Chronicles of America 

The Appalachian Highland

We have considered the Laurentian highland and the glaciation which centered there. Let us now turn to another highland only the northern part of which was glaciated. The Appalachian highland, the second great division of North America, consists of three parallel bands which extend southwestward from Newfoundland and the St. Lawrence River to Georgia and Alabama. The eastern and most important band consists of hills and mountains of ancient crystalline rocks, somewhat resembling those of the Laurentian highland but by no means so old. West of this comes a broad valley eroded for the most part in the softer portions of a highly folded series of sedimentary rocks which are of great age but younger than the crystalline rocks to the east. The third band is the Alleghany plateau, composed of almost horizontal rocks which lie so high and have been so deeply dissected that they are often called mountains.

The three Appalachian bands by no means preserve a uniform character throughout their entire length. The eastern crystalline band has its chief development in the northeast. There it comprises the whole of New England and a large part of the maritime provinces of Canada as well as Newfoundland. Its broad development in New England causes that region to be one of the most clearly defined natural units of the United States. Ancient igneous rocks such as granite lie intricately mingled with old and highly metamorphosed sediments. Since some of the rocks are hard and others soft and since all have been exposed to extremely long erosion, the topography of New England consists typically of irregular masses of rounded hills free from precipices. Here and there hard masses of unusually resistant rock stand up as isolated rounded heights, like Mount Katahdin in Maine. They are known as "monadnocks" from the mountain of that name in southern New Hampshire. In other places larger and more irregular masses of hard rock form mountain groups like the White Mountains, the Green Mountains, and the Berkshires, each of which is merely a great series of monadnocks.


Monadnock is an originally Native American term for an isolated hill or a lone mountain that has risen above the surrounding area, typically by surviving erosion. The name was taken from Mount Monadnock in New Hampshire (USA). The name is thought to derive from the Abenaki language, from either menonadenak ("smooth mountain") or menadena ("isolated mountain").

In the latitude of southern New York the crystalline rocks are compressed into narrow compass and lose their mountainous character. They form the irregular hills on which New York City itself is built and which make the suburbs of Westchester County along the eastern Hudson so diverse and beautiful. To the southeast the topography of the old crystalline band becomes still less pronounced, as may be seen in the rolling, fertile hills around Philadelphia. Farther south the band divides into two parts, the mountains proper and the Piedmont plateau. The mountains begin at the Blue Ridge, which in Virginia raises its even-topped heights mile after mile across the length of that State. In North Carolina, however, they lose their character as a single ridge and expand into the broad mass of the southern Appalachians. There Mount Mitchell dominates the eastern part of the American continent and is surrounded by over thirty other mountains rising to a height of at least six thousand feet. The Piedmont plateau, which lies at the eastern foot of the Blue Ridge, is not really a plateau but a peneplain or ancient lowland worn almost to a plain. It expands to a width of one hundred miles in Virginia and the Carolinas and forms the part of those States where most of the larger towns are situated. Among its low gentle heights there rises an occasional little Monadnock like Chapel Hill, where the University of North Carolina lies on a rugged eminence which strikingly recalls New England. For the most part, however, the hills of the Piedmont region are lower and more rounded than those in the neighborhood of Philadelphia. The country thus formed has many advantages, for it is flat enough to be used for agriculture and yet varied enough to be free from the monotony of the level plains.

The prolonged and broken inner valley forming the second band of the Appalachians was of some importance as a highway in the days of the Indians. Today the main highways of traffic touch it only to cross it as quickly as possible. From Lake Champlain it trends straight southward in the Hudson Valley until the Catskills have been passed. Then, while the railroads and all the traffic go on down the gorge of the Hudson to New York, the valley swings off into Pennsylvania past Scranton, Wilkesbarre, and Harrisburg. There the underlying rock consists of a series of alternately hard and soft layers which have been crumpled up much as one might wrinkle a rug with one's foot. The pressure involved in the process changed and hardened the rocks so much that the coal which they contain was converted into anthracite, the finest coal in all the world and the only example of its kind. Even the famous Welsh coal has not been so thoroughly hardened. During a long period of erosion the tops of the folded layers were worn off to a depth of thousands of feet and the whole country was converted into an almost level plain. Then in the late geological period known as the early Tertiary the land was lifted up again, and once more erosion went on. The soft rocks were thus etched away until broad valleys were formed. The hard layers were left as a bewildering succession of ridges with flat tops. A single ridge may double back and forth so often that the region well deserves the old Indian name of the "Endless Mountains." Southwestward the valley grows narrower, and the ridges which break its surface become straighter. Everywhere they are flat-topped, steep-sided, and narrow, while between them lie parts of the main valley floor, flat and fertile. Here in the south, even more clearly than in the north, the valley is bordered on the east by the sharply upstanding range of the crystalline Appalachians, while on the west with equal regularity it comes to an end in an escarpment which rises to the Alleghany plateau.

