And I said, 'I have found a real live fossil!'
In the Connecticut Valley geologists have what may literally be called a 'scoop.' Between the hard igneous ramparts of the Tom and Holyoke peaks, all sorts of natural forces have scooped out their patterns. The scoop of great waters, the scoop of a glacier, the scoop of a river and temperature changes have saved the geologist much hammering and digging.
Sandstone, whose reddish mud was patrolled by dinosaurs, now forms our College walls. And on that rose-tinged brownstone pavement, when it was being laid down, the dinosaurs left firm tracks.
Pliny Moody at his quarries deserved credit for noticing some of these footprints, and for sharing his discovery with Professor Hitchcock of Amherst. The tracks at first, because of their three-toed claw formation, were taken for those of tremendous prehistoric birds. The Springfield Republican for November 18, 1837, speaks of 'the Giant Turkeys of Prof. Hitchcock.'
Then the marks of a trailing tail were noticed, and the beast that could make that mark in addition to the footprint was judged to be some sort of vast 'reptilian bird.' When we look at the models of dinosaurs, we are not surprised. There is a good deal that is like a long-necked fowl, and a good deal that is like a flexible reptile - enough features all told to make the dinosaur look like a very queer bird indeed.
President Hitchcock and Professor Emerson of Amherst, Professor Richard Swann Lull of Yale, Professor William J. Miller of Smith, and Professor Mignon Talbot of Mount Holyoke had noted great numbers of these tracks. Professor Miller in his Geological History of the Connecticut Valley of Massachusetts says:
The largest numbers by far have been found at various localities in the general direction of Turner's Falls and South Hadley. In regard to the perfect preservation of such a vast number of geologically ancient animal tracks no district in the world is at all comparable with the Connecticut Valley . . . . In one case the writer is able to step, with a stride of about three and a half feet, in a series of eleven footprints, each about a foot long, exactly where a giant dinosaur left his foot print impressions on the original surface.
In the corridor of Clapp Laboratory in South Hadley large slabs of sandstone with dinosaur footmarks may be studied. Some of the tracks are vague to the inexperienced observer, but others are so clearly stamped that nobody could fail to notice them and wonder what fabulous monster had passed that way.
The geology departments of the colleges have always made the most of the advantages of the region, and not only the professors but also scouting parties of students have kept a keen lookout for tracks. A number of skeletal parts were found, including one or two nearly complete skeletons. Workmen in various places, mostly in Connecticut, had brought in pieces of sandstone with bones in them, and Yale has four different species, representing two genera, all of the same family. Professor Othniel Charles Marsh, at Yale long ago, and later Professor Lull, reconstructed the dinosaurs from the bones found. Professor Lull has gone further and added the muscles and skin to show how the animals looked in the flesh. The other colleges have studied this collection at Yale - but until 1910 nobody at Mount Holyoke had ever made a first-hand discovery of an actual dinosaur skeleton.
Then one afternoon Professor Mignon Talbot found one. Her written account of it appeared in the American Journal of Science for June, 1911. Sometimes, however, we want more than a scientific account. Therefore, in behalf of all that part of the world that loves a dinosaur, I begged Miss Talbot to tell me the story herself. If ghosts of dinosaurs are possessed of any waggish humor, they should find something diverting in the fact that a very small skeleton of an entirely new family had been concealed from the hunting men of arduous expeditions, and revealed to a diminutive lady with bright dark eyes who was not hunting for skeletons at all.
It was pure accident [said Miss Talbot.] One day my sister and I were walking past the Boynton farm on the way to Holyoke. I said, 'Why, Ellen, look at that little hill! It's just the place for a house.'
It looked like a hill from the road, but when we walked up to the top of it, we found it was only a shell, with a gravel pit where the rest of the hill had been. Just the shell of a hill. Old elm trees stood on it. Evidently an old road to Willimansett had led over it, but the hill itself was nothing to build on. This whole accumulation of sand, gravel, boulders, and all had been dropped there by the glacier, everything brought from north of here, and some of the material from far to the north. At the bottom of the pit I saw two boulders of sandstone and other boulders of granite. On one of the sandstone pieces was a streak of white that looked like a pick mark. I was pretty sure it was only a pick mark, but I went down to see.
I went down to see. And I saw vertebrae, and I saw ribs, and I saw bones - and I said, 'Oh, Ellen, come quick, come quick, I've found a real live fossil!'
By that I meant that the fossil was the bones of the real creature, not just tracks. Many tracks had been discovered in the Connecticut valley, but few actual skeletons of dinosaurs. So I said I had found a real live fossil, and she said, 'Have you lost your mind?'
I thought very fast because I wanted to do the right thing. I had had it drilled into me that nobody who had charge of a department of geology had any right to collect anything for himself as long as he was connected with the department. Naturally he could collect for the college, but not for himself.
I went to Mr. Boynton, and told him I had found a very fine specimen in his gravel pit, and asked if I might have it for the college. Mr. Boynton said I surely might. I said, 'But, Mr. Boynton! It is reallly a pretty good specimen, Mr. Boynton.' And Mr. Boynton said, 'I guess we won't quarrel over a piece of sandstone.' He said he didn't care for it anyway.
That fossil had lain there expose for years and years and nobody had seen it. But now that I had seen it, I was sure that Professor Emerson would bring his class over the very next day and find it. At the time it was a little before six, on one of those Wednesdays when we used to have the whole day Wednesday free. You remember the Superintendent, Mr. Hill. I went to Mr. Hill and said, 'Mr. Hill, I've found a very valuable fossil and it's in a piece of sandstone in Mr. Boynton's gravel pit. May I have the men go down with me in the morning and get it?'
