A Short History of Dinosaur Collecting
Garden Park Fossil Area,
Cañon City, Colorado

Following the discovery of dinosaur bones in the early 1870’s, the Garden Park Fossil Area near Cañon City, Colorado, became important for the discovery of Late Jurassic dinosaurs.

Chronological list of excavators:

· Oramel and Ira Lucas for Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia (1877-1883),

· Benjamin Mudge, Samuel Williston and Marshall P. Felch for Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale University (1877) and Felch (1882-1888),

· John Hatcher and William Utterback for the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, Pittsburgh (1900-1901),

· Dall DeWeese (1915) and Frederick C. Kessler (1937) for the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now DMNS*),

· Edwin Delfs for Cleveland Museum of Natural History (1954, 1955, 1957),

· K. Don Lindsey for Denver Museum of Natural History (now DMNS*) (1979),

· Kenneth Carpenter for the Denver Museum of Natural History (now DMNS*) (1991-1996),

· Donna Engard for the Dinosaur Depot Museum (1995-present)

             (*Now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.)

New kinds of dinosaurs found in these excavations include:  Allosaurus fragilis, Camarasaurus supremus, Ceratosaurus nasicornis, Diplodocus longus, Haplocanthosaurus priscus, and Stegosaurus stenops.  Other important specimens include the only skull of Brachiosaurus from the Morrison Formation, two other nearly complete skeletons of Stegosaurus stenops and a clutch of dinosaur eggs.


The Garden Park Fossil Area has been historically important in vertebrate paleontology not only for the discoveries of important dinosaur specimens, but for its part in the "Great Bone Wars".  These "wars" were the result of the scientific and personal rivalries between Edward Drinker Cope (left) of the Academy of Natural Sciences in Philadelphia and Othniel Charles Marsh (right) of Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut .

Without their scientific competition, paleontology in North America may have taken much longer to catch the imagination of the public.  Much of the early knowledge of dinosaurs in North America came from their work, as well as the work of the many amateur excavators in their employ.


The first discovery of dinosaur bones in Colorado was made near Cañon City in late 1869 or early 1870, according to a newspaper article which has since been lost, referencing huge bones in a curio shop in Cañon City.

In late 1876, Henry Felch, the brother of Marshall P. Felch, brought fossils to the attention of Dr. F. J. Lewis in Cañon City who recognized them as dinosaur bones. An article from the Cañon City Times dated January 25th, 1877, recorded this discovery in an article:

In March of that same year, Oramel Lucas discovered bones in the area of a feature in the Garden Park Fossil Area known as "The Nipple".  Writing in 1877, Cope indicated that "not long since I was informed by the Superintendent of Public Schools in Fremont County, Colorado, Oramel W. Lucas, that he discovered bones of an enormous saurian at an outcrop of the rocks of the Dakota group, not far from Cañon City”.  The discovery was also reported in the Cañon City Times:

Thus began over 100 years of off and on excavation in the Fossil Area that continues today.


Lucas Brothers (1877-1883)

Oramel Lucas was working as superintendent of the Fremont County Schools while taking a break from his studies at Oberlin College in Ohio.  While out hunting above Garden Park, he discovered dinosaur bones and at the recommendation of his Professor at Oberlin, had written to both Cope and Marsh about his discovery.  Marsh did not respond quickly, but Cope immediately contacted Lucas to begin excavations.  Due to the type of matrix, soft and easily excavated, Oramel, working along with his brother Ira, had soon excavated many impressive bones to send to Cope.

Eventually two quarries yielded a number of important specimens that Cope named Camarasaurus supremus on August 23rd, 1877 .  Over the next year Cope named many new animals of which Amphicoelias altus and Amphicoelias fragillimus are still recognized.

In July of 1879, Cope visited Lucas to see the sites where his fossils were dug.  Fortunately for us, Cope's field diary with a map of the quarries was recently discovered in the archives of the American Museum of Natural History.

Map from Cope’s field book.

Oramel returned to Oberlin College in 1880 and his brother Ira continued work for Cope intermittently through 1883 at which point Cope ran out of funds for the excavations.

*Interestingly, about 114 years later, one of the uncompleted excavations from this period was rediscovered and worked by the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.  (One of the bones they found is the vertebra of Camarasaurus supremus on display at the Dinosaur Depot Museum.)


Mudge and Williston(1877)

Marsh soon became aware of the specimens that were being sent to Cope from Cañon City .  He sent Benjamin Franklin Mudge to Cañon City in August of 1877 from Morrison , Colorado where he had been excavating.  Upon meeting Oramel Lucas, Mudge wrote to Marsh that Cope seemed to be getting “the better of the bones” when compared to those from Morrison.  He instructed Mudge to stay and find a site for him.  With the help of Marshall P. Felch, a local rancher, they opened what was to become Marsh/Felch Quarry #1.

