Fossil whale found on a mountain top

Professor Lawson’s opinion as to how the whale’s head came to be on top of the coast range

by Ray Stannard Baker

Fossil whale found on mountain top 1899

“The history of the Coast Range of California,” said Professor Lawson of the State University, “is that of a series of risings and submersions. Long ago, when the Sierra Nevada Mountains were firmly located where they are now, after having passed through the formation process of the Jurassic period, the coast of California was in a state of great disturbance.

“The whole range of country was constantly being upheaved and then lowered again into the depths of the ocean. From all we can learn this happened about seven times. The last time this happened it remained beneath the water for centuries and centuries, long enough for the sandstone to be deposited. As the different marine creatures died, the whale among them, the solid parts, such as bone, settled into the sand and became embedded there. Then ages and ages passed until several feet of solid stone were on top of the whale’s bones.

“When the last upheaval came the whole bottom of the ocean was lifted skyward and naturally the remains of all kinds of fish, etc., were taken along and left miles and miles inland from the water. That is the reason that we can go down into Monterey County and dig fish bones that are thousands of years old.

“The common supposition that a tidal wave once swept over the country and left the creatures to die on the mountain tops is only a supposition that has not the least foundation in geological fact.”

A fossil whale’s head, the remains of oysters and other things of the sea have just been unearthed in Monterey County, at a place 2300 feet above the sea level and eighteen miles inland from the present coast line.

Monterey County has furnished many strange bones of past life to the prying scientist, but nothing more curious than this has come out of her hills. Scientists agree that it is the most important find of its kind in recent years. The Jamesburg region, in which these fossil remains were discovered, contains an area about sixty miles square which has proved exceedingly rich in relics of ancient man and other animals.

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Specimens found in the Santa Lucia Mountains, six miles south of Salinas, remains of extinct animals and peculiar rock formations are also very valuable, being second only to those coming from the Jamesburg country.

A noteworthy fact regarding these fossils is that the petrifactions of land animals are nearly all found at a much lower altitude than those of marine animals, the remains of a mastodon have come from the Santa Lucia Mountains some 300 feet above sea level, while a whale’s head fossil, huge petrified oysters, fish fins, barnacles and other forms of sea life were found embedded in a ridge of sandstone at least 2500 feet above the sea and a distance of eighteen miles inland. Scientists would, doubtless, be able to explain this phenomenon as a natural consequence of the change of conditions in accordance with the transition from one geological period to another.

The whale’s head was found on the Finch ranch, near Jamesburg, and not far from Tassajara Springs. It is the almost perfect specimen of a portion of a whale’s head from where it joins the vertebral column to about midway the length of the jaw, with the eye socket and part of the ball plainly discernible. The petrifaction is of the right side of the head, measures 30 inches in length, 18 inches in width and 12 inches in thickness, and weighs 350 pounds. It was discovered two weeks ago by a resident of the Jamesburg region, John Clenford, and was so tightly embedded in the sandstone formation of the ridge of the mountain that its contour was disfigured slightly in removing it. Had Clenford made use of the proper tools with which to disinter the relic it is probable that this misfortune might have been obviated.

The pieces broken from it have all been preserved and can readily be fitted to their old places. The point of the ridge from which the fossil was taken is one of the highest of the surrounding mountains, and although its exact altitude was impossible of ascertainment, it is thought by comparison with surrounding points the altitude of which is known that it is not less than 1000 feet above the sea. Clenford, the finder of this valuable specimen, is a geologist by nature and spends nearly the whole of his time poking about among rocks and digging into the earth for curious specimens. Of book knowledge he knows almost nothing, and it is certainly a pity that as he has found most of the fossils coming from the Jamesburg country he did not have sufficient knowledge of their position, surrounding formations and other conditions to be able to determine their approximate and scientific value.

That Monterey County has long been known by scientists to be wonderfully rich geologically is attested by the following extract from a letter written in 1877 by Professor H.D. Long of the State University: „

“I have never seen a section of country, so rich in fossil remains as Monterey County, nor one so easy to study. The part lying in the neighborhood of the Corral de Tierra contains strata whose relative position, is so plain to even the slightly practical eye that ‘he who runs may read’ its geological history.

