Acquisition No.: 2999-02
Title: "The Marsh Creek Meteorite"
Item History:

The “Marsh Creek Meteorite”?

It was just a fleeting little news article tucked between the year 2020’s noteworthy stories of the deadly Covid-19 virus and President Trump/Biden election politics. Fake news was rampant. Fake news about fake news was even more abundant. I was desperate for some science based communications of interest.

It seems that a man from Indonesia sold a meteorite that crashed through his house roof, for a record breaking 1.8 million dollars. At least that is what was reported on the radio news station that I happened to be listening to on the way home that day. Internet news had later proven the information to be totally bogus. Nonetheless the story sparked a memory deep in the dusty reaches of my aging brain.

Around the year 2000, I had completed some personal research on meteorites. I found the subject fascinating. I was within sight of completing the book “Bonneauville History and Lore” - a history of my hometown. During my research I discovered that a little over a century before that date, the largest meteorite ever found east of the Mississippi River had been discovered one foot below the soil on a farm about two miles south of Bonneauville. My previous fascination with, and basic knowledge of, the ancient objects added excitement to this discovery.

It had been written in several local early publications that one Jacob Snyder, the farm owner who discovered the “Mount Joy Meteorite” in 1887, offered his monolith for sale to fledgling Smithsonian Institute during the 19th Century. Being relatively new to the business of collecting and perhaps a bit short of funds, the institute rejected Mr. Snyder’s offer.

Alas, the astounding object ended up as the possession of the collector who chopped and sold small pieces of it. Eventually the largest piece found its way to a museum in Austria. Tests were taken of sample pieces. It turned out to be of compelling mineral content and crystalline structure. Somewhere along the line some small pieces were removed. A documented small slice occasionally shows up on the open market. The current land owner possesses a piece which is believed to have traveled with previous deed holders since the time of its original discovery.

As the Smithsonian became better established and the value of the meteorite became more appreciated, the Austrians sold a large portion to the Institute in Washington, DC. For some reason, I wanted to see and photograph and feel this interesting extraterrestrial behemoth. I was drawn with reverence, to the seeming spirituality of the piece.

Our family made a trip to D.C. as we had many times before. In our earlier married days we could leave early on a Sunday morning and get to the city in time to park in garages directly beneath the very museums we wished to visit. Bad people discovered good explosives. Gone are the times of parking under the museums. Still remaining are the phenomenally amazing treasures of the world that the buildings house.

Outside one of the museum buildings is a heavy bronze plaque. It states in part, in essence, that “everything you see in all of our collections buildings is one percent of what we own”. Astounding.

We entered the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History building which houses the National Meteorite Collection and proceeded directly to an upper floor on to our target exhibit.

It is said that the Smithsonian collection currently approaches over 50,000 meteorite specimens. Few but the most interesting are ever on display. Far past are the days of 19th century Jacob Snyder’s rare find which, upon our most recent visit to the museum, was locked away somewhere in a warehouse.

The extremely heated hell that the meteorite had suffered on the way through the Earth’s atmosphere, ultimately defined its elegant form. She lay on a neat presentation platform amongst others of her ilk. The surface color was that of a warm patinated rust, with the subtle color variations. Color shades were reminiscent of what a large iron tool burned in the intense heat of a barn fire might commonly display. Perhaps a billion miles of travel and a billion years of flight earned her that proud resting place of reverence and great respect.

Her shape somewhat typified other large meteorites in the display. It looked a bit like a six foot long oyster half shell had been randomly filled with six to twelve inch diameter plaster spheres. Molten iron alloy would have been poured into the shell. The plaster would then have been removed leaving a mix of hemispherical pock marks randomly over the metal surface. The depressions, (called regmaglypts), were formed as the piece passed through the Earth’s atmosphere.

I found her rugged to the greatest degree, yet elegantly beautiful. She is currently classified as an II AB meteorite which indicates that her makeup consists largely of iron and nickel.

So; what do white water canoeing and meteorites have in common? Possibly an uncanny sisterhood here exists.

For years in the past century, I yearly led a large group of about twenty co-workers on spring time canoe trips throughout eastern Pennsylvania. Challenges and risks increased each year. There were a couple of near disasters. Participants dropped out yearly.

The personal adrenalin-charged challenges of whitewater canoeing seemed to become addictive to me. Ultimately we were a group of dedicated paddlers whittled down to four in number. Each had his own reasons for traveling hundreds of miles on a weekend to paddle the most life-threatening whitewater that could be found in Pennsylvania or its surrounding states.

Like any good Audubon bird watcher, the best and most reliable paddler of our group of four was keeping a “life’s list”. His desire was to paddle and document as many different waterways as possible in his lifetime. That included local streams that could only be navigated at or near flood level. Spring rains with some good snow-melt added in to increase the water flow was ideal.

