Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale UniversityOn this day in 1877, railroad worker William Harlow Reed came over a ridge-top with the remains of a freshly killed antelope slung over his shoulder, and spotted huge fossilized bones exposed on the side of the steep bluff located a half-mile south of Como Station, a desolate railroad stop on the High Plains of Wyoming. It was a discovery that would forever change his life.
Reed and station master, William Carlin, began collecting up as much as they could, dreaming of money and employment other than railroad work. They waited several months before announcing the discovery in a letter to Yale professor Othniel C. Marsh, at the time one of America's prominent paleontologists. When a crate of bones - along with the guarantee of many more - arrived at Yale, Marsh realized they were dinosaur remains and hired both men to excavate and send him as much as they could, and to keep out any interlopers to his claim. Marsh knew if he could keep it secret - at least for a short time - the fossils at Como Bluff could give him a huge advantage in his rivalry with Philadelphia paleontologist, Edward Drinker Cope, and their notorious Bone Wars.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe dinosaur-rich strata at Como Bluff (the Morrison Formation) are found in the exposed flanks of an anticline (an upward fold), the center of which has been carved out by erosion [see diagram]. All three periods of the Mesozoic Era (Triassic, Jurassic, Cretaceous) are represented in the rock layers found there. Besides dinosaurs, fossils of fish, crocodiles, flying and swimming reptiles have also been found there. A significant number of important Late Jurassic mammalian fossils were discovered and collected by William Reed from Quarry 9 on the east end of Como. Reed also discovered and removed the great Brontosaurus excelsus skeleton that stands today in Yale's Peabody Museum.
Courtesy Peabody Museum of Natural History, Yale UniversityIn the years following its discovery hundreds of tons of dinosaur remains quarried at Como Bluff were shipped to Yale and other institutions pushing America into the forefront of vertebrate paleontology, and heavily influencing how museums would be constructed throughout the world.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe dinosaur halls at the American Museum of Natural History have several mounted specimens found at Como Bluff as does the Smithsonian in our nation's capitol. Well-known genera like Allosaurus, Diplodocus, Apatosaurus, Stegosaurus and Camptosaurus are just a few of the dinosaurs pulled from the mudstones and sandstones at Como Bluff. In the early 20th century it was thought that Como had exhausted its supply of dinosaur remains and exploration there for the most part tapered off for several decades. But in recent years, paleontologist Robert Bakker has been re-examining the quarries and uncovering additional secrets still buried in the Jurassic bluffs at Como.
Courtesy Mark RyanWilliam Reed worked for Marsh for several more years and the two men remained friends until the Yale professor's death in 1899. Reed continued in the field of paleontology, working independently, and for a time with the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. He finished out his career as a popular geology professor and museum curator at the University of Wyoming, just sixty miles from Como Bluff, the great dinosaur graveyard that changed not only the course his life but also that of American paleontology.
Como Bluff was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1973. It's also been designated as one of Wyoming's National Natural Landmarks by the National Park Service.
Courtesy Mark RyanAs I've admitted before in these pages, I'm a big, big fan of the history of paleontology, especially that involving the infamous "Bone Wars" that took place in the American West during the 19th century. So I was real happy to hear that PBS is running a segment on its American Experience series tonight titled Dinosaur Wars. It's all about that legendary feud between paleontologists Othniel Marsh and Edward Drinker Cope. Several of the dinosaurs seen here at the Science Museum of Minnesota (and elsewhere) were first discovered and named by these two scientists as they raced to outdo each other in collecting and naming fossils. The show is scheduled for 8pm tonight (here in the Twin Cities), but as usual check your local listings for exact times in your area. If you can't wait until then or can't watch tonight, Rebecca Hunt-Foster over at Dinochick Blogs, gives a nice, lengthy synopsis of the program's content.
Courtesy Arthur Lake Library, Colorado School of MinesArthur Lakes, pioneer dinosaur hunter, and chronicler of early American paleontology, was born this day in 1844 in Martock Summerset, England. Educated at Queens College in Oxford, Lakes eventually immigrated to the United States (via Canada) where he worked as a geologist, teacher, artist, and itinerant Episcopalian minister in the area around Golden, Colorado.
