Articles

DINOSAUR VALLEY, ALTA.

Near Drumheller you drop five hundred feet and sixty million years into the weird canyon of the badlands, graveyard of prehistoric monsters. Yet "up on top" no one mind that most Canadian haven't heard about this great tourist attraction

BARBARA MOON January 15 1952
Articles

DINOSAUR VALLEY, ALTA.

Near Drumheller you drop five hundred feet and sixty million years into the weird canyon of the badlands, graveyard of prehistoric monsters. Yet "up on top" no one mind that most Canadian haven't heard about this great tourist attraction

BARBARA MOON January 15 1952

DINOSAUR VALLEY, ALTA.

Articles

Near Drumheller you drop five hundred feet and sixty million years into the weird canyon of the badlands, graveyard of prehistoric monsters. Yet "up on top" no one mind that most Canadian haven't heard about this great tourist attraction

BARBARA MOON

EIGHTY-EIGHT MILES northeast of Calgary the bland prairie reaches of Alberta are split by a valley as extravagantly fantastic as a Salvador Dali canvas.

Called by Canadian artist A. Y. Jackson “the most paintable valley in western Canada” its ravaged canyons and grotesquely regimented formations are every bit as spectacular as the Grand Canyon. Here, in a setting straight out of the primordial past, cattle .•ustlers, bootleggers and cowboys have made a lusty wild-west drama of its latter-day history. The record of an older and more elemental drama has brought paleontologists from all over the world to comb its arid gulches, for the valley is known as the richest dinosaur graveyard in the world. Yet Albertans estimate that three quarters of the rest of Canada has never heard of the Red

Deer badlands.

This sweeping statement doesn’t, of course, include Canada’s geologists. They know the badlands well.

Just under the surface of central Alberta

lie layer after layer of bog iron, clay, sandstone, shale and coal laid down sixty million years ago at the end of the earth’s great Middle or Mesozoic Age. The Red Deer River, which pushes east and southeast from the Rockies to the Saskatchewan border, cuts into an outcrop of this vast shield. The river and its tributaries have knifed into the clay and sand filler as if they were butter, rinsing them away from the harder sandstone strata. Like a copper engraving under acid the outcrop has yielded to erosion and dissolved down to the river flats in buttes and tablelands crisscrossed by gulch and coulee. In the strict geological sense the Red Deer badlands occur wherever the river has probed the ancient formationsanywhere from Ardley where the Red Deer bends southeast to the eastern provincial boundary.

Actually the term badlands is familiarly applied to a spectacular ninefy-mile stretch bisected by Calgary-Saskatoon Highway No. 9 at the point where it drops down to the city of Drumheller.

Here the valley is five hundred feet deep and two to four miles across. It’s semi-desert, almost bare of vegetation except for cactus, sagebrush and a few stunted junipers. From the stream in the centre the weird formations spread in geometrically ascending steps: furrowed buttes, red shale hummocks, fluted dunes, and, of course, the hoodoos that look like giant mushrooms with hard sandstone caps on soft wind-turned has: s. Vast desert fortifications, they are, ribboned with faded color in the tense sunny afternoons.

Above on either side stretch the ranges and rich wheat fields of Alberta. The valley splits them like a flesh wound that won’t heal.

Drumheller, which has a population of twenty-five hundred, huddles between cliffs and river. It has appropriated to itself the honor of being Gateway to the Badlands. It points out with sweet reasonableness that it’s the only city actually in the valley; it is smack in the midst of some of the most exotic badlands scenery; the two most pro-

ductive dinosaur quarries are respectively twenty miles upstream and seventy miles downstream, and the clincher these high spots are as accessible from Drumheller as anywhere.

Hanna, on the plains to the northeast, and Brooks, to the southeast, have both made tentative passes at the Gateway title, but so far Drumheller is away ahead on points.

The Drumheller claims are actively touted by Chamber of Commerce members such as John Mackay, father of Calgary’s Mayor Don Mackay. He is a stuhby man with wispy grey hair, a cherubic face and a habit of peering over his glasses, who works from a cluttered pocket-sized office just off Main Street. For twenty-six years he has been secretary of the Drumheller and District Chamber.

The District includes a string of hamlets which have sprung up along the valley around the score of mines working the ancient formations for their

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rich subbituminous coal. From them about two million tons of coal are funneled each year through Drumheller. The District also extends to include a five-sided trading area of about eight hundred square miles and fourteen thousand five hundred people, quartered by provincial highway and river and containing some of the richest farming and ranching country in Alberta.

Known respectively as “down below” and “up on top,” valley and valley rim are inextricably meshed. Champion livestock, as the Suffolk ram from P. J. Rock's ranch which sold for a recordbreaking thirty-three hundred and fifty dollars at the 1948 Salt Lake sale, and grain such as the wheat that won the open wheat championship at the 1950 Royal Winter Fair for thirteen-yearold Ricky Sharpe, are as important to Drumheller as the coal.

