University of Waterloo rock garden

Monday, May 24, 1999

Peter Russell

In 1981 the University designed a garden to mark the 25th Anniversary of the founding of the University of Waterloo which was to be celebrated the following year. At a special event showing highlights for the coming anniversary celebration the architect unveiled a design for the garden which included rocks, an arbour, seats and trees. Peter Russell approached the architect and asked him what type of rocks were going to be used. The architect replied, "I don't know. We can't afford to install rocks." That remark was the seed needed to start the Geological Garden.

Peter with the encouragement of the Earth Sciences department chairman, John Greenhouse and faculty member, Roger Macqueen, submitted a request for funding support to the Canadian Geological Foundation in 1982 but the proposal was declined. Not to be discouraged, the request was resubmitted in 1984 and was accepted. Funds from Wintario and a bequest in memory of Malcolm Heaton, Waterloo Alumnus, made the project viable. The initial plan included 12 rocks of an attractive and educational nature. The sum of $10,000 was forthcoming, and the fun began in the summer of 1986.

Peter Russell Rock Garden

A general view of the "Peter Russell Rock Garden"

On Monday the 12th of June of that year the Waterloo driller's truck and trailer manned by Sam Vales and Peter Russell left Waterloo and travelled to Sault Ste Marie to begin a two week collecting trip. Local assistance at various sites had been arranged prior to that time. Jim Kral and Paul Beach of the Ontario Department of Mines had done some searching in the Sault area for suitable rocks and were ready for us.

The first day was spent picking out suitable specimens because we had to make good use of the crane ordered for the next day. The most difficult rock to find was jasper conglomerate. Jim knew a lady whom he was sure would part with a piece. When he asked her, she said she needed all the specimens and none was looking for a good home. We retreated to a gravel pit along Highway 17 near Sault Ste Marie. At the bottom we found an attractive piece of jasper conglomerate. Jim drove back to the office to find the owner of the quarry and to arrange for permission to collect it. He did find the name of the owner but after numerous attempts the party telephone line remained busy. The calling was passed over to Peter and at about 10:00 pm he finally made contact with Mr Baldwin. The pit owner was surprised that a university would be interested in acquiring a rock. He was delighted to donate the 2 tonne specimen and said he would like to be there when we picked it up at 8:00 am the next morning.

We drove crane, truck and trailer to the bottom of the pit and loaded the rock onto the trailer only to discover that the soft sand at the bottom of the pit had trapped our fleet. We eventually escaped by attaching a cable from the driller's truck and trailer to the crane and from there to the pit's payloader. By pulling slowly, everything was set free!

Rental of the crane was very expensive, but we managed to cut costs for the remaining rocks with the help of Ontario Hydro crews, tow truck operators, chains, ramps made of wood planking, muscle, and mine-owned payloaders. Collecting became easier as news of our travels appeared in the local newspapers.

Our first collecting trip gathered 19 varieties of rock including jasper conglomerate, argillite and quartzites, Gowganda conglomerate, glacial striated quartzite, Jacobsville sandstone and basalt from the Sault St. Marie and Elliot Lake area. Gold ores from Timmins and Hemlo, anorthosite and iron ore from Wawa, banded iron formation from Timiskaming, Vermilion Bay granite, stromatolitic marble and amethyst from Thunder Bay rounded out the treasures from our two week effort.

Our initial gathering of 20 tonnes of rock continues to grow with new donations each year. Some donations are in memory of Waterloo students and staff. One commemorates the 40th anniversary of Waterloo co-op program and others are donated by mine owners.

In 1998 a five tonne piece of sodalite syenite was donated by Andy Christie of the Princess Sodalite Mine, Bancroft, in memory of Elizabeth Edwards, long time staff member of the Earth Sciences Department. (picture in the last issue of Wat on Earth). The garden now has over 50 tonnes of rocks. All rocks are labelled using cast bronze plaques detailing geological age, name, location and the name of the donor.

The initial triangular garden is devoted to Ontario rocks. Across a footpath another area has opened up. It includes rocks from Quebec, Labrador, and Pennsylvania. Rocks rolling to Waterloo this year will include coral pink granite and jade from British Columbia. The garden is used to inform school children and other visitor groups about Earth materials and the geology of Ontario. University students study the rocks in first year earth sciences courses and students and visitors alike enjoy sitting in the attractive surroundings watching the resident squirrels.

When your name becomes associated with these projects people soon know whom to call. The Kitchener Parks and Recreation Department has asked me to help them work with Forwell Aggregate Company to rehabilitate an area gravel pit. These plans will include a rock walk gathered from regional glacial erratics which I chose for them last Fall. Once you plant the first rock the garden keeps growing. Gardening can take many paths.

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