James Hall was born on September 12, 1811, to James and Susanna Hall of Hingham, Massachusetts. His father was a weaver trained in England who was making a comfortable living. One day he opened his newspaper and noticed a “help wanted” ad posted by a textile mill in Massachusetts. The salary was far better than James Hall, Sr. could earn in England.
After some inquiry, Hall heard that land in America was more cheap and plentiful than land in England, which was, in most cases, held by the same families for generations. He also heard that food was plentiful and less expensive than England. Like so many other Europeans looking to improve their lives, Hall packed up his family and they departed for the United States.
In 1826, when son James Jr. was 15, he learned of a new school, the Rensselaer School (later Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, or RPI) just started at Troy, New York by the Patroon of Manor of Rensselaerswyck, Stephen Van Rensselaer III, and under the academic direction of Amos Eaton. This new school was a departure from conventional classical schools that Eaton called “a kind of literary bondage.” Eaton’s new plan was for a scientific school centered on the “useful arts” and “adapted to the native curiosity and ardor of youth.”
In 1816, Stephen Van Rensselaer III had been appointed chairman of the New York State Erie Canal Commission formed by the New York State Legislature to study the feasibility of digging a canal from Albany to Lake Erie at Buffalo. Van Rensselaer hired Eaton to conduct the geological study. Eaton’s study determined that a canal could be built. It was Eaton’s study that was taken to Governor DeWitt Clinton to convince him to fund the project. In 1825, the Erie Canal opened to a large celebration.
Hall enrolled at Rensselaer School in 1830 and was one of just four graduates there in 1832. After graduation, Hall visited Joseph Henry at Albany Academy where Henry was experimenting with sending electrical current over a mile of wire wound around rooms at the Academy, then wound around an iron bar, creating an electromagnet.
By reversing the direction of the current over the wire, Joseph Henry reversed the polarity of the electromagnet and made the magnet move back and forth, ringing a bell at the far end of the corridor. This was one of the first experiments at converting electricity into motion and later led to the invention of the telegraph and other items which used electricity or battery power.
After graduation, Eaton hired James Hall as librarian in the school’s first building, the Old Bank Place Building on the shore of the Hudson River at Middleburgh Street (named for its location on northern line of one of the three Vanderhyden farms which had stood before the founding of Troy). Hall was shortly promoted to assistant to the junior professor of chemistry (then Ebenezer Emmons) and started collecting minerals.
In 1834, secretary of state of New York (later governor) John Adams Dix, at the urging of the Albany Institute (now the Albany Institute of History & Art), convinced the legislature to undertake a geologic survey of the entire state.
These studies helped to determine the best locations for farmland, locations of sand and gravel, best places to find water, helped to match crops with their preferred soils, located iron ore and lead deposits. The geologists were specifically directed to search for large coal deposits as there was an increasing demand for its use in heating and cooking and the closest coal mines were in Pennsylvania. In 1823, the cost of transportation was more than the cost of mining the coal, so local sources were sought.
Hall was appointed a state geologist of the Fourth District on the recommendation of Stephen Van Rensselaer III. The survey began in earnest in 1836.
Hall began investigations in the Central New York area and then turned north to the shore of Lake Ontario and then south through the Finger Lakes. He studied the Genesee River with its rock gorges and five impressive cataracts. Hall discovered many fossilized remains of sea creatures near the Finger Lakes, indicating that Central New York State had once been a large lake (Lake Albany).
Hall discovered red sandstone deposits containing Holoptychius, referred to as “old red sandstone fish.” By determining the time period the fish had lived, Hall was able to determine that old red sandstone in the United States was the same age as old red sandstone of Europe. They were both formed at the same time. From his dating of the old red sandstone, he was able to determine approximate ages for the Silurian rock below and the carboniferous rocks above the sandstone.
At the time the strata of rock were first studied, there existed a doctrine of “total destruction and renovation.” It was felt that the termination of each geological period was marked by a total annihilation of life, such as the destruction of the dinosaurs, and the start of a new geologic period – a complete rebirth. The theory is now known as catastrophism.
