“Father of Oregon geology” left his mark on the state — literally
Thomas Condon didn’t set out to become a geologist; he was a Congregationalist minister with a hobby of collecting fossils. And although over the years his hobby took over, he never lost touch with his ministerial kindliness.
By Finn J.D. John — October 30, 2016
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in February 2009, which you’ll find here.
If you’ve ever taken the National Parks Service tour of the Oregon Caves, you’ll probably remember the part where the guide points out a stalagmite covered with names, scrawled out on its creamy surface in the crabbed longhand style of the 1800s.
The names are those of University of Oregon geology professor Thomas Condon and his students. And the students had journeyed all the way down to Cave Junction from Eugene — no mean feat of overland travel in those days — to learn about their state’s geology firsthand.
It was a classic Thomas Condon move, this field-trip-with-the-whole-class thing. Condon was a true state treasure, and possibly the most gifted college teacher in state history. And yet, oddly, he fell into the profession almost by accident.
Thomas Condon was born in County Cork, Ireland, in 1922, and emigrated to New York when he was 10 years old. When he came of age, he went off to seminary, and when he was 30, as a newly minted Congregationalist minister, he embarked with his wife, Cornelia, on a sailing ship for a journey “around the Horn” to the Oregon Territory. They arrived in 1852.
The young Reverend was not initially very successful in his work. The church started him out in St. Helens, then moved him to Forest Grove, and then south to the Albany area. Nothing quite clicked. He was working long hours teaching and preaching; the congregations were small and slow-growing, and consequently so was the Condon family’s income.
But then, in 1862, gold was found in China Creek, setting off a gold rush in eastern Oregon and Idaho. All those hard-living miners needed spiritual guidance, and there wasn’t much holding the Condons back; so they followed the gold trail out to the wild new frontier, settling into The Dalles.
It was there that Condon found his niche as a minister. At first, there were only five members of Condon’s Congregational church, and they met for services in the top floor of the courthouse, above the jail; smoke and sound filtered easily up through gaps in the floorboards, and on some Sunday mornings the rowdies in the hoosegow downstairs, just sobering up after an epic Saturday-night spree, would loudly sing along with the hymns using bawdy lyrics that they made up. Still, thanks in large part to the basic decency and humility of Condon himself, the church began to grow steadily.
Now, Condon had always been a geologist and rockhound, fascinated with fossils. In The Dalles, his collection really started to grow. All the miners knew of his interest, and when they stumbled across old bones and interesting fragments, they collected them for him. He also found time to go on expeditions of his own — often with Bible in one hand, rock hammer in the other. He also found the best place to write his sermons was out in the beauty of Nature.
During the Civil War, Condon’s enthusiasm for fossils and geology spread to the soldiers at Fort Dalles, who took to collecting specimens while on patrol. Condon, who diligently kept up with the news from the nascent national geology/paleontology community, recognized some of their finds as really significant. So in 1865, he joined them on an expedition of discovery, like Darwin on the H.M.S. Beagle. And it was probably at this point that his geology hobby really started competing with his avocation as a pastor.
The expedition resulted in the discovery of the John Day Fossil Beds, one of the most productive sources of fossils from the early Age of Mammals in the world.
Soon Condon was corresponding with the famous paleontologists of the day: Spencer Baird, Thomas Leidy, and of course the “Bone Wars” antagonists — Edward Drinker Cope and O.C. Marsh. He sent them specimens of his fossils to help them in their studies.
Marsh actually undertook an expedition with graduate students into the John Day Fossil Beds with Condon, in 1871. But Marsh not only refused to return the specimens Condon lent him, but didn’t even name-check Condon in the scientific articles he subsequently wrote based on them; Marsh, it was clear, didn’t consider Condon to be a “real” geologist. But although Condon persisted in writing to request the return of the specimens (for decades!), he never showed resentment for the obvious disrespect.
Meanwhile, Condon’s “hobby” continued to take over his life. He started traveling across the state giving lectures on the fossil record. Condon’s status as a Congregational minister was an important part of the acceptance of these fossils, too; he was able to articulate his belief to the devout among the audience members that evolution was the mechanism God had chosen for Creation, and that the references to “six days” in the book of Genesis were better understood as “six epochs.” Not everyone believed that, but he did, and many who would have rejected the fossil record as antibiblical found themselves able to contemplate it because the man explaining it to them was a credentialed minister.
In 1872, the Oregon State Legislature appointed Condon as Oregon’s first state geologist — this in spite of the fact that he had no formal credentials in the field. However, he was one of the most learned people in the state, and his years of obsessive collecting, studying and writing on the subject of geology made him a natural for the post. With it, he moved his family back to Forest Grove and took a position there as a geology professor — finally leaving the old life as a man of the cloth behind.
Then, in 1876 when the University of Oregon was launched, Condon was brought aboard to teach all the sciences there.
As a university professor, Condon was a huge hit. He named a textbook for his geology classes, because one was required; but it was barely even cracked. Instead, students would pore over actual fossil specimens kept in glass-topped display cases that functioned as tables in his classroom. He actively encouraged women to take his classes and get involved in the sciences, and in 1878 his daughter Nellie was the valedictorian of the university’s very first graduating class. He also took seriously his role as a public intellectual, leading community members on nature walks and giving plein-air lectures on the beach during summer vacation.
He also became famous for his field trips, in which the whole class would journey to some interesting place and study its geology. It was on one such trip that he and his class, in 1883, visited and autographed the stalagmite in the Oregon Caves.
If you should visit the Oregon Caves and see those autographs, you’ll likely be startled by how good they look. The intervention of 135 years seems to have left those pencil marks stronger and clearer than ever, rather than faded like the notes in a Civil War soldier’s commonplace book.
That’s because the constant dripping of mineral-laden water onto the stalagmite over the past century has deposited a tiny layer of translucent calcite over the marks. If anyone would wish to erase them, they would have to actually damage the stalagmite to do it.
It's interesting to think about the fact that Professor Condon’s signature will be there on that rock, clearly visible to all visitors, for hundreds of millennia after their meaning has disappeared into the mists of ancient history, slowly fading as new layers of calcite are added and the stalagmite gradually grows. As an analogy for the professor’s life’s work as the father of Oregon geology, this seems particularly apt.
(Sources: Jelsing, Nadine. “Thomas Condon: Of Faith and Fossils,” Oregon Experience. Portland: Oregon Public Broadcasting, February 2016; Bishop, Ellen & al. Hiking Oregon’s Geology. Portland: Mountaineers, 2004)
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