"This is where, many Utah residents would say, the Great Crime occurred," says Dan Chure, motioning to an open mass grave filled with hundreds and hundreds of bones.
Rather than grim, Chure is grinning, because he is a National Park Service paleontologist, or fossil expert, and these are dinosaur bones you can see exposed on the face of a fossil quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Utah.The "Great Crime" dates back nearly a century, when tons of fossils were taken from this quarry and from the West by, as Chure puts it, "that Eastern museum" - the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburgh.
"Stole" is the actual word Chure uses, but not seriously. Probably.
Today, visitors to the Pittsburgh museum's famous Dinosaur Hall might be surprised at how many of the star skeletons - including the 71-foot-long Apatosaurus - hail from this site.
Visitors to the national monument might be even more surprised to see how heavy the museum's stamp remains here.
In fact, "Carnegie Quarry" is what many still call this 150-foot-long slanted rock face, which forms one wall of the mostly glass visitors center.
The center opened in 1958, four decades after the national monument was established to preserve one of the world's largest repositories of dinosaur bones. It was the original Jurassic park, since the bones date to the Jurassic period - the dinosaurs' zenith - from about 180 million to 130 million years ago.
At about the midpoint of that period, as Chure and Linda West explain in their exceptional book about the quarry, a river buried hundreds of dinosaurs in the sand and gravel of its channel. Over millions of years, sediment covered the bones to a depth of several thousand feet, compressing and fossilizing them. In time, the geologic forces of uplift and erosion moved the bones back toward the surface.
In 1909, a Carnegie paleontologist named Earl Douglass was pros-pecting this rugged landscape for more fossils for his boss, Andrew Carnegie. Carnegie, like a lot of people at the time, was crazy about dinosaurs, for which he'd built his new exhibit hall.
Climbing to the top of a hard sandstone ridge, Douglass spotted bone - what he recognized as eight vertebra of a Brontosaurus. "It was a beautiful sight," Douglass wrote in his diary that night. The next day, he started digging and was thrilled to see that the backbones kept going.
Six years later, the colossal specimen - now known as an Apato-saurus, and still the most complete one ever found - was assembled in Pittsburgh, where it continues to awe museum-goers.
And that was just one of 20 mountable prize skeletons Douglass and his crews would find tangled together here, representing 10 species, from Allosaurus to Stegosaurus. From 1909 to 1922, Douglass and his crews dug into the seam with picks and shovels, drills and wedges - even dynamite. And they shipped to Pittsburgh 446 crates of plaster-wrapped fossils weighing 700,000 pounds.
Still, they didn't get them all.
Early in the museum's excavating, director W.J. Holland contacted President Woodrow Wilson, concerned that someone might homestead on this treasure-trove. On Oct. 4, 1915, Wilson designated 80 acres here as Dinosaur National Monument.
The museum continued to get annual collecting permits until 1922, when in a money-saving move, its directors cut Douglass off. But he remained for two more years, col-lecting for the Smithsonian as well as the University of Utah in Salt Lake City.
As Douglass recorded in his diary, he decided to leave some bones "exposed in relief as they were buried . . . to reveal something of their lives and surroundings. How appropriate to build a fair-sized building over them to protect them . . . to help to appreciate nature and her wonderful ways!"
That came to pass, but not until the 1950s, when paleontologists carefully cleared away rock to expose more bones, which were then protected by a corrugated tin shed.
After the visitors center opened, workers continued to chip away. For years, a big part of the park's attraction was that visitors could watch that work, which ended in 1991.
These days, Chure and his colleagues collect fossils at other sites in the park. In 1938, it was expanded to 211,000 acres, including the spectacular canyons of the Green and Yampa rivers.
Today's visitors raft, hike, camp and more here, but much of the remote back country is little used. For drawing power, the visitor center and the ever-popular namesake dinosaurs still rule.