Hall, in his “Preliminary Considerations” to his Fourth District Report says: “Further observation has tended to the abandonment of this doctrine; and so far as our knowledge now goes, there seems to have been a gradual change from the first period of living things to the present time.”
This was a revolutionary statement in 1843, suggesting a gradual evolving creation of the Earth. A theory later known as gradualism.
At the same time, Monsieur de Blanville, a leading paleontologist in Paris was teaching that life appeared on earth similarly to the way leaves appear on a tree – all at once; and creatures die off as leaves disappear on a tree – all at once. This was supposed to happen at the start and end of each geological period.
Charles Darwin (1809-1882) had just spent 1831-1836 aboard the HMS Beagle in the Galapagos Islands observing that many of the fossils there closely resembled the living animals, some with slight modifications that made them stronger. He published The Origin of the Species in 1859 promoting a gradual change from the first period of living things to the present time. This was 16 years after Hall’s comment was published in the Fourth District report.
Hall amassed a huge collection of rocks and fossils. As his state pay was meager, he subsidized his salary by buying, selling and trading fossils and minerals. It was not unusual at that time for public employees to be expected to raise funds to support their activities. The first U.S. government sponsored exploration to the South Pole was expected to finance itself by hunting for whales on the trip.
Professor Benjamin Silliman published a popular geological journal in which Yale College and others advertised, trying to purchase minerals. Due to an abundant supply in Upstate New York, Hall responded, and provided many minerals for Yale’s collection. In order to stay up-to-date with recent discoveries and new theories, as a state employee Hall traveled from Albany to Boston to hear Professor Silliman give lectures at Lowell Institute.
In 1841, while still working on the New York study, Hall and some other New York geologists joined David Dale Owen on an excursion down the Ohio River on a flat boat studying geologic formations. He visited the states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Kentucky, Wisconsin, Missouri and Iowa on a two-month journey.
From this data, he published the first “Geological Map of the Middle and Western States.” The participation of the Albany area geologists led many of the geological classifications in the mid-west to use New York terms such as Mohawk, Champlain, Catskill, Ontario and Helderberg. From this joint effort, camaraderie developed among geologists of many states. Professor Edward Hitchcock of Amherst proposed: “a meeting of the geologists and other scientific men of our country at some central point next fall.”
A meeting was held in 1838 at the home of Dr. Ebenezer Emmons at the corner of High Street and Hudson Avenues in Albany. Most of the New York geologists attended, including Hall, Emmons and James Eights. At the meeting, the geologists decided to form a national group of American geologists and solicit membership from potential members in the other states. From this effort the American Association of Geologists was formed in 1841 in Philadelphia with 18 charter members including Hall and Emmons.
In 1847, in Philadelphia, this group became the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Among its founding 461 members were Albanians James Hall, Ebenezer Emmons, and Joseph Henry. In 1901 a tablet was placed on Emmon’s house at High Street and Hudson Avenue reading: “In this house, the home of Doctor Ebenezer Emmons. The first formal efforts were made, in 1838 and 1839, toward the organization of the Association of American Geologists The parent body of the American Association for the Advancement of Science By whose authority this tablet is erected. 1901.”
Hall was the youngest member of the group who organized the Association and served as president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1856.
In 1841, Sir Charles Lyell, author of the Principles of Geology (then recognized as the bible of geology) and president of the Geological Society of London, visited James Hall in Albany. Lyell was the most distinguished geologist in the world at the time; Charles Darwin later said that geology owed more to Lyell than anyone. Hall took him to investigate the shale of the Normanskill Creek just below Albany. They traveled out the Mohawk River to Rochester to see the Genesee Falls and the locks of the Erie Canal. The two men spent five days at Niagara Falls.
Lyell was impressed and excited by this journey. He wrote of investigating shell-bearing post-glacial sands above the rocks on Goat Island at Niagara Falls, indicating that it once had been a sea, and said “a great chronometer” was revealed in the layers of rock (called stratigraphy) .
