A Fossil Park for Illinois

The abundant brachiopods from the site. Photo courtesy Reed Scherer, Northern Illinois University

One of the greatest challenges I face in teaching paleontology in Chicago is finding a place to bring my classes on field trips. I also am frequently asked by members of the public “where can I take my kids to collect fossils?” Unfortunately, there are currently are very limited number of places in Northern Illinois to collect fossils. There are only a few small roadcuts. Most exposures of bedrock are in commercial quarries, which are generally off limit to members of the public, including groups from schools and universities. Not long ago I found myself scrambling at the last minute to find a site to bring a field trip, because the quarry management rescinded our permission to visit.

When I first taught paleontology in 1982, I was advised to take my class to the Lone Star Quarry in Oglesby, Illinois. It was a fantastic place to go. The quarry mined the La Salle Limestone member of the Bond Formation (Pennsylvanian, about 300 million years old) for cement production. Also exposed at the quarry were red and gray shales above the limestone, and gray and thin black shale layers below it. The rocks in the quarry were extremely fossiliferous. The limestone contains numerous and diverse crinoids, snails, corals, brachiopods and rare trilobites; shark teeth and other vertebrate remains are not uncommon. These fossils weather out and were easy to collect on the quarry floor, a safe distance from the highwall. We collected so many specimens of the brachiopod Composita that I can give them away to children. The black shale contains orbiculoid brachiopods, shark teeth and fish scales, and sometimes a complete fish. An amphibian bone has also been recovered there. Prior to 2008, the quarry was a popular site for both college classes and amateur collectors.

Unfortunately, the quarry was purchased about two decades ago by Buzzi Unicem, who eventually made the site off-limits. They have since closed the quarry and removed all the machinery, in an attempt to lower their tax obligation. That is why it was exciting to learn of the acquisition of that quarry by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources (IDNR), making it part of the adjacent Starved Rock and Matthiessen Park units. As a result, I, along with Dave Carlson of the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois (ESCONI; a long-established avocational society) and Mike Phillips of the Illinois Valley Community College, which is close to quarry, proposed to IDNR that a portion of the new acquisition be set aside as a “fossil park.” We are supported by a large group of professional and amateur paleontologists who have committed to aid in the park’s development. This effort is also supported by Illinois State Rep. Lance Yednock, D-Ottawa, who introduced legislation (House Bill 2789) to have IDNR designate the site as a fossil park.

What is a fossil park? Fossil parks were sites where members of the public can observe, collect, and usually keep the fossils they find. There were currently about ten fossil parks in the United States (https://www.myfossil.org/fossil-parks/). They were run by a variety of local and state agencies, as well as private land owners. Places such as the Penn Dixie Fossil Park & Nature Reserve in New York, attract thousands of visitors a year. The parks run by government agencies, such as the those in Ohio and Iowa can be models for what we propose.

The suggested site is fossil rich, easily accessible and safe; it will encompass only a limited portion of the acquired land and should require only a small investment in resources. The proposed fossil park can also be integrated with Starved Rock, Buffalo Rock, and Matthiessen State Parks to provide IDNR opportunities for outreach concerning the fascinating geology of this part of the state.

It would be expected that the fossil park would be again be used for geology classes by institutions such as the University of Illinois at Chicago, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Chicago, Northern Illinois University, Illinois State University, and Illinois Valley Community College. Such field trips could include stops at Matthiessen, Buffalo Rock, and Starved Rock State Parks in order to describe the geologic history and structures of the area, such as the LaSalle Anticline. The Lone Star quarry preserves key evidence for this structure.

There would also be a great deal of interest from the public, especially members of local clubs such as the Earth Science Club of Northern Illinois (ESCONI; Chicago region), the Lincoln Orbit Earth Science Society (LOESS; Springfield area) and the Peoria Academy of Sciences Geology Section. ESCONI has previously organized collecting trips to the site. The Burpee Museum in Rockford also leads local field trips which attract great public interest and used to go to Lone Star.

We would also expect a great deal of interest from school groups. Geology and paleontology were integral parts of STEM education and were emphasized in the Next Generation Science Standards. Children were very excited about fossils and would welcome the opportunity to collect their own fossils. Appropriate educational materials would enhance the experience.

The prospect of a fossil park in Northern Illinois is very exciting. I will let you know what happens!`

A view of the site in December 2021

AN UPDATE: July 2022. The site for the future Fossil Park is now under the management of the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, as an addition to the Matthiessen State Park. From Alvin Harper, the park superintendent:

“The Matthiessen Annex project as a whole is in the Capital Development Board survey stage. The Annex and what falls within its boundaries i.e. the fossil park is now entering the official surveying and planning stage. IDNR has done the initial layout request for amenities and areas of development. Now CDB will take allocated funds and have engineering companies start to officially design infrastructure for the park. The Fossil Park is still very much a part of this park. In the next couple months we would expect professional surveyors to start mapping out the request of IDNR. The project is still years away from official development.”

Mike Phillips and I visited the site late last year with the park superintendent, park education coordinator, and Renee Clary (Mississippi State University expert on fossil parks around the U.S.). The site remains in excellent condition and the fossils are abundant!

Details of access, development of educational materials, signage, etc. have not been decided. But this is wonderful progress! Much of the credit belongs to Mike Phillips, who has done most of the interaction with the various stakeholders in the state government.

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Roy Plotnick

Roy Plotnick

Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator. Professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Author of Explorers of Deep Time.