Take Highway 24 west from Colorado Springs. You pass the majestic Pikes Peak (look out for an upcoming blog on this) on your left and after about 50 km you’ll see a turn off to the Florissant Fossil Beds. That sounded interesting so I took it of course. I soon discovered that this place of which I knew nothing (though I should have) is legendary in the annals of American geology and palaeontology.
Within its shales and mudstones is an extraordinarily abundant assemblage of mainly insects and plants dating to the Eocene Period (34 million years old). A combination of unique circumstances has led to a level of preservation normally unheard of for insect and plant fossils.
It’s worth briefly explaining. A lake environment surrounded by redwood forest is determined as the depositional environment here. A nearby volcano generated volcanic ash which interacted with tiny creatures known as diatoms living in the lake. This caused regular diatom blooms as well as insect and plant die-offs. Dying diatoms would fall to the bottom of the lake and preserve with unrivaled detail the fossils in the finely layered mud and ash. But that’s not all. The volcano also contributed to the formation of some of the finest petrified stumps you will ever see. I’ll come back to that.
You can’t see the fossil beds. They are off limits but there is an excellent display in the museum on site. Invertebrates dominate with over 1,500 species of spiders and insects alone having been identified. Not possible to photograph them properly in their glass cases, so here are a few images from the published scientific record to give you some idea of the quality and depth of the material.
What most people go to Florissant for though is the petrified forest and this you can see. I’ve always been fascinated by petrified wood. I had a specimen as a young child and I used to count the rings and look under the lens at the cell structure preserved in stone and I would marvel. Who knows it may have been responsible for firing an interest that saw me spend a lifetime in geology.
The petrified trees here are among the largest surviving in the world. They have been identified as similar to modern sequoias. They were killed by a giant lahar (volcanic mud flow) from that volcano we were talking about earlier, flowing through the forest and cutting off the oxygen to the roots. Circulating water containing a lot of silica then percolated through, replacing the organic material in a process known as permineralisation. The trees were as tall as 60 metres and up to 700 years old when they died.
But I always look for the story behind the story. There is quite a saga here with the discovery, development and preservation of this national treasure; not least because it was owned by an entrepreneurial family, the Singers. I felt personally obliged to investigate this connection further.
But let’s start a little before this, back in the mid 1870s. Charlotte Hill and husband Adam, acquired and built a homestead near Florissant in 1874 under the Homestead Act. This remarkable woman discovered the fossil beds and collected hundreds of specimens which she brought to the attention of the scientific community. Included in her collection were dozens of previously unrecognised species. Most famous is the spectacular Persephone Butterfly (illustrated above). This led to scientific expeditions but also alerted the world and brought tourists and collectors. Charlotte facilitated this as a guide and joined the many who became collectors and traders in fossils. The Florissant beds were heavily exploited during this time and immense damage done. Thousands of specimens were lost. There was even an attempt to saw up the Big Stump and transport it west; you can still see evidence of this today.
Then came the railway and thousands of tourists and the pressure only grew. OK now back to the Singers. Hill sold her land and homestead and it was eventually bought by the Singer family who set up a tourist attraction around the ‘Big Stump’ Another adjacent landowner opened a second Forest Park with the main attraction being a trio of stumps. They became bitter rivals.
As early as 1915 it had been proposed as a National Park. Some of the owners supported this but the Government was not keen After many false starts, it took 50 years and some torrid court battles for this to become a reality with Singers and the other landowners eventually selling to the Government in the 1960s and the park opening in 1969.
I visited a log cabin nearby. This was the original homestead built by Charlotte and Adam Hill in 1874 and which became the family home of my namesakes, the Singers in the 1920s. A comfortable cottage giving us a revealing insight into homestead life in the mid west. The walls are lined with layers of newspaper and wallpaper covering many decades. Near the roof line you can see exactly how thick this layering became. Outside the elegant cabin has v-joints and caulking to keep out the icy winds. A central stove heats the whole house. There is a small kitchen and living areas downstairs and a large bedroom and more sleeping accommodation within the roof upstairs.
It felt just a little bit weird walking through this house that may have been lived in by distant relatives.
The homestead is part of the Fossil Park and well preserved and can be visited if someone happens to be around to unlock it for you.
The geologist in me wanted to see the fossils in situ but of course that was impossible; but seeing those massive petrified trunks was remarkable enough and the Colorado Rockies delivered yet another amazing experience.
And finding another group of Singers with links into the geological world! Now I wonder if any of them played the fiddle .