NASHVILLE'S SAUROPOD TRACKWAY

This is the Mid America Museum in Hot Springs, and that white thing in the background behind the brass posts and chains is a big lump of punky hundred-million-year-old limestone in which a visitor may view a genuine sauropod footprint. The track itself looks like a pothole about two feet across and maybe six to eight inches deep. It came from a quarry near Nashville, Arkansas, which is near Texarkana.

This footprint, and thousands of others, were discovered by accident in 1983 by an SMU geology grad student named Brad Pittman. Brad was doing field work in a quarry owned by the Weyerhaeuser corporation, which frequently makes its excavations available for educational purposes. Each day, driving his truck across the quarry floor to his worksite, he would curse the potholes that rattled his teeth and ruined his front axle's alignment.

That fall, while returning from a paleontology conference in Laramie, Wyoming, he and members of his group stopped in Colorado to view some dinosaur footprints. Hey, wait a minute, mused Pittman, those look like the potholes that have been screwing up my suspension. He called up a former professor by the name of David Gillett (Curator of Vertebrate Paleontology, New Mexico Museum of Natural History), who flew to Nashville in December and confirmed that this mudstone layer was a former beach or saltwater marsh and that what we had here was a field of 5,000 to 10,000 assorted dinosaur footprints, mostly sauropod, possibly a migration route, since everybody seemed to be walking in more or less the same direction. That's the largest find of dinosaur trackways in the world.

So much for the good news. The bad news went something like this: This limestone was very weak and brittle and full of iron impurities which caused it to weather quickly. Surface detail was being lost with every rainstorm, and if the layer were left exposed to the elements, the trackways might be unusable in as little as a couple of years. As if that weren't bad enough, the trackway layer covered a layer of economically valuable gypsum, which the Weyerhaeuser company mines to make into sheetrock (wallboard or drywall to you Yankees). The quarrymen mine down to the limestone, but leave it as a cap to protect the gypsum from the elements until they're ready to extract it. The gypsum under those tracks was scheduled to be converted into building materials the first week in January, 1984, and in order to do that, Weyerhaeuser would have to blast the world's largest collection of dinosaur trackways to smithereens. A grant proposal to study, measure, photograph and preserve the find could take months, during which time the trackway would either be eroded by weather or destroyed by mining. This was shaping up as a mythic conflict between economic and academic interests.

What usually happens in a situation like this is everybody calls out their lawyers. The lawyers would have filed motions under antiquities laws. Work would have been suspended at the quarry, leaving a few dozen men to find some other way to feed their families while the documents found their ways through the legal system. In the two years required to settle the case, South Arkansas' toad-strangling cloudbursts would have rendered the find scientifically useless. Of course the lawyers would have been paid.

Instead, they all sat down and worked a deal out among themselves. Weyerhaeuser provided a full time engineer as "dinosaur manager" to the scientific team and moved operations to another part of the quarry for several weeks. Dow Corning donated 150 pounds of RTV silicone, enough synthetic rubber to create a detailed mold of a trackway 65 feet long and 7 feet wide. An SMU alumnus in Dallas donated enough fiberglass to make a "mother mold" backing for the finer silicone mold. The economic impact on the quarry was minimized and the scientists had six weeks in which to measure, photograph, sketch, analyze, sample and preserve what they could. For their trouble and expense, the company got lots of positive publicity. After all, were it not for the quarry, those tracks would never have been exposed wholesale as they were, a fossil of an entire prehistoric beach. Nobody got everything, but everybody got something.

Gillett, Pittman and others assembled a team of professionals, students and volunteers to make a study of the prints. The most time consuming part was cleaning the mud and debris from the depressions. Several methods were tried, including high-pressure air and water jets, but low-tech shovels and brooms proved most effective. An area roughly equal to three football fields was photographed from the air. A 200-foot section of the best preserved track was carefully cleaned and mapped. The best 65-foot segment of that was cast in silicone rubber with a fiberglass backing.

The mother mold was cut into sections and shipped to New Mexico, where duplicates were made for any museum that wanted one. Several were sent to Arkansas, one to the city of Nashville.

Five slabs, each containing pairs of tracks, were physically removed with jackhammers and heavy equipment. Two slabs were taken to Warren High School by a contractor from Warren who donated the equipment and expertise. Three slabs were removed by the city of Nashville, at least one of which was planned for display at the courthouse. I called Warren High School, and the lady I talked to knew nothing of the whereabouts of the tracks. I spoke to several people at the Howard County Courthouse, who didn't know where the real tracks or the replicas were. I did find replicas of single tracks hanging on the wall of the Nashville Public Library and the Museum of Science and Natural History in Little Rock. The latter probably belongs to the Museum of Discovery now.

Nashville Chamber of Commerce president Herschel Teague put the cost to the town of the fiberglass replica trackway at $4500, and the cost of constructing a display on the courthouse grounds at twice that.

For a time the replica trackway and preserved limestone hunks were installed on the grounds of the Howard County Courthouse in Nashville. The trackway was later taken up and moved to the Nashville City Park, but when I last went by for a visit the tracks were not where I had last seen them. Here they are where I found them in October of 2001, sixty-five feet of fiberglass replica dinosaur track. The trackway sits in mothballs in sections under a rubber tarp, propped half against the fence and half against the maintenance shed at the Nashville City Park.

Pittman's paper concludes with some enthusiasm over the fact that this trackway, although it was the most extensive of its kind ever found, disappeared into the side of the quarry, promising that this was only a small part of a vast and scientifically important find that would be studied for years and years as more of the limestone was exposed. I haven't heard of anybody studying any more trackways in those quarries since 1984.

Nashville is on Highway 371 between Prescott and De Queen. Briar is on highway 369 about thirteen miles north of Nashville. According to Pittman's report, obtained from the Nashville Public Library, other copies were made for the U. of A. in Fayetteville, the Mid America Museum in Hot Springs, the Arkansas Museum of Science and History in Little Rock, and Arkansas College in Batesville. All the replica tracks I've seen in other than in Nashville are of single tracks, not of the full trackway.

Sources:

Geologists to Make Casts of Rare Dinosaur Prints, Arkansas Gazette, January 1, 1984; sec. B, p. 8, col. 5.

Drive Begins to Raise Money for County "Dinosaur Walk"; Arkansas Gazette, April 3, 1984, sec. B, p. 8, col. 5.

Graves, Louie; Potholes Are Tracks of Dinosaur; Arkansas Gazette; November 11, 1983; sec. B, p. 1, col. 2.

Pittman, Jeffrey G. and David D. Gillett, Tracking the Arkansas Dinosaurs; The Arkansas Naturalist, (March 1984) v. 2 no. 3, pp 1-12.

Pittman, Jeffrey; Dinosaur Tracks: Rare Find for Arkansas; Arkansas Gazette, March 23, 1984; sec. A, p. 7, col. 3.

Pittman, Jeffrey; Transactions of the Gulf Coast Association of Geological Societies, vol. XXXIV (1984), pp. 202-209.

Thanks to Nashville Public Library for copies of drafts of Pittman journal articles.

RTJ--12/1/2001



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