Adapted from: A Green River Reader, edited by Alan Blackstock (University of Utah Press, 2005), pp. 160-169.
IN 1909 PALEONTOLOGIST EARL DOUGLASS DISCOVERED ONE OF THE WORLD'S GREAT COLLECTIONS OF FOSSILIZED DINOSAUR BONES ALONG THE GREEN RIVER NEAR SPLIT MOUNTAIN. DOUGLASS WAS INSTRUMENTAL IN THE SUCCESSFUL EFFORT TO PRESERVE THE AREA AS DINOSAUR NATIONAL MONUMENT, WHICH WOULD EVENTUALLY BE EXPANDED TO INCORPORATE THE WILDEST PARTS OF THE GREEN AND YAMPA RIVERS. IN THIS PREVIOUSLY UNPUBLISHED MANUSCRIPT, DOUGLASS EXPLICATES THE GEOLOGY OF THE REGION, DETAILS THE EXPLORATIONS THAT LED TO HIS DISCOVERY, AND CALLS FOR ITS PRESERVATION FOR THE BENEFIT OF GENERATIONS TO COME.
When one enters a great natural history museum like those in New York City, Washington or Pittsburgh, he is lured there by curiosity, interest in nature, or that something in his being which is attracted by the mysterious or thrilled by the marvelous. Among many other interesting things, he sees bones, skulls, skeletons and restorations of huge, strange or bizarre beasts, some of which, it Is claimed, once inhabited the earth before man lived or wrote histories. He asks or thinks, "Where in the world did those things come from?' The giant whales, he knows, came from the deep, dark, hidden wastes of the ocean-and "who knows what unheard of things are still there?"
He finds that the greater number of the seemingly absurd bur- lesques on animal life came from "way out west." "0h, yes," he thinks, "that explains it. Anything could come from there."; and he goes away satisfied, in a way; yet it is likely that at times after this his mind is "at seas" with the whales or is roaming over that land of wonders, where all impossibilities seem easy. He has at least a foundation for that imaginary world which all of us build. How much is true, in this land of dreams, and how much is fiction, and which is the more fascinating and marvelous? Let us go to the ancient burying place of some of these strange animals and try to read the story that is told there; then each can judge for himself.
Teeth and bones of large animals, different from any now living; were found in Europe about one hundred years ago, and some of them were so large that the naturalist, Richard Owen, named them Dinosaurs, (Greek deinos, terrible and sauros, lizard). They were not lizards or like lizards-they were not like anything now living, but they had to have a name, so the poor little lizards were called upon to furnish a name for what we now know was one or more mighty races. They were classified as an order or subclass of reptiles but some believe that they, like the mammals, should be put in a class by themselves. In fact a more careful study seems to show that what we call "dinosaurs" belong to two or more unrelated orders of animals.
About fifty years ago, bones larger than those which had been found in Europe, were discovered in the Rocky Mountain region. Professor 0. C. Marsh of Yale College became much interested in these. In the region of Como Bluffs, in Wyoming, he opened several quarries where the bones of dinosaurs were imbedded in the rock. One of his best quarries was north of Canyon City, Colorado. He did not usually find complete skeletons with the bones articulated, but he found many parts of skeletons. As in Ezekiel's "valley of dry bones" the bones of the same kind-if not of the same individuals-came together "bone to his bone", a few at a time until Professor Marsh began to see what "manner of beasts" these animals were. Out of these ancient rubbish heaps slowly developed the bony-plated, spike-tailed Stegosaurus (covered-lizard), the huge long-necked, long-tailed Brontosaurus (thunder lizard), the fierce, sharp-toothed and sharp-clawed Allosaurus (leaping-lizard) and others.
From these bones which Marsh had assembled he made pictorial restorations. They were not perfect, as he did not have all of the bones, and nearly all of the skulls were disarticulated or more or less crushed, but he was the only man eho knew much about the American Dinosaurs. His scientific work and scientific ideas formed a splendid basis for the work of those who followed, and one of his greatest services to science was the development of the proper methods of quarrying and shipping the bones of these immense animals.
SOME OF THE CARNEGIE MUSEUM'S EXPLORATIONS IN THE WEST
After spending many years in collecting fossil mammals-camels, three-toed horses, rhinoceroses, mastodons, and many others, in the Upper Tertiary deposits of western Montana, I made a request of Doctor Wm. J. Holland, the director of the Carnegie Museum that I be sent to Utah to make a collection of fossil mammals from the Uinta (lower Tertiary) formation there. In the spring of 1908 I started for this field.
