Dennis Cassinelli: Mark Twain’s comments on Dayton’s petrified forest
My great-grandfather, Pietro Cassinelli, an Italian emigrant, arrived in Dayton in the late 1880s after working his way across America as a cowboy. Within a few years, he and his cousin, Bert, acquired a ranch along the Carson River. There, he and his wife, Theresa, raised a family of 12 children, one of whom was my grandfather, Pete.
When I was a boy working on Pete’s ranch in Sparks years later, he told me about a petrified forest with many logs of petrified wood he had seen near the ranch in Dayton where he had grown up and went to school in the early 1900s. This is the same ranch now known as the Ricci ranch on the south side of the Carson River in Dayton.
My brother-in-law, Phil Hanna, who has moved to Dayton with my sister, Rae, recently turned me onto something that Mark Twain wrote in Chapter 26 of his classic book “Roughing It.”
When describing some of the mineral resources of Nevada, Twain remarked: “Lately evidences of bituminous coal have been detected. My theory has ever been that coal is a ligneous formation.” (Ligneous meaning resembling wood).
Twain was skeptical about the idea of coal existing in Nevada until he spoke to a Captain Burch on the subject and was told in the region of Dayton, Burch had seen petrified trees the length of 200 feet. This established the fact huge forests once existed in this remote area. This firmed up in Twain’s mind coal may also actually exist in Nevada. Coal and petrified wood both take millions of years to form under ideal conditions deep below the ground.
Now, let’s jump forward to modern times. My family and I enjoy hiking, rock hunting and exploring the many hiking trails in and around the region. Occasionally, we find a few pieces of petrified wood but nothing like the 200-foot trees described in “Roughing It.” There was one particular area near my great-grandfather’s ranch where we did find an abundance of petrified wood ranging in size from a few inches to more than one foot in diameter.
In the same area, we also found some long trenches, obviously dug more than 100 years ago, that were surrounded by a few fragments of petrified wood. This was an indication the petrified forest described to me by my grandfather and written about in “Roughing It” did actually exist. All the huge logs have obviously been taken away, and we have no idea who took them or where they ever ended up.
Amazingly, some of the pieces we have found are black and have the appearance of coal, except they have the wood grain typical of petrified wood. This is likely what Twain mistook for coal when he wrote “Roughing It.”
Our theory has always been the black petrified wood was caused by the trees being in some ancient forest fires or perhaps knocked down during a volcanic eruption millions of years ago and being covered over with hot volcanic ash. This would have turned the wood black like charcoal and buried it until it became petrified.
My family and I believe we have rediscovered what remains of the petrified forest described by Twain in his book about his travels through Nevada in the 1860s.
Dayton author and historian, Dennis Cassinelli, can be contacted at email@example.com or on his blog at denniscassinelli.com. All Dennis’ books sold through this publication will be at a 50 percent discount to reduce inventory and Dennis will pay the postage.