I first became interested in our local dinosaur legacy shortly after moving here in 1985 and taking on a geologist position at the local Bureau of Land Management. That interest has continued to grow, especially after retiring from that job in October of 2009.
It was a few months ago that I first pitched the idea of a vacation to my wife JoAnn, touting the opportunity to see the spring flowers and go on interesting tours back East. Little did JoAnn know that what we were really doing was more of a dinosaur research trip. I was interested in was the other side of the story of the bones that were excavated from right outside Canon City and taken back East to be studied and publicly displayed.
Our adventure takes place at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. This was one of our main stops on this trip because the museum has a lot of “our bones” and I wanted to see them. The challenge here was that unlike the Smithsonian where four of our dinosaurs are on display, no Canon City bones had been on display there for many years. This is not unusual; most large museums have only 1% or less on display.
Our dinosaur bones did not go directly to New York City, having first found their way to Philadelphia in the ownership of a world famous professor by the name of Edward Drinker Cope. Cope and his assistants worked on and studied these bones in his three story “laboratory”, which was actually just a brownstone. Cope had been collecting and studying fossils for many years and had filled up his house almost to the brim by the time the huge dinosaur bones began arriving from Canon City between 1877 and 1883. Cope did not have enough room to store them so he found some space in the basement of one of the huge buildings left over from the International Philadelphia Exposition of 1876 (which was a celebration of our nation’s centennial). All of our bones remained in Philadelphia until the late 1890′s when they were moved to the American Museum of Natural History. This was because one of Cope’s closest friend, the famous scientist Henry Osborn, worked for the museum and had arranged for the bones to be purchased from Cope near the end of his life and transferred after his death.
Not many locals from Fremont County have seen the bones as far as I know because they were in storage. Pat Monaco and Donna Engard made a lot of outstanding discoveries at the museum in the mid 1990′s but didn’t quite make it to the “big bone room” so that became my challenge. I first contacted the museum a few months ago and after going through the paperwork, completed the arrangements. Our contact at the museum was Carl Mehling, a collections manager and scientist at the museum, and a wonderful host.
When we told our friends we were visiting the museum, they explained that we needed to take a train into New York as “no one” would survive the drive into the heart of the City (they hinted that we were possibly mentally deranged!) Being somewhat naive (and in hindsight, overly confident), we decided to go for it. Being that it is New York City, the hotel has none of its own parking. So for those insane enough to bring their own car, it must be parked in the museum garage across the street. This sounds a lot easier than it actually is.
The first rule of driving in New York is that there are no rules. There is also no parking or turn lanes or any other helpful road features we are used to. But with some divine help and our GPS unit we found the hotel and parked in the museum garage. Later that night we had a stroke of fun luck when we noticed a lot of police cars, giant trucks with camera equipment, and massive cranes. We soon discovered that we had arrived on the one night they were filming scenes from the next Spider Man movie outside our hotel window. JoAnn went down and visited with the film crew and met some of the people involved and they all became friends. JoAnn happened to meet “some guy” named Dennis Leary. When I heard this I was sick because I really like Dennis Leary and would have really enjoyed meeting him. Just goes to show what can happen when you go hunting for dinosaurs, you might also find movie stars!
The next morning I went into the museum’s back rooms to see the bones, while JoAnn and our nephew Paul toured the rest of the building. Carl, our museum contact, took me down a number of hallways, through doors, and let’s just say I would never be able to find my way back there again. The American Museum of Natural History is huge; one of the largest in the world, and their fossil collections are massive.
When I first arrived in the Big Bone Room, Carl (after some initial orientation) left me alone for a few minutes. My job at this moment was to simply figure out exactly what I wanted to see. This may sound like an easy task, but these are massive bones on pallets that could only be moved with a fork lift. I finally had a chance to see bones that I had only read about and seen a few pictures of. I was able to touch them, and to my amazement some of the bones had labels and lettering that had been placed there by the collectors back in 1877 -1883. The families of those collectors including Ira and Oramel Lucas and Aaron Ripley are buried in our local cemeteries. It was a rare and special moment.
Carl pulled about 20 pallets off the shelf so I could photograph them. Unfortunately, I was only able to photograph a small portion of our bones. I think someone needs to spend more time and go through them more carefully some day. My visit was only an introduction to the massive collection from Canon City.
I was able to take about 250 pictures of our bones and I plan to write a report for our local Bureau of Land Management who manage the land that the bones were extracted from. The BLM’s intern, Allison Vitkusassembled an outstanding website on the story of these bones. I would be remiss if I did not also mention the outstanding work completed by volunteers such as June Hines, Lois Oxford, Pat Monaco, and Georgine Booms with the local Dinosaur Depot Museum.
I also had a chance to visit the paleontology archives and the museum’s library. There are interesting stories associated with each of those as well that I can tell at another time (like sitting at Edward Drinker Cope’s desk). Susan Bell, with the American Museum of Natural History, was my guide the rest of the day.
The end of our New York visit came the next day when we got our car re-packed and drove away to safety. It was then that I realized getting out of New York was no easier than getting in. Don’t tell our friends though… let them think it was just another day driving in Fremont County!