Museum of Northwest Colorado: A mammoth loss helps start a museum

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One of the earliest residents of Northwest Colorado roamed our region daily in search of a bill of fare that required about 300 pounds of vegetation. The Columbian mammoth, relative to the modern-day elephant, stood between 10 to 14 feet tall and weighed in at about 10 tons. This herbivore consumed grass, sedges, birch and sagebrush as it meandered in a family group usually led by the females. This mammoth was basically hairless, distinguishing it from its northern cousin, the woolly mammoth, found in Alaska and Siberia. The Colorado Columbian mammoth ranged alongside the prehistoric horse, the large bison, the camel and the sloth, and was hunted by the early Folsom people of the area.

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Courtesy/ Museum of Northwest Colorado

A young girl glances aside as behind her the Moffat County mammoth skull and tusks are winched onto a truck bed for transport to their new home in Vernal, Utah. The year was 1961, and the scene was Gus and Emma Klaus’ place north of Craig. If anyone can identify the little girl, please call the museum at 970-824-6360.

In July 1961, Gus Klaus was digging a well on his place 5 miles north of Craig when his drill bit sliced into a portion of an ivory tusk. Sensing he had made an unusual discovery, Gus along with his wife, Emma, tried to convince people in Craig of the importance of the find and the need to properly excavate it. Unfortunately, they were met with a fair amount of skepticism and finally were advised to contact the Denver Museum of Natural History. That museum, as one Denver newspaper stated, already had enough mammoth remains to lead an elephant parade. The museum staff advised Gus Klaus to contact paleontologist Ernest Untermann at the Utah Field House museum in Vernal, Utah. Untermann and his wife were immediately enthusiastic about the find and made arrangements to start a proper excavation.

As soon as residents of Craig realized the significance of the find, they set about collecting signatures on a petition to keep the mammoth remains in Moffat County. They even called upon Gov. Stephen McNichols to intervene to “save the Colorado elephant for Colorado!” Sadly, despite the strong local support to retain the skull, Gus and Emma Klaus, legal owners of the find, had given their word to the Untermanns that they could have it for the field house in Vernal. Additionally, another concern was the lack of a proper venue in Craig to protect and display the bones.

The Untermanns’ dig at the Klaus site soon revealed a beautifully intact mammoth skull complete with tusks. There was no sign of the rest of the skeleton and it was presumed to be out of reach, probably having washed further down the ancient submerged Fortification drainage centuries earlier.

The Untermanns were thrilled with the remarkable specimen. Ernest Untermann remarked that if Klaus had sent his drill just 4 inches to one side or the other, the mammoth skull would not have been found. The skull and tusks were removed from the site in a huge slab of earth, and after being securely bound up, loaded on a truck bed for the 120 miles trek to Vernal.

Meanwhile, Craig residents smarting over the loss of this mammoth discovery, resolved to not let another “big one” get away from them. From that stinging loss came the seeds, which germinated into the Museum of Northwest Colorado now located in downtown Craig. The museum, now in its 50th year, has proved to be an ample and safe repository for many of the region’s historical archives and significant artifacts, including one “big one” in particular, that did not get away. Read more on that story in next week’s Saturday Morning Press.

Mary Pat Dunn is the registrar for the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

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