Day Trips

If plans proceed, the Mineral Wells Fossil Site may become only the fourth public park in the U.S. where visitors can keep the fossils they find

Day Trips
Photo by Gerald E. McLeod

The Mineral Wells Fossil Site may not look like a gold mine, but to anyone who gets a kick out of finding remnants of past geological ages, it's the mother lode. If plans proceed, the former landfill borrow pit may become only the fourth public park in the U.S. where visitors can keep the fossils they find.

"It's a real treasure and learning experience," says Lee Higginbotham, a member of the Dallas Paleontological Society and one of the many volunteers working to open the site to the public. The excavated site is littered with millions of tiny strawlike rocks that were once on the bottom of the prehistoric sea that covered Texas. "Everybody who visits finds a fossil," he says. The truth is that everyone finds a pocket full of the petrified tubes.

The story of the fossil pit began more than 300 million years ago when a deep underwater trench spanned this part of Texas. At the bottom lived invertebrates such as crinoids, trilobites, and brachiopods that left their remains in the ancient mud.

Fast-forward to the 1970s when the city began depositing its trash in the field west of town. To cover the refuse, it "borrowed" dirt next to the landfill, creating a large 12-foot-deep pit covering roughly 8 acres. At the time the city didn't realize what bounty it was uncovering.

Soon after the landfill closed in 1993, some fossil hunter discovered the site. The location became a not-so-secret cache among rock hunters to the point where educational groups were quietly making field trips to the very unofficial park. The fossils are very common and aren't worth anything from a scientific standpoint, Higginbotham says. "It's just fun, and you get to keep all you find."

The city didn't realize what it had until it tried to sell the former landfill. Unsurprisingly, there weren't any bids for a hole next to an old dump five miles outside of town. What was surprising to the city council was the Dallas group that asked for access to the site. In the initial conversations the word "trespassing" came up, as did the question, "Who would want to go out there to pick up fossils?" "Every kid who's interested in dinosaurs," Higginbotham answered.

The city finally came around to seeing the value of leaving the site just as it is. The council made a deal with the paleontology community of Texas: If they would help raise the cost of fencing, a parking lot, and restrooms, the city would open the site to the public.

At press time, the Dallas Paleontological Society had raised a little more than half of its $10,000 share. With any luck, the pit will open to budding Indiana Joneses by the spring of 2010. For information on how you can help, go to www.dallaspaleo.org.

960th in a series. Day Trips, Vol. 2, a book of "Day Trips" 101-200, is available for $8.95, plus $3.05 for shipping, handling, and tax. Mail to: Day Trips, PO Box 33284, South Austin, TX 78704.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

Mineral Wells Fossil Pit, Lee Higginbotham, Dallas Paleontological Society, crinoids, trilobites, brachiopods

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