After fielding a 125 percent increase in attendance - and lots of DNA questions - with the "Jurassic Park" movie and hype in 1993, the park was expecting another surge this summer with "The Lost World." That hasn't happened, Chure says, but interest always is high, with many of the park's half-million annual visitors asking about dino sites and sights at other parks. "It is a remarkable feeding frenzy."
That explains the throng gobbling up stuff at the center's bookstore, a high-quality, not-high-priced shop run by the nonprofit Dinosaur Nature Association that sells everything from dozens of books to replica Al-lo-saurus claws.
After riding a shuttle up from the lower parking lots, visitors can tour the center, gazing at the quarry face from the first or second floors. Interpreters also regularly present programs. Scattered throughout are lots of mounted fossils and other displays.
On this day, the center is visited by a team of four Carnegie paleontologists, including associate curator Chris Beard, who's been leading their field expedition not far away in southwestern Wyoming.
Chure and the Carnegie guys can't help but exchange a little ribbing.
"Here's one you guys didn't get," says Chure, pointing out a Cama-ra-saurus skull up high on the quarry wall.
All possessiveness aside, Chure acknowledges that Andrew Carnegie's big bucks probably were the best tool for getting a lot of these big guys out of the ground, so they could be studied by scientists and stared at by the public. "The Carnegie stopped because they'd filled up all their storage areas."
Now, that's a problem the center is facing, he adds, and so some expansion may be in the works. "What we ultimately want to do is to have a big collections facility. This building is not enough to do all the things that need to be done."
Meanwhile, if visitors can't get enough fossils here, the national monument is just one of many dinosaur draws in this part of the country. Utah markets this northeastern corner as "Dinosaurland." And some nearby Colorado towns are included in an area dubbed the "Dinosaur Diamond."
Despite the region's other scenic and recreational splendors, dinosaurs have left their mark on everything, especially in Vernal, Dinosaurland's capital. The place is crawling with names like "Dinaland Golf Course" and "T-Rex Taxi" - even life-size replicas like the pink not-so-terrible lizard out in front of the Dine-A-Ville Motel.
Eighteen models, including a mammoth whose wool looks like it's made out of mulch, and a new Utahraptor, live in the Dinosaur Gardens at the Utah Field House of Natural History in the center of town. The museum is a little jewel, packed with fossils and other goodies. There's even art: mesmerizing colorful scenes of prehistoric life painted in the 1940s by G.E. Untermann Sr. (the father of the museum's first director), who had a penchant for hiding nudes and other images in his clouds and trees.
Quips current curator Sue Ann Bilbey, "There are more of them; they're just put away. I have a major conflict with the local people because they hate 'em and I love 'em."
But everyone in that afternoon's crowd, including the Carnegie paleontology team, seemed to be enjoying themselves immensely.
One little boy: "This is called a Velociraptor."
Wide-eyed friend: "From `The Lost World?' "
Little boy: "No, this is a real one."
Actually, the skeleton is a Dolichorhinus longiceps, a primitive horse/rhino relative.
They're very impressed by some stuff the Carnegie Museum never had: a collection of old photos and artifacts showing the history of vertebrate paleontology in Utah. Included is much Earl Douglass memorabilia - even one of his leather-bound field journals, titled "Carnegie Museum Expedition to Utah and Colorado in 1908, Notes Vol. III." Miffed at the Carnegie Museum, he and his family left much of his effects to the University of Utah.
But Bilbey says she'll happily loan the traveling exhibit to the Carnegie.
Like she stresses, cooperation and appreciation are now the hallmarks of the relationships between the Vernal museum, the national monument and the Carnegie, and other museums that took fossils East. After all, museums safeguard them for everybody.
Besides, in many cases, Utah got its fossils back: As one museum exhibit points out, one Vernal native son, Dr. LeRoy "Pop" Kay, went on to become a curator at the Carnegie Museum in the 1940s and '50s and used his influence to return "numerous fossils collected in the Uinta Basin."
As Kay noted at the time, "The fossils are homesick and have been trying to kick or rattle their way out of the crates in order to catch a rattler (train) back to Vernal."