I procured a team and outfit in Grand Junction, Colorado. My brother-in-law accompanied me. From Mack, a station on the Denver and Rio Grande railway and the southern terminus of the narrow-gage Uinta Railway, we drove to Achee which is at the foot of that great escarpment which seemed to shut out the long- dreamed-of hunting ground of the fossil collector. While we were looking at this great rocky curtain and wondering how we were going to get over it we saw two dark lines of smoke arising from just below the top of the rim, then a dark thread, and the truth suddenly struck me and I exclaimed, "Great Heavens! Is that where the train comes from?" "Heaven" was the right word, for the train, a double header, was just starting down from the sky up in the region of Baxter Pass.
We were advised to ship our wagon over the pass on a flat car, and it was good advice as it was enough for the horses to climb the steep slope without the wagon and load. It was only about three miles to the top of the pass by the trail, while the railroad-- said to be the steepest In the world without a cog-rail --twisted and "squirmed around", as it climbed a distance of seven miles to the top of the pass. It seemed like a great serpent that had tried to climb over and had given it up.
Some of us have an instinctive belief that there is something great and wonderful behind the farthest forest or hill or ridge that we can see. This has often led me on and on to return weary and hungry after dark. Though we laugh at the bear that "went over the mountain to see what he could see", we cannot help having a fellow feeling for him. When I had reached the summit of the pass where I had hoped to get a view of the "promised land," we could see, stretching below, and far away to the northward, a labyrinth of rocky canyons and escarpment; and into this confusing maze the little railroad found its way.
Why does this railroad climb over this immense rocky wall into this wilderness of badlands, rocky canyons and semi-arid wastes? We shall see.
At Dragon, which was then the terminus of this railroad --fifty-five miles in length-- there was a dense, black smoke issuing in clouds from a large, straight, perpendicular fissure in the sandstones of the canyon wall. One could easily imagine that a great saw had cut this fissure into the earth and a black substance in a liquid or plastic form had poured in and this had dried and hardened. Possibly it was from the fancied resemblance of this substance to congealed dragons blood that this vein was called the Black Dragon. The filling of the fissure was a black, jetty material and resembled cannel coal but was much more bright and shiny. It could be plainly seen that it would burn. The fine dust will explode something like gunpowder and this was the cause of the fire in the vein. It is the dried, asphaltic, residue of petroleum and is called Gilsonite from the pioneer who was one of the first to call attention to it. It was derived from the immense and far famed deposits of oil shale above and below the sandstones in which it occurs. It was to transport this gilsonite --useful for many purposes-- that this little railroad was built. In a canyon south of Dragon a stream of natural lubricating oil and water flows from a fissure in the sandstone rocks.
From Dragon we followed the Ulntah Railway Stage Line to Whlte River which flows westward through the Uinta Basin and enters the Green River, which is really the upper portion of the Colorado River. For 25 miles more the White River has cut a picturesque canyon through the Green River shales and the overlying Uinta deposits. The shales are nearly or quite 1000 feet in thickness and yield, by distillation, as high as 90 gallons or more of oil to the ton.
But the Green River deposits are interesting in another way as they contain such wonderful records of the life of the far off time when they accumulated as sediments in the marshes, lakes and rivers. In them are found remains of fish, turtles, lizards, birds (about the rarest of vertebrate fossils), and hosts of plants and insects beautifully preserved. Nearly all of the orders of insects, as bugs, beetles, flies, mosquitoes, ticks, dragon flies, moths, etc. have been found. Countless billions of the larvae of insects-- especially those of the Diptera (flies) were entombed entire. In places these form a considerable portion of the rock and there seems little doubt that they contributed their part to make the shales so rich in oil.
Fossil leaves and stems are found in great abundance in many formations, but here we find fossil fruits, singly and in clusters, and fossil flowers with all of their minute parts showing. Even thin microscopic sections have shown the minute, fertilizing, pollen grains.
After crossing the White River we ascended a canyon in the Uinta sandstones which are younger than the Green River beds and immediately overlies them. These sandstones are "shot through" with immense parallel veins of gilsonite, each vein "showing up" for many miles in length and one vein attaining a thickness of 18 feet.
