Thursday, July 19, 2018

Andrew Dowd

Exploring Eau Claire's Shale Pit

Nature overtakes site where city had harvested rock

  • ShalePit2-1

    Looking down one of the rock faces in the Shale Pits where the city had harvested shale.

    Staff photo by Andrew Dowd
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  • ShalePitTree-2

    A tree grew around metal cable at the edge of one of the pits.

    Staff photo by Andrew Dowd
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  • ShalePit1

    Eau Claire's Shale Pit area on the city's north side had long ago been used to harvest rock used for the base of roads.

    Staff photo by Andrew Dowd
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At the top of a hill at the end of a dead end road that’s seen better days is a large metal gate.

That’s the inconspicuous entrance to 11 acres of public land on Eau Claire’s northeast side with some narrow hiking trails, lots of wild plants and animals, and deep pits where the city long ago harvested rock.

The area goes by the plain name: the Shale Pit.

• • •

I’d never heard about it until I saw it in an inventory of city land in a new five-year plan for Eau Claire’s parks and other open spaces. The only upcoming projects the city may undertake for the site are removing some debris, re-grading parts of the hilly site and considering a new name for the area.

At some point farther in the future, the area could be developed into a park with amenities such as restrooms, a pavilion or playground, said Jeff Pippenger, the city’s community services director.

“This would be considered when the timing is right, and currently we have higher priorities with the Cannery District, Confluence Park, and the Northwest Community Park to name just a few.” he wrote in an email.

Also, there already is a pretty nice park — Zephyr Hill neighborhood park — just a few blocks away from the Shale Pit entrance.

Pippenger said he’d trekked through the site before, and I figured I’d take a look for myself with the help of a friend who grew up on the north side and knows the terrain.

• • •

It’s a tangle of narrow trails that wind through hilly land shaded by tall trees with overgrown grasses and plants below. At one spot, there’s a pond that looked like pea soup with tall wetland plants growing in it.

After winding through some of the wooded area, we reached the main attraction — a few cliffsides created long ago by the city.

Pippenger said the city had used the area in the past to harvest shale, which was used for the base course of streets.

That must’ve been quite a long time ago. My tour guide pointed out a steel cable that had been used as a safety fence around the top of one of the deep pits. The cable ran entirely through a mature tree, which had a scar showing how the trunk had gradually grown around the metal.

• • •

As we hiked around the site and would come across chips of shale littering the ground, my friend and I would occasionally pick up the pale gray rocks to look at fossils.

We found fossils from bits of plants, but didn’t notice any ancient animal ones before a bunch of modern-day mosquitoes found us and convinced us to keep moving.

Save for the chance of finding fossils, shale isn’t a real exciting rock.

Kent Syverson, chairman of UW-Eau Claire’s Geology Department, gave me some of the basics about the rock and its uses.

It’s a soft sedimentary rock created from fine-grained, suspended clay particles that slowly settle out of a quiet body of water and are deposited offshore. Syverson believes the Shale Pit is part of the Eau Claire Formation, which stretches from Minnesota to lower Michigan and was formed about 500 million years ago from a shallow inland sea.

As for it’s use, Syverson said shale’s softness means it’s not often used in buildings, but is used in pottery. And while the shale in the Chippewa Valley isn’t used for this purpose, he noted that shale deposits elsewhere are tapped into to reach oil and gas.

• • •

While its potential for becoming a park is hard to see and the possibility of that happening is far off, the Shale Pit was an interesting place to explore and showed how Eau Claire is both developed but also still close to nature.

White-tailed deer, squirrels and animals we weren’t quick enough to catch a glimpse of wandered the area. Still, the sound of traffic on North Hastings Way was audible through much of the Shale Pit.

And while the deep gouges made into the land are still there, they are surrounded by trees and vegetation that have obscured the old roads used to haul the material out of the area.

So if you’re up for a hike — bring bug spray, by the way — there’s a public entrance to the Shale Pit off end of Wedgewood Avenue off of Arbutus Drive.

Look for the “Gate Ahead” sign.


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