On a breezy, tree-covered hillside just west of the Mohawk River in upstate New York, overlooking immense red barns, winding state roads, and wetlands; home to wild turkeys, coyotes, deer, fox, turtles, giant tiger salamanders and a great horned owl, is one of the most interesting and unique fossil sites in North America. It is the easternmost exposure of the Bertie waterlime -- a fossiliferous structure which runs all the way across northern New York state.
In the New York State Geological Association's Guide Book 50 (1978) Samuel Ciurca notes that, "the Bertie Group . . . consists of several units of massive dolo stones (including waterlime) beds of limestone, shaley dolo stones and some gypsum anhydrite . . . [is] fossiliferous, and indicates a greater marine influence during the deposition of the Bertie."
The type of fossils found here were first discovered in 1818 in Oneida County, and mistakenly described as fossil fish by Dr. S. L. Mitchill, "an error obviously induced by the peculiar catfishlike aspect of the carapace," notes The New York State Museum's beautifully-illustrated Memoir 14: The Eurypterida of New York, published in Albany in 1912. 166 years after its initial discovery the enigmatic aquatic arthropod, Eurypterus remipes, would be adopted by New York as its official state fossil.
The eurypterid, sometimes erroneously dubbed a "sea scorpion," is a distant relative of today's horseshoe crab, and 420 million years ago powered its armored body through "breeding pools in brackish waters," known as colonies.
Herkimer County's "Colony H" -- also
known as "the Herkimer pool" -- has produced numerous fossils
since the 1800s, but the few exposed stone outcrops are notoriously difficult
to work. In the 1950s, during a road-widening project, a significant new
exposure was revealed, now known as Passage Gulf or "the classic
Prominent fossil collector Allan Lang first visited Passage Gulf in 1978 on a paleontology field trip run by the State of New York. He was so taken with the "elongated, fishlike, distinctly scorpioid" eurypterid fossils that he returned regularly to the site, and later began leasing land "just across the road."
"I collected at Passage Gulf for about a year and a half, and then I leased a piece of property . . . and then eventually, around 1981, I bought my leases out," Allan recalls.
Allan made the 500 mile round trip from his New Jersey home several times a year, staying at the newly-purchased fossil site in a trailer; gradually, patiently figuring out how to excavate the ancient arthropod fossils. It is nearly impossible to retrieve a good specimen from the actual exposures: the limestone is extremely hard and shatters when pounded with chisel and sledge. Allan realized that only through a lengthy and persistent process could he successfully extract eurypterids from the rock plates. First the overburden was removed, and then pool table-sized slabs were moved with heavy equipment and left out to weather. After several seasons, cracks began to appear, and by skillful use of a pair of rock hammers the large plates were split, sometimes revealing a specimen of Eurypterus remipes.
Several years on, Allan purchased additional property
and converted an 1870s barn into living quarters, which were later expanded
to included a workshop, museum display, and prep lab. Once in a while,
perhaps every five years or so, a tremendous find would be made: a multiple
plate containing thirteen juvenile eurypterids frozen in perpetuity, it
seems, along the waterline of a long-vanished pool; a rare Pterygotus
or Dolichopterus; and -- most unusual of all -- tiny aquatic scorpions.
Although many of his best finds now reside in museum displays, Allan's personal collection remains unparalleled. But now, after more than two decades of "cracking rock" as he describes his profession, Allan has new and bigger plans for the Empire State's official fossil.
Tall and rugged, with bright blue eyes and an occasional wry smile, Allan recalls the 25 years he's put into the project: "I've built this tremendous facility which is going to outlive me, and I want to turn it over to the next generation of paleontologists and fossil enthusiasts. This locality has produced and will continue to produce the best examples of the New York State fossil and it needs to be protected -- much like the National Heritage sites in Europe. There's a good one or two hundred years of digging to be done here, but unfortunately I'm not going to live that long."
So that future generations may enjoy fossil collecting at Lang's Quarry, Allan is now putting his grandest scheme into motion. "It is our intention to develop a not-for-profit foundation here on the site, so we can teach people how to collect fossils, how to enjoy them, how to prepare and preserve them." A new website -- StateFossil.org -- describes the plan in detail: it calls for a permanent museum; research and teaching center; lab facilities for training students in the fine art of fossil preparation; and an ongoing environmental program, involving tree planting and protection of the wildlife which thrives in the area today -- as well as their distant ancestors still waiting to be excavated in the quarry.
Visitors to Lang's Quarry have included senior paleontologists from the Natural History Museum in London and the Royal Ontario Museum; paleo groups from Japan and all over the United States and -- most recently -- New York State Senator James L. Seward who stopped by to learn more about the program which seeks to preserve and protect his own state fossil.
Learn more about the New York State fossil project at: www.statefossil.org
New accounts of Allan's adventures
in the world of fossils and meteorites