Drumheller, the centre of all this, is apt to bustle a little self-consciously. Mackay likes to say it’s “a modern city in every way.” The view from bis office window somewhat belies his words. Across the wide unpaved street are the typical railway hotel, the café and the low frame buildings of a cowtown. Ranchers and miners arrive in Chevrolets and Pontiacs but park them nose-into-curb like cow ponies at a hitching post. Youngsters in jeans head for the river shouldering their fishing poles.

It’s hard to say whether secretary Mackay would be touchier about such reflections on Drumheller’s metropolitan ambitions or about his other sore spot: the skimpy tourist trade. In spite of highly colored broadsides from his office and from the Alberta Government only a few hundred trippers trickle into the valley every year.

Mackay sees the badlands as a potential tourist gold mine and footnotes this view by quoting Guy Weadick, the manager of the Calgary Stampede, who, when he first saw the valley, turned to his wife and yelped: “Hey, Mother! Look at that. Now if those Americans had that they’d put billboards up all over and charge you two bits just for looking at it.”

The natives are casual about their tourist attraction. One Californian who asked about the dinosaurs in a café was told by the puzzled waitress: “The cook says they’re not on the menu today.”

Then Came the Rockies

The Red Deer badlands are generally acknowledged to boast the thickest concentration of dinosaur bones in the world. The Russians, of course, challenge this claim. In 1948 they announced the discovery of “the remains of millions of dinosaurs” in the Gobi Desert near the capital of the Mongolian People’s Republic. So far North American scientists haven’t had a chance to make comparisons.

But Red Deer Valley specimens have raised the Royal Ontario Museum’s vertebrate gallery to second place on j the continent. (The American Museum j of Natural History in New York is in top rank, also has extensive Red Deer collections.) Red Deer fossils grace the British Museum in London, the Argentina National Museum in Buenos Aires, the Brazilian National Museum! in Rio de Janeiro and many others.

Sixty million years ago Alberta lay : along the western shore of a shallow , inland sea stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Arctic. It was a lowlying area of swamp and bayou. The Rocky Mountains were just beginning

to shoulder up to the west and from them flowed swift muddy rivers which formed deltas like those of the Mississippi. The region was, in fact, much like the Florida Everglades of today; the steamy bayous were choked with rushes, horsetails, swamp grass and roots of giant redwoods. Through the brackish water swam thirty-foot duckbilled dinosaurs feeding off the rank vegetation and preyed on by the terrible great-ja wed carnivores. ,

No one knows why the dinosaurs/ died off but here in the swampy clay their bodies were entombed quickly before they decomposed. In the uneasy upthrustings of the earth’s crust, in the recessions and risings of the seas,4 they were silted over and buried. Dissolved minerals replaced bone, cell by cell, until whole fossilized skeletons! lay in a rocky matrix. *

The presence of fossils was first \ recorded in 1884 and since then there have been at least forty fully equipped scientific expeditions to the valley. The University of Toronto alone sent out t hirteen between 1918 and 1935. Eleven of these were headed by Levi Sternberg, an associate curator of the Royal ! Ontario Museum, who estimates he

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has prospected every inch of the beds at least three or four times himself.

Sternberg, a compact cheery businesslike man, recently gave me some idea of what that quiet statement involves.

His summers are often disappointing, sometimes dangerous, always backbreaking. The party—usually five or six men—selects an area and each goes over a section painstakingly, seeking an outcrop that will tip off the presence of a fossil in the rock behind. Sometimes the signs are incredibly minute, so the men wear a curious headdress fitted with microscopes. Under the toiling sun the cliffs are treacherous with fragments; when it rains the clay is as slippery as soft soap.

When Sternberg finds a prospect the work starts in earnest. He must spend long hours propped under the outcrop, chipping at the overburden and digging underneath, extricating the fossil in its rock cradle so it won’t crumble. Then the whole thing—sometimes in one-ton sections—must be coated with plaster and burlap (Sternberg has worked at this till his fingers were raw and bleeding) and lowered down the face of the cliff to be shipped off to the museums. There the preparation of one specimen for actual display may take four skilled men a whole winter.

Sternberg was reared to this sort of life. He comes from the most famous paleontological family on the continent. His paleontologist father, the late Charles H. Sternberg, of Lawrence, Kan., brought up his three sons— George, Charles and Levi—in his footsteps and all four have worked in the Red Deer badlands. Sternberg Sr. spent seven seasons there himself, took out five carloads of specimens and wrote a book about it.

Unsolved questions still face Sternberg and his colleagues: What stimulated the development of the dinosaurs in one age, the birds and mammals in the next? Why did the dinosaurs die

out? Could they no longer a.la ( to their environment? Was the race old and worn out as an individual becomes old and worn out? Could the same thing happen to man?

The dinosaurs of Alberta, because they occur in such great numbers, because they represent almost the last —and hence most specialized—of their race, and because they cover such a wide range of species, are helping lift a corner of the veil that hides the nature of life itself.

Another, slightly more frivolous, credit can be chalked up to the Red Deer dinosaurs From studying their bones Wilfred Garstang-Hodgson, the valley’s most famous resident, learned all he knows of anatomy.

Hodgson is a carver of juniper root. His work is known all through Canada, in Paris, London, Amsterdam and New York. Hodgson figures have been bought by Yousuf Karsh, Somerset Maugham, the Countess of Athlone, Greer Garson and the late Lord Tweedsmuir. He has sold them for as much as five hundred dollars.