North of the canyon is a region of desert prairies with outlying buttes and mesas, and beyond this, to the northward, a wilderness of badlands colored yellow, brown, green, gray and red. It was in this region-- we did not know just where --that we hoped to find the remains of extinct mammals found nowhere else. We camped in a stone cabin by a gilsonite vein-- the Cowboy --and began to search the sandstone ledges in the surrounding buttes, mesas and the bare badland areas --and not without success. We remained in this camp for five months and obtained two four-horse loads of fossils in the rock. Complete skeletons of the larger mammals-- the Titanotheres or giant beasts-- had not been found here but later the Carnegie Museum Expedition discovered a pocket of bones and skulls in a sandstone cliff and two skeletons and several skulls were quarried out. One of these skeletons forms the splendid slab-mount of Dolichorhinus (long nose) now on exhibition in the Carnegie Museum.
During the summer of 1908, Doctor Wm. J. Holland, the Director of the Carnegie Museum and an old friend of Andrew Carnegie, came to visit us in our camp and to look over the fossil grounds. He was much interested in the big dinosaurs and he went with me to some bluffs near Green River where Mr. B. Burton-- who was superintending the construction of a gold-dredge boat by the river --had shown me some large bones. One of the bones which we found there would probably weigh nearly 800 pounds. There were many "scattering" bones, but, as we did not find very good indications of complete skeletons, Dr. Holland hardly thought that the prospect warranted extensive excavating. On our return we crossed the river on a ferry and followed a wagon trail between the Green River on the south and the unique walls of uplifted rocks on the north, which encircled, on the westward, the bare, rugged, fantastically carved Split Mountain uplift. Instead of seeking an easier route through softer rocks on the west side of this uplift, the Green River has cut a deep canyon through the older and harder rocks in the heart of the mountain. We little thought as we rode along admiring the unique scenery and remarking that it was different from anything that we had seen, we were passing within a half mile of just the thing the Carnegie Museum and other museums had sought for many years-- a greater burying ground of prehistoric monsters than had been found --one which contained complete skeletons and perfect skulls of the great dinosaurs.
I returned to the Carnegie Museum in the autumn of 1908, and when the winter had nearly passed and the warmer days made the fossil hunter long for the wild free mountains and badlands of the west, Dr. Holland said, one day, "Douglass, you'll have to go to Utah again. You made a good collection and you have only begun." The possibility of finding big dinosaurs was discussed, as well as other alluring prospects.
In the summer of 1909, I discovered fossil mammals in the Wasatch (lower Tertiary) of Western Colorado and made an excursion into the Uinta deposits forty miles further west than the region where we had collected the previous year. On returning to Myton, Utah, I received a letter from Dr. Holland which made me decide to go at once and make a search for dinosaurs. I went to the region east of Vernal and followed the formation in which we had seen the remains of dinosaurs the year before. Many fragmentary bones were weathered out on the surface but on excavating it was found those still buried in the rock were broken and disassociated. These were of no value to us as it was complete or nearly complete skeletons that was needed at the time, both for study and exhibition. After a search of about two weeks I was pretty much disheartened as to the prospect there, but there was still a little section which I had not looked over.
I returned the next day and found a sandstone ledge which contained many weathered and broken bones. I followed it down to the bottom of a deep gulch and up the steep slope on the other side. When I had reached the top of the ridge, near the termination of the sandstone ledge, there suddenly appeared to my vision seven large joints of the tail of a huge dinosaur, weathered out on the face of the steeply sloping southern surface of the outcrop. It looked far better than anything I had seen and the position of the bones gave the impression that a whole skeleton was buried there. I reported it to Doctor Holland. He was much interested. It was seen that it would be expensive work-- that of quarrying out such an immense skeleton, freighting it "across country" sixty five miles and sending it by the narrow gage and main line railroads to Pittsburgh, but Mr. Carnegie said, to go ahead and see what was there.
