Pre-History – Jurassic Ark

An archived photograph of Highway Department employee John Gray from the September 3, 1963, edition of the Hope Star.

It’s funny the things you stumble over when you aren’t looking for them. For this writer, it was during research for my article on Perry Campbell from a few weeks ago. I was at the Hempstead County Library combing through the rolls of old Hope Star issues, searching for information about the founding of Perrytown when I came across a photograph splashed across Page One from a few days prior. “Prehistoric Bones Found at Saratoga,” the bold headline read, sitting atop a picture of a man perched next to a shovel, a set of three or four objects about the size of coffee cans stacked in front of him.

Peering closely, I was able to tell that they resembled vertebrae, only in a much larger size. Momentarily forgetting what I was originally looking for (because, let’s face it, you never really get over the adolescent excitement of anything involving those gigantic prehistoric reptiles), I studied the photo imagining towering, long-necked behemoths tromping down Main Street. Reading the cutline under the photo, my curiosity was further piqued. “John Gray, Hope, Employe(e) of the Arkansas Highway Department, is shown with some bones, possibly of a prehistoric creature, which he found last week near Saratoga.”

Now, I’m not from the area. Sure, there’s not a great deal of distance between the southeastern and southwestern parts of Arkansas, but I’m still learning the basic geography of the region. I knew I’d seen a sign for Saratoga, but I had no idea how far away it was, nor what the area was like. Then, another part of the cutline caught my eye. “Some similar bones were found by Weldon Fulton in the Blevins area a couple of years ago.”

Say, now. Multiple findings in the area? We’re on to something, here. Jotting down notes of the date (September 3, 1963, was the date of the picture in the Hope Star, so I’m assuming Gray found the Saratoga bones sometime in late August), I determined that Fulton’s must have been sometime in 1961, though combing through an entire year’s worth of newspapers is a daunting task with no concrete date from which to start.

So, donning my imaginary fedora, I set out on the trail of Jurassic Ark.

My findings were pretty scarce at first. In addition to Fulton’s find and Gray’s vertebrae, I stumbled upon the Arkansas Educational Resource Initiative for Evolution and Arkansas Paleontology, or, PALEOAERIE. They had an article from 2014 titled “Fossil Friday, Going Swimmingly” wherein the author challenged the reader to identify a vertebrae pictured next to a football to show the scale. The vertebrae matched the one in the Gray photograph (only colorized), and I was excited to discover upon reading the article that it had been found in the Saratoga area by Matt Smith, a native of Howard County. The vertebrae had been identified as belonging to an Elasmosaurus, a type of plesiosaur.

The article also pointed out that many of the bones found in the southwest region of Arkansas actually belong to Mosasaurs, marine reptiles that thrived in deep, tropical waters. Turns out, way back in the Late Cretaceous Period, most of southwest Arkansas was underwater. And, with the climate being a lot more tropical, the region was perfect for these types of large, aquatic predators. That raised an eyebrow, I can tell you. I knew already that fossils had been found here and there in Arkansas, and even that we have an official state dinosaur (more on that momentarily), but to imagine these paddle-flippered, long-necked beings cruising the waters out near Millwood was really something.

So, what’s an intrepid reporter with an imaginary fedora and a loose handle on regional geography to do? I got in my car and drove out to Saratoga, hoping to talk to someone about the plethora of prehistoric predators whose remains were surely to be found littering the landing. Maybe I’d even find a few myself! Imagine my disappointment when all I found was a picturesque dock and a beautiful, clear lake with nary a Loch Nessian neck to be seen.

The view from Saratoga Landing, whereupon my fossil-finding hopes were dashed.

My curiosity far from sated, however, I delved deeper into the fossil findings in the area. Up near Lockesburg, back in 1972, a man named J.B. Friday found a set of bones on his property. These were studied by Professor James Harrison Quinn and determined to be the first “scientific” identification of dinosaur bones in the state. The bipedal, ostrich-like creature was named “Arkansaurus fridayi” by Quinn and became the official state dinosaur.

