He’s the greatest rock star in the history of the Volunteer State, yet only a handful of geologists and cartographers know his name.

In the mid-1800s, James Merrill Safford prodded the good earth of Tennessee from the highest mountain tops in the Smokies to the banks of the mighty Mississippi. He was making notes every step of the way as he explored all 95 counties.

As the official state geologist, he knew where coal, marble, copper, zinc and other minerals and rocks lay beneath the soil. But he wasn’t always looking down as he trekked over 10,000 miles with only a compass and pocket level in hand. He spied some of the grandest views from the mountain peaks of East Tennessee long before Great Smoky Mountains National Park was conceived.

In 1855, Safford executed the first geological map of Tennessee. The color-coded map showed rock formations, commercial deposits and mines, and iron-making operations. Before he wound up his career, he had written more than 50 books and taught scores of would-be physicians, engineers and pharmacists at Cumberland and Vanderbilt universities between 1848 and 1900.  

Nearly a half century after Safford’s death, H.B. Teeter wrote about him in the Oct. 14, 1956, edition of The Nashville Tennessean: “He was not a big man, but he did big things in Tennessee nearly 100 years ago. His hair and beard were silver white toward the last. He explored the state by horseback and afoot and he knew practically every valley, every hill, every stream, every cliff face.

“James M. Safford walked and rode some 11,000 miles, mostly in the summers, before and after the War Between the States. He was a Paul Bunyan among men of science and learning — yet he was completely at home in pioneer hut and wilderness, as well as in the classroom. He received an annual appropriation of only $350. He never earned more than $1,500 a year.

“His observations were so accurate and extensive that his huge book, ‘The Geology of Tennessee,’ remains the geologists’ bible today. He found the vast raw wealth in Tennessee and could have owned coal mines, copper mines, marble quarries, rich farm lands.”

Coming to Lebanon

Safford was born Aug. 13, 1822, in Zanesville, Ohio, and received a bachelor of science degree from Ohio University in 1844. He spent two years at Yale, and in 1866, Yale granted him an honorary Ph.D., one of the earliest American doctorates in geology.

From New England he came to Lebanon and became a professor of chemistry and geology at Cumberland University from June 1848 until June 1873 (except for time off in 1854-1856 to make his geological survey of the state and during the Civil War).

In 1873, Safford became professor of chemistry in the medical school of the University of Nashville. When Vanderbilt University opened its doors in 1875, the chair of geology and natural history was his, and he also taught chemistry in a medical department jointly operated by Vanderbilt and the University of Nashville. If not enough, he was dean of Vanderbilt’s Pharmacy Department and served as chief of the Department of Geology Minerals and Mining at the Tennessee Centennial Exposition in Nashville in 1896-1897. 

When he retired from the classroom in 1900, he became a professor emeritus and was the last active member of the original faculty of Vanderbilt University.

Admiring Safford’s work

Geologist Richard Finch, who taught in the Department of Earth Sciences at Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville from 1975 to 2000, names Safford as one of his geological heroes. He likely was introduced to Safford’s genius by geology professor Richard Stearns while earning his bachelor and master’s degrees at Vanderbilt in the mid-1960s.

“I have long been a lover of old books, and when I saw Safford’s magnificent ‘Geology of Tennessee’ (1869), I set out to find and purchase a copy,” said Finch. “I’m not sure just when I accomplished that, but having his book, reading portions of it, admiring his magnificent hand-colored, large fold-out geologic map made me appreciative of the spectacular work Safford accomplished.

“Much later, when I was a geology professor at Tennessee Tech, I used to get out my copy of Safford and gingerly unfold the map for my structural geology class to see what marvelous work he had done at a time when access to geological exposures was limited to natural cliffs and railroad cuts.” 

Asked what Safford’s greatest contribution to the geology of the state, he said, “First, from the point of view of a geologist, I think Safford’s big contribution was to recognize the basic nature of the geological structure of the Valley and Ridge Province of Tennessee. The fact that stratigraphic units are repeated over and over again by faults bringing the rock layers up and over each other like shingles.

“Second, from the viewpoint of the average Tennessee citizen, Safford’s involvement in public education was important. ‘Elementary Geology of Tennessee’ by Safford and J.B. Killebrew was used in public schools (eighth grade, according to the inscription in one of my copies) for many years. I do not know when the first edition was published, but I have editions from 1892 and 1900. I think this put Tennessee ahead of most states in science education.”