Work, with a force of men, was begun the first of September. The tail was followed forward in the direction in which the bones of the body should be. The huge pelvis was found in place, but in excavating beyond this to see if the joints of the dorsal region (the back) were in place, there came a sad disappointment. There was a break, but a little further to the west a series of bones extended a distance of about 20 feet. After working around these it was discovered that they were the articulated bones of an immense neck. Just below this the dorsals were uncovered and most of them were articulated. The limbs and ribs were found near but disarticulated. There was a year of hard work, planning and excavating before it was certain that we had a skeleton complete enough to mount on its feet, but the first impression that there had been a nearly or quite complete animal buried there was correct, and, in 1914, its skeleton was mounted in a life-like position in the Carnegie Museum. It was the first individual skeleton of this kind to be mounted on its feet with so little restoration.
Before this skeleton was out, another, as complete but smaller, came to light. In this nearly all of the parts of the skeleton, including the ribs, were articulated, and before this was out other bones and parts of the skeletons showed up. As we stripped the bone layer new bones and skeletons were ever coming to light, so we were lured on year after year by the discovery of more complete skeletons and perfect skulls than had been found elsewhere. While some of these furnished the nearly complete bony framework of dinosaurs partly known, others were forms not previously discovered. The place which scientists had long sought had been found, so why discontinue the work. The great dinosaurs and the age in which they lived were little known. Few other institutions could afford the expense. Mr. Carnegie had taken a special interest in this work and had furnished the means to do it "out of his own pocket." It was not the American spirit to leave any part of past history dark if the records were accessible. Now was the opportune time. The future will almost certainly show Mr. Carnegie's wisdom and justify Dr. Holland's judgment and enthusiasm in continuing the work as long as he did.
The significance of this quarry does not lie wholly In the fact that two museums and one university have shipped to their store rooms 350 tons or more of fossils in the rock and are working them out slowly and painstakingly, in their laboratories, for exhibition and study; that many years later scientists will study and compare the many different forms brought to light; that they will read the secrets recorded in the surrounding rocks; and new volumes will be added to our knowledge of the world and its past history. Of as great, or greater, importance to us is the fact that in our democratic civilization knowledge and science are valuable in proportion as they are taken into the consciousness of the people.
As stated in the beginning of this article, many go into the great museums to satisfy the natural craving for the marvelous, but the strange things which they see, surrounded by more or less artificial settings, make their thoughts and imaginations fly away toward the setting sun from whence these marvels came; when they actually, come to this great burying ground of the past, set in the midst of vast lonely distances, surrounded by plains and badland wastes with their background of mountain heights --when in the midst of this seemingly almost unreal world they behold, exposed on the rocky cliffs the great skeletons of animals which are supposed to have lived millions of years ago, it is then that they get such a stirring up and rearrangement of their thinking powers as they have never experienced before. They begin to see that while they had been dreaming what was not so a greater world that was real was hidden from view.
What should be done with this world-wonder so that it may give the pleasure and profit which it is capable of furnishing?
The answer seems clear and definite. I have been with the quarry from the first and have talked with many people in varied ranks of life and I have yet to hear a dissenting voice from those who have seen the quarry when large portions of skeletons were exposed.
A natural museum should be made by uncovering the bones and skeletons in relief upon the ledge thus making a great "panel mount." This should be housed for the protection of the skeletons and the comforts and convenience of sight-seers and students.
The quarry has been left in an ideal condition for such a display. There is a block of the bone layer 125 feet in length and 25 feet or more in height which could be uncovered at a minimum expense. The zone which contains the bones has been taken away from three sides of this area-- east, west and above. Bones and skeletons were numerous all around the area and they were seen extending into it [when] the work stopped, so there are no doubts that the further excavating would uncover an abundance of bones for display.
The rocks are dipping here to the southward, away from the main axis of the Uinta Mountains, at an angle of 60 degrees-- 30 degrees from perpendicular --so that when the picture is uncovered one can sit or stand and gaze at it at ease as one would study or admire a great painting. No other place yet discovered could be made to furnish such an exhibit. No other known quarry has such a superabundance of material to uncover.
When this plan is carried out-- and it seems sure to come sooner or later --this monument with its unparalleled settings will be a Mecca for geologists from all over the world --a natural geological school. Not only is the formation which contains the dinosaurs beautifully exposed, but a succession of stratified deposits more than 40,000 feet in thickness and showing formations which originated in oceans, deserts, seashores, inland seas, lakes, marshes, rivers, flood plains, and sand dune areas-- reaching from what is to us the dawn of life to the present ---is exposed as an open book ready to be read by enthusiastic investigators. As yet we have interpreted but a few words and sentences of this great book.
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Last Updated: December 7, 2008