KEYSER'S GEOLOGIC SETTING
BY DR. ALLEN E. MURPHY
The city of Keyser nestles in the shadow of the
Allegheny Front, and spreads itself eastward across the relatively
narrow but beautiful New Creek Valley to the Steep flank of New Creek
Mountain. It spans the confluence of the tributary New Creek and the
parent stream, the North Branch of the Potomac River. The city is
situated on the banks of the Potomac which serves as the border
between West Virginia and her neighboring state of Maryland to the north.
As the city grew by lining the south bank and covering the floodplain of the Potomac from "hill to hill" it has expanded and is spreading southwestward up scenic New Creek Valley. It is served by US Route 220, which crosses Memorial Bridge from McCoole MD and continues generally southward up the valley.
Transportation east and west is furnished by State Route 46, which hugs the side of the water gap toward Piedmont WV to the west, and struggles eastward over Knobley Mountain toward Fort Ashby.
The railroad, which has been of such historic importance to the city, winds its way from Cumberland MD along the floodplain of the Potomac and slips into town through a narrow gap in New Creek Mountain. It was in the yards at Keyser that the trains normally were readied for the assault on 17-mile grade which was to take them over the Allegheny Front on their westward journey across the Appalachian Plateau.
It is interesting to note that the city's history might have been somewhat different had the C&O Canal been completed to its proposed western terminal at the base of the Allegheny Front. Westernport MD, five miles up the river from Keyser, was named well in the plans, but was never destined to become a port city. The race to the west was won by the puffing monster on its ribbons of steel; thus, causing the barge mules and the canal to terminate in Cumberland.
Keyser is truly situated on the border of two major physiographic provinces. The Allegheny Front, or escarpment, separates the higher elevations and the hills and valleys of the Appalachian Plateau to the west from the ridge and valley Province or the true Appalachian Mountains to the east. Keyser is located in the western most valley to this latter province.
The rocks of the ridge and valley are strongly folded and are seen standing at high angles in our roadcuts and natural outcrops. These are the much eroded remnants of the larger and much more majestic Appalachian Mountains that rose out of the sea some 200 million years ago. In elevation, the ridges are really only hills today, but the folded structure of the sandstones in some of them give a resistance to erosion that lets them stand up as steep hogback ridges, flaunting with pride their ancient and dramatic heritage.
The Allegheny Front rises nearly 2000 feet from the western side of Keyser and New Creek Valley to form the eastern edge of the Appalachian Plateau. This trio of the folded mountains to the east, the Allegheny Font, and the plateau to the west runs in general NE-SW direction and are conspicuous features south through Kentucky and Tennessee, as well as north though Maryland and Pennsylvania.
It is in the plateau area that the younger rocks of the Paleozoic Era and the great mineral wealth in the form of coal are found. In the plateau, the bedrock is generally horizontal with some broad warping. The surface is rugged due to intensive erosion by the numerous streams. Since this is really a plateau being dissected by streams cutting headward into the area, much like tiger claws ripping a helpless victim, this commonly called "hill country" is actually a land of valleys.
The Allegheny Front with the high plateau behind it tends to protect Keyser from the prevailing westerly winds, thus frequently absorbing the cold wintry blasts and snow, but just as often absorbing the rain needed in summer.
The "front" presents a unique situation which leads to some equally unique terminology.
Because it is higher in elevation and cooler than the valleys to the east, the term "up on the mountain" is used when in reality the reference point is on the plateau. This area actually stands on the edge of a plateau and looks down into the mountains! This statement, though true, must serve to confuse the "flatland tourister", but should stir his imagination enough to make him want to see it for himself.
As the City of Keyser of Keyser celebrates its first century as a "mountain town" and reflects upon the history of its people and events, its citizens and friends should go up on the plateau and look back down into the mountains and consider the ever-changing beauty of these same mountains which have weathered the seasons and the centuries and remain an ageless heritage of nature.