Lyell later wrote: “we must turn to the New World if we wish to see in perfection the oldest monuments of the earth’s history… Certainly in no other country are these ancient strata developed on a grander scale or more plentifully charged with fossils; and as they are nearly horizontal, the order of their relative position is always clear and unequivocal.”
Hall explored the Central New York area for five years and a large number of fossils and minerals were collected from throughout the area.
One of the disappointments of the study was that the geologists did not find any substantial deposits of coal. Hall and his workers continued to keep coal a high priority until finally Hall came to the conclusion that there were no substantial deposits of coal in New York.
The Geological Survey of the State of New York (700 pages), was published in 1843, but the work was far from over. They had accumulated huge quantities of still unnamed fossils from throughout New York State. There was also a large accumulation of geological material not yet catalogued or appraised. Most of the material was stored in the rooms of the Geological Survey at Hudson Avenue and South Market Street (now South Pearl Street) in Albany.
The 1843 meeting of the American Association of Geologists and Naturalists was held in State Hall in Albany to discuss the survey. During the meeting, New York Governor William C. Bouck appointed James Hall to the position of State Paleontologist and Ebenezer Emmons was appointed State Agriculturist, the first two appointments of their kind.
Hall set out to produce a volume on the paleontology of New York that he hoped to finish in one year. Due to his small budget, he bought many samples with his own money and had his wife draw many of the plates for the book. Four years later, he produced thirteen volumes consisting of thousands of pages and many hundreds of plates just on the substrata.
Hall was also the beneficiary of many geologic samples collected by John C. Fremont in his 1842-1846 explorations in California, Nevada, and Oregon. Fremont was guided by noted western trapper Kit Carson. (Fremont spent his later years living in New York State, and is buried in Rockland County.)
Fremont lost some of his samples when 14 pack-laden mules fell over a canyon cliff and he lost more in a Mississippi River flood, but those that returned were given to Hall for evaluation. Hall published this evaluation in 1845.
The American Association of Geologists and Naturalists’ meeting in 1846 was held in Washington, DC, and considerable interest was shown in the new plans to use the James Smithson bequest to the United States to start a museum. The Smithsonian’s first Secretary (equivalent to director) was Association member Joseph Henry.
The year 1846 was also notable for the visit of Professor Louis Agassiz, a world-renowned geologist from Europe who had taught at the best universities in Switzerland, Germany and England. Agassiz lectured in Boston and New York and then sailed up the Hudson River to meet Hall and lecture in Albany.
In 1848, gold was discovered at Sutter’s Mill in California and Hall was briefly tempted to take off for the gold fields. He felt that his geology experience would be in high demand in the mining area, but he also felt that his reputation would suffer if he left his position as state geologist and became a gold seeker. He also felt that his most interesting and important work was in Albany, so he stayed.
In 1849, Hall saw a “Foster’s Complete Geological Chart” designed by a Greenbush, NY, teacher to be used as a teaching aid in public schools. In preparing the chart, James T. Foster had used the older European nomenclature and theories, ignoring all of Hall’s work as State Geologist. New York schoolchildren were to be taught something completely different from what was contained in the New York State Surveys and all of the papers and reports Hall had prepared. The Foster chart was outdated and totally out of sync with everything Hall had done. As a public school teacher, Foster may not have been aware of Hall’s work.
Hall sent the chart to Agassiz. Hall and Agassiz severely criticized the chart in the Albany newspapers, with Hall calling it “a monstrous map and a crude production full of false and antiquated views so represented that its mere circulation would be considered abroad as a disgrace to American geologists.” Hall’s criticism resulted in a libel suit from Foster. Meanwhile Foster updated the chart using New York names and Hall’s “Taconic System” replacing the older European system he had used previously. He also inserted a note that his work had been “corrected by Professor Emmons and W.W. Mather.”
Albany printer Webster & Skinner printed the new chart. The chart was sent to the city of New York by an nighttime Albany paddle-wheel steamer, to be distributed. Apparently Hall took passage on the same boat and when no one was looking seized the charts and threw them overboard. The libel suit trial was postponed until 1851. In 1850, Hall tried to convince the Albany Young Men’s Association to finance a series of lectures by Agassiz, who then visited Albany and gave five lectures.
