More on Charles Hitchcock

Early Years

Hitchcock was born in Amherst, Massachusetts. He was the son of Edward Hitchcock (Professor of geology and natural theology and later President of Amherst College), and of Orra White Hitchcock, a classically educated woman and illustrator of much of her husband’s work. Charles attended Amherst College and initially considered entering the ministry.

The elder Hitchcock (1793-1864) was noted for his study of Connecticut River Valley geology, especially its dinosaur tracks and glacial features. The books and maps published by the Massachusetts Geological Survey in the 1830’s and 1840’s, during Edward Hitchcock’s tenure as Massachusetts State Geologist, served as models for later surveys.

When Edward served as Vermont State Geologist from 1856 to 1861, Charles was one of his chief assistants. The results of the Vermont survey, a two volume “Report on the Geology of Vermont: Descriptive, Theoretical, Economical, and Scenographical” were published in 1861. That same year, Charles, following in his father’s footsteps, was appointed State Geologist of Maine. Charles was co-author with Ezekiel Holmes of two reports resulting from this appointment: ”Report upon the Natural History and Geology of the State of Maine” (1861 and 1862).

The New Hampshire Survey and Hitchcock’s Later Studies of New Hampshire Geology

In 1866-1867, Charles studied at the Royal School of Mines in London, examined fossils in the British Museum, and visited glaciers in Switzerland. On his return, he became State Geologist of New Hampshire and Professor of geology and mineralogy at Dartmouth College.

The New Hampshire Survey took ten years, and in 1874 the first of the three volumes of “The Geology of New Hampshire: a Report Comprising the Results of Explorations Ordered by the Legislature” was published. In 1878, the “Atlas” that is the subject of this web site was published to accompany the survey’s report.

This geological survey of New Hampshire was notable in several respects. Having worked on the earlier Vermont survey, Hitchcock extended his work east from Vermont into New Hampshire. The survey delineated the major rock units in the state and, concentrating on areas of economic interest, studied the gold deposits of the Ammonoosuc district in detail. The overall pattern of rock and sediment distribution on the maps of the “Atlas” and the locations and physical descriptions of features in the “Geology” generally hold up well over a hundred years later. Although still somewhat controversial in the 1870’s, Hitchcock’s report and atlas recognize the dominant role that glaciation played in forming the State’s landscape and deposits of surficial materials (sand, gravel, and other unconsolidated materials).

His analysis of the origins of rock units is more dated. In the late 19th century many principles that we now take for granted were not well understood. For instance, Hitchcock recognized that igneous rocks underlie large areas of the state. However, some of his theories for their origins are far off the mark. He envisioned the granites forming as lava erupting in an oceanic setting rather than forming through intrusions of liquid magma into older rocks deep beneath the Earth’s surface.

As part of the survey’s activities, Hitchcock created the meteorological station on the summit of Mount Washington. In Hitchcock’s day, the station telegraphed its reports from the mountain. Today, weather observations from Mount Washington
remain an important source of meteorological data, not only for their role in predicting daily weather, but also for more extensive climatological and environmental research projects.

New Hampshire Topographic Relief Models

Hitchcock and NH survey members created several large relief maps depicting the topography of the state. A. L. King (1985a, 1985b, 1990) and individuals at the NH Division of Historical Resources and the NH State Library have researched the history of these relief maps.

The relief model on display in James Hall on the UNH campus maps is about 15 feet in length from north to south (a scale of one mile to the inch). It was initially housed at Dartmouth and moved to Durham in 1893-1894. It is probably the map referred to by Hitchcock in his New Hampshire survey report as having been begun in 1870. Topography is shown for both Vermont and New Hampshire, while Hitchcock’s bedrock geology is only included for New Hampshire. Some of this bedrock information was revised in 1934. After renovation of James Hall, the relief model will still be displayed. Plans are underway to seek funding to restore the model.

The minutes from the Trustees meeting of April 18, 1893 contain this intriguing entry:

Professor Hitchcock submitted a conditional proposition to exchange a raised map of New Hampshire and Vermont for certain minerals in Culver Hall in Hanover. On motion of Mr. Stone it was voted that Professor Pettee be authorized to effect such exchange to the best possible advantage of the College.

Dartmouth College has a model similar to the one at UNH. Evidently the mineral exchange referred to in the minutes took place (or some other arrangement was made) since the model at Dartmouth was created by Hitchcock to replace the one that accompanied UNH to Durham. This model has not been revised and depicts Hitchcock’s own interpretation of the geology of the state. It is currently on display in Dartmouth's Fairchild Tower.

The New Hampshire State Library in Concord has a New Hampshire model at the same scale showing only topography and political information. It also includes some 20th century revisions. This model was commissioned by the NH legislature in 1876 and was originally placed in the NH State House. In 1990, it was rediscovered after more than thirty years in a NH Department of Transportation storage area.

Hitchcock’s Other Activities

Concurrent with and following his studying New Hampshire geology and teaching at Dartmouth, Hitchcock evaluated ore deposits of many types, identified glacial features throughout the northeast, and did extensive work with volcanic rocks in Hawaii. He is credited as being the first (in 1868) to suggest that Long Island was formed as part of the terminal moraine of a continental glacier. In 1872, as part of the Ninth Census, Hitchcock compiled, with W.P. Blake, the first geologic map of the entire United States. He published several other versions of this map.

The range of geography covered by Hitchcock’s research (New England to Florida and the Caribbean to the U.S. Southwest, Pacific Northwest and Hawaii) would be common for a geologist today. However, the breadth of his research and publications is less typical of modern more highly specialized scientists. Such breadth is very much a reflection of the opportunities in the still relatively new discipline of geology in the latter part of the 19th century.