Wednesday, July 7, 2010


History is a tricky thing. Often it pops up with surprise information or facts that don’t seem to fit with our current thinking and thus forces reanalysis. Sometimes this leads to a better understanding of a problem or issue and an advancement in our knowledge. Sometimes history is just a foul tempered junkyard dog that comes out of nowhere and scares us. We just had a run in with the latter species of history.

One of the interesting aspects of the historical excavations at the Carnegie Museum was the use of explosives. This was driven by the 70 degree dip of the beds. The further down dip one excavated the more overburden needed to be removed until the excavations were almost occurring in a trench. Explosives helped in loosening up the overburden. During the WPA work at Dinosaur in the 1930s, they enlarged the trench to expose a large amount of the upper surface of the quarry sandstone. Presumably they used explosives as well. We do know that east of the Carnegie Quarry there had been an explosives storage shed carved into the sandstone, although the exact location is unknown. I’ve dealt with that somewhat in my April 23, 2010 post Lions, Cows, Dinosaurs, and Dynamite. Anyway, that was ancient history. Or so we thought.

When the Quarry Visitor Center was closed in 2006 we quickly developed the Fossil Discovery Trail, which ran down the drainage immediately to the east of the closed building. One of the stops along this trail is at a continuation of the quarry sandstone inside the building. It’s a great stop, one can see lots of fossils, ranging from small freshwater clams to large dinosaur bones, all exposed by natural erosion. This became the main visitor fossil experience since the building closure and hundreds of thousands of visitors have been on the trail either on their own or as parted of a guided tour.

Where it goes through the quarry sandstone is the narrowest part of the trail. Along the east side it passes within just a few feet of the sandstone. It was here, that last week, two visitors spied some peculiar cylindrical objects on the trail. They reported it, thinking they might be trash carelessly thrown away by other hikers. However, upon closer examination they turned out to be two sticks of dynamite. Quite old. Oozing. Bulging at their ends. Unstable. This was clearly a very serious situation.

The trail was immediately closed, as were the construction activities at the nearby Quarry Visitor Center. Agents from the ATF (Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms) were called in. They did an area check and found two more sticks poking out of a nearby crack in a recess in the quarry sandstone. They were in similarly bad condition. All four sticks were gathered up and detonated at a safe distance.

The photo of the four sticks shows that their wrappings were in good condition and still readable, revealing that they were manufactured in September 1921. So for 89 years these sticks lay in some crack, only to eventually roll out onto the trail.Fortunately they were stable enough not to explode before they could be discovered and removed. Examination of the crack didn’t reveal any more dynamite higher up in the crack, so maybe these four are all the sticks that were there.

How did it get there?Good question. Were they part of a failed explosion, part of the lost explosives shed, something that simply feel down into the crack, or is there an even more bizarre story behind this? We will probably never know. What we do know is that we had a pretty close call with an event that couldn’t be planned for. Dumb luck I suppose.

Photo courtesy of Steve Morin, National Park Service.

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