This led to further efforts to attract Agassiz to head up a new university at Albany. It was felt that the Albany Medical School, Albany Law School and Geological Survey combined with Luther Tucker’s pre-eminence in agriculture through his Country Gentleman Magazine would constitute a core of a modern university.
On April 17, 1851 the New York Legislature passed an “Act to Incorporate the University of Albany.” Talk started in Albany of building an astronomical observatory. Thomas Olcott and James Armsby contacted Mrs. Blandina Dudley, widow of previous Albany Mayor Edward Charles Dudley, who offered to donate a sum sufficient to build the observatory, later known as the Dudley Observatory (now located in Loudonville, New York).
The University opened and the Albany Medical School and Albany Law School, which were already established, were successful. However the other areas of study were not so successful, probably because they didn’t lead to an employable profession.
The leadership also seemed to suffer form old ideas. An early letter said: “As for the University, it seems to have fallen altogether on the old fogies … Whalen, Bishop, Potter and T. Romeyn Beck. Rt. Rev. Bishop in his lectures in Boston… laid it down that there were physical and physiological phenomena which it was a sin to investigate!” Perhaps due to this weak leadership, the proposed university collapsed, but the idea for the Dudley Observatory grew out of it and flourished. The Law School and Medical School continued.
In 1850, Hall participated in a government-sponsored study of geology around Lake Superior, especially the territory then encompassing the northern peninsula of Michigan.
In 1851, the libel case came to hearing. It was a sensation in both the scientific and civic communities in Albany. Witnesses brought to defend Agassiz and Hall included some of the top scientists in the country, including Joseph Henry. Remarkably, Ebenezer Emmons testified on the behalf of Foster.
The trial lasted several days and turned from a trial about the chart and the insult on Foster to an attack on Emmons, who as an effective witness for Foster was the target of attorneys defending Hall and Agassiz who tried to discredit him. Agassiz was cleared of all claims and the case against Hall was dropped. Animosity, however, remained for years. Emmons left the area and went to work in North Carolina. Hall made a new chart of his own and through S.S. Randall (Samuel Sidwell Randall, 1809-1881), New York State Superintendent of Public Instruction, disseminated it to 11,000 schoolrooms in New York State.
In 1852, Hall was busy building a new brick laboratory on the Beaverkill in Albany’s Beaver Park, now known as Lincoln Park. A number of important scientists started their careers as apprentice with Hall in this building, including Fielding Meek, Charles Walcott, Charles Beecher and Josiah Whitney. It is now known as the James Hall Office (the building was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1976).
In 1854, James W. Grimes was elected governor of Iowa. After the election, Governor Grimes contacted Louis Benedict and told him of his interest in conducting a geologic survey of the state of Iowa. Benedict recommended Hall. Hall at the time was being paid $1,500 per year by the State of New York and had not been paid since 1850. He accepted the new job but did not give up his official position in Albany.
Governor Grimes also solicited Hall’s recommendation for a chancellor of the Iowa State University. Hall, together with Benedict and T. Romeyn Beck all recommended Amos Dean. Dean accepted. Dean, together with Dr. James Armsby of Albany Medical College, drafted the plan of organization for the University of Iowa. Hall also taught at the University of Iowa part time as Professor of Geology and Natural History.
The role the Albanians played in assisting Iowa was indicated in a letter sent from Grimes’ successor, Governor Lowe. Lowe asked Hall to intercede on behalf of the State of Iowa and get the Albany banks to purchase $50,000 in 8% treasury warrants to provide the state of Iowa with sufficient financing to build a “State Hospital for the Insane.” Each year, Hall published his work for New York State in a report to the regents of the University. At the request of Drs. Emmons and Hall, two small rooms were set aside in the State Capitol Building to house their publications and collections. In 1855, when the two rooms were filled, Governor Myron H. Clark authorized the renovation of Albany’s Old State Hall at the corner of State and Lodge Streets to become the new “Geological Hall.”
In 1856, Hall was elected president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the group decided to hold its annual meeting in Albany. The Albany Committee scheduled the dedication of its new Dudley Observatory to coincide with the association’s meeting.
