Monday, May 16, 2005

The American Street: Niobrara

The American Street: Niobrara: "What do you think of when someone mentions the word “Kansas”? Maybe what leaps to your mind is that it is a farming state that is flat as a pancake, or if you’ve been following current events, the recent kangaroo court/monkey trial, or perhaps it is the drab counterpart to marvelous Oz. It isn’t exactly first on the list of glamourous places. I admit that I tend to read different books than most people, so I have a somewhat skewed perspective on Kansas: the first thing I think of is a magic word.


Late in the 19th century, there was a stampede to the American West to search for fossils of those spectacular beasts, the dinosaurs. Entrepreneurs everywhere were in on it—P.T. Barnum bought up old bones for his shows—and even scientists got caught up in the bone fever. Edward Drinker Cope of the Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences and Othniel Charles Marsh of Yale were famous rivals in the bone wars, sending teams of men to Wyoming and Utah and Colorado and other Rocky Mountain states to collect the bones of the extinct terrestrial behemoths of the Mesozoic. Kansas was also a target, most famously by the Sternberg family, but it had a different reputation: Kansas is the place to go to find sea monsters.

There is a geological formation in Kansas called the Niobrara Chalk. Actually, it’s not just in Kansas; it extends all the way up into Canada, but the Niobrara has been exposed by erosion over much of northwestern Kansas, making it easy to dig into. And this is where the Sternbergs and Cope and Marsh went hunting for sea monsters."

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