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North Dakota: Legendary. Follow the trail of legends

Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota’s natural and cultural history. We encourage dialogue, questions, and comments!

Life of a Fossil: From Death to Exhibit

Have you ever thought about how the many dinosaurs on exhibit in museums across the country got there? What is the journey taken from the time the animal dies until it goes on display? Do all animals become fossils? If the path to becoming a fossil begins at the moment of death, then every plant and animal must run a gauntlet of forces, any of which can stop the process of fossilization.

Picture a Triceratops during its last day on Earth. After giving up the ghost (so to speak), a plethora of forces will begin attacking the future fossil.

First, the Triceratops might be exposed to animals that would like to make a meal out of its remains. This would include scavengers spreading the remains across a large area, wind and rain eroding away the remains, or even small insects and bacteria eating away at the bones. Ultimately, the remains need to be buried quickly, ushering them away from all these potential hazards.

Next, the remains must stay buried for thousands to millions of years. The main forces to avoid during this period are geological. The bones/fossils must survive all the geological forces that could potentially destroy them. These include mountain building, volcanoes, earthquakes, erosion, and landslides (to name only a few).

So is that it? Now that the bones have become fossils, they just wind up in the museum for us to enjoy, right? Not quite.

Now it is time for the remains to come to the surface. This step is really about timing. The fossils must be exposed on the surface and be discovered. Sounds easy enough right? Well, there is a catch. Not only do they need to be visible but they need to be visible to someone who recognizes them for what they are…fossils.

4-step fossilization process

Visual representation of the fossilization process

Did dinosaurs recognize the fossils being exposed at their feet during their time walking the planet? Would you be able to recognize a fossil in the ground if you saw one? More to the point, would you be able to recognize a small part of an exposed fossil in the ground? Often, when fossils are discovered, only a fraction of the bone is exposed, while the rest is still buried under the surface. The fossils must be collected before the elements have had a chance to erode them away. How many fossils of ancient animals simply disappeared because they were exposed at the surface at the wrong time? How many fossils of shells, fish, or ancient reptiles did the dinosaurs destroy because they were walking on them?

Lastly, if you found the partially exposed fossil and recognized it for what it was, could you get it out of the ground intact? Someone could find the most beautiful or significant fossil ever discovered, but if they can’t get it out of the ground without it breaking into dozens or more pieces, they have only a useless pile of fragments-- not something that could go on display at a museum.

The final leg of the journey is entirely reliant on humans. The collected fossils now must travel safely back to a lab or museum, be removed from the remaining rock/dirt matrix, and still be in good enough shape to go into an exhibit. This often means not only the quality of the fossil must be good, but the fossil must also fit into the theme of the exhibit.

T. rex and Triceratops skeleton casts

The dinosaur exhibit at the ND Heritage Center State Museum

The next time you walk through a fossil exhibit, I hope you remember that all the fossils you see on exhibit traveled this path. Do you ever think about what we are leaving future humans to discover about us?

Traditional North Dakota Steel Water Towers Are Going, Going...

Stanley Water Tower

Stanley Water Tower photo by William Stark, 2008.

Municipal steel water towers are currently my sideline research project. From what I have gathered so far, the research better speed up because the towers are coming down rapidly. I’ve been able to uncover 69 traditional-style water towers in North Dakota in the past three years, and in that time seven of them have been pulled down or are scheduled to be demolished.1 I’m working with the Bureau of Reclamation to document some of these vital infrastructure elements prior to their razing.

Water towers are the most visible component of a municipality’s investment in a public potable water and sewer system, and provide pressure to move water through the system and storage capacity.

Stanley, North Dakota, provides a typical history of infrastructure development with the establishment of the community to provide coal and water for the St. Paul, Minneapolis & Manitoba Railway (later the Great Northern Railway) railroad locomotives in 1887, a post office in 1899, and more than 40 businesses by 1906. In May 1908 the Stanley Village Board organized and began passing ordinances to establish streets and sidewalks, a telephone system, road and bridge maintenance, and a village well in 1909. By 1915, with Stanley’s population growing to more than 500, the Stanley Electric Company was established and a water and sewer system installed, along with a city well nearby. In 1917 the Minneapolis Steel and Machine Builders constructed the Stanley water tower, which remains in use today, to create pressure in the water supply system.2

Drawing of Steel Water Towers associated with South Dakota Water Systems

Gregory R. Mathis Steel Water Towers Associated with South Dakota Water Systems, 1894 – 1967. Used with permission of the SD State Historical Society. Full context available at: http://history.sd.gov/preservation/OtherServices/SDWaterTowers.pdf

The structural side of documenting this group of water towers is straightforward, but documenting the manufacturer of each tower is more difficult. This traditional form of steel water tower has four steel legs, a center riser pipe, and a hemispherical bottom on the tank. Other identifying features are the guardrail around the circumference of the tank and the characteristic conical cap topped by a vent. From about 1900 to the 1960s, several regional water tower manufacturers dominated the market for construction of these handsome structures, but only two have been definitively documented to date. Pittsburgh-Des Moines Steel Company and Minneapolis Steel & Machinery are the two manufacturers that supplied the towers to North Dakotan municipalities. The towns typically either hired the manufacturer’s own construction company or a regional builder who trained specialized teams to construct them.3

Water tower in Flaxton

City of Flaxton Water Tower, Susan Quinnell.

It has been far more difficult to identify the “soft side” of municipal water development. Some municipalities got behind their water system construction projects quickly and efficiently. Williston’s project sailed through completion on the tide of progressive city officials who, by 1917, had built the water filtration plant, water tower and supply system, and paid off the municipal bond indebtedness of $40,000, primarily with the proceeds of the sale of water.4 Meanwhile other towns struggled to find local support for their pure water supply projects, even with the North Dakota Department of Health providing concrete evidence of rising levels of bacteria in individual wells sampled within the city limits of Northwood. This 1937 – 1939 project was one of many funded in part (45 percent) by the federal government’s Public Works Administration program to provide a reliable source of pure water and water for fire protection.5 My research continues with analysis of water tower types by geographic location and a search for the build dates on each municipality’s water tower.

1Survey of City Auditors taken by e-mail February & March, 2017, and Google Maps
2 William Stark, Stanley Water Tower: Context and History Stanley, North Dakota, 2008. SHSND, Archaeology and Historic Preservation Division manuscript collection, MS. 11258.
3 Survey of North Dakota City Auditors and Ronald E. Spreng, “They Didn’t Just Grow There: Building Water Towers in the Post War Era,” Minnesota History, (Winter 1992): 130 – 141.
4 Williston Graphic, March 29, 1917, 19.
5 William Start, Northwood and the Public Works Administration: A Brief History of Northwood, North Dakota’s Waterworks and Sanitation Systems, 2008. SHSND Archaeology and Historic Preservation manuscript collection, MS. 10400.