Hunting fossils in the Uinta Basin


Editor's note: This is the first in a series of stories celebrating 100 Years of Discovery at Dinosaur National Monument. The series will feature original articles, historic articles, and historic photos to highlight various discoveries made throughout the past 100 years. Look for the conclusion to this article in the Saturday Morning Press.

Dinosaur National Monument Park Guide

Earl Douglass came to the Uinta Basin not to study dinosaurs, but fossil mammals. He found much more than that, both paleontologically and otherwise.

Earl Douglass' path to the Uinta Basin is not unlike many people's path today: the more he studied his trade, the science of studying fossils called paleontology, the more he knew there were fantastic opportunities for his line of work. His years of researching, studying and collecting in fossil beds in Wyoming and Western Montana in the late 1800s earned him praise in the field of paleontology, but he continued to toil in relative obscurity in the eyes of the public. He focused his research on fossil mammals - camels, three-toed horses, rhinoceroses, mastodons and others. He added 17 genera and 83 species to the scientific record of fossil vertebrates before coming to the basin.

His financial prospects during most of his life were tenuous at best, also like many people today. Paleontology was not a high-paying profession then, nor is it today. Douglass was working during the summer, researching and digging and building his collections, but his lack of income was a constant source of stress. He worked as a schoolteacher at various schools during the winters, saving as much money as possible. The pressures and stresses, however, never took away from the main goal: to keep studying fossils, to keep adding to the scientific record, to keep working for greater scientific understanding. Fossil hunting and the science learned were tools he used to arouse interest and fascination with nature and help further understanding of Earth. He summarized this thought when he wrote, "Science is valuable in proportion as it is taken into the consciousness of the people." He wrote at a different time, "The view we are now getting of the past by discovery of fossil animals and plants make the present world ever new to us giving to everything a wider interest and a greater significance. Every little untouched spot of nature, every tree, every plant suggests new ideas and is a little incentive for the world of the imagination."

He eventually began to tire of the school teaching, writing in his diary, "Have not the interest in teaching that I used to have but am earning my living." He felt his time, and hence his contribution to science and society, would better be served if he could focus his energy and resources into paleontology. This finally happened after receiving a master's degree from the University of Montana, the first graduate degree ever offered by that school. The new Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania offered Douglass a full-time position in 1902: a great opportunity! Andrew Carnegie could be described as the Bill Gates of his time: one of the richest people on the planet, but he moved from managing his empire to philanthropic and charitable efforts. Carnegie built and financed the operation of the natural history museum, as well as three other museums in the Pittsburgh area, with his own money. His financial and political resources, and Earl Douglass, would eventually reach the Unita Basin : just not quickly.

Douglass applied to the museum to research and collect fossils in the Uinta Basin for the summer of 1907. That spring he wrote in his diary, "I made application for a trip to the Big Horn Basin or the Uinta Basin. : I want to go to Utah. ... It is what I have wished for years." That application was denied, but a similar request was approved for the summer of 1908.

The year was quite successful. Douglass collected many fossils for the collections and exhibits at the Carnegie Museum. Douglass found much more than mere fossils and inspiring geology in the Uinta Basin. He found a place that had everything he could want. The many individual rock formations as well as the forces that have twisted and contorted them were an exciting open book just waiting to be read. Each rock layer held its own fossil record, waiting to be explored. He also found land recently opened to homesteading, where he could start a home with his new wife and young child.

"To those who have spent their lives in the Uinta Basin its physical features seem quite matter of fact," he wrote. "The stranger sees it as a weird land of chaos, of rocks, hills, and buttes. The practical man sees the billions of money in gilsonite, asphalt, and other hydrocarbons, its large stock ranges and great engineering schemes which will make streams of water in the desert and make them bloom. But the man who makes the earth and its history one of his principle studies, sees more than these."

The Carnegie Museum directed Earl Douglass to turn his attention to finding dinosaur fossils in 1909. Douglass enlisted the help of Charles Neal, Mr. Burton (first name unknown) and other locals who knew the landscape more intimately than he did, a frequent practice for him and many other paleontologists. Dinosaur fossils were documented from the area as far back as John Wesley Powell's 1871 expedition down the Green River. Many individual dinosaur fossils had been found in the area in rocks known to be of the right age, from the Jurassic period, and Douglass himself had seen some of these - but they were nothing near a complete dinosaur. A bone here, a fragment there, usually not identifiable beyond being able to distinguish that they were dinosaur fossils. There was not enough scientific value in these to keep Douglass' energy, let alone aesthetic value to capture the public's imagination. The ranchers in the area did little more than notice them, though one fossil that Douglass thought important, marked for later removal, was gone when he returned to remove it. No location proved to be worth substantial time and effort, let alone appearing to contain a whole dinosaur. Douglass was becoming worried that the museum would recall him to Pittsburgh.

Diary entries speak to his frustration, from having his bedding stolen to letters from his boss that upset Douglass not to mention the simple frustration of looking and looking and not finding anything promising. He notes in an entry on August 16, 1909 how he, "Felt rather discouraged:"

Little did he know what he would find the next day:


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