Dwelling among the wonders and mysteries of life


Those who dwell among the wonders and mysteries of nature are never alone or weary of life. -Rachel Carson

The Paleontology Mural Odyssey

Five huge canvases, each measuring 14 feet x 8 feet, 560 square feet of blank space, were awaiting transformation- transformation into five natural history murals as a centerpiece exhibit for the new Garden of the Gods Visitor Center. When my coworker, park naturalist Lenore Fleck, and I naively said "yes" to becoming the researchers for this project, we couldn't begin to imagine how much we would learn, how consuming the mural project would be, and how involved expert geologists and paleontologists would be to ensure that every plant, animal, and landscape depicted in the murals reflected the actual rock and fossil record of the Pikes Peak Region.

The last time I was immersed in a geology project, I was CC undergrad English major. In the fall of 1970, the inauguration of the Block Plan, I was one of the lucky CC students who encountered geology first hand in Dr. John Lewis's two-block geology class. Dr. Lewis admittedly spent most of his transportation budget during that golden September and October as he took full advantage of the new freedom of the Block Plan. Our class traversed the whole state of Colorado investigating landforms, rocks, high mountain mines, and fault lines, while camping out and sampling autumn apple harvests along the way.

Almost 25 years after my two-block journey in geology, I began this second geology odyssey, which is what the mural project quickly became, by seeking the expertise of CC geology professors Jeff Noblett and Bill Fischer. Dr. Noblett was exuberant as he described the expansive oceans and the volcanic continent-building of 2 billion years ago, and the alluvial fans and accumulating sand dunes of 300 million years ago. Dr. Fischer's eyes lighted up and his steps quickened as we approached the Niobrara formation to look for marine fossils, remnants of life of the Western Interior Seaway of 80 million years ago. Their passion for geology was palpable.

Just three weeks into the mural project, Lenore and I enrolled in a three-day Paleontology Conference (a crash course in paleontology for us) to gain a broader understanding of the potential of the murals, and to better communicate with the geologists and the mural artists. The middle day of the conference included all-day field trips, of course. Lenore went north to the new, multi-million dollar Prehistoric Journey exhibit at the Denver Museum of Natural History and to the Dinosaur Ridge track and fossil site just west of Denver. I signed up for another adventure, a 7:00 am - 10:00 pm field trip to the Jurassic Dinosaur Trackway in remote Picketwire Canyon, a 3 1/2-hour drive southeast of Colorado Springs via highway and jeep road.

I felt the familiar anticipation of a geology trip as I jumped into a 4-wheel drive vehicle with four career geologists. The USGS, National Park Service, BLM, and University of Colorado geologists had over 100 years of collective earth science experience among them. For the 7-hour round-trip drive, and for the 8 hours of investigating over 1500 dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River, the geologists, with passionate voices, talked only of rocks, and landforms, and of the Earth's history recorded within them. Their voices resonated with emotion, and sounded familiar, like the voices of Dr. Noblett, Dr. Fischer, and Dr. Lewis.

I returned from this 15-hour immersion into the language and vision of geologists with new eyes. Finally, I felt I could comprehend how geologists could be so passionate about their work. After more than two decades of living in a geologist's paradise at the foot of Pikes Peak, I experienced an avalanche of suspended understanding. I had finally caught on. I could now see beyond the scenic beauty of the landscape to the silent, ancient worlds recorded in the rock formations. I was prepared to complete the mural project.

The Forgotten Dinosaur

After our Paleontology Conference, Lenore and I met with other recognized experts to fill in more details for the Jurassic Period and the Ice Age murals. Dr. Kirk Johnson, Curator of Paleontology and Paleobotany for the Denver Museum of Natural History (DMNH), described the Jurassic world of 150 million years ago, and Dr. Paul Grogger, University of Colorado geologist, pointed out evidence of glaciation on Pikes Peak during the most recent Ice Age, a mere few thousand years ago. The enthusiasm of so many experts, each donating uncounted hours to the mural project, made it possible for ancient worlds to begin to emerge on the five stretched canvases.

With our mural artists, Jan and Debra Vriesen, getting nervous over their looming deadline only four months away, it was time to make a decision about which dinosaurs to feature in the Jurassic mural. No one Lenore and I had interviewed so far knew of any dinosaur fossils (identified to exact species) found in Colorado Springs. However, all the paleontologists we talked to agreed that dinosaurs discovered in the Caņon City and the Denver areas would also have occurred here.

Since Stegosaurus fossils had been found both in Caņon City and just west of Denver at Dinosaur Ridge, we felt confident including the Stegosaurus, Colorado's official state fossil, in our mural. However, we were having trouble settling on a second dinosaur to depict. Dr. Kirk Johnson, who also advised us on all the ancient plants in the murals, encouraged Lenore and me to contact his colleague Dr. Ken Carpenter, vertebrate paleontologist for the Denver Museum of Natural History.