Courtesy Mark Ryan collectionOn March 27, 1877, while out measuring rock units in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains just west of Denver, Lakes and a companion, Captain Henry Beckwith, discovered large exposures of dinosaur remains. Hoping to stir up some interest, money, and perhaps some employment, Lakes sent some of the fossil bones eastward to both Othniel Marsh, and Edward Cope, unintentionally firing up the feud between the two pioneer paleontologists that would soon escalate into the famous Bone Wars of the latter 19th century. Marsh, at Yale’s Peabody Museum, eventually hired Lakes as a field worker, and used the fossils he found to describe a number of new dinosaurs species taken from several productive quarries around the Morrison, Colorado area. These new discoveries all came from the Late Jurassic-aged rocks (named the Morrison formation after the nearby town) and included the first discoveries of the now well known Stegosaurus, Diplodocus and Apatosaurus (Brontosaurus).
When the Colorado quarries were exhausted, Marsh sent Lakes north to Como Bluff in Wyoming Territory. Dinosaur bones had been found there not long after the Colorado discoveries. Arthur Lakes spent the 1879-80 season digging out tons of bones from of the Jurassic-aged sediments around Como Bluff, along with William Reed, a railroad worker who had brought the area’s rich fossil cache to Marsh’s attention. It must have been a strange pairing since the Oxford-trained Lakes was the polar opposite of the self-taught frontiersman Reed.
Como was one of the prime battlegrounds in the Fossil Feud between Marsh and Cope. The strata there was far richer than that at Morrison, and produced fossils that eventually filled the display halls at many of the world’s great natural history museums, including the Smithsonian in Washington, D. C., the Peabody Museum at Yale, and the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
Courtesy Mark RyanLakes kept journals and wrote many letters of his activities at both Morrison and Como Bluff describing his explorations and the natural history of both areas (the journals were published in a book in 1997 by the Smithsonian Institute). These, along with his initial discoveries around Morrison, would probably have been enough to keep his name in the annals of paleontology, but his most important contributions to the science were the many sketches and watercolors he made at both locations. These depictions not only preserve a wonderful pictorial record of seminal events in the history of early American paleontology, but have also aided modern researchers in locating historical quarry sites at both locations. Many of Lakes’ original paintings are reposited at the Peabody Museum at Yale in New Haven, Connecticut.
Lakes’ original dinosaur quarry (#1) is preserved today as a historic landmark on the west side of Dinosaur Ridge along Alameda Parkway, overlooking the town of Morrison and the Red Rocks Amphitheater. Some bones, still intact in blocks of hard sandstone, can be seen there, as well as lateral views of some later discovered dinosaur footprints.
Courtesy Mark RyanThe location of Quarry 10, where the remains of several sauropod species were discovered, was long lost until recently. The quarry was re-discovered and re-opened in 2002 by researchers from the nearby Morrison Natural History Museum. Artifacts of Arthur Lakes’ original diggings, such as nails and campfire charcoal have been recovered from the site. The nails would have come from support beams built to hold up the massive sandstone ledge that capped the softer clay layer from where many of the fossil bones were extracted. Lakes’ journal reported a couple collapses at this quarry in his journal. Luckily no one was working the quarry at the time, otherwise they would no doubt have been crushed to death by several tons of sandstone.
Courtesy Mark RyanRe-examination of Lakes' quarries has revealed some new secrets, such as the first footprints from a baby Stegosaurus. Yale has also loaned some of Lakes' original finds back to the museum in Morrison, including a toe bone from a baby Apatosaurus, and the articulated leg bones from the Apatosaurus ajax discovered at Quarry 10 in 1877.
Lakes eventually left the fossil trade, and turned his attention to the geology of Colorado, working for the US Geological Survey, and teaching courses in earth science and mining at what is today the Colorado School of Mines. The library at the school is named in his honor. Lakes continued to write, producing books and several articles about mining in Colorado. He and his sons also consulted for mining companies after he retired from teaching, and later moved to British Columbia to live out his days near his family. He died there in 1917.
If you'd like to learn more about Lakes and his life, there's a new book titled The Legacy of Arthur Lakes by Beth Simmons and Katherine Honda, recently published by The Friends of Dinosaur Ridge.