Mudge soon realized that they needed more help and Samuel Williston joined them in September.  Williston was appalled at the poor condition of the bones and sought to help the fossil preparers at Yale by drawing the bones as they were uncovered and packed.  These were sent with the fossils to aid in their reconstruction.  A total of 35 boxes of bones were sent to Marsh before work was stopped due to the crumbly, poor preservation of the bones.  Nevertheless, Marsh was able to describe and name Allosaurus fragilis, and Diplodocus longus from the material.

Sketch of Felch’s ranch by Williston


Felch (1883-1888)

Once the initial rush of excavation in Garden Park in the late 1870s ceased, little activity took place until the Marsh/Felch Quarry #1 was reopened for Marsh in 1883.  Felch, and his brother Henry, were hired by Marsh to resume excavating.  The work from 1883-1887 in Quarry #1 produced bone from a hard sandstone that was in better condition than the original material dug in 1877.  (They also briefly opened another quarry across the gully, Marsh/Felch #2, but the material was fragmented and they went back to #1.)  Due to the number of bones uncovered, Felch began a series of maps showing the location of the material in the Quarry which resulted in this composite map.  

Marsh named many more dinosaurs from the specimens sent from the quarry in this longer phase of work.  Of these additional dinosaurs, two names are very recognizable today, Stegosaurus stenops and Ceratosaurus nasicornis. In all, more than 250 crates of bones were shipped to Marsh from Quarry #1.

Marsh/Felch Quarry #1 about 1887.  It is believed the man in the quarry is Felch.

Through 1887, the work progressed slowly due to lack of funds as well as suspicion by Felch that Quarry #1 was playing out.  Despite this, another 34 boxes of specimens of theropod and sauropod bones were shipped.  In 1888 Quarry #2 was reopened and although much bone was found at first, much of it was fragmented.  Unfortunately, all of the bone found in this quarry was destroyed by a vandal before being shipped and this marked the end of Felch’s work for Marsh. 

Ironically, in 2000 a visitor on a Dinosaur Depot tour in the Fossil Area found a bone in Quarry #2.  When we excavated the find, we discovered it to be part of a bone from the vandalized material of 1888.  Even with careful techniques it was almost impossible to retrieve the specimen.  It was in fragments and had termite larva living in it.  We were able to recover just enough for the bone to be identified as the knee end of the left femur of a Ceratosaurus.  Unfortunately, before we could return to the quarry for a more extensive dig, the quarry was again vandalized.  We know how Felch felt in 1888.


Utterback (1900-1901)

After work at the Marsh/Felch Quarries came to a close in 1888, no further work was done in the Garden Park Fossil Area until the Marsh/Felch Quarry #1 was reopened in 1901.  John Bell Hatcher of the Carnegie Museum of Natural History sent William Utterback to Garden Park to contact Felch and reopen the quarry.  Utterback, expanded the old digs to almost double in size. 

Hatcher drew attention to the importance of the area when he wrote,

"On visiting the bone quarries near Canyon City, Colorado made classic by the researches of the late professor O.C. Marsh and E.D. Cope, in the spring of 1900 shortly after taking charge of Department of Vertebrate Paleontology in the Carnegie Museum, the striking advantages  presented by this locality not only for collecting the remains of dinosaurs, but for determining the exact stratigraphic position of the various skeletons both with reference to each other and to the underlying Trias and overlying Cretaceous formation were at once apparent." 

Two specimens found during this time were named by Hatcher in 1903:  Haplocanthosaurus priscus and Haplocanthosaurus utterbacki.  Utterback also reopened Nipple Quarry #1 where Camarasaurus supremus had been collected, but found only a single vertebra.

Marsh/Felch Quarry as it appeared during the Carnegie dig.

This is a map compiled from the Felch map and those of later excavators in the remarkable Marsh/Felch Quarry #1.  In the parts of the map labeled 1883 through 1886, some of the best Late Jurassic dinosaurs ever found were excavated.  Four of them, an Allosaurus, a Steosaurus, a Ceratosaurus and a Diplodocus skull are on display at the National Museum of Natural History, Smithsonian Institution.  These are the only mounts in the dinosaur hall that consist of the bones from one animal.  All of the other dinosaurs on display are made up of bones from different animals and some even from different sites.


DeWeese (1915-1916)

Nearing the end of the excavation.

The next major excavation in the Garden Park Fossil Area was by Dall DeWeese, a local engineer and big game hunter of some renown.  He discovered the rear portion of an adult Diplodocus longus skeleton in the eastern side of the fossil area.  The specimen was excavated by the Colorado Museum of Natural History (later the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and was the first dinosaur added to the Museum's collection. The excavation drew a considerable amount of attention.

Kessler (1937)

Frederick C. Kessler, a local high school science teacher, discovered a Stegosaurus stenops skeleton while in the Fossil Area with his students.  Kessler contacted the Colorado Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) and he and the students were hired to help excavate the specimen.  The skeleton was remarkably complete but lacked the lower portion of the hind limbs, some plates and part of the skull.  It was taken to the museum where it was mounted for display in 1938. 