This plateau, the third great band of the Appalachians, begins on the south side of the Mohawk Valley. To the north its place is taken by the Adirondacks, which are an outlier of the great Laurentian area of Canada. The fact that the outlier and the plateau are separated by the low strip of the Mohawk Valley makes this the one place where the highly complex Appalachian system can easily be crossed. If the Alleghany plateau joined the Adirondacks, Philadelphia instead of New York would be the greatest city of America. Where the plateau first rises on the south side of the Mohawk, it attains heights of four thousand feet in the Catskill Mountains. We think of the Catskills as mountains, but their steep cliffs and table-topped heights show that they are really the remnants of a plateau, the nearly horizontal strata of which have not yet been worn away. Westward from the Catskills the plateau continues through central New York to western Pennsylvania. Those who have traveled on the Pennsylvania Railroad may remember how the railroad climbs the escarpment at Altoona. Farther east the train has passed alternately through gorges cut in the parallel ridges and through fertile open valleys forming the main floor of the inner valley. Then it winds up the long ascent of the Alleghany front in a splendid horseshoe curve. At the top, after a short tunnel, the train emerges in a wholly different country. The valleys are without order or system. They wind this way and that. The hills are not long ridges but isolated bits left between the winding valleys. Here and there beds of coal blacken the surface, for here we are among the rocks from which the world's largest coal supply is derived. Since the layers lie horizontally and have never been compressed, the same material which in the inner valley has been changed to hard, clean-burning anthracite here remains soft and smoky.

In its southwestern continuation through West Virginia and Kentucky to Tennessee the plateau maintains many of its Pennsylvanian characteristics, but it now rises higher and becomes more inaccessible. The only habitable portions are the bottoms of the valleys, but they are only wide enough to support a most scanty population. Between them most of the land is too rough for anything except forests. Hence the people who live at the bottoms of the valleys are strangely isolated. They see little or nothing of the world at large or even of their neighbors. The roads are so few and the trails so difficult that the farmers cannot easily take their produce to market. Their only recourse has been to convert their bulky corn into whisky, which occupied little space in proportion to its value. Since the mountaineer had no other means of getting ready money, it is not strange that he became a moonshiner and fought bitterly for what he genuinely believed to be his rights in that occupation. Education has not prospered on the plateau because the narrowness of the valleys causes the population to be too poor and too scattered to support schools. For the same reason feuds grow up. When people live by themselves they become suspicious. Not being used to dealing with their neighbors, they suspect the motives of all but their intimate friends. Moreover, in those deep valleys, with their steep sides and their general inaccessibility, laws cannot easily be enforced, and therefore each family takes the law into its own hands.

Today the more rugged parts of the Appalachian system are chiefly important as a hindrance to communication. On the Atlantic slope of the old crystalline band there are great areas of gentle relief where an abundant population can dwell. Westward on the edges of the plateau and the plains beyond a still greater population can find a living, but in the intervening space there is opportunity for only a few. The great problem is to cross the mountains as easily as possible. Each accessible crossing-place is associated with a city. Boston, as well as New York, owes much to the low Mohawk-Hudson route, but is badly handicapped because it has no easy means of crossing the eastern crystalline band. Philadelphia, on the other hand, benefits from the fact that in its vicinity the crystallizes are low and can readily be crossed even without the aid of the valleys of the Delaware and Schuylkill rivers. It is handicapped, however, by the Alleghany escarpment at Altoona, even though this is lower there than farther south. Baltimore, in the same way, owes much of its growth to the easy pathways of the Susquehanna on the north and the Potomac on the south. Farther south both the crystalline band and the Alleghany plateau become more difficult to traverse, so that communication between the Atlantic coast and the Mississippi Valley is reduced to small proportions. Happy is New York in its situation where no one of the three bands of the Appalachians opposes any obstacle.  

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