Summer 2010

Geological Wonder

Carnegie Museum of Natural History geologist Albert D. Kollar provides a fresh, storied perspective on a favorite Pittsburgh destination.   

By John Altdorfer

Albert Kollar (right) leads local geology tours year-round. Photo: John Altdorfer


On a sun-soaked Sunday afternoon in March, Carnegie Museum of Natural History geologist Albert D. Kollar leads 40-plus intrepid explorers down a slippery slope near the tennis courts in Frick Park. Carefully treading trails still hard-packed with snow from a record-setting wintry onslaught, Kollar and his followers—including Olive the geology-loving dog—walk along a ridge overlooking a hollow a hundred feet below. Laid out beneath them, notes Kollar, is the history of the park in layers of Saltsburg sandstone, Pittsburgh Red Beds, Ames limestone, Birmingham shale, and other rocks formed there 300 million years ago, during the late Pennsylvanian Period when Pittsburgh was a tropical   climate centered near the equator.

“Geology is a visual science,” says Kollar. “You can’t study it very well on a computer. You have to get outside to see the rocks to understand it.”

Several times each year, Kollar laces up his hiking boots to lead geology tours through Frick, Schenley, and Riverview parks in Pittsburgh, as well as North Park and the Laurel Highlands, in partnership with local groups like the Nine Mile Run Watershed Association and Venture Outdoors. On a typical two-hour excursion, he will bound onto boulders, climb up cliffs, and walk on walls to point out various rock strata poking through the ground or exposed in hillsides. After more than a decade of hikes and sometimes more arduous bike rides, Kollar knows a hunger for general geology knowledge remains strong among the local public. On this particular adventure, before descending into Frick’s well-travelled Fern Hollow, he explains that the park’s geology is constantly changing—not only through the forces of Mother Nature but at the hands of humans.

“There was a lot of erosion here,” he says, pointing towards the lower reaches of the park, “when the ancient Monongahela River flowed by the edges and then changed course with the formation of the Ohio River during the Ice Age.” He adds that major erosion still occurs in the park, but mostly from urban development along its borders. Water runoff from natural groundwater, urban streets, driveways, and downspouts weaken the Pittsburgh Red Beds creating landslides. Recent efforts to control trail erosion is being procured by the city’s parks department.

At the bottom of Fern Hollow, Kollar stands on a smooth round stone and identifies the oldest type of rock in the park as Saltsburg sandstone, named for the town Saltsburg in Westmoreland County. It represents an ancient river that cut its path depositing grains of sand that hardened to form sandstone. The fossiliferous Ames limestone, he notes, was left behind by an ancient sea that covered the area 300 million years ago.

A handful of hikers jot down Kollar’s words of bedrock wisdom, including Henry Schumacher, who perhaps is  learning for the first time that the floor   of Frick Park was once the bottom of a great sea. For Schumacher, the lesson is prep work for his role as a fellow tour leader for Venture Outdoors, a group that encourages Pittsburghers to get outside and explore their natural surroundings.

“I know a lot about the wildlife and plants in the park,” says Schumacher, “but I don’t know as much about the rocks. This is my second tour, and I’m discovering even more than I did on the first hike.”

Repeat customers are common. On this go-around, about a half dozen people raise hands when Kollar asks for a show of returning hikers. Why do so many come back for more? The story of the park’s geology is as wide and deep as the park itself. And while Kollar doesn’t pop a test at the end of the hike, he does provide many teachable moments, all while keeping technical jargon to a minimum.

“Geology is a visual science. You can’t study it very well on a computer. You have to get outside to see the rocks to understand it.” 

– Albert Kollar, Carnegie Museum of Natural History geologist

“Geology has its own language that can be difficult to understand,” he explains. “The public doesn’t have a lot of exposure to geology in a scientific sense because it’s not a major part of our schools’ curriculum.” 

About 90 minutes into the tour, Kollar pauses at one of the highest points in the park so hikers can look out onto the slopes of Homestead and Munhall, at nearly the same level as their vantage point. At one time, Kollar explains, the valleys between the ridges were continuous layers of rock and the Pittsburgh region was a broad plateau. But during the Ice Age, rivers and small tributaries such as Nine Mile Run, eroded down through the soft rocks to give shape to the region’s distinctively rugged landscape. Such lessons are revealing, even to longtime park visitors.

“I’ve been walking in Frick for 35 years,” says Linda Kauffman. “I signed up for the tour to discover more about the park. I never knew that Squirrel Hill was once a peninsula.”

Near the end of the walk, Kollar assembles the hikers for a group photo. The snapshot captures retirees, young couples, an elementary school student, and a Penn State geology professor and his daughter—a diverse cross section of people that doesn’t surprise Kollar.

“This is a grassroots attraction that appeals to all sorts of people,” he says. “We don’t advertise the hikes. People hear about them from their friends and want to experience it themselves. They’re here to get in touch with nature and learn something new about Pittsburgh.”  n

For those interested in hiking with Albert Kollar, his next tour of Frick Park is scheduled for this autumn. For those with a deeper interest in geology, Kollar invites participation in PAlS, which stands for Patrons and lauradanae Supporters, a group that nurtures interest in and support of invertebrate paleontology and geology topics in the region. For more information on either topic, contact Kollar at
Also in this issue:

Growing Up With Science  ·  The Disappeared  ·  Ode to a Collection  ·  Twisted Pair  ·  Special Supplement: A Tribute to Our Donors  ·  Directors' Note  ·  NewsWorthy  ·  Face Time: Zhe-Xi Luo  ·  Artistic License: Domestic Explorations  ·  About Town: Artists Among Us  ·  The Big Picture