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December 18, 2014

Alabama 21: Long trip, deep impact

Meet the 'Crater Lady of Wetumpka'

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Posted: Thursday, July 31, 2014 5:41 pm | Updated: 6:29 am, Fri Aug 1, 2014.

WETUMPKA — As Marilee Tankersley pilots her car through the twisting, turning roads of her neighborhood, she glances over at the passenger seat and chuckles.

Another hill. Another twist. Another turn.

She takes care not to drive off the road, to peril.

“That’s the way it is in Wetumpka,” she said Thursday morning. “Anywhere you drive, you have to drive up and down; it’s like Birmingham. I’m from Florida, where it’s flat as a flitter. When I moved here, I was like, what’s up with all these hills?”

Tankersley lives in an impressive subdivision on the east side of Alabama 21, one of the longest state roads in Alabama. Her family bought the land where her house sits three decades ago. Wetumpka and its hills are home.

Her house, by the way, is in a crater.

A meteor crater. To get all Ph.D. on you, it’s a “marine impact crater” that Wetumpka is slowly turning into one of Alabama’s most important historical sites and, frankly, one of its quirkiest roadside landmarks.

Suffice it to say that Wetumpka’s crater is the only crater of its kind along the nearly 300 miles of Alabama 21. In fact, Alabama 21 doesn’t run beside the Wetumpka crater. It runs through the edge of its western ridges.

Tankersley knows that because she not only lives in the crater, and knows virtually everyone who owns land in the crater, she is chairwoman of the Wetumpka Impact Crater Commission. Her boys grew up in the crater, playing on its ridges and valleys.

Call her the Crater Lady of Wetumpka — a term of honest, sincere endearment.

“It is personal for me,” she says. “We do live in a crater.”

Big words and unusual rock formations

To talk about Wetumpka’s crater, it’s important to understand two points beforehand: (1.) The crater is 85 million years old, based on carbon-date testing, so there’s no reason to bring up any biblical concerns about the planet’s age; and (2.) the crater was found, explored, tested and announced by geologists, and they use big words, so hang on.

In geologist-speak, Wetumpka’s crater is made of “crystalline basement rock” formed when the meteor crashed into what would become Elmore County, Ala. The meteor landed in about 100 feet of water — thus, the “marine impact crater” label — because roughly half of Alabama was covered in water 85 million years ago, scientists say.

When it hit water (from the northeast), the meteor carved out a somewhat-circular depression five miles wide. Its highest ridge, Bald Knob, is about 600 feet high. The crater’s insides aren’t flat, like a bowl. They’re criss-crossed with smaller ridges and valleys — many of which are now home to streets, churches and upscale subdivisions with names like Buckridge and Smoke Rise. Real estate inside the crater isn’t cheap.

Imagine it this way: Pick up Cider Ridge in Oxford and sit it down inside a 5-mile wide crater, just without the golf course. It’s not exactly a moonscape — it is Alabama, so it’s green in the summertime — but it’s an odd feeling driving inside something so unnatural that was made because a rock the size of a football stadium detonated here a long, long time ago.

What’s unusual — as if this story needed more unusualness — is that Wetumpka’s crater is a toddler in terms of Alabama tourism. This isn’t Mount Cheaha, which northeast Alabama has championed one way or another for more than a century. The first person to think that the ridges and odd-looking rock formations were indeed unusual was Eugene Allen Smith, the state geologist in 1891. He wrote that the area was “structurally disturbed,” a geological understatement if there ever was one.

In 1976, another geologist, Tony Neathery, and a group of scientists published a report based on six years of Wetumpka research. Neathery described the area as an “astrobleme,” or a star-shaped wound in the earth. Skepticism followed.

It wasn’t until 1998 that researchers, led by Auburn University’s David King, drilled inside the crater and found “shocked quartz,” which, scientists say, is only created by the pressures associated with explosions the size of meteor impacts. They also found chemical traces of the meteor embedded in the Wetumpka bedrock.

(King’s research has also found large deposits of white clay inside the crater — white clay from south of Montgomery, that is. It’s due to what geologists call “tsunami backwash,” which is what happens when displaced water that covered Alabama’s southern half roared back toward the crater. It brought white clay with it and deposited it in the hills and valleys around Tankersley’s home.)

So, Alabama’s 85-million-year-old crater has been in the public’s consciousness less than two decades. Which means Tankersley and many of the other families who own crater land didn’t know they owned crater land when they first bought it.

One day, you own a few acres in Wetumpka.

The next day, you own a few acres in a crater.

Useless crater fact: Tankersley says she researched how many families owned 40 or more acres of crater land a few years ago. Her list covered four legal-sized sheets of paper. That’s more than 100 families.

All things crater in Wetumpka

Tankersley isn’t a geologist, or a scientist of any kind. “My favorite rocks are in rings, they still are,” she says. “But I’ve come to appreciate other kinds of rocks, as well.”

She’s a retired county extension agent who was asked years ago to join the crater commission. Around 2008, best she can remember, she became its chairwoman. On any given day, strangers call her house to ask about the crater — where it is, when are the tours, if it’s OK to hike on it. (It’s not, really, since most of it is private property.)

She admits that her interest in the crater might be nil if she didn’t live in the thing. But she can’t help it: the crater’s literally part of her life.

“When I retired, I’m an educator, a degree in adult education. My whole thing was letting people know about how important it is. I’m an organizer, a person who can put on things.”

Like Crater Days, a three-day festival for all things crater in March. And the planning of an interpretive learning center that will also include an amphitheater, crater overlooks and housing for scientists who want to spend time digging around the place.

To build all of it at once, Tankersley and her fellow craterophiles need $15 million.

That’s a steep price tag, but Tankersley feels it’s worth it. She believes the rank-and-file in Elmore County don’t realize what they have right here on Alabama 21, just across from Wetumpka’s Wind Creek Casino and Hotel. “They have no clue,” she says.

“People don’t realize how unusual it is. It is the only marine impact crater in the southeastern United States. It is the best preserved ...

“It’s just so cool.”

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