Previous U.S. President Millard Fillmore and previous New York Governors Washington Hunt and Horatio Seymour accompanied Governor Clark to the dedication of the Dudley Observatory. Joseph Henry from the Smithsonian, Benjamin Silliman of Yale, Alexander Bache of the U.S. Coastal Survey, Louis Agassiz of Cambridge University, State Geologist Hall, Sir William Logan of Montreal, New York State Chancellor Rubin Walworth, Martin Anderson of the University of Rochester, Benjamin Pierce of Harvard, Charles Davies of the U.S. Military Academy and Blandina Dudley sat in the elevated chairs at the head of the dedication service. United States Senator Edward Everett, a former governor of Massachusetts, delivered the dedication address. Albany’s Geological Hall was also dedicated at this meeting.
At the end of his term as president of the Association, Hall delivered an address presenting the proposition that there were compensating movements of the earth’s crust. He could tell from his study of the layers of geological rock that many non-volcanic mountains had been formed by the pushing up of layers of rock and soil by forces from underneath. He felt that this was caused by a companion sinking of the earth in nearby locations, probably underwater. This was another revolutionary idea at the time, but not too far off from today’s generally accepted scientific theory of plate tectonics, teaching that mountain ranges can be formed by one of the earth’s plates sliding under an adjacent plate and pushing earth upward.
In 1859, Hall published his third book: Paleontology III, (556 pages) and an accompanying publication of 142 plates in 1861 which was said to be the finest illustration of fossils yet published in America. His analysis and organization of systems of fossils was praised by other experts. He had paid for the preparation of all of the drawings personally.
Hall’s reputation was so high among his peers that as new fossils were discovered in the mid-western states (Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois), the common practice was to send them to Albany to be properly identified and catalogued. In 1858, Hall published the Geology of Iowa.
In 1866, Hall was made director of the New York State Geological and Natural History Survey (later the New York State Museum of Natural History), today’s New York State Museum in Albany.
That same year James Hall investigated and exhumed the Cohoes Mastodon; in 1869 he investigated the Cardiff Giant. In 1875, the new American Museum of Natural History purchased Hall’s enormous personal collection of fossils for $65,000 and the following year an International Congress of Geologists was formed and Hall elected its president. They met in Paris, Hall made a second trip to Europe in 1878.
In 1880, the Geological Society of America was formed and Hall was elected president. Within a few years he began a large-scale geological map of New York State. In 1887, Hall issued the sixth volume of Paleontology of New York (298 pages with 66 painted plates) and volume seven was issued shortly thereafter. In 1893, special legislation was passed authorizing New York Governor Roswell P. Flower to appoint James Hall State Geologist and Paleontologist for life.
In 1892, Hall issued the final two volumes of Paleontology of New York and in 1894, he finished the publication of the state map. His map would be the one of the best state geological maps in the United States for the next hundred years.
In 1896, Hall’s wife died and his daughter took him to San Francisco to stay with her. At that year’s meeting of the Geological Society of America in Buffalo, 85-year-old Hall was honored for his 60th anniversary as State Geologist. He traveled back from San Francisco by train to attend and was the elder statesman and aging superstar of the geological world.
At 86, Hall went to Russia for the Seventh International Congress of Geologists in 1897. Hall said that he traveled there to study geological formations and did not go to be viewed as somewhat of a “Greek urn.”
Returning from Russia, he decided to return to his Albany home, instead of San Francisco, and continue his work although on a much reduced level. It was said that the solitude of his life caused him to decline. He died on August 6, 1898.
James Hall is buried in Lot 93, Section 1 at Albany Rural Cemetery. James Hall Hall at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is named for him.
Illustrations: James Hall at age 85; the old Albany Academy building in 1907, now the Joseph Henry Memorial; detail from the “Geological Map of the Middle and Western States” (1843) by James Hall; Portrait of Ebenezer Emmons from Popular Science Monthly Volume 48; office and laboratory James Hall in Lincoln Park, Albany in 2008; the Dudley Observatory’s first building in Albany ca. 1880;