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Angling for Fossil Fish

Posted by Peg Boettcher at

Fossil Fish before restoration by Bill Mason

"Peg-Leg” Craig faced a terrible choice: Find a new way to make a living, or starve. When Robert Lee Craig travelled from Kentucky to Wyoming in 1886, he found work in Diamondville as a coal miner. It was a tough job at best, but it became impossible when the mineshaft in which he was working collapsed and crushed his right leg. What could he do now to put food on the table?

Craig came to a decision: he would become one of the area’s first fossil hounds. If he could not make his living from the earth one way, he would find another. So every summer for the next four decades, he pushed a wheelbarrow up a steep cliff to his quarry and picked fossils out of the living stone with hand tools. After a day of backbreaking work, he would sit in his tent and – by lamplight – reveal the fossils with a pen knife.

And what fossils! 50 million years ago, the current bone-dry desert landscape had been a tropical paradise, an ancient lake teeming with a huge variety of plant, animal and insect life. With few scavengers to scatter bones after death, a calm, freshwater environment, and a lake bottom lined with fine silt, specimens were preserved in astounding completeness. Fish, stingrays, bats, frigate birds, lizards, crocodiles, turtles, palm trees, tapirs – even Protorohippus, a “Dawn Horse” only two feet high at the shoulder – all were fully articulated in sandstone.

Craig sent specimens to museums all over the globe, including the Smithsonian Institute and Yale University. He brought these treasures to the attention of preservationists who worked to make the area part of the National Park System. Fossil Butte National Monument, an 8200-acre park, was dedicated in 1972 thanks to the efforts of Robert Lee Craig and pioneers like him.

Lee Peg-leg Craig, fossil hunterSadly, Peg-Leg Craig came to an unfortunate end. Later in life he had to hire men to help him do his work, and in the summer of 1935, a couple of them turned out to be ruffians. They tied him up, beat him and set his tent on fire in the mistaken belief that he was hoarding cash. He recovered initially but never again enjoyed good health. He passed away in 1938 and was buried in a pauper’s grave.

About Our Fish Fossil
This fish fossil dates from the Eocene Epoch some 50 million years ago and was found in the Green River Formation, probably by Robert Lee Craig himself. It has been on display at Ye Olde Curiosity Shop for over a century. Though Fossil Butte National Monument is a federally protected site, it comprises only 1.5% of the Fossil Lake fields. Even after one hundred years of energetic fossil collecting, commercial interests outside the park are still uncovering up to 100,000 fossils per year.

Peg Boettcher has been wrangling curios and working for Ye Olde Curiosity Shop since 2004. She is indebted to Bill Mason, paleontologist and inventor of Paleobond, for restoring this most interesting fossil in the collection of Ye Olde Curiosity Shop, and for revealing the history of Robert Lee Craig, pioneer paleontologist. Visitors to the town of Kemmerer, Wyoming can see the grave marker Bill presented to the mayor so that Craig’s contribution to the science of paleontology would not be forgotten.

Recommended
• Visit Fossil Butte National Park
• See images of fossils from Fossil Lake in Wyoming
• Discover the Field Museum's expeditions 
• Read in depth about the fossils at Fossil Lake in Lance Grande's book, "The Lost World of Fossil Lake," University of Chicago Press, 2013


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