Oolitic Hematite – History Forgotten in Urban Sprawl and The Reason For Red Barns

Behind a series of apartment and office buildings and the humdrum of cars looping the perimeter of Rochester lies a hidden cache of oolitic hematite sediments. Riddled along the cliffs that surround a trail that was used by the Seneca Nation for thousands of years for fishing access to the Genesee River, and the former site of the settlement of Carthage, I made the 3.5 hour trek from home to explore this site as well as the historic hematite mines in Ontario, NY.

After navigating through downtown Rochester, I eventually located the trailhead, unassumingly marked with a simple wooden sign addressing the site’s importance as a trail used by the indigenous people of the area (a brief mention, with no specifics) and indicating the former site of the Village of Carthage. Sadly, though its a public trail maintained by the city, the area was in rough shape – garbage was strewn everywhere and the trail itself was in poor condition – I hate to think such is a consequence of it’s location and the surrounding community. However, I did not let that deter me from enjoying the beauty of a landscape that was new to me and the call of this vibrant material that lured me so far from home.

After traversing down the trail just a short distance did I come across my first exposure of this vibrant, oolitic hematite. Shards of hematite were exposed in a boulder that had fallen from the cliff face, chipped off on a corner from a rockhound that must have visited the site some time before me. Oolitic hematite is comprised of oolites which are small, sand-sized spherical or oval grains that form as hematite precipitates from fluids. Typically oolites consist of thin concentric crystal layers that, on broken surfaces, appear as nested spheres or ovals. When not broken, hematite oolites appear to be red, well-rounded sand grains or may be mistaken for lithified fish eggs. I collected a few samples and then continued further down the trail – the tall walls of the gorge becoming more red with exposed hematite sediments, inter-strewn with earthy green limestone. A short walk from the first exposure brought me to a beautiful waterfall, just now a trickle – but its power during the wetter months apparent in the eroded red rock that composed the gorge.

Here the hematite sediment were powdery in the dry areas, and more claylike in areas where the rain the day before had touched. While further exploring the site, I cam across a rock outcrop, the underside of which was a conglomeration of various red tones, swirling in in a beautiful chorus of color and texture, the earth below red with the flakes that had chipped off with time, weathering and human interference. Here I just took pictures, leaving the beauty of this formation in tact as I had stumbled upon it for others to hopefully marvel upon as I had for the good ten minutes I sat examining the intricate details of nature’s ability to collaborate with its agents to create art in a way I can only envy.

After reveling in the power of this space, in it’s gifts that it has provided me that day and those for thousands of years before me – I set off on the next leg of my adventure.

Thirty minutes from downtown Rochester, is the Furnaceville Quarry – site of one of the country’s largest hematite mines until 1887.  Now a city park, the mine pits are filled with water that provide the locals with a cool respite on a hot day, and was once the source of drinking water for the town.  Walking through this park, one can immediately notice the red, dusty earth that comprises it – though I think few are as interested in it’s origins as I am this day. Outside of the restrooms is a hand-painted, rudimentary map of the site, indicating where there iron pits and mills were located.  A short walk along the “lake” brings you to an opening along the water – surprisingly blue-green and crystal clear.  Sitting on the shore, and honing in on the earth, you can see again the traces of red hidden behind the gravel and sand that were brought in an placed along the shoreline. Digging a small spot, the claylike hematite was vibrant red against the grey pebbles.  Here it was that hematite was industrially mined for pigment – the reason why all of the barns you see in most places around the country are bright red 🙂

I did not sty too long here as my journey this day was not yet over – i had one more spot to visit along the banks of Lake Ontario …. and that is a story for another day 🙂


Hematite is an important ore of iron and its blood red color (in the powdered form) lends itself well to use as a pigment. Hematite gets its name from a Greek word meaning blood-like because of the color of its powder. Ancient superstition held that large deposits of hematite formed from battles that were fought and the subsequent blood that flowed into the ground. The red chalk writing of this mineral was one of the earliest in the history of humans. The powdery mineral was first used 164,000 years ago by the Pinnacle-Point man, possibly for social purposes.[7] Hematite residues are also found in graves from 80,000 years ago. Since the beginning of the Iron Age, hematite has played an integral role in human society as our primary source of iron for weapons, railroad lines, and sky scrappers. Rust is simply another form of hematite and hematite dust is responsible for the reddish color of many soils and the Martian landscape.

Throughout human history ochre was a common pigment for various decorative purposes, including body painting. In the Upper Paleolithic it was prominent among the pigments used in wall art.

Red ochre contains unhydrated hematite. Red ochre was often smeared or sprinkled on corpses in European graves from Neanderthal times clear up to the Bronze Age. A common interpretation is that, being approximately the color of blood, ochre was supposed to represent life or to have life-giving qualities.

The term “ochre grave” is sometimes given to graves in which ochre was so thickly smeared on the corpse that after its deterioration the red stain was forever left upon the bones.