When Dr. Carpenter returned Lenore's phone call, she turned to me with wide eyes and said, "Dr. Carpenter thinks he has some information in his files about a dinosaur fossil that was discovered in Garden of the Gods. He said he'll send it to us if he can find it." We were astonished!

A dinosaur had been discovered in "our" park! To us, this news was as exciting as discovering a brand new dinosaur. Somehow, the 1886 dinosaur discovery had been forgotten. Perhaps it had never been reported in the Colorado Springs community or maybe the news of the discovery had simply been lost over the decades.

A quick call to the Yale Peabody Museum Collections Manager confirmed that the Colorado Springs Camptosaurus fossil skull was indeed there. Lenore and I spread "our discovery" far and wide, while artists Jan and Debra Vriesen eagerly began to sketch, then paint the camptosaurus, our dinosaur, into its Jurassic world.

The Camptosaurus "Comes Home"

Over the next 18 months, I corresponded with the Curator of the Yale Peabody Museum, asking to have a cast (exact replica) made of the Camptosaurus fossil skull so that it could be exhibited at the Garden of the Gods. With the support and invaluable assistance of Dr. Kirk Johnson, who received his Ph.D. from Yale, the Curator consented to my request.

When Dr. Johnson had business at Yale in late 1996, he carefully brought the irreplaceable Camptosaurus skull back to Denver, hand carrying the fossil on an eventful journey that included subway, train and taxi rides, and being snowed in at a Midwestern airport. The Denver Museum staff quickly went to work to cast the original fossil skull, and in the spring of 1997, I was the lucky one who accepted the Camptosaurus fossil replica from Dr. Johnson. He presented it on behalf of the Denver Museum of Natural History as a gift to the City of Colorado Springs. It is a rare gift, with an ancient and a modern story.


The five 14' x 8' canvases are no longer blank and unfriendly. Each one has been transformed into an original work of art. Each tells a very specific story about our Earth's history and captures a landscape that no longer exists.

All of us who worked together to bring the murals to life have moved on to other projects, but this project has had lasting effects. A new exhibit for the camptosaurus fossil is scheduled to be completed later this year. Several hundred to several thousand visitors view the captivating murals every day of the year in their prominent location in the Garden of the Gods Visitor Center. Lenore and I recently enrolled in the Amateur Paleontology Certification Program at the Denver Museum of Natural History. And I now take pictures of rocks and fossils, and sometimes even dream about dinosaurs. I have fallen in love with rocks.

O. C. Marsh and J. H. Kerr, the Yale - Colorado College Connection

Who were the two men mentioned in the National Museum excerpt in connection with the discovery of the camptosaurus fossil?

O. C. Marsh (Othniel Charles) was a Yale professor and one of the most famous paleontologists and dinosaur fossil collectors of the 19th Century. Among his most famous dinosaur discoveries include the Stegosaurus, Allosaurus, and Diplodocus. Fossils from all three dinosaurs were excavated from Marsh's Caņon City quarries and from his Dinosaur Ridge quarries. Marsh and his crews worked quarries in both Colorado areas, and in other Western states, in the late 1870s and the 1880s.

I had a hunch that the other man, Professor Kerr, had to be a Colorado College professor. Colorado College was established in 1874, so what other professor would be prospecting for fossil bones in 1878?

A trip to Tutt Library to see Special Collections Manager Ginny Kiefer revealed that James Hutchinson Kerr graduated from Yale University in 1865, and moved to Colorado Springs in the 1870s hoping to cure his tuberculosis. Successful in finding "the cure," Kerr became a Colorado College professor of geology, mining, metallurgy, and chemistry, and even served as acting president of the college from 1885 - 1889.

Most likely it was Yale alum Professor Kerr who contacted Yale paleontologist O. C. Marsh about finding fossils in Garden of the Gods. Marsh and his crews excavated the camptosaurus skull in 1886, and transported it to the Yale Museum, where the fossil languished in relative obscurity for 110 years.

Kiefer brought out several scrapbooks filled with Professor Kerr's newspaper clippings, speeches, and notes, which included his handwritten account of finding fossils in Garden of the Gods:

In 1878, I discovered in one of the ridges east of the red rocks forming the east boundary of the Garden of the Gods, portions of 21 different sea monsters that had been caught as in a basin, in one of Earth's early paroxisms. ...Most of these bones and some of the casts were boxed up for Colorado College. The college at that time having no place to store such things, the boxes with other things were placed in barns and cellars and nearly all have been lost.


The Camptosaurus-meaning bent lizard- lived during the Jurassic era about 150 million years ago. It was medium-sized as far as dinosaurs go, weighing about 1,200 pounds and measuring about 23 feet long from head to tail. Its head was elongated with tightly-packed blunt teeth in the back of its jaw-evidence of a plant eater.

Camptosaurus fossils have been discovered in western North America, Europe, and Australia. A complete skeleton was excavated from Dinosaur National Monument in Utah, and fossil evidence of the dinosaur has also been found in Caņon City.

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