Michael Gibson, professor of geology and director of UT-Coon Creek Science Center at the University of Tennessee at Martin, is also a Safford devotee and ran across his work as a graduate student at Auburn University in 1982-1984.

Gibson, who grew up in Williamsburg, Va., said, “I am basically an ‘earth historian’ in that my area of expertise in geology is the history of the planet and its life; however, my experiences in the colonial capital and the Civil War history of the Southeast also drew me to Safford and his experiences as an early American scientist who lived through the Civil War period. It was an added bonus to me that he was one of the ‘founding fathers’ of the geologic rock units I was devoting my Ph.D. research to. I felt like I was following in the footsteps of an icon.

Among Safford’s books and works that Gibson has in his personal library, he prizes a first edition of “Resources of Tennessee” from 1874 as well as a hand-colored Geologic Map of Tennessee.

He also oversees the Vanderbilt University fossil collections which the University of Tennessee at Martin inherited in the 1990s. In his role as an associate curator for the Pink Palace Museum in Memphis, Gibson was able to keep the entire collection together and moved it first to the Pink Palace and then later to University of Tennessee at Martin.

“While cleaning and cataloging the collection, we have come across numerous specimens with box labels that either have Safford’s initials on them as collector or are in his handwriting. He mostly used an off-white specimen box label or a power blue specimen label. He had a wonderful cursive handwriting, typical of his day,” said Gibson.

He noted that Safford made major contributions to the state’s geology record.

“At a time when America was experiencing the Industrial Revolution, resources were vitally important. Safford became Tennessee’s second state geologist and was a well-known and respected educator of geology. I would say that his amazing ability to synthesize the geology of the entire state, and not only record it in his books and reports, but to then recognize the importance for the average Tennessean to be abreast of geology were pivotal.

“I wish I could say that his legacy has continued, but, unfortunately, Tennessee no longer teaches geology as part of public education, so most of our citizenry are woefully uninformed, or misinformed, about the geology of the state,” Gibson said. “His role in Tennessee history, as a scientist and government official, helped to make Tennessee a popular place for people to live and for industry to develop. His original geologic maps are still highly accurate today, after over 100 years of more advanced technology and study. He is a testament to what good, hard, field work can achieve.”

In the Geological Society America Bulletin, vol. XIX, 1908, J.J. Stevenson penned a memoir on Safford a year after his death and reported that Safford began his geological work in Tennessee in 1850 and was appointed state geologist of Tennessee in 1854.

His first major publication, “Geology of Tennessee,” was delayed due to the Civil War but was released in 1869 at 550 pages in length with the first colored geologic map of Tennessee and a comprehensive description of the sequence of rocks exposed in the state, which recognized the use of fossils in correlating rock layers.”

In 1858 Safford first recognized a probable island, 80 to 90 miles in diameter, existing in the Paleozoic seas at the center of the state. Later known as the Nashville Dome, it is considered one of the major structural elements of the North American continent.

“A man among men”

After Safford’s death in Dallas, Texas, on July 2, 1907, six weeks shy of his 86th birthday, The Nashville Tennessean headline stated “Veteran Geologist of TN Goes to Reward”.

He left to the museum at Vanderbilt University a large collection of exceedingly rare and valuable specimens. Some 57 years after his passing, The Tennessean reported in the fall of 1964 that Dean William J. Dickinson discovered Safford’s collection of Native-American artifacts in a long, unused room in Memorial Hall at Cumberland University.

The collection included pipes, water jugs and stone ornaments and was believed to have been found in the pre-history Greenwood Village about four miles south of Lebanon in a bend of Spring Creek, a site now known as Sellars Farm State Archaeological Area. Safford is believed to have invited W.F. Putnam of Harvard University to excavate the village site in 1877.

Regarding the collection Safford left to Cumberland, its whereabouts today are unknown.

In summing up Safford’s work as Tennessee original rock star, his 1908 biographer Stevenson concluded, “It was a misfortune for Professor Safford and his fellow-geologists that during most of his life he was so to say, isolated. He attended meetings of the Geological Association and of this society when they were within his reach, and he always contributed much of value to the discussions; but he was known in the flesh to comparatively few of his fellow-workers, so that he labored under the disadvantage of being known only by his writings, most of which belong to a period of which some are apt to think, if not to speak, disrespectfully.

