A Visit to Douglass’ Dinosaur

The site became a must-see dinosaur landmark in 1957, and in a few months, visitors will once again be able to see the spectacular quarry wall

A view of the Dinosaur National Monument quarry before it closed for renovations in 2006
A view of the Dinosaur National Monument quarry before it closed for renovations in 2006 Photo by Flickr user larock

On Thursday, August 17, 1909, paleontologist Earl Douglass made a wonderful discovery. After spending two weeks enduring the searing summer temperatures in the vicinity of Jensen, Utah and feeling “disgusted” by the poor quality of the fossil bones he was finding, Douglass spotted part of an enormous dinosaur. He later recorded the moment of discovery in his journal:

At last, in the top of the ledge where the softer overlying beds form a divide, a kind of saddle, I saw eight of the tail bones of a brontosaurus in exact position. It was a beautiful sight. Part of the ledge had weathered away and several of  the vertebra had weathered out and the beautifully preserved centra lay on the ground. It is by far the best looking dinosaur prospect I have ever found. The part exposed is worth preserving anyway.

This was a dream come true for Douglass. As expressed in a partial biography and reprint of selected journal entries organized by his son Gawin and others, published under the title Speak To the Earth and It Will Teach You, Douglass sometimes daydreamed of finding a near-perfect, articulated dinosaur skeleton sticking out of a rock formation. (A dream shared by many paleontologists.) Strangely, though, Douglass did not feel very enthusiastic about his assignment from the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to look for dinosaurs.

Douglass had spent much of his fossil-hunting career looking for mammals. Prehistoric horses, camels, elephants and other mammals were what drew him into paleontology in the first place, but in August of 1909 he received a letter from his boss, museum director William Jacob Holland, that the Carnegie needed dinosaurs. The great natural history museums of Pittsburgh, Chicago and New York City were all hungry for impressive sauropod skeletons—the paleontological one-upmanship was detailed by Paul Brinkman in The Second Jurassic Dinosaur Rush—and Douglass was drawn into the mostly friendly competition despite his other interests.

Douglass’ dinosaur discovery—a partial Apatosaurus now at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History—would mark the beginning of his long tenure at what would become part of Dinosaur National Monument. The paleontologist’s dream of having an in situ museum showcasing the Jurassic dinosaurs there would be realized in 1957. Long before this, though, visitors came in droves to see Douglass at work on the dinosaurs he was extracting from the Morrison Formation. In fact, no sooner did Douglass find the Apatosaurus than curious townspeople began to show up to see the dinosaur for themselves. In a journal entry dated Sunday, August 22, 1909, Douglass wrote:

Today two loads of people came from Vernal to see the dinosaur and there were several loads from other places. For a time the rocks that never had the impress of a woman’s foot, and seldom that of a man’s, swarmed with people of all ages. Mothers and grandmothers ascended the steep, almost dangerous, slopes with babies and there were men and women well along in years.

The stream of visitors continued for days. On August 29, Douglass noted, “A lot of people came from Vernal again. … The strong, the lame, the fat and the lean went up .” Not all the visitors to the site were respectful of Douglass’ work, though. Before taking them out, Douglass attempted to secure the fossil bones with plaster, paste and other materials, which some of the local rodents quite liked. In journal entry marked Monday, October 11, 1909, Douglass wrote, “Went up to the dinosaur again this morning. … Took my gun along. Got some shot gun shells yesterday. Killed three of the chipmunks that have been pestering us so by eating paste off from the specimens.”

Visits to Douglass’ quarry became less frequent as work continued, and stopped as the excavations there were completed, but they picked up once again with the establishment of the quarry visitor’s center in 1957. The site became a must-see dinosaur landmark, though the famous quarry visitor’s center had to be closed in 2006 due to structural problems related to the building’s placement on unstable ground. The good news is that a new, improved visitor’s center is nearing completion. In just a few more months, visitors will once again be able to see the spectacular quarry wall, dotted with the remains of fantastic Jurassic dinosaurs.

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