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Texas Tidbits

The pock-marked Dinosaur Valley State Park reveals an amazingly well-preserved (and somewhat checkered) prehistoric past.

By December 2005Comments

About sixty miles southwest of Fort Worth is Dinosaur Valley State Park, a stopover for paleontologists and tourists along a tributary of the Brazos River. The land contains some of the best preserved dinosaur tracks in the world and is the birthplace of the hoax of the Paluxy man tracks, which temporarily thwarted Darwin and, for some, affirmed creationism.

The prehistoric footprints, along with a twenty-foot-tall Tyrannosaurus Rex and seventy-foot-long Apatosaurus, draw 175,000 visitors a year. The elephantine markings are principally from two species of dinosaur, one a plant-eater and the other a meat-eater, and date back 113 million years. The fiberglass models, both of whose kin left footprints in the park, were built by Paul Jonas for the 1964–65 New York World’s Fair and arrived at DVSP in 1970. A third set of prints was the tipping point of the fierce religious debate.

The park is situated around the riverbed of the Paluxy River, a rocky and water-swept terrain that meets the Brazos near Glen Rose. A local teenager, Ernest “Bull” Adams, discovered the prehistoric goldmine at Wheeler Branch, a Paluxy River tributary, after a 1908 flood unearthed the prints. The three-toed tracks Adams found were thought by some to be giant turkey tracks, which would be a bird roughly on scale with the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade turkey, Tom. But R.E. McDonald, a local schoolmaster, quickly debunked this theory, calling them what they were—dinosaur tracks.

The depressions in the Paluxy river bottoms formed during the Cretaceous period, which is generally considered the tail end of the Age of Dinosaurs. During this period most of East Texas was submerged in a shallow sea. The edge of that sea, what is now the Gulf of Mexico, had tidal flats that encroached to where DVSP is today, and the moist soil that was a stomping ground for the three-toed Acrocanthosaurus, a twenty- to thirty-foot-long carnivore, and the thirty- to fifty-foot-long Pleurocoelus (a herbivore that weighed as much as forty tons) at some point was flooded, blanketing the prehistoric beasts’ tracks with a layer of mud that eventually hardened.

But before hordes of dinophiles descended on the park, a Glen Rose native with a knack for stone carving temporarily uprooted the theory of evolution. George Adams, Ernest’s brother, chiseled and sold giant man tracks in loose slabs of limestone during the Depression, a time when the benefits of misrepresenting mankind’s history for a few bucks probably made good sense. Had the tracks been real, they would have indicated that humans coexisted with dinosaurs.

Elongated tracks that could conceivably be mistaken as human footprints were found in the area as early as 1910, but these have since been largely accepted as unidentified dinosaur tracks or rock surface irregularities.

In 1938, Adams’s man tracks turned up in Gallup, New Mexico, where they, along with two dinosaur tracks on similar rock slabs, caught paleontologist Roland Bird’s eye. Bird traced the tracks to the Paluxy and began excavating, cutting out large sections of the riverbed that were later transported to the American Museum of Natural History, in New York. The tracks are still on display.

Bird’s research is documented in a series of articles published between 1939 and 1954 in National Geographic and Natural History magazines. The articles explain that the herbivore’s and carnivore’s prints were quickly identified, but the third set of tracks baffled the paleontologist. He describes them as “something about 15 inches long, with a curious elongated heel. . . . by some hitherto unknown dinosaur or reptile.” As for the man tracks he came across in Gallup, Bird had immediately dismissed them as fakes, citing serious anatomic flaws.

The scientist’s brief explanation that the Paluxy man tracks were disingenuous didn’t deter a belief among strict creationists that humans had indeed coexisted with dinosaurs. But in recent years, despite a creationists’ museum setting up shop just outside DVSP in 1984, it has become widely accepted, even among creationists, that the human track claims were misguided.

Since the park opened to the public in 1972, several dinosaur tracks have eroded significantly, dulled from natural elements and human traffic. But even if all the tracks do become extinct and scientists and religious enthusiasts lose interest, the DVSP will still attract outdoorsmen and art historians. The dinosaur statues are the only two in tandem from the nine Jonas created, and activities outside of prehistoric sightseeing include hiking, biking, camping, fishing, and horseback riding (you have to provide the horse, though).

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