“I note in that vicinity five fossil-bearing strata; the lowermost being of an average thickness of five feet and containing remains of at least four mollusks, cypoena and unio being represented. Above this I found, in very soft sandstone, many univalve shells of the type of barnacles, contained in a stratum about one yard in thickness. Superimposed upon the latter is a stratum, of thickness varying from seven feet to sixty feet, almost entirely made up of casts of unios and peeteus in ‘dog-tooth spar’ (crystallized carbonate of lime). This stratum I consider as the most remarkable of all, both on account of its immense thickness and the enormous number of shell-casts that are contained in it not less I should say, than 10,000 per cubic foot. Above the last described stratum there exists a layer of reddish sandstone one and one-half feet in thickness, containing remains of two of the before-mentioned bivalves.

“Last of all and latest in its formation is the familiar white, soft material called ‘chalk-rock’ by the farmers, but which, in reality, is no more chalk than a brick is chalk. It is simply hardened clay, as may be felt by applying the tongue, substances composed of or containing clay always sticking to that member. The rock is white, with a conchoidal fracture, and is of light specific gravity. In some localities the color shades somewhat, but still the rock possesses nearly the same characteristics. In the tertiary epoch, when this clay rock was soft clay growing in thickness by deposition from the overlying sea or lake, many shells of turritella and fewer of a smaller mollusk; with a few scattered specimens of a univalve almost microscopic in size, became embedded therein. Afterward, both before and since the hardening of this clay, the surrounding country has been subject to many upheavals, and disturbances which have resulted in the extensive fracture and variable dip of the stratum, the latter varying from 12 to 40 degrees. All these strata belong to the tertiary.

“This is merely an outline of the discoveries I have made in this hitherto neglected field. Of the fifteen or more species of fossils, I have identified nine – all belonging to the department of mollusks.”

Recent discoveries have shown the field to be both larger and richer than formerly known, the already discovered fossils ranging from microscopic remains of diatoms, sponges and other organic structures to those of mammoth prehistoric animals.

Professor Marsh’s letter was published in a Buffalo newspaper. The account of how the stone man was made had the effect of stimulating the manufacture of giants, and to the astonishment of every one half a dozen Cardiff giants were being exhibited around the country within a year. Recently the practical joker who made the giant told the story of his deception for the first time.

Killed a prehistoric giant

Years later marvelous accounts came from Nevada of the discovery of human footprints in the sandstone strata at Carson City. Each of the prints was from eighteen to twenty inches long, about eight inches wide, having the exact shape of a moccasined human foot. There were regular right and left tracks, with a distance between them of from eighteen to nineteen inches. They were at once proclaimed as the remaining evidences of a race of giants which once inhabited the Pacific Coast, and the undoubted authenticity of the impressions on the stone induced not a few men of scientific pretensions to take this view. Such a discovery at once aroused the keen interest of Professor Marsh, but after an examination of the prints he came to the conclusion that they were not made by men at all. He read a paper on the subject to the National Academy of Sciences with which he presented a carefully drawn picture of the huge skeleton foot of an extinct sloth found in the same general region and in the same geological horizon. A comparison of this with the outline of the footprint showed conclusively that it was a sloth and not a man that had strolled slowly along the shore of this prehistoric lake and left his footprints on the sands of time.

Professor Marsh was also fond of telling of an encyclopedia article which was commended to his attention. The writer, wishing to give modern man a graphic idea of the appearance of his remote ancestors, had made a restoration of an extinct animal in flesh and blood, but unfortunately he had placed the head on the end of the tail.

Marsh, the man

Personally, Professor Marsh wore few of the conventional airs of the scientist. He was a rugged-shouldered, firmly built man, a little under medium height, with white hair and a full white beard, a high forehead rising above a pair of engaging blue eyes. You met him with a golfing cap pulled down comfortably over his head, a long, black coat hanging loosely from his shoulders, and a bit of color in his neckcloth. He moved with a certain nervous energy that bespoke his active mind, and upon the first provocation he told you a story — a very good one, too.



Professor Marsh never married.

“I have been too busy with my work,” he said.

In such honors as fall to men who have won distinction in science Professor Marsh had an unusual share. For seventeen years he was president of the National Academy of Sciences, perhaps the foremost scientific society in America, and president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1877, he received the first of the Bigsby medals from the Geological Society of London, and last year the Institute of France, by presenting, him with the Cuvier prize, conferred upon him the greatest honor that can fall to a scientist. The Cuvier prize is awarded every three years “for the most remarkable work either on the animal kingdom or on geology.” Only two other Americans have received this distinction — Agassiz and Leidy, the paleontologist.


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About this story

Source publication: The San Francisco Call (San Francisco, Calif.)

Source publication date: April 9, 1899

Filed under: 1890s, Discoveries & inventions, Newspapers, Places, Science & technology

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