Although both colors of ochre (and intermediate colors) are oxides of iron, the conditions, process, extent, and color effects of oxidation differ. In general, red ochre is associated with well drained soils, yellow ochre with damper soils. (Yellow ochre hence is sometimes referred to as “hydrated”).

Ochre is usually soft and easily powdered. Denser, more stone-like iron oxide (called hematite or limonite, depending upon its composition) occurs in nodules and was sometimes worked like other stone in prehistoric times.


Hematite from this region was called Furnaceville Hematite – Furncaeville hematite was discovered in the Town of Ontario in 1811, by a Mr. Knickerbocker when he was digging a well to water his cattle, but it was Samuel Smith who in 1816 first set up a crude forge on Bear Creek at what would later become the hamlet of Furnaceville. It was reported that by steadily heating, hammering and reheating the pasty masses of ore, he was able to manufacture about 400 pounds of bar iron each day.providing the basis for an active mining and founding industry that collapsed around 1887 after competition from Pennsylvania and Minnesota.

Word of the extent of the iron ore deposits in Ontario spread and outsiders began to take interest. In 1870, the Ontario Iron Co. was formed on 17 acres of land and its owners built a modern anthracite blast furnace on the original Furnaceville furnace site. When the RW&O Railroad came through Ontario in 1874, the Ontario Iron Co. built railroad spurs from the ore beds to the furnace and purchased its own locomotive and cars. During this period, 25 men ran the furnace and between 50 and 250 men were employed in the mine pits. The capacity of the Ontario Iron Co.’s furnace was now 100 tons per week.

In the early 1900s, it was discovered that iron ore could be used as the red pigment in paint for structural iron and for barns. A “paint mill” was built in Ontario, where the iron ore was ground for color and shipped around the world to be mixed with linseed oil and used as paint. The company also imported other colors from around the world to mix with the ore to get desired


During World War I, the plant’s machinery operated 24 hours a day and most of the color produced was used on warships for camouflage. Other uses of the powder were in coloring mortar and rubber and it was even used for cosmetics. By 1948, synthetic colors were taking the place of iron ore so operations ceased and the plant was dismantled.

The open pits left by the strip mining of the iron ore are now filled with spring water and run east and west through Ontario south of Route 104. The ore bed Ontario residents are most familiar with is the “lake” in Casey Park. From 1924 to 1953, Ontario’s water supply came from this largest of the ore beds. It is presently used for swimming and canoeing.

This park is the last remaining evidence of the most important aspect of Ontario’s early, and little known, history — iron ore mining.

That’s why so many barns were painted red!(1)


The rock layers in Rochester area are virtually undisturbed from their original horizontal position, dipping only slightly to the South. The bedrock in Western New York consists of lower and middle Paleozoic rocks, which are chiefly shales. There are also Late Ordovician through Middle Silurian sandstones, shales, limestones, and dolostones. Repeated transgressions and regressions (sea level rises and falls) are recorded in these rocks.

The end of the Taconic Orogeny and the beginning of the Silurian can be seen in the Medina Group. These sandstones are well-known for their oil and gas reservoirs. Directly overlying the Queenston is the Grimsby Sandstone which represents the dying stages of the Taconic Orogeny. The Grimsby is very similar to the Queenston and with both lacking fossils, the contact between the two is uncertain.

The red color seen in these rocks is due to iron oxide resulting from deposition in a highly oxidizing environment.

Many, many years ago (about 400 million) the area of central New York was covered by a low lagoon called the Silurian Sea. The ore was originally limestone which was replaced by iron compounds from streams high in the Adirondacks that ran to Kirkland. The ore is still found at outcrops and among strata of limestone, shales, and sandstones 60′ to 80′ underground.

The Clinton hematite formation of ore was first discovered in the Town of Kirkland and named for this place where it was first found in 1797. It is known by geologists throughout the world by the name, Clinton hematite.

The Clinton group of the mid-Silurian is exposed in the gorge North of the Driving Park bridge. The Clinton group is heterogeneous (composed of different substances), and consists of marine gray, green and purple shales, interbedded with fossil-rich limestones. It is here we see….
the famous Furnaceville hematite, possibly deposited by iron-precipitating bacteria.

This belt of Clinton hematite goes west throughout New York State and ends in the Province of Ontario west of the Niagara Falls area. It is visible in the Genesee River gorge in Rochester and was mined in an open-trench operation for years by the Furnaceville Iron Company in Ontario County New York. This ore is also found in Wisconsin, Alabama, Virginia, Georgia, Tennessee, and Missouri. It was used in the iron industry at Birmingham, Alabama and at Chattanooga, Tennessee. Similar ores are also located in. Luxembourg and Lorraine in Europe.


What the Ancient Pigment Ochre Tells Us About the Human Mind
The Minerals : Genesee County
The Great Iron Ore Odyssey