by Olivia F. Gentile, Courant staff writer
from the Hartford Courant, June 23, 20000

Eons ago, as Africa and North America were ripping apart, long before the red bluff off Buckland Road was bulldozed to build a mall, dinosaurs roamed here.

They left their bones behind to prove it.

In fact, the red rock near the Buckland Hills Mall has yielded more dinosaur specimens than any other site in New England: A century ago, when some of the rocks were quarried, workers unearthed three partial skeletons. Scientists have long suspected that even more are embedded in the stone at the old quarry.

Many people didn't know all that, even though the quarry and its fossils, now at Yale's Peabody Museum, are renowned in scientific circles. They didn't know it when the mall was built and much of the quarry was pulverized to build Buckland Hills Road. Many people still don't know it, as more rocks from the site are crushed to make room for the area's newest superstores, Lowe's and Target.

The stores are scheduled to open this fall -- after 300,000 cubic yards of red rock is blasted, crushed and, ultimately, used to pave the plaza's parking lots. Much of this excavation work has already been completed.

Even if more people knew and cared that the red rock once harbored priceless fossils and that developers might be crushing more of them during this project, they might not be able to prevent it. Neither the state nor the towns of Manchester or South Windsor, where Lowe's and Target are being built, have laws protecting paleontological sites. No one's clamoring to write these regulations, either.

"Science is great, and history is great, but progress and economic development are greater in the eyes of most decision-makers," said State Archaeologist Nicholas Bellantoni. "It's an effort to convince people that these resources are important enough for people to save when there are million-dollar projects."

"People would rather shop than look at dinosaurs," said Rich Krueger, a geologist at Dinosaur State Park in Rocky Hill, where 2,000 dinosaur tracks have been preserved since they were uncovered accidentally during a construction project in 1968.

"Geologists all over the world know about the Connecticut Valley," he said. "The people who live here know nothing about it and [couldn't] care less."

But John Ostrom cares.

Now 72, Ostrom, a retired Yale professor and a world-famous paleontologist, has devoted his life to searching for dinosaur remains from the Connecticut Valley to China.

He knows how rarely dinosaur fossils turn up in New England, and he knows it's unheard of here to find three skeletons in the same place. The specimens found in Manchester are critical to scientists' understanding of prosauropods, the 7-foot-long plant-eating dinosaurs that later evolved into the giants of the late Jurassic period.

Where there were three, there may be more. So for years, he tried to protect the former Charles O. Wolcott Quarry, which was near what is now the intersection of Buckland Road and Buckland Hills Road.

In 1969, Ostrom asked the National Park Service to make the site a National Natural Landmark, which would have raised awareness about its significance. In 1979, the park service turned down the application, saying the rocks themselves weren't significant and there was no proof that more fossils were inside them.

The mall came in 1990. Besides Ostrom and a few others, like Krueger, no one was worried about fossilized reptile remains during the construction of the modern two-story shopping center and its broad access road, which ran down the center of the old quarry. Town officials knew the site had contained dinosaur bones, but they supported the mall because it was going to bring tax revenue, jobs and prosperity to Manchester.

"It was a couple of voices in the wild, and we did not strike a responsive chord," said Manchester lawyer Malcolm Barlow, who was so troubled by the disruption of the quarry that he proposed statewide legislation to protect it and other paleontological sites. No one was interested in such a law, though some states do have them.

Krueger and the Friends of Dinosaur State Park wrote to the developers to warn them about the fossils, but received no response.

Grudgingly, Homart Development Co. allowed Ostrom and other museum staff members to hunt for bones as construction workers blasted and bulldozed, Ostrom said. The researchers found nothing. To their dismay, the rocks usually had been blown to bits by the time they got to them.

"I was one very unhappy man," Ostrom said.

Sidney Quarrier, then a geologist for the state, said, "In a better world, you would have liked to have seen us ... sitting down with the contractors and saying, `Let's talk about how you're going to blow this up.'"

Quarrier said he and other state workers were forbidden from helping Ostrom inspect the construction site because the contractor deemed the state's liability insurance insufficient. But Quarrier hardly expected the developers to welcome him and other environmentally minded folks onto the land with open arms.

"The color of a mall is green, it's money," said Quarrier, who moved to Maine in the early 1990s, partly because he found Connecticut residents so environmentally unaware. "The last thing they want is a bunch of weirdos."

Now, as dozens of yellow tractors bulldoze the north edge of the quarry to make room for Lowe's, a giant hardware store, and Target, an upscale version of Wal-Mart, no one's raising much of a fuss about dinosaur bones.

Quarrier has left the state. Krueger thinks the most fossil-rich part of the quarry was probably dismantled when the mall went up. Ostrom can't crawl around rocks as easily as he once could. Besides, he didn't even know about the Lowe's and Target project until this week.

"I'm sure there are bits of dinosaur bones out there," said Anthony Philpotts, a geology professor at the University of Connecticut. But neither he nor the state has the resources to monitor the construction site, he said.

Nick McDonald, a geology teacher at the Westminster School in Simsbury, found out about the construction project last Sunday because he happened to be driving through the area.

He pulled over and meandered around the site for a while looking for dinosaur bones, but he found nothing.

"What you'd need to have is a whole host of people," McDonald said. "I think it's sad, but I don't think there's anything we could have or should have done. We don't know where the skeletons are in the rock."

Ostrom doubts the construction workers would tell anyone if they found fossils; that would stall, and possibly halt, the project.

But Lowe's spokeswoman Suzanne McCoy said the company knows the site has yielded fossils in the past, and said workers would have reported any new finds. Thus far, at least, nothing has turned up, according to McCoy. Target spokeswoman Kristin Knach said her company hadn't realized the site had paleontological significance, and that workers had unearthed no fossils.

Ostrom tries not to think too much about the Wolcott Quarry; he gets upset when he does. But earlier this week, he returned for the first time since the mall was built.

Chevy Suburbans and Hondas whizzed by him on Buckland Hills Road as he gazed at the huge buildings that make even dinosaurs look small, and at the half-finished structures and mounds of red dirt at the Lowe's and Target site.

He took out his compass and ran his fingers along some of the coarse red rock that remains.

"Poor Connecticut," he said.


Webmaster's comment: In the time since this article was written, guidelines have been drawn up to protect against the kind of destruction which befell the dinosaur bones noted here, as well as historic and pre-historic artifacts. These can be found in the web site of the Friends of the Office of State Archaeology (FOSA):

The first, titled "Laying Down the Law: A Guide to Legislative Citations in Archaeology and Historic Preservation" can be accessed by clicking Preservation Citiations.

The second, titled "Recommended Historical and Archaeological Preservation Language for Municipalities" can be accessed by clicking Preservation Language.

While paleontological sites aren't mentioned in either of these documents, it's hoped that more than cursory consideration will be given to any such sites in the future.