Dinosaur fever was rampant in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Andrew Carnegie, the wealthy steel magnate, was not immune. He wanted a huge dinosaur skeleton for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. In 1908, Museum Director W.J. Holland and paleontologist Earl Douglass explored the hills along the Green River near Jensen UT. They found a 6 foot thigh bone of a dinosaur. Douglass marked the spot and returned the following year to explore some more.
It didn’t take Douglass very long to get what he was after– in August of that same year, he came upon the tail section of an Apatasaurus in Morrison Formation outcrops near Jensen, UT. Within weeks, Douglass had uncovered an almost complete skeleton, including 64 tail vertebrae, more than twice as many that had ever been found in this type of dinosaur. Then to his amazement, a second Apatasaurus lay right beneath the first!
There was plenty more to uncover. For 15 years Douglass worked what became known as the Carnegie Quarry. He unearthed nearly 20 complete skeletons of Jurassic dinosaurs, including Diplodocus, Dryosaurus, Stegosaurus, Barosaurus, and Camarasaurus.
Local residents in Jensen and Vernal supported Douglass’s. They visited him while he worked, sold him food and supplies and occasionally assisted in excavations. Eventually they began to dream about the quarry’s potential as a tourist attraction and the effect that would have on their economy. And although Douglass worked for Carnegie, he shared the locals’ vision of a public exhibit of skeletons on location in northeast Utah.
Unfortunately, public education and improvement of local economies were NOT goals of the early dinosaur industry. The Carnegie Museum shipped all excavated material back to Philadelphia. In effect, the dinosaur quarry was like any other mine being stripped of valuable material. Furthermore, the Carnegie refused access to other research parties—including those of the National Museum and the University of Utah.
In 1915, the federal government tried to break the monopolistic hold Carnegie held on excavations by establishing Dinosaur National Monument. At first the Monument was an 80 acre tract around the quarry. (Later it was enlarged to encompass the spectacular canyons of the Green and Yampa Rivers in neighboring Colorado.) In 1916, Congress created the National Park Service, which took control of National Monuments. But without funds and political interest, visitor infrastructure in the Monument remained undeveloped for decades.
In 1948, state funds helped establish the Utah Field House of Natural History in nearby Vernal. Then in 1957 that a public park exhibit was created to showcase the Carnegie quarry itself—just as Douglass and Utah residents had desired. Nearly 2,000 bones were exposed in place forming an entire wall of the visitor center. Sadly, the building was closed in 2006 due to the serious safety hazards caused by an inadequate foundation.
In April of this year, the Park announced the award of $13.1 million in stimulus funds to demolish and replace condemned portions of the Quarry Visitor Center. Construction is anticipated to take between a year and a year and a half; the reopening the quarry exhibit and visitor center could be as early as summer 2011. Perhaps at last the quarry in Dinosaur National Monument will have a memorial that is worthy of its remarkable, ancient inhabitants.
For Wild About Utah and Stokes Nature Center, I’m Holly Strand.
Images: Courtesy National Parks Service
Text: Holly Strand, Stokes Nature Center
Harvey, Mark W.T. 1991. Utah, The National Park Service, And Dinosaur National Monument, 1909-56, Utah Historical Quarterly, Number 3 (Summer 1991) p. 243 https://issuu.com/utah10/docs/uhq_volume59_1991_number3 [ Accessed December 2023]
National Park Service, US Dept of Interior. Dinosaur National Monument. https://www.nps.gov/dino/index.htm [ Accessed September 2009]
Utah History Encyclopedia. 1994. Dinosaur National Monument. Edited by Allan Kent Powell, former Public History Coordinator at the Utah State Historical Society. https://www.uen.org/utah_history_encyclopedia/d/DINOSAUR_NATIONAL_MONUMENT.shtml [Accessed September 2009]