This specimen became the inspiration for the successful 1982 children's drive to have Stegosaurus declared the Colorado State Fossil.  This was the second of three nearly complete Stegosaurus specimens to come from the Garden Park Fossil Area.  The skeleton was remounted in 1994 by Kenneth Carpenter based on information from the specimen displayed here.  It can be seen in the Prehistoric Journey exhibit at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science.


Delfs (1954-1957)

Edwin Delfs, with a crew of young students, was sent west in the early summer of 1954 to find a dinosaur that could become an exhibit at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.  He met a geologist from Louisiana State University who gave him information about sauropod bones he and his students had seen exposed along Four Mile Creek in the Garden Park Fossil Area.  Delfs and his crew did the excavation in the summers of 1954, 1955 and 1957. 

This is early in the dig as they tunneled in to recover the specimen.  Later work removed the overburden for much safer conditions.

Incredible hazards, such as an almost disastrous flash flood, were overcome to recover this specimen.  The bones lay beneath a thick sandstone, requiring the crew to tunnel after the bones.  Originally mounted in a death pose, the specimen was remounted in an upright pose in 1963.  In 1988 the skeleton was described as a new species, Haplocanthosaurus delfsi.


Lindsey (1979)

In 1979 K. Don Lindsey of  the Denver Museum of Natural History began excavation of a partial Camarasaurus grandis in the vicinity of the DeWeese Quarry on the east side of the fossil area.  This specimen consisted of the poorly preserved rear portion of a disarticulated skeleton. 


Carpenter (1991-1996)

In 1991, Kenneth Carpenter of the Denver Museum of Natural History (now the Denver Museum of Nature and Science) began a detailed study of the Morrison Formation in the Garden Park Fossil Area with a large crew of volunteers from the museum and the newly formed Garden Park Paleontology Society.  Discoveries included some of the impressive contents of this exhibit, including this spectacular nearly complete Stegosaurus stenops (the third and most complete from the Fossil Area), the very rare juvenile Othnielis rex, and the vertebra of Camarasaurus supremus (discussed earlier).

Nearing the finish of the Stegosaurus excavation.  Trying to figure where we can cut through the specimen to ready it for removal from the quarry.

The crew, under Carpenter’s training in modern paleontological techniques made a number of discoveries of fossils never before found in the Fossil Area.  The first baby dinosaur, a dinosaur nesting ground, dinosaur tracks and plant fossils have all added to the little known information about Jurassic environments as represented in the Fossil Area.  Eggs were found in two different stratigraphic levels, with the lowest one being the oldest in North America .

The biggest public event in the six year research project remains the airlift of the Stegosaurus by a Chinook helicopter provided by the United States Army from nearby Fort Carson .   For the full story about the history of the “Small Stegosaurus” please read "The Story of Ms. Spike".

Tiny rare mammal jaw about one inch long.

The Stegosaur site also proved to be the first good microvertebrate fossil site in Garden Park .  Specimens found during the excavation and preparation of the stegosaur include a complete jaw of a mammal, several different types of fish vertebrae, lungfish tooth plates, a new genus of pterodactyl having an estimated 25 meter wing span, baby ornithopod bones, parts of a Dryosaurus altus, crocodile teeth, at least two types of turtles, and a part of a small theropod.


Garden Park Paleontology Society (1997 to the present)

The Garden Park Paleontology Society has initiated its own field program to build a representative collection of fossils from the Garden Park Fossil Area and eastern Fremont County .  Our purpose is to maintain a local museum that serves as a reference to these important natural and historic resources.  We also help the Bureau of Land Management and other government agencies in their management responsibility toward the Fossil Area and other public land containing fossil resources. 



All of the work that has taken place in the Garden Park Fossil Area for over a century has established this area as one of the great fossil resources in the world.  It has importance to both the past and future of Jurassic paleontology, as well as related geological studies.  This area has been under the jurisdiction of the Bureau of Land Management since 1937 and was added to the National Natural Landmark registry by the National Park Service in 1972.  In addition to the valuable work of the past, current research has made paleontological resource management here an important agenda for the Bureau of Land Management.  As a result, the State of Colorado and the Bureau of Land Management designated the area as a Research Natural Area in 1991, and this was upgraded in 1996 by the Bureau of Land Management to an area of Critical Environmental Concern.

With the help of past, current and future institutions working here, the Bureau of Land Management, along with the Garden Park Paleontology Society, is using partnerships involving scientific research and public education to manage this important natural resource.  Public interest in the preservation of fossils and their appropriate scientific and educational use will help keep the Garden Park Fossil Area productive for many years to come.

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Dinosaur Depot Museum
330 Royal Gorge Blvd. #A
Cañon City, CO 81212
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