The crowds lining Salt Lake City’s Main Street were eager; a buzz of anticipation ran through the throng. “The dinosaurs are coming!”
Soon the mounted police escort appeared, followed by 19 old-time freight wagons loaded with large blocks of plaster that looked like white boulders. The date was Wednesday, September 17, 1924, and the wagons were the “Dinosaur Caravan,” bringing fossils from the quarry at Dinosaur National Monument in eastern Utah to the University of Utah for display in the University Museum, which was housed in what is now the James Talmage Building on the U’s Presidents Circle.
The fossils were part of a trove discovered in 1909 by Earl Douglass, a paleontologist with the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The museum had funded the excavations at the site for 13 years. But by 1922, the museum decided it had enough fossils and ended its claim to operate the quarry. Douglass, still employed by the museum, stayed at the quarry in 1923 and 1924, and worked with the National Museum (which was part of the Smithsonian Institution) and with the University of Utah, as they both sought fossils at the quarry.
Douglass had spent six months supervising the selection and excavation of specimens for the U, but then a problem arose: how to get 60,000 pounds of fossils—five separate species, including a Diplodocus, Stegosaurus, Ceratosaurus, Brontosaurus, and an unknown type— from eastern Utah to the University. There was no railroad, roads were primitive at best, and there were no trucks that could carry such loads.
The U instead turned to large freight wagons, which had been used for years to supply Fort Duchesne and the towns of the Uinta Basin. The wagons and teamsters were assembled, the fossils loaded, and the train started creaking its way west.
Led by “Uncle John” Kay, a Vernal resident, it took the Dinosaur Caravan nine days to travel the 210 miles from the quarry, north of Jensen, Utah, to Salt Lake City. Their route included a ferry crossing of the Green River and followed what today is U.S. 40 and Interstate 80. They reached Draper, in the south end of the Salt Lake Valley, on September 16.
The next day, a ceremonial entrance for the caravan had been arranged at the U. “All along the line of the parade there were large throngs gathered to watch the picturesque procession,” the Salt Lake Telegram wrote. The caravan headed up State Street to 900 South, made a jog over to Main Street to South Temple Street, and then turned to go to the Park Building at the University, where they were met by U President George Thomas.
The Dinosaur Caravan drew attention from newspapers and magazines across the country. The fossils took several years to clean and mount, supervised by Douglass, who joined the University staff in 1924. Those fossils remain on exhibit at the U, in the Natural History Museum of Utah.
—Roy Webb BA’84 MS’91 is a multimedia archivist with the J. Willard Marriott Library.