Petrified Sea Gardens: Something Rich and Strange

One of Three in a Series on Saratoga Springs, New York

Full Fathom Five...

“Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange.”

-Shakespeare, The Tempest

Petrified Sea Garden Close Up Swirls

Close-up of a stromatolite.

A few years ago, I drove past my childhood home – a 19th century farmhouse in rural Michigan. On my way there, memories came in vivid colors: a hot air balloon landing on golden fields behind our house, my sister finding a nest of cherry-red ladybugs. But when I arrived, the place seemed drained of color. The once yellow house was a dirty white, the formerly green lawn was covered in corroded junk, and if I kept staring, my memories seemed in danger of losing luster as well. I drove away sad and disappointed.

This weekend, Ben had a similar feeling when we first arrived at the Petrified Sea Gardens just outside Saratoga Springs. It was an afterthought on our way back to Syracuse as Ben remembered going there when he was young. He described it as a tour into prehistoric time complete with both petrified and living vegetation. I was envisioning a lively aquarium scene captured in stone. So when we pulled up to a closed gate without signage, we both felt disappointed. The place was abandoned, the only sound a swing-set creaking along with the massive pines in the wind. The gray skies of late March didn’t help the lackluster mood.

Another close up of a 500 million-year-old fossil.

A 500 million year old fossil.

Despite our disappointment, we walked into the gardens – passing a concrete foundation where Ben claims a souvenir shop once stood. We noticed a trail head and numbered markers to our left. Without a trail brochure, we had no idea what we were looking at. It became a game: massive moss-covered rocks at exhibit #14 made an outdoor living room. Stones in a circle at exhibit #17 was a squirrel maze. A pitchfork-shaped tree and part of a bathtub were, well, just plain creepy. I hadn’t seen a fossilized anything until we had just about completed the trail’s loop. We began walking on what felt like pavement, then I brushed aside pine needles to reveal a surface of circles, like the sky-spirals in Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry Night. I looked up and saw an entire slab of the mysterious circles. Ben finally recognized where we were from his memories: on the bottom of the sea.

Petrified Sea Garden Stromatolite Sea Floor

Standing on the sea floor; photo contrast increased so you can see the stromatolites.

We were standing on 500 million-year-old stromatolites – fossilized blue-green algae growths – that were formed in an ancient Cambrian sea. It was here in 1922 that Robert Ritchie, an amateur geologist, first discovered one of the earliest life forms on Earth. (A 3.46 billion old, two-ton stromatolite was recently found in Virginia.)

Ben and I walked along the fossil bed, hypnotized by the spiraling stromatolites. Unlike my unsettling visit to my childhood home, Ben found this return to his past a little strange but overall rich in rediscovery. I thought about how the more time that passes, the more set in stone my memories become – distinct and sharp like white fossils against dark rock. So it’s unsettling when I visit a place from my memory, and find it altered by a sea-change, washed of anything recognizable. But as I walked on the ancient ocean floor, I didn’t feel sad or disappointed, just in awe of time’s ability to both transform and preserve.

Visit the Petrified Sea Gardens

Well, actually, you should probably visit Lester Park a mile away where you can view ancient stromatolites without trespassing. Here’s why: Although the Petrified Sea Gardens are a National Natural Landmark, it is unfortunately closed to the public and considered private property. I didn’t realize this until researching afterward, as no signs were posted.

The Full Shakespeare Verse from The Tempest

Full fathom five thy Father lies,
Of his bones are Corrall made:
Those are pearles that were his eies,
Nothing of him that doth fade,
But doth suffer a Sea-change
Into something rich & strange
Sea-Nymphs hourly ring his knell.
Harke now I heare them, ding-dong, bell.

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10 comments to Petrified Sea Gardens: Something Rich and Strange

  • Fred Miller

    Sounds like you did a lot of exploring! Very cool. Fred

  • Barb

    Great post! I love the fossil story!

