UAA’s rock garden is a real treasure

It’s no secret that geologist love their rocks. In fact, UAA geologists love rocks so much, an entire garden dedicated to rocks and geology is on display in the west quad.

Before you write off a garden full of rocks, the geological features displayed here are have a very interesting history and come from a combined effort or many individuals, organizations, and corporations showing off something unique to Alaska.

The garden’s origins can be traced back 15 years and credited to UAA alum Dan Smith. While in Red Dog Mine—the world’s largest zinc mine—he was able to get his hands on a rather large piece of zinc-lead silver ore, formed on the ancient sea floor. This is the one of the main attractions in the garden, weighing in at 3,087 pounds and worth $25,000.00.

The task of getting this piece to UAA was no easy one. A combined effort of air cargo and a moving company landed it at UAA to start the rock garden.

The other large pieces found in the garden look like ordinary boulders from far away but are actually petrified wood pieces from a sub-tropic forest that once existed in the Matanuska Valley.

“Petrified forests are unique and unusual,” said Kristine Crossen, professor of geological sciences at UAA. Most wood decomposes before it is able to be petrified.

As with the zinc, the discovery of these pieces was quite unusual. Mat-Su coalmines were closed in the 1960s and but forgotten until the state gave money for restoration.

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In the process, several trees were found in the bedrock. Two former UAA professors, Anne Posh and Marilyn Barker received a contract from the Alaska Department of Natural Resources to take a better look at these fossils and identify them. It was discovered they were from the Paleocene Era—over 60 million years ago. The ADNR then donated these to UAA’s growing rock garden.

As the idea of a geological rock garden began to catch on, more donations and contributions began flowing in. Other points of interest are large glacial deposits left from a glacier that once rested over UAA campus, turbidities that formed from deep ocean environments and the “popcorn” rock. It is stated that no other specimen like the “popcorn” rock has ever been noted in the entire world.

UAA landscaper Pat Leary was the aesthetic coordinator of the garden and had a say as to where most of the rocks would be placed. Leary also spruced the garden up a little bit, adding an old mining cart from the 1800s that was donated by Til Ella and Mike Wallace.

It came from an abandoned coalmine in Sutton that closed in 1968. The hike up the mountain was made with a dump truck and a Bobcat, all for the sake of the mine cart. It rests on railroad track donated by the Alaska Rail Road.

Another large mine bucket came from Nome.

“It was really fun to all put together,” Leary said.

A huge amount of effort and pride has gone into making this garden a special place in the heart of our campus.

“[The garden] is a remarkable effort by many people and groups, and it’s a treasure here at UAA,” Crossen said.

Self-guided tours of the rock garden can be taken, with the aid of an information booklet compiled by Crossen. Leary also hosts school tours. So far this year she has done three school tours for our younger audience interested in geology.

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