In 1918 and 1919 \yhen the University of Toronto sent out its first expeditions to the dinosaur beds Hodgson contracted to work as a guide for the party and crammed up on bones to make himself more useful. Now he uses this knowledge in his sculpture. He lives twenty miles downstream from Drumheller in the village of Dorothy. He is a lean man of sixty-seven with a tanned face, a bold hawk’s nose and light keen eyes, who lives with his son Tom on a twentyfour-hundred-acre spread.

Along one wall of Hodgson’s workroom are unfinished figures and the twisted juniper roots with stringy grey bark which are his raw material. Along the other wall are finished carvings— strange wild things, lifted on the wind and caught in motion. Most of them were women, tall and slender and longlimbed with remote Asiatic faces and draperies whipping about them. All are about twelve to eighteen inches high and in the grained wood of the juniper root which shades from rich rosy brown to creamy white.

The valley was settled at the century by ranchers who arrived on the wave of the great western migration. In 1910 Jesse Gouge, a great Sydney Greenstreet of a man, came to Drumheller, found coal a little way upstream, filed a lease on one thousand acres and opened the Newcastle Mine.

He is still alive and when he talks about old times his voice is a wheezy faraway whisper. He remembers the early years when Calgary was two full days away and mail came by stagecoach, when pioneers borrowed pails of water along with their cups of sugar because water was scarce in the arid badlands. Those were the days of cattle rustlers who drifted into the country around 1912 and 1913.

Rustling is still going on but now it’s mostly hit-and-run. The rustlers ride up in a truck, shoot a single calf and load it in the back for sale to those who don’t demand governmentinspected meat. It’s a far cry from the time rustlers got eighty or ninety head from a shipment of dogies Harold Pope brought from the east.

With the Twenties a good deal of the excitement began to centre around ! the towns. Bootleggers and bordellos did a brisk trade. The section up by Newcastle, on Drumheller’s outskirts, was known as the Western Front in \ forthright recognition of the number of brawls, and there was a tendency in Calgary to refer to the Drumhellerites as Drumhellers.

The Thirties did a good deal toward sobering up the District. Depression stalked the miners and drought stalked

farmers and ranchers. The last decade has been better. Miners make fifteen to eighteen dollars a shift. A single crop of wheat recently brought one district farmer a cheque for eighty-five thousand dollars and another farming family spent five hundred dollars in one day in Drumheller shops. With the coming of rural electrification, appliance shops like the one in East Coulee run by Nellie Sloan and her husband Clare can’t keep up with the demand for five-hundred-dollar deep freezes and two-hundred-dollar ranges.

The Sloans also operate three taxicabs. Mrs. Sloan, a short sturdy greying woman in her forties, is an adept chauffeur who can drive a car expertly along the south road which breasts the canyon wall and then swings wide of it through field after field of wheat. Here, one afternoon, she drove me through the even green broken by sloughs and vivid with wild flowers. The harvest moon was rising behind us, making folds of shadow where the fields rolled abruptly to the edge of an invisible coulee probing in from the valley.

Mrs. Sloan told me that when she first came to the Red Deer valley she took one horrified look at the arid gaping chasm and gasped: “You could put a roof over that and herd prisoners into it, but it’s no place for civilized people to live.” Now it’s as much a part of her life as Niagara Falls is to those who live beside the cataract.

'1 hey Found a Frozen Herder

Like most of the people of the badlands she doesn’t either collect fossils or speculate on what questions the paleontologists seek to answer among the skeletons of ancient creatures. The valley poses different problems to her.

The constant fast erosion often causes landslides along the roads where she drives her cabs. Sometimes she has to phone ahead to find out if the ferry that was ripped from its moorings in the spring breakup is tethered in place again. She talks of getting lost on picnics. It’s easy to get lost if you try to go cross-country; most of the county roads swing wide on the plains, swooping down to the river bed only where there’s a hamlet or a ferry.

But the badlands aren’t always a bogey. The valley provides shelter. Melons, grapes and plums can be grown in the short hot summers down below. When it’s so dry that the sloughs are pits of cracking clay the cattle from up on top can come down to drink in the river. When deep snow and driving blizzards sweep down on the prairie the livestock can shelter in the coulees. That’s important. Last March a Mountie found the bodies of fifteen hundred sheep and their herder frozen stiff where they huddled in the open. Though it was calm five hundred feet below they had perished in a late storm up on top.

Valley dwellers can sometimes stand outside their homes in the still air and hear wind whistling overhead from one rim to the other.

Mrs. Sloan pulled the car round a hairpin corner and the valley lay below, a sprinkling of lights which was East Coulee and a red angry glow which was the bone-coal pile at one of the mines, burning day and night and now brightening and darkening as though it were breathing. Up and down the valley, past the lights, lay the misshapen mounds and towers of the badlands. Moonlight distorted them into pale cracked stretches of crater and hill like the sterile landscape of some unfamiliar planet.

“It looks kind of weird, doesn’t it?” said Mrs. Sloan. “But personally I wouldn’t live anywhere else.” if