A Fossil Park for Illinois

Roy Plotnick
Apr 1 · 4 min read
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ago I found myself scrambling at the last minute to find a site to bring a field trip, because the quarry management rescinded our permission to visit.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 has introduced legislation (House Bill 2789) to have IDNR so designate the site as a fossil park. The bill is currently in committee.

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!`

AND NOW A PERSONAL NOTE: I have just signed a contract with Columbia University Press for my book, to be entitled Explorers of Deep Time. This book will be a portrait of the paleontology as discipline today: who are paleontologists, what do we do, why and how we do our science, and why it is important. If you like these essays, I am sure you will enjoy the book. Stay tuned!

Roy Plotnick

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Paleontologist, geologist, ecologist, educator.