“He was a man among men, everywhere commanding respect by his commonsense, his integrity, and his manly recognition of others. The excellence and importance of his geological work became fully known to most of us only during the last decade, but throughout his life his worth was recognized by Tennessee, in which for more than 40 years he was one of the foremost citizens.”

Sources for this story include: The Journal and Tribune Knoxville, Tennessee (June 14, 1895); The Nashville Tennessean (July 4, 1907; Oct. 14, 1956; Sept. 6, 1964); Asheville Citizen Times (Sept. 16 and Sept. 23, 1951); Vol. 4, No. 1, History of Geology and Geological Education in the Southern and Border States by Richard G. Stearns, 1985; Geological Society America Bulletin, Vol. XIX, 1908; and American Biography, Volume 19, Oxford University Press, N.Y., 1999.

WHAT HAPPENED TO SAFFORD’S PEAK?

The five highest peaks in Tennessee are: 1: Clingmans Dome, 6,643 feet; 2: Mount Guyot, 6,621; 3: Mount Le Conte, 6,593; 4: Mount Le Conte: Cliff Top, 6,555; and 5: Mount Le Conte: Myrtle Point, 6,443.

Mount Le Conte actually has three peaks that were named after early geologists who explored the site: Joseph Le Conte, James Merrill Safford and Moses Ashley Curtis.

In their book, “A Natural History of Mount Le Conte” (1998), Kenneth Wise and Ron Petersen wrote that the three peaks that make up the central summit of Mount Le Conte were known by the earliest settlers as the Bullhead. That led Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot, who charted the highest peaks of the Smokies and dubbed the mountain as “the Group of Bull Head, Tennessee,” to identify the trio of peaks as Central Peak or Mount Le Conte, West Peak or Mount Curtis and North Peak or Mount Safford. The latter was named Safford’s Peak, aka Mount Safford, by S.B. Buckley when he explored the area in 1858.

At a later date, the Tennessee Nomenclature Committee dropped the names Curtis and Safford and designated those peaks as Cliff Top and Myrtle Point, respectively, which was approved by the National Board of Geographical Names.

Mount Le Conte proves to be the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is the highest peak completely in Tennessee from base to peak. A number of hikers consider Myrtle Point, formerly Safford’s Peak, to be the best place to view sunrise at the top of Mount Le Conte. Safford explored the area in the mid-to-late 1850s and in the late 1860s.

WHAT HAPPENED TO SAFFORD’S PEAK?

The five highest peaks in Tennessee are: 1: Clingmans Dome, 6,643 feet; 2: Mount Guyot, 6,621; 3: Mount Le Conte, 6,593; 4: Mount Le Conte: Cliff Top, 6,555; and 5: Mount Le Conte: Myrtle Point, 6,443.

Mount Le Conte actually has three peaks that were named after early geologists who explored the site: Joseph Le Conte, James Merrill Safford and Moses Ashley Curtis.

In their book, “A Natural History of Mount Le Conte” (1998), Kenneth Wise and Ron Petersen wrote that the three peaks that make up the central summit of Mount Le Conte were known by the earliest settlers as the Bullhead. That led Swiss geologist Arnold Guyot, who charted the highest peaks of the Smokies and dubbed the mountain as “the Group of Bull Head, Tennessee,” to identify the trio of peaks as Central Peak or Mount Le Conte, West Peak or Mount Curtis and North Peak or Mount Safford. The latter was named Safford’s Peak, aka Mount Safford, by S.B. Buckley when he explored the area in 1858.

At a later date, the Tennessee Nomenclature Committee dropped the names Curtis and Safford and designated those peaks as Cliff Top and Myrtle Point, respectively, which was approved by the National Board of Geographical Names.

Mount Le Conte proves to be the third-highest peak in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and is the highest peak completely in Tennessee from base to peak. A number of hikers consider Myrtle Point, formerly Safford’s Peak, to be the best place to view sunrise at the top of Mount Le Conte. Safford explored the area in the mid-to-late 1850s and in the late 1860s.

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