  • Amy

    My husband and I had the pleasure of experiencing the somewhat dark and mysterious Petrified Gardens near Saratoga about 10 years ago. My husband lived about 20 minutes south of Saratoga all of his life in the historic town of Charlton, NY and we happened to spot a sign near the main road traveling west out of Saratoga. I actually didn’t believe the sign that it was an actual petrified gardens, but we stopped anyway. I thought the only Petrified rock was in Arizona! We went into the park (then open) curious about what we would find. Wandering around, it was like visiting a kind of Narnia. I am sorry to hear that it has closed. It is obvious that the Governor has never seen the beautiful parks such as this nor have any connection to them. Teddy Roosevelt would be turning over in his grave.

  • A quote from Shakespeare, a reference to Van Gogh, and a lesson in earth history all in a short, beautifully written, poignant blog entry. You are full of surprises!

    Best,

    Neil

  • [...] One of the strangest sights you’ll see in Saratoga is also one of the smallest: Take a drive down Petrified Sea Garden Road and you’ll arrive at Lester Park. It won’t look like much from the road, but once you get out and look down, you’ll see swirling circular formations that look like something from the sky in Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry, Starry, Night painting. You’re standing on an ancient seabed that’s 490 million years old! The formations are called stromatolites. You can read more about this sea floor frozen in stone at my blog. [...]

  • Dina

    Thank you for the account of your trip! I miss the PSG terribly. I live in the Capital District and used to make frequent trips to the gardens. I haven’t been since late 2005 and really wish it would re-open. We go to Lester Park frequently, but it’s just not on the same level as the sea gardens which is huge. I don’t know why it’s not open. I’m not sure that the Governor really has anything to do with it. I have heard that the park is owned by the same people who own the quarry right next door to the gardens, and that operating the park is very complicated and controversial. Supposedly there was a lot of wind damage during a storm in early 2006 and that’s why it’s not open…but four years later you would think that something would have been done. As I said before it’s complicated and controversial around these parts…. Anyway I’m glad you got to see it, I never thought of just walking in.

  • Lindsay

    Hi Dina, thanks for sharing your info on this amazing geological place. I wish it could be turned into a public open space but considering new york state has trouble keeping existing parks open, that’s probably a stretch!

  • Me

    I grew up at the petrified gardens. My mother worked there when I was a child. It was owned by palette stone (sp?) in the late 80′s. There used to be a museum and a gift shop by the swings. Are they still there or did they come down in the storm?

  • Sarah

    I worked at the Petrified Sea Gardens in the 80′s. It’s owned by Pallette Stone, and lies between the Pallette Stone Quarry, and the Pompa Brothers Stone Quarry. On days when either quarry was blasting, we couldn’t allow patrons out on the trail. It truly was like being in an earthquake (which I verified when I later lived in LA). Many people did not understand, and were quite angry. We also couldn’t allow patrons to go on the trail during rain because the rocks were so slippery, and crevices run the length of the garden. Again, angry misunderstandings. I believe Pallette Stone finally decided it was too much of an insurance risk.

    This was after some people convinced the quarry to allow them to take over the operations of the PSG, and unknown to the quarry, they moved in, and stopped caring for the entire park as it had been maintained in the past. The buildings became dangerous, and the beautiful flower gardens were let go. I was quite saddened when I returned to the area and stopped by to reminisce, only to find it in terrible shape.

    There was indeed a souvenir shop, and a museum right across. We (at some point everyone in my family had worked there until 1990 when we all left the area) welcomed school field trips, news stories, and the occasional tourists. My children have very fond memories of being there in the summertime. Mr. & Mrs. Fick (from Burnt Hills) were our “docents” and helped us catalog the museum, and taught everyone to use a rock saw to make beautiful pieces of jewelry.

    The actual Cryptozoons or Stromatalites were very large cabbage-like plants found on the shallowish edges of the Cambrian Sea. They are older than the dinosaurs. Thousands of years later, when the glaciers came through that part of New York, they sawed the Crytozoons in half, leaving the fossils bisected and showing the beautiful swirls of the leaves. They have been found in Manchuria, Korea, and a few other places, so they are considered quite rare. It is a lovely place and hopefully some day after the quarries have played out, the park can be reopened. I still miss it.

  • Chris

    Sarah,
    What can you tell us about the “Standing Stones”? Or the numerous rows of stacked rocks criss-crossing the general area? This had to be a very special place for Native Indians.
    Any other information about the lands oddities would be great to read.
    Thanks very much!

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