Rediscovering the Lost World

The Morrison Natural History Museum gives visitors a hands-on look at homegrown fossils—including the original Stegosaurus—that could change everything we thought we knew about dinosaurs.

April 2010

Morrison is best known as a town of 417 residents nestled in the shadow of a legendary concert venue. What makes it more unique, perhaps, is the nondescript building just outside of downtown. This improbable natural history museum—a two-story log cabin with a dirt driveway that hosts kids' birthday parties and is the starting point for fossil-finding tours of the area—looks more like a quirky Kansas roadside attraction than the home to a collection of prehistoric treasures that might one day redefine how we view Jurassic life.

Although most Coloradans probably don't know much about the stegosaur I'm about to liberate from its sandstone coffin, the town and the hillsides around it have earned a reputation as a paleontological paradise. For nearly 140 years, this area has been one of the world's most productive fossil beds, having yielded not only the first Stegosaurus—known as specimen No. 1850—but also the first Apatosaurus (a cousin of the Brontosaurus), the only tracks showing baby stegosaurs herding with adults, and thousands of other fossils and prehistoric ephemera that usually don't coexist on a single site. "This is the place that made the Jurassic [Period] famous," says Robert Bakker, Ph.D., a Boulder resident and curator of fossils at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. "You don't find good footprints and good bones together."

With that kind of prehistoric luck, it's not hyperbolic to say that Morrison was, if not the epicenter, then a seismic shock that enlivened the great dinosaur grab of the late 19th century, a nationwide scramble during which hundreds of dinosaurs were discovered and named. For five generations, paleontologists and geologists have dreamed and searched and fought over the high-sloped Morrison land like Robert Louis Stevenson characters. Competing scientists blew up quarries to discourage further exploration and paid off dig crews for directions to sites, while rival workers traded death threats in a land- and glory-grabbing mania akin to the Gold Rush a few decades earlier. And for a time, one of the stars of this quest was this sandstone-encased stegosaur I'm about to dig into.

The narrative of No. 1850's final moments will never be fully known. At the twilight of the Jurassic Period—about 140 million years ago, when the world's largest animals roamed and the first birds took flight—the stegosaur, about 13 feet tall at the hip, collapsed and died near what today is Colorado Highway 93. No. 1850 was buried in a slurry of pre-hardened sandstone that eventually became a prehistoric highway for its nesting and herding siblings and descendants. As those animals died out, the land exploded into hogback and mountains, the preserved dinosaurs sealed in a coffin of sediment.

Fast-forward a few thousand millennia to 1877, when Arthur Lakes, a mustachioed paleontology pioneer, minister, and teacher at what's now the Colorado School of Mines, identified fossils around Morrison that he called "so utterly beyond anything I had ever read or conceived possible." In awe, Lakes alerted Othniel Charles Marsh, an esteemed paleontologist at Yale who would become famous for naming more than 50 dinosaurs. Marsh ignored Lakes until learning that Lakes had also written to Marsh's archenemy, Edward Drinker Cope, a collector who'd eventually have more than 1,200 of his scholarly papers published. (The rivalry between Cope and Marsh had exploded in the late 1860s when Marsh noted in a scientific journal that Cope had incorrectly assembled an elasmosaur, putting its head where its tail should have been.)

Marsh hired Lakes, and work in Morrison began. Between 1877 and 1879, Lakes pulled out dozens of fossils, one set of which would become No. 1850. Lakes kept notes, drawings, and watercolors of his work, and after his crew moved out of the dig area, he wrote that, on Marsh's order, he'd had his crew blow up the most productive area, named Quarry 10, to discourage Cope's teams from searching it. (He also steadfastly kept its exact location a secret.)

Lakes shipped the fossils from No. 1850 to Yale, where Marsh studied the animal and named it Stegosaurus, Greek for "roof lizard." Further investigation was impossible because the sandstone surrounding the fossils was harder than concrete, making removal a precarious option, and Marsh moved No. 1850 to a museum basement at Yale, where it went virtually untouched for more than a century.