Earl Douglass

Paleontologist Earl Douglass stands in front of several dinosaur fossils imbedded in the rock.
Earl Douglass at the Carnegie Quarry

Special Collections Dept.
J. Willard Marriott Library
University of Utah

Earl Douglass was a paleontologist at the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. In 1909, he found eight dinosaur tailbones protruding from a sandstone hill in the Utah desert. This discovery was the beginning of a dinosaur quarry that achieved worldwide fame. In 1915, Dinosaur National Monument was established to protect and conserve that dinosaur quarry.

In the summer of 1909, Earl Douglass traveled to Utah to search for dinosaur skeletons. A few years earlier, the Carnegie Museum had collected a nearly complete Diplodocus skeleton in Wyoming. The huge skeleton had been mounted and displayed in the museum's new Dinosaur Hall and it enthralled the public. The Carnegie Museum was eager to find more dinosaur skeletons to populate their Dinosaur Hall.

Douglass-Early Life
Earl Douglass was born in 1862 in Medford, Minnesota. Although Douglass did not begin collecting fossils in earnest until in his early 30s, his interest in the sciences, especially geology, dated to his boyhood. As a young man, he spent several years teaching at schools in Minnesota, South Dakota, and Montana. Between 1893 and 1902, he earned a bachelor's and master's degree and began work on a Ph.D. In 1902, Douglass joined the paleontology department at the Carnegie Museum.

Fossil Prospecting in Utah
Douglass arrived in Utah in late July 1909 and began his fossil search along the Duchesne River. Less than two weeks later, he received a letter from W.J. Holland, director of the Carnegie Museum, instructing him to "dig up dinosaur bones east of Vernal."

The year before, while passing through the area east of Vernal, Douglass and Holland had found a Diplodocus femur. The fossil was too large and heavy for them to move, but it was promising. Holland described the find as "proof positive that in that general region search for dinosaurian remains would probably be successful."

Arriving at the dinosaur beds near Vernal, Douglass was not encouraged by what he found. On August 10, his first day there, he discovered that "someone had taken the best of the bones that were exposed." His August 12 diary entry lamented that he had "[f]ound dinosaur bones but nothing good." On August 13: "The layer contains fragments of bones but nothing especially promising." On August 16: "The bones were terribly broken up and it seemed as if they had been churned up…Felt rather discouraged."

The Discovery
On August 17, however, Douglass moved his search to a new area-"the gulch this side of the one we had last examined"-an area with thick, hard sandstone beds. There he found what he was looking for: "At last, in the top of the ledge where the softer overlying beds form a divide, a kind of saddle, I saw eight of the tail bones of [an Apatosaurus] in exact position. It was a beautiful sight."

Douglass began to excavate the bones. As he worked, he found fossils from other dinosaurs mixed with the Apatosaurus skeleton. This was the beginning of the Carnegie Quarry.

With the discovery of the Apatosaurus, Douglass was no longer on a brief summer-long fossil collecting expedition. The fossils he had found were now his full-time job and the Utah desert his new workplace. His wife, Pearl, and year-old son, Gawin, joined Douglass in Utah in September of 1909. The family eventually established a ranch not far from the quarry, where they lived until 1923.

The Apatosaurus found by Earl Douglass on display at Carnegie Museum in 1915.
Carnegie Museum Dinosaur Hall, ca. 1915. Douglass' Apatosaurus is on the left with the Carnegie Museum’s Diplodocus on the right. A Camarasaurus skull had been mounted on Apatosaurus, a discrepancy that was fixed in 1979 when the long-missing skull of Apatosaurus was properly identified and mounted.

Carnegie Museum of Natural History

The bones Douglass found that summer day turned out to be part of the most complete Apatosaurus skeleton ever discovered. Over the next several years, the fossilized skeleton was extracted from the Utah desert and shipped by train to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. By 1915, the Apatosaurus skeleton-having been excavated, shipped, prepared and mounted-stood in the Dinosaur Hall at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History. The Apatosaurus is still displayed at the museum today.

After the Discovery
Between 1909 and 1924, Douglass managed the work at the quarry. For 13 years, the Carnegie Museum funded the excavations and, as the ancient bones were unearthed, Douglass and his crew shipped them east to Pittsburgh. During that period, more than 700,000 tons of material was sent from Utah to Pittsburgh. In 1922, the Carnegie Museum determined that it had obtained sufficient fossil material and relinquished its claim to operate the quarry.

Douglass, however, remained at the quarry and in the employ of the Carnegie Museum. In 1923 and 1924, he worked with the National Museum-part of the Smithsonian Institution-and with the University of Utah in their quests to obtain dinosaur fossils at the famous quarry.

In 1924, all excavation at the quarry ended and Douglass resigned from the Carnegie Museum. He joined the staff of the University of Utah where he spent two years preparing fossils from the quarry for mounting. His final years were spent as a geologist, specializing in the Uintah Basin.

Earl Douglass, who died in 1931, played a central role in one of the most important fossil finds in North America. The "beautiful sight" Douglass saw on August 17, 1909, turned out to be one of the most productive Jurassic era quarries ever found.


The quotes and excerpts from Earl Douglass's diaries used on this page are taken from Speak to the Earth and It Will Teach You, The Life and Times of Earl Douglass, 1862-1931 by G.E Douglass.

Last updated: February 24, 2015

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