Marsh Creek, south of Gettysburg, is disrupted by several antiquated low-head dams. The dams were mostly created to harness power for milling operations. They are known as man killers because of their reputation for drowning victims in their inescapable reverse currents. They are respected and feared by experienced paddlers who by nature, seek out high water. The symmetrically moving water flowing over the low head abutments constantly swallow and then regurgitate water and any floating object, until the lungs are full and sinking becomes the only option. They are one of the reasons for the rigid rule; never whitewater canoe alone. A life vest serves minimal use in a flooded low head dam.

Carefully portaging the dams, we reached the desired several-hundred-yard long stretch of constricted water that we were anxiously anticipating. The waterway contained a random distribution of smooth, Volkswagen sized boulders. After some scouting for strainers (downed floating whole trees that were more than willing to entrap a body), we surfed the tumultuous rapid whitewater for a few hours and took turns rescuing each other. Tiny errors in judgement or reflex action allowed us to hone our rescuing and paddling skills for really big whitewater at another time and place. Some were elated to successfully perform an Eskimo roll in an open canoe at the doldrums below the rapids. By the time of this trip I had mastered the first half of the roll quite well.

A bit exhausted, we paddled off to the side of the creek below the rapids for a much needed break as was the norm. We were on the south side of the creek (“river right” to the seasoned paddler). An object of my keen interest soon appeared three or four feet above that day’s water level. The water level was another one or two feet above normal.

Far up the bank, from the lay of the tree line, there appeared to be a curve in a small narrow paved road. It was completely void of traffic. I was trying to pinpoint my location but as is typical of a vantage point on the water line, there was little to que in on unless one was kin to one of the kingfishers or herons scouting the waterway. It was the days before cell phones and their accompanying GPS systems.

The object of my attention sported the typical distinct rich brown color of its

kind, except a bit darker because it was wet. Decomposing leaf matter layered

most of its top surface. Lush green moss, thankful to have received the previous

day’s abundant rain, covered the past fall’s leaf matter on the top. It was a

beautiful micro-environment of nature. Some tiny creature’s entire universe was

represented here. Droplets of water dripped off the face of the microcosm and

coursed their way the final few feet over the muddy soil bank and to the creek.

The deeply pocked mass of metal was typical of how most large meteorites

appear. My mind flashed back to the Smithsonian, the Met in New York,

and to all of the great meteorites I had ever seen.

The piece reminded me most, of the Mount Joy Meteorite I saw years earlier at the Smithsonian. It was buried deep enough into the steep bank of the creek to stay anchored to the nearly vertical surface. How deep did it protrude into the bank I wondered? Just a few feet plus the exposed portion might exceed the size of the Smithsonian’s Mount Joy piece. It could be the largest meteorite ever found east of the Mississippi River I imagined. I placed my hand in one of the hemispherical recesses. The material was cold; iron cold. It was a fairly mild spring day but the water was still cold enough to demand wearing a wet suit. As a reminder, I wore one that was last worn by a young man who drowned paddling the Colorado River. In my state of elated exhaustion that follows an aggressive run through whitewater rapids, (in both directions) it did not occur to me to break a sampling off, possibly because I decided to keep the find a secret.

All was quiet but for the familiar roar of whitewater in the background and the occasional call of an avian curiosity seeker whose territory we were invading. Each of us four paddlers was in his own little self-selected adrenalin recovery space several canoe lengths apart –self-satisfied, loving life, and absorbing the highs of the trip.

I thought; I dare not tell my friends about the discovery. Ridicule and ruinous debate might result. Two of us had already had similar discussions several times regarding a beautifully and profusely fossilized cave that we would paddle into in order to take shelter from huge rapids near the entrance – on a different river. It was a favorite large Western PA river of ours. My “idiocy” for believing that one of Gods creations: fossil, volcanic, dinosaur, geological or whatever, could be more than a few thousand years old would surely be criticized through a Creationist debate. Heaven forbid that I should use science to define an eons old meteorite.

I deduced that my discovery might be safe. I remembered reading that a large percentage of the world’s population (and hopefully my counterparts) had no idea what a meteorite looked like.

Not long after this trip came the tragic loss of our son (who would occasionally accompany us on canoe trips as college time off allowed). Then came the death far too soon, of the one of us four paddlers which leaned himself most wonderfully towards natural leadership and enthusiasm for the sport. Ultimately grandfather, father, son, and grandson would pass. I was living the ancient fragmented Zen poem I once read with sadness. Those losses and more, greatly altered my life’s course. Our leader, appointed by his nature, was sometimes referred to as “one of the top ten white water paddlers on the East Coast”. He was gone. Another of our four moved to Colorado where the whitewater tumbled more swiftly. With the third, religious fanaticism seemed to be causing a widening rift. Age was creeping up. The paddling group dissolved with the funerals.