Closer to Hope, however, was something called “The Briar Site” in a fairly vague Wikipedia entry about fossils found in the state. Apparently, a gypsum mine (which I knew was a mineral, but had to research to discover it’s use and where it would be mined in Arkansas) in southwest Arkansas back in 1983 thought they had a heck of a pothole problem. These big, fairly evenly spaced divots were all over the place, and they couldn’t make heads or tails as to why. Enter Jeff Pittman, who came to study sediment and identified the potholes for what they really were: sauropod tracks.

While plenty of folks have seen Jurassic Park or played with toy dinosaurs (ironically playing with the remains of real dinosaurs by proxy), or read books about the giant lizards, there’s a generation of people about my age who grew up with the animated film The Land Before Time. The film tells the story of Little Foot, a “Longneck” (sauropod) who loses his mother to a T-Rex attack and must band together with a plucky group of young dinosaurs as they make their way to The Great Valley, where they’ll be safe from predators and have all the Tree Stars (similar to maple leaves) they can eat. It was one of my favorite childhood movies and, if memory serves, the first one I got to see in an actual theater.

I had to figure out where the Briar Site was. It was important.

Gypsum mines in Arkansas, as you can imagine, are rather rare. Imagine my delight when I discovered that there was one a stone’s throw away near Nashville. Certainteed Gypsum, my search engine told me, had been in operation for several years under different names. Taking a chance, I dialed them up and asked the young lady on the other end of the phone what was possibly the strangest question she’d gotten all day. “Are y’all the place that found the dinosaur footprints?” I asked, tamping down my mounting excitement. “We are,” she replied.

I was over the moon.

She put me in touch with the mine manager, Matt Porter, who told me that as recently as ten years ago, they found more footprints. University of Arkansas Professor Steven Boss got to identify those, confirming them as more sauropod tracks. “I don’t suppose you have any on site that I could, say come take a look at? Maybe snap some pictures of?” I asked. Porter informed me that, while they had none at the mine currently, they had donated one to the city park in Nashville.

I was in my car and on the road before I even got off the phone. Nashville, a scant 35 minutes away, is a beautiful little town. Their city park, likewise, is lovely. Tree-lined concrete paths, tennis courts, an amphitheater. However, I had no time for such frivolities. There was a sauropod footprint to find! Fortunately, Nashville’s Parks and Recreation Department had an office just next to the park entrance. If anyone would know where in the park the footprint would be, it was them.

Sure enough, the helpful folks in the office were pleased to point me in the direction of my quarry, indicating that the museum had a dinosaur exhibit as well. Parking in the park’s parking lot, I climbed out of my car and headed down a sunlight-dappled path towards a small pond. There, just across from the water, sat an enormous chunk of concrete with an impression from a likewise enormous foot.

I had to throttle my inner six-year-old long enough to brush off the pine needles and leaves that had settled into the depression in the stone. As I stood there looking at the divots in the concrete casting, I thought, “I have to show the folks back at the office.” I snapped a couple of photos, but they didn’t really do justice to the size of the indentations. I took off my left sneaker and placed it next to the dino-divot, sending the photo back to the office.

The footprint, with a size 13 sneaker for scale.

As I walked back to my car, I got a welcome surprise. A sign, literally, from above. A single maple leaf had landed on my car, just over the driver’s door. Clearly, my path was pre-ordained. It was fate.

Punching in an inquiry about a museum in Nashville, I headed across town to what turned out to be a quaint old chapel which housed a museum. The curator showed me inside, where a collection of antiques and memorabilia from several wars sat behind glass. I mentioned that I had hoped to see their sauropod footprint, like the one at the park. “We don’t have a footprint,” she said. My heart sank. “But we do have these.” She lifted a black cloth off of a display case, revealing an exhibit of footbones from a hadrosaur that were found in the area, as well as several other bones and shell fossils. My heart leapt.

I drove back from my adventures with plenty of adolescent excitement filling my head with imaginary giants stepping ponderously out of the woods beside the highway. On a random chance, I’d stumbled across an exciting bit of Arkansas pre-history while researching a completely unrelated article. Who knows what I’ll stumble across next?

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