Thursday, June 15, 2006

Mining for Clams

Note – we visited the places described in this entry on June 9 and 10. -- DR

What could be more of a thrill for a couple of geologists but to find a place that has both mines and fossils? Located in the Shoshone Mountains south of Highway 50 (“The Loneliest Road in America”) is the Berlin-Ichthyosaur State Park. In this remote area are the remnants of the turn-of-the-century (20th Century, that is) mining town of Berlin. Gold and silver were mined here, from an underground operation that had 12 levels. Located in close proximity is a “fossil house”, a shelter protecting the excavated remains of the Ichthyosaur, which also happens to be the Nevada State Fossil.

We arrived just in time to tour the Diana Mine, a tunnel that was mined separately but concurrently with the Berlin Mine and connects eventually with the fourth level. Armed with hard hats and lamps, we ventured in. The tunnel follows a quartz vein which was the source of the ore. The tour was a good show – there were examples of mining equipment and a good explanation of mining techniques of the time. Despite the warnings from our ranger guide, we missed seeing the bats that inhabit the tunnel or the rattlesnakes he said always block the tunnel entrance.

The town itself has some buildings in remarkably good shape. Apparently there were people living there even after the end of the peak mining activities in 1911, and prevented removal of wood from the buildings and thus preventing their collapse. The most impressive was the stamp mill, a large barn-like structure with a dozen of the original 30 stamps still in place. A former resident of the town who grew up there during its heyday wrote a history of his life and the place. Placards with excerpts from this history were erected about the old town site, in front of both existing buildings and former locations of notable sites (like the saloon and the prostitute’s house).

Excavations of the Ichthyosaur began in 1956 and continued into the 1960’s. This creature was a marine reptile with a head like a crocodile and the body of a whale, and could reach up to 50 feet in length. Fossils of this Jurassic creature can be found throughout the world, but the ones found here were significant for their size – they used to claim they were the largest ever found, until recently when even bigger ones were found in Canada. A nice enclosed structure protects the excavation site, where assemblages of the bones of seven individuals were uncovered but left in place.

Apparently there is a book called “Gem Trails of Nevada”, and in there is a description of a fossil collecting site just 0.1 miles outside of the State Park boundary. Here ammonites and clams could be found. A truck with three guys in it stopped by with this book in hand while we were viewing the big bones, asking the ranger for clarification on the location of the site. We perked up, and the ranger offered to show us the spot after the tour. It was a short walk, and he puttered ahead in his motorbike. John and I spent the next hour or so in the stooped position looking for something resembling aquatic animals. We found a few keepers – no ammonites, but some really nice clams.
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