By John R. Nance, Paleontology Collections Manager, Calvert Marine Museum
Ever since I was a young child I have been fascinated by fossils. Whenever I visited my grandfather in Calvert County we’d go to the beach along the famous Calvert Cliffs where I would pick up shells, bones, and the most prized find, shark teeth. Most anyone who collects fossils will tell you they’ve been “bitten by the bug” to collect. The adventure of walking a beach at the break of dawn before any other footprints have left their mark in the sand and finding something that hasn’t seen the light of day for 15 million years is like no other. Fossil collecting is very much like a treasure hunt and you never know what may be found. Many collectors will also tell you about “the dream” we all have. For some it is finding a huge stash of giant white shark (Carcharocles megalodon) teeth. For others it is finding the skull of a prehistoric beast sticking out of the cliff. For me it was always about what collecting was like 50, 100, 200, 2000 years ago. That is what led me on the journey to write a book chronicling the history of collecting fossils along Calvert Cliffs over the past two centuries.
In an effort to tell a complete and compelling story I began to research some of my idols, Frederick William True and A. Remington Kellogg, who had an extensive history with the Smithsonian and Calvert Cliffs. Many of the specimens they collected, prepared, and published about are housed at the Smithsonian museums but I wanted to get beyond the specimen; I wanted to know what it was like to walk in their shoes so many years ago. The records of the paleontology specimens have detailed information about the species, location, collection date, and collector(s). But the records don’t indicate what the collecting was like on that date, what the weather was like, or where they stayed. I wanted to know the personal side of collecting.
I contacted Leslie Overstreet, Curator of Natural History Collections at Joseph F. Cullman 3rd Library of Natural History, National Museum of Natural History, with a question about what content they had on Calvert Cliffs. She gave a lot of information and a number of contacts including Lesley Parilla who is working on the Field Book Project at the Smithsonian. As luck would have it, the Smithsonian maintains collections of the field notebooks kept by staff and researchers.
On a day in late August I had the chance to delve into the field books of True and Kellogg. I began to page through the books looking for the interesting stories kept within. On the first page of True’s 1906 field book dated March 28, “Weather dull, but cleared at noon…Left a large number of vertebrae and some fragments of jaws etc., along the cliffs, as could not carry so many.” It is so exciting to think about walking the beach and finding so much stuff that they couldn’t carry it all. True would make day trips down to Calvert Cliffs leaving Washington, DC, on the Chesapeake Beach Railway and arriving in Chesapeake Beach. At the time this was a bustling resort town. According to the field book entry seen below, it would cost him only $1.55 for the day. $1.00 for the train ticket, 35 cents for lunch, and 20 cents for car fare.
On August 9, 1933 Remington Kellogg, Raymond M. Gilmore, and Lewis Gazin went to Calvert Cliffs near the area of Governors Run to collect a Cetothere skull, a type of primitive baleen whale related to modern day Pygmy Right Whales. Kellogg noted “rostrum damaged on both sides by other persons before we arrived.” Curious amateurs and beach goers likely poked around at this large, strange bone sticking out of the cliff much as they do today. The skull was “428 yards south of old pier at end of Governors Run Road and was about 4 ½ feet above the beach.” They completed the removal on Thursday August 10. On August 15 the skull and another dolphin skull were shipped back to Washington by truck as the guys continued collecting specimens. Kellogg was a prolific collector when it came to getting cetacean fossils from the cliffs. He and others would go down to Calvert Cliffs for weeks at a time to collect.
It is very exciting to think about these men walking along Calvert Cliffs, about the many that came before and after, and what the future holds for collecting in this area. Above are just a couple of accounts gathered from two field books out of the thousands in the Smithsonian collections. There are hundreds of untold stories just waiting to be revealed. The field books offer an indispensable wealth of details about the everyday happenings of collecting at Calvert Cliffs for the past 150 years.