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The Ancient Past of Palatine, Illinois

Did you ever wonder what you would see if you could climb into a time machine on your front lawn and take a trip back to an ancient world? Back before settlers arrived from the east? Before Native Americans came in from the west? Before glaciers slid down from the north?

I don’t own a time machine, but Palatine does have a pair of time capsules in the form of water wells. In 1969 the J. P. Miller Artesian Well Co. dug a thirteen-hundred-foot well at 550 N. Smith St. Two years later the company dug a two-thousand-foot well at 148 W. Illinois Ave. The wells supplied water to the village before the introduction of Lake Michigan water in 1986.

‘Cuttings’ that were removed from the boreholes were described on site in a ‘mud log’ or well log. The cuttings were then transported to a huge warehouse at the Illinois State Geological Survey (ISGS) in Champaign, Illinois. With geology as a guide we can read the well logs, study the cuttings and learn the story of Palatine’s ancient past.

And what a story it is! For millions of years Palatine was the site of rainforests, beaches and shallow tropical seas. Tropical because our 27-mile-thick granite crust floats on a taffy-like ocean of basalt. The whole continent once sat squarely on the equator, but has moved north over the eons.

In time grains of sand pressed together to become sandstone. Coral and seashells crushed into limestone. Debris from rainforests fell on the ground and compacted into shale and coal. The sedimentary rock beneath us can be seen today in cuttings at ISGS. Well logs can be read on their website.

Below Palatine four thousand feet of sedimentary rock lies atop a basement of smooth granite. Our trip begins then with a time machine sitting on bare rock and proceeds through hundreds of millions of years of weather: sun, wind, rain, snow and ice eroding the granite. Please be prepared as shallow seas will be washing around us, ebbing and flowing in an endless cycle.

A few chapters of our story are missing from the boreholes because glaciers destroyed the evidence. However, we can look at cuttings and corings from other wells around the region to fill in the missing pieces. The following is a brief introduction to Palatine’s ancient past:

We start our trip a half billion years ago on a hot, almost lifeless, surface of red granite. Please buckle up. Overhead masks will deploy because there is almost no oxygen in the air. Distant volcanoes belch smoke and a thin layer of slime can be seen on the rock around us, an early form of life on Earth.

Moving forward in time crustal plates climb over each other forming mountains to the east and north. As the mountains erode we notice granite boulders rolling downhill toward us. The boulders eventually break up into sand. The sand will get squeezed into sandstone.

Looking out the window our continent moves over a hotspot in the basalt which thins the crust. The crust sinks a little and a saltwater sea moves in and floods the area. Fortunately our time machine floats! Mollusks and crabs live and die by the billions leaving their shells on the seabed. Eventually the shells will become limestone deposits.

As millions of years elapse the first plants produce oxygen and usher in an explosion of animal life. Rainforest in our area teems with insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Remains of animals and plants will build up and under pressure turn rich soil into shale and coal.

Suddenly, sixty-six million years before the present, a five-mile-wide meteor strikes the Earth creating the Yucatan Peninsula. A plume of noxious fumes blocks the sun. Acid rain and cold weather kill off the dinosaurs and many other creatures. (Yes, dinosaurs probably roamed ancient Illinois!)

Just as the continent returns to its previous elevation it moves into cooler temperate regions and we see mammals standing ten feet high at the shoulder. Mastodons browse among spruce trees and mammoths graze on prairie grass. The gentle beasts are no danger to us if we leave them alone.

Soon the weather turns cold and one summer the snow from the previous winter fails to melt. Snow and ice build up and Palatine is overrun by a glacier. Growing a mile high, it slowly moves south scraping the Earth and destroying everything in its path.

The glacier finally melts and as we return to the present we are relieved to find our house surrounded by trees gently swaying in the wind. Our dog is wagging its tail and we realize that we live in a precious sliver of time within the fascinating story of Palatine’s ancient past.

Dave Hammer