So I took the workmen down next day. Another piece of sandstone was lying near the one where the fossil was. I asked the men to turn it over, and there was the rest of the fossil, and the impression of those parts of it that I had found in the original slab. The animal had died, and as the body lay on the sand, more sand had deposited. It all later hardened and so the fossil was preserved. When the boulder broke open, that was the parting plane. Men or frost broke it open, and there was the fossil almost complete excepting its head. Complete to the tip of its tail.
It was a small fossil, 45 inches long from tip to tip. Unique. I had walked by that place many times, not thirty feet from the road. Go down the road toward Holyoke, past the old paper mill, past the sash factory, across the bridge - and just beyond the old Iris Field you see the hill, originally a dump of glacial material.
We took the fossil out of the gravel pit and carried it to the laboratory. There we brushed it up and washed it up. Thursday we took pictures of it and developed and printed them. Friday there was an intercollegiate meeting of geology departments at Dartmouth. Professor Cleland of Williams was on the train, and I said, 'Oh, by the way, Dr. Cleland, see what I've got,' and I showed him the pictures.
'Hum,' said Dr. Cleland. 'Got something pretty good.'
I said I thought so, and he said, 'You don't mean to say it's real?'
'Yes,' I said.
'Where'd you get it?' he asked.
Later the fossil was at Yale for some time. After studying the bones as they lay in the rock, and comparing them with those of other dinosaurs, Professor Lull, of the Peabody Museum, made a reconstruction in plaster of the whole body, not the bones. He supplied the head from that of a dinosaur of similar build. That reconstruction was reduced to half-size and various casts have been made from it. Yale also made plaster casts of the bones as they lay in the rock. In Clapp Laboratory is a half-size model of the reconstruction made of the dinosaur by Professor Lull - he's given the face a sardonic smile.
Professor Lull said I must give a paper. I said, 'I can't Don't know a thing about dinosaurs.' Professor Lull said, 'Well, study them up then. You've got to describe it.' And that is why I read and later published the short scientific description to which Professor Lull subsequently made additions. Professor Lull suggested later that this dinosaur was insectivorous or a wading form which fed upon amphibians or some smaller reptiles. Most of the geologists who saw the fossil do not think that it was a young one as there are no certain indications of cartilage in places where cartilage turns to bone with age.
I didn't want to keep the fossil in South Hadley. I wanted it to be either at Washington or at Yale for permanent exhibition. I thought it should be with its kind.
Miss Talbot urged that the little dinosaur, Podokesaurus holyokensis (swift-footed saurian), should be sent to Washington or New Haven; but it seemed to higher authority that Mount Holyoke should keep it on exhibition as a local specimen in Williston Hall, the old science building.
For about ten years it was the pet curiosity of all the students in geology and the natural sciences. Then, one Christmas vacation, Williston burned, destroying with it little Podokesaurus, our midget monster, aged in the neighborhood of one hundred and fifty million years.
We have its half-scale effigy in Clapp Laboratory, as well as its pictures and the full-scale reproduction of the cast. Professor Lull's model of it is a speaking likeness with a prehistoric smile. But of course the original can never be replaced, unless somebody finds another gravel pit with another generous owner, with just such a specimen in a Triassic sandstone slab.
The discovery has been a stimulus to keen observation. No one knows when the next rare find may be made. Certainly it can hardly be more unexpected than Miss Talbot's discovery of the little saurian in the gravel pit where it might have been broken up into fragments any day with pick and shovel, if she had not 'gone down to see.'
Up to date, Podokesaurus holyokensis remains the unique skeletal discovery of its kind. But one of the most recent acquisitions of a 'track' was the finding of a footprint on the ledge where the house of Professor Griffith was being built.
When the excavations for the house were being made, it was known that the rock belonged to the geological era contemporary with the dinosaurs. Miss Griffith begged the workmen to be on the lookout for anything that appeared like a 'track.' Some of the men had worked in quarries and were interested to see what they could find. Days went by with no discoveries, and they had given up hope. The man who had taken most interest consoled Miss Griffith by the promise that the next time he found a track in his own quarry he would 'slip her one.'
The prospect of being 'slipped' a dinosaur track was alluring, but Miss Griffith still wished that it might have been from her ledge. And then, after all dreams of finding one had been abandoned, the track appeared. Its discoverer came beaming to Professor Griffith and said, 'Miss, you've got one yourself, and she's a dandy.' And there, in the ledge, he pointed out the track.
Miss Griffith, hardly daring to believe her eyes, got into her car, steered for Miss Talbot, and asked her if she would come to see if it really was an authentic footprint. Miss Talbot came. Why, yes, certainly it was a dinosaur track, she said, speaking in the same unbombastic tone in which one might say, 'Why, yes, that is a squirrel track in the snow.'
The slab containing the track was carefully lifted and became the doorstep of the house. And now, whenever guests for tea are expected, the hostess pours a little water into the famous footprint on the doorstone, so that 'you can't miss it' when you come up to ring the bell.
Relative antiquity is a tantalizing thing. There is a skip in its beat that has always troubled the human imagination. To stand on the spot where one's forefathers stood: to stand on the spot where a Pharaoh stood: to stand on the spot where a dinosaur stood; to stand on a peak of igneous rock that came from the inside of the earth where nobody ever stood: which of these experiences has most power to raise the bristles of the mind?
Wise men tell us that a young person gets the most vivid impression of hoary antiquity from something that belongs peculiarly to the 'long ago' of his own childhood, rather than from the millions of years that have elapsed since Triassic affairs were going on. Nevertheless, even to a young person there is a strange Robinson Crusoe fascination about a prehistoric footprint - especially when the footprint was made on our own ledges, by a local though elusive dinosaur.