potter County in postOlean time. Presumably, forests completely covered the county by the onset of the next substage, during which the Binghamton drift of MacClintock and Apfel was deposited. This drift also is found in southern New York State. The formation of the alluvium and alluvial fans probably began in the Tazewell substage and continued during the Recent epoch. Since these deposits were formed there has been very little dissection. There is little, if any, difference between soils developed on periglacial deposits and soils developed on drift. The roots of fallen trees have disturbed the soil horizons, and it is unlikely that the existing soil profiles are more than 500 years old. The forested landscape of Potter County has a distinctive microrelief ranging from a few inches to a few feet of mounds and pits produced by the roots of fallen trees. Most mounds and pits range from 10 to 20 feet in length and from 6 to 15 feet in width. On level land, many mounds are oriented with their long axes trending northward, and in some areas the orientation is random. On slopes, the mounds are oriented with their long axes at right angles to the maximum slope as a result of trees falling downslope. The toppling of trees increases the permeability of surficial deposits and mixes and destroys the soil horizons. The microrelief is a factor in forest development. The toppling of trees on slopes is a significant agent of slope erosion. The process loosens, breaks up, or overturns the upper 2 to 3 feet of the forest soil, and it tends to make the surficial layer more stony and to produce features resembling soil structures.

Additional publication details

Publication type:
Publication Subtype:
USGS Numbered Series
Surficial geology and geomorphology of Potter County, Pennsylvania
Series title:
Professional Paper
Series number:
Year Published:
U.S. Government Printing Office
Contributing office(s):
Pennsylvania Water Science Center
72 p.