It took years to begin to recover from my losses. The old red canoe was stored high up in the shed, out of sight, out of mind, slowly gathering dust, and perhaps begging for one last drop of foaming water. I forgot about the meteorite for a couple of decades. I did not forget about the rule “never paddle whitewater alone.”

I was only recently reminded of the ancient visitor from space, and its potential importance. Thanks to a radio note and a newspaper article regarding a deceptively misrepresented meteorite on the opposite side of the earth, my memory was rekindled.

Primitive peoples of the world often worshipped meteorites as gods. They were seen as the origin of creation, good magic, or great medicine. Compared to stone they were remarkable for making weapons and tools. From far reaches of the world, in the United States and abroad they have been revered, stolen, studied, collected, caressed and faked.

The geological makeup of the Bonneauville/Gettysburg area does not lend itself to molten iron lava that might display pock marks similar to those of a meteorite. Slag and partially refined ores do sometimes possess large pock marks. No industry in the area of the find could have produced and then discarded such a mass of iron, even in the form of furnace slag.

The object likely bombarded the Gettysburg area eons before Lee’s earth-shaking artillery rounds pounded the battlefield nearby. The meteorite shower that delivered the Mount Joy Meteorite to within a few miles of Bonneauville could easily be surmised as the taxi that delivered this new find on the banks of Marsh Creek. A spectacular meteor shower rained its fiery precipitation around the Gettysburg area a few decades before Mr. Snyder made his fascinating discovery. On Nov. 18, 1833, a Gettysburg Sentinel newspaper author noted: ”One of the most splendid and awful spectacles the mind can conceive of, was witnesses in the heavens… The whole heavens appeared to be illuminated by countless meteors, of different sizes, which darted frequently horizontally, leaving long trains…as if it were ‘snowing stars.” Reports from many other places echoed what he wrote.” Some believe that this was the meteor shower that delivered the Mount Joy Meteorite. I do not. It would seem that an object of its mass falling at terminal velocity would have planted itself more than one foot below the surface of the ground.

There is a Pennsylvania whitewater guide book that described the stretch of rapids on Marsh Creek that we so enjoyed that day. The turbulent water is located between Old Rt. 15 South and the once famed Natural Dam recreation area. Not too close to either. I recall neither the name nor the author of the book. We used the guide the day that I noticed the behemoth space rock on the southerly bank of the creek.

“Too many irons in the fire,” the old saying went. The maxim related to a molten mass of pock marked iron and ash that was left at the bottom of a blacksmith’s forge as a result of a smith trying to do too many things at once. The saying was commonly used to remind youth of the frivolity of doing too many things at once.

Perhaps fifteen years ago I was working in my blacksmith’s shop. I inadvertently heated too many projects at one time and melted them all together. Not too willing to accept defeat, I continued cranking the forge and burning bituminous coal at three-thousand degrees. The mass began to take on the look of a small meteorite. It even had a telltale looking asymmetrical hole burned clear through near the center. I removed the piece from the fire and dropped it in some muddy water below the shop’s rainspout drain to cool. I forgot about the object until much later. When I noticed it again, I retrieved it and placed it on the sandstone garden wall. The palm-sized piece had already started taking on a rusty brown appearance. Coupled with the mud that had crept into the tiniest crevices, it looked pretty convincing. It still wore the gaseous bubbles common to a piece of furnace slag, so there would be no fooling an expert.

An acquaintance of mine stopped by the blacksmith shop one Saturday morning. His son worked for me in my smithy when he was not in school.

The man was a hopelessly addicted crack cocaine user and was always looking for a deal where he could make another dollar to support his habit. I allowed him to visit hoping that, in time, I could talk him out of his addiction. He browsed around the shop looking at various wrought iron projects. He stopped beside the meteorite looking item. “What is this?” He inquired. “Might be a meteorite”, I replied jokingly. “Might not be too” I added quickly as I noticed the intensity of his rapid mood change.

I gifted him the iron piece. It wasn’t until years later after he moved from the area that I noticed he transformed from a Civil War artifacts dealer (He excelled at metal detecting, selling and trading relics) to a dealer in all sorts of extraterrestrial rock visitors.

It was likely I and my faux pas of melted iron that set him up as an on dealer of small “meteorites”.

Meteorites can easily be faked. Analysis of potential candidates is essential. None the less, the Marsh Creek Meteorite is far too large to have been man-made of scrap iron. Large deposits of iron ore do not seem to be a product of the area.

Information on the Mount Joy Meteorite varies a bit over the century and a half since its discovery. What I have written he regarding the piece is simply some of what I have read. Although I am at best, an amateur in the field of meteorites, I am by no means a meteoricist. As a result of my decades of novice observations, I strongly feel that the “Marsh Creek Meteorite” could be a sister to the “Mount Joy Meteorite.”

Karl Orndorff