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Famous People of the Finger Lakes

Herman Le Roy Fairchild (1850-1943)

Herman Le Roy Fairchild was born in Montrose, Pennsylvania. He attended Cornell University shortly after it opened and studied the natural sciences with a particular interest in geology, graduating with honors in 1874. He then taught natural sciences in Pennsylvania and New York City where he became the secretary of the New York Academy of Sciences.

 

In 1888 Fairchild founded the Geological Society of America. That same year, he left New York City for the University of Rochester where he taught until 1920. Fairchild devoted much of his life to studying the geology of the Finger Lakes, taking countless photographs of rocky outcroppings, undulating landscapes, and other geological formations. Using these images as a teaching tool, he projected them in his classroom--a pedagogic strategy that was considered progressive for the time. He is said to have used the same lantern slide projector for his entire 32-year career, modifying the source of light as technology advanced.

 

While studying the region's geology, Fairchild discovered an underground salt-water river created when the glacial deposits capped the ancient Genesee River. This river runs from Dansville north to Rush, then east to Mendon and Fishers, then north again to exit at Irondequoit Bay into Lake Ontario. Now called Fairchild River, it is used as a supply of soft water.

 

Near the end of the 1800s, Fairchild became embroiled in what was called the Coon Mountain Controversies. (This is discussed in detail at http://www.rasny.org/Publications/FairchildWebFeatureArt.htm.) One day in 1894, Fairchild was called to the home of the Woolston's who lived in Fishers in Ontario County. The evening before, the family had heard a roar and the ground shook. Going outside, the Woolston's found a crater 15 feet across and 30 feet deep with dirt thrown up in all directions. Fairchild took soil samples and Henry A. Ward (who taught natural sciences at the University and had started Ward's Natural Science Establishment) and his assistant began digging for a meteor, but none was ever found. Fairchild had heard from Karl Grove Gilbert, chief geologist for the United State Geological Survey, of a large crater called Coon Mountain located in Arizona. Fairchild visited the crater and was convinced that it had been caused by a meteor, though may scientists of the day disagreed. Fairchild disliked the name Coon Mountain and began calling it Meteor Crater. Fairchild was right, of course, about the origin of the crater, and his name for it has stuck to this day.

 

During his lifetime, Fairchild received numerous professional awards. He was also the first recipient of the Rochester Civic Medal presented by the Rochester Museum of Arts and Sciences.

 

 

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