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Howard Falls opens window to the past, doors to the future for Edinboro University student scientists

​Just outside Edinboro in Franklin Township, Pennsylvania, Falls Run meanders through the countryside, crossing under Route 98 and Falls Road before cascading over a massive rock outcropping forming Howard Falls. Measuring 33 feet wide and 40 feet high, Howard Falls is the largest waterfall in Erie County.

The rushing water plummets into a plunge pool below, stirring sand and stones from the rock-strewn bottom. Suspended sediment the creek carries downstream brushes against and erodes the stream bed along the way. Although on private property, the falls can be readily viewed from Falls Road.

Over the course of thousands of years, erosion from Falls Run has carved a breathtaking ravine into the forested stretch of land between Howard Falls and Elk Creek. Steep, rocky walls stand on either side of the stream, separating the outside world from the brilliant microclimate that lies below.

A closer look at the sides of the gorge reveals deposits of reddish-brown and grey rock, each layer of which has been the Earth’s surface at one time. The rare instance of layered rock allows scientists to determine the environment of deposition and paint a picture of the area’s history.

Edinboro students and faculty have found fossilized brachiopods, corals and horseshoe crabs amid the rocks. Alumnus Kevin Yeager found his future there.

Yeager, ’95, was one of the first students to conduct field work at Howard Falls. His senior thesis research on giant fossil fish, “Fossil Fishes (Arthrodira and Acanthodida) from the Upper Devonian Chadakoin Formation of Erie County, Pennsylvania,” made significant contributions to the study of fish fauna in western Pennsylvania and was published in the June 1996 issue of Ohio Journal of Science.

The field study was Yeager’s first experience in field, laboratory and literature research, and the challenging work inspired him to dedicate his life to the study of sedimentology and marine sciences.

“It taught me that I could do work and even earn a living by following my natural curiosity. After that realization, I was hooked,” he said.

Upon graduating from EU, Yeager earned a Master of Science in geology from the University of Toledo and a Ph.D. in geology and geophysics from Texas A&M University. At Texas A&M, he was recognized as the best graduate student university-wide with the prestigious George W. Kunze Prize.

He is now an associate professor of earth and environmental sciences at the University of Kentucky and continues to build his extensive record of scholarship and grantsmanship.

Reflecting on the location where his career began, Yeager said Howard Falls is a pristine environment in which to learn about the compositions, processes and history of the earth.

“The fossils found in the layers of Devonian age sedimentary rock reveal the types of life that were abundant in northwestern Pennsylvania 375 million years ago,” Yeager said. “The property is an invaluable resource for students to observe and study natural river systems, forestry, conservation and resource management.”

Partnership in discovery

In addition to its rich trove of fossil and ancient geological relics, the unique aquatic and terrestrial habitat within the Howard Falls ravine supports species not commonly found in this area, a few of which have been identified as endangered or threatened by the Pennsylvania Natural Heritage Program.

“There’s really nothing else quite like it around here,” said landowner and EU alumnus Dennis Howard. “There is an environment of plants, birds and aquatic life down there that we don’t know a lot about.”

Curiosity about the history of the region and a deep commitment to the preservation of its natural resources, combined with their connection to Edinboro University, inspired Dennis and his wife, Dianne, also an EU alumna, to develop a working relationship with the university’s Geosciences Department more than 20 years ago.

Since then, EU’s Dr. Dale Tshudy, a paleontologist and geosciences professor, has accompanied hundreds of students to the gorge.

“Howard Falls – the gorge – provides geologists with the best exposures of Late Devonian rocks in southern Erie County,” Tshudy said. “The sandstone, siltstone and shale in the sides of the gorge are continuously exposed from bottom to top, in a succession spanning millions of years.”

“Features such as wave ripples, and the tracks and trails of marine animals, as well as the shells and skeletons of those animals, are beautifully preserved there,” he added.

Based on field studies done in the gorge, students have produced publishable research in both geography and geology, and several have parlayed their undergraduate research into graduate assistantships at top programs nationwide.

Endowment supports explorations

Recognizing the value to students and deepening their commitment to Edinboro University, the Howards established the Howard Falls Research and Education Endowment in 2007 to support and enhance the broad spectrum of research and educational projects connecting the Howard Falls property with Edinboro University’s many science programs.

Since the creation of the endowment, more than $7,000 has been distributed to EU students and faculty for various Howard Falls research projects.

In 2014, forest geography students led by Dr. Karen Eisenhart, chairperson of the Geosciences Department, analyzed the change in land use on the 250-acre Howard Falls property. Using photographs from 1939, 1959, 1969 and 1992, along with tree core samples, they estimated the age of forest patches to be between 25 and 75 years old, and determined the property experienced dramatic changes in land use between 1939 and 1992. Few studies of this type have been conducted in northwestern Pennsylvania, and the project was the first in Erie County.

Geography majors Andrea Pace, Alyssa Piper and Allison Swan presented the work at the Association of American Geographers 2014 Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida, and received funding from the endowment to cover the cost of the registration fee.

Eisenhart has also incorporated Howard Falls group projects as a required part of her Forest Geography and Conservation course curriculum.

“Forest geography projects give students hands-on experience with tree species identification, forest measurement techniques, use of spreadsheet software, and graphical presentation of data,” Eisenhart said. “The opportunities at Howard Falls allow student to expand their skillsets, and gain more confidence in their abilities.”

The Howards receive copies of all published work and meet yearly with the Geosciences Department to strategically discuss work that could be done on their land in the future.

“We just like to learn more about the property,” said Dennis Howard, whose family has occupied the land for more than 175 years. “A property like this, you don’t really ever own it, you just take care of it for future generations.”

The generous endowment and the continued availability of the Howard Falls property offer students and faculty an extraordinarily rich educational environment where students experience the satisfaction of learning, an engagement in research and the excitement of scientific discovery.