2008-04-09 / Columnists
Pets, Pets, Pets . .
- The continuing search for Sensation has gone high tech. It was an absolute honor to have Dr. Dan Davis, professor of geophysics at Stony Brook University, bring his GPR (ground penetrating radar) equipment and vast expertise to the former Westminster Kennel Club (WKC) property in Babylon. He spent many hours last week collecting preliminary data by the "mystery mound" west of Southards Pond.
In 1887 members of WKC buried Sensation, their mascot and prized Pointer, under a flagpole in front of the clubhouse alongside many other Pointers that, according to an inscription on an aged photo, "cost a mint of money and were the greatest of their day". Although GPR has been a successful tool in locating historic human graves, it's highly unlikely we'll find the mass dog burial. The proposed site is 200 ft. from the pond, and bone decomposes more quickly in the presence of groundwater. This forensic file is 121 years old.
Instead, with GPR we're looking for evidence of the WKC clubhouse that likely burned down in 1923 ("Pets" online 1/31/08). Old journals mention that the clubhouse had some type of a basement- with a wine cellar "always well supplied," store rooms, and furnaces. Hopefully geological disturbance will indicate a dug out foundation.
We have no written clues about structural materials. Was the foundation supported by brick, stones, concrete, or merely locust posts? Lattice blocks a view of the foundation in the few existing photos. Size is another question. Was the basement a full imprint of the clubhouse- 40 by 60 minus a 12 ft. porch on each side, or was it under a small section of the clubhouse, comparable to some Queen Anne Victorians built in the 1880s?
GPR can be thought of as an electromagnetic "Bloodhound" sniffing around underground. It is a non-destructive method that uses radar to image the subsurface. The energy bounces off buried or disturbed features. These reflections are detected by a receiving antenna as hyperboles, breaks, slopes or blips on a computer screen, but not in the shape of a hidden object. Initial data is recorded for further analysis back at the lab.
Higher GPR frequencies do not penetrate as far as the low but give better resolution. (As a veterinary parallel, large dogs need low frequency waves to reach organs on an ultrasound.) We only have to delve downward a few meters. Our search goes back a century- not to prehistoric eras like the Pleistocene glacial moraines or mountain belts Dr. Davis usually studies. Even though radar is not acoustic, as in an orchestra, smaller instruments produce higher frequency waves. The 200 MHz GPR (the base fiddle) was too cumbersome for our wooded spot; the 500 MHz (the cello) was not in a cooperative mood, while- as Goldilocks would say- the 800 MHz (the violin) was just right.
Dr. Davis dubs his GPR set-up "the world's quietest high tech lawn mover." The unit with the transmitter and antenna resting on the bottom of the cart is connected to the laptop at eye level. (See photo.) His student lab assistants, John Zochia and Billy Freeman, mapped out measuring tape lines surrounding the mound so Dr. Davis could take readings of South Shore stratigraphy (geological layers).
First the machine had to be calibrated for the area. Cell phones and garage door openers interfere with signals; tire pressure on the cart affects the odometer. Along the foot path the GPR produced squiggles that suggest expected sedimentary matter. To the untrained, like me, the lines look marble notebook-ish. Dr. Davis measured the water table from the pond inward, and took readings from the whole area of interest including the possible flagpole and shooting house locales.
At times, he would see interesting graphics, but it was much too soon to determine their significance, if any. "You're astonished by what it gets, and astonished by what it doesn't get," said Professor Davis. More than an arm's length away and an artifact won't register. The mound is too obstructed and uneven from tossed junk to conduct a tight grid. Later John and Billy used a surveyor's scope and level to gauge topography levels so these can be factored out at the lab.
My focus is on the mound off Gwynn between the horse trail and foot path for several reasons. The spot approximates the clubhouse marker in both the 1902 and 1915 Hyde atlas, seems to match both an 1892 sketch plus a 1928 aerial map in position, shape and orientation ("Pets" 3/6/08). More intriguing, it seems to be the only disturbed clearing within the woods. Babylonian Linda Puglielli and others remember it as an odd sandpit, without debris, in the early 1950s. A glimmer of good news- Linda's description suggests to Dr. Davis that the sandpit had original sand- front glacial sand- not the beach variety brought in by the state or contractors after the fire. However, the sandpit, now mound, doesn't have natural stratigraphy because people dumped there after the clubhouse blaze. Sometime after 1952, more dirt was piled on the debris. This makes it difficult for GPR to distinguish a man made "disturbance timeline". With geological jumble to jumble, be this Westminster's birthplace and Sensation's tomb, the clash of canine archaeology and post fire littering blurs contrast.
Lab interpretation is more accurate. Results may warrant another visit- maybe a pass with the 500 MHz GPR or hand auguring to inspect soil samples. I'm so appreciative of Dr. Davis' interest. Though my quest for "the dead dog" could turn up as empty as Geraldo's Al Capone vault; the journey and help from brilliant scholars in varied fields has been enlightening.
I once wrote that Sensation's Babylon gravesite was to a dog fancier, the equivalent of learning King Tut were buried in your backyard. However, some believe a curse of the mummy began after people entered the pharaoh's mausoleum. Should we "let sleeping dogs lie"? Dr. Davis was only at the Sensation site a moment when a briar pierced his ear, steps away from a piece of crumbly concrete I sliced my finger on the week before. Unearthing a hound hex? Perhaps another wise reason the esteemed scientist may never return. Learning that Geraldo spent his teens in Babylon conjures yet one more bad omen.
Available at Babylon Town Shelter (643-9270): The Town distributed 360 free feral spay/neuter vouchers last weekend. Only a few remain. Could those who find they took more than they need return extras to the shelter so the vouchers can be re-issued? Also call the Lamar St. W. Babylon shelter if you'd like to borrow a humane trap. A refundable $60 cash deposit is required.
"Mama" a Pit/Hound in Cage 26 nursed a litter of 9 at the shelter. Quite sociable with people but Mama's maternal urges make her protective around some dogs. This photo was taken a few weeks ago when Mama was still sporting the "Romulus and Remus" look. "Mousy" in C- 9 came in when his owner entered a nursing home. He's super friendly but likes to seek security in his cat condo. He'd love to find a home before kitten season explodes.
More Select-a Pets: Siberian Husky; "Mountain"-oversized Retriever; a spayed gray kitten.