Make No Bones About It

Edward Drinker Cope and Othniel Charles Marsh were the leading paleontologists of the late 19th century. However, instead of working together, they were locked in a bitter rivalry for years. They raced to collect and identify more species than the other and were highly critical of one another’s work. This rivalry was eventually coined the “Bone Wars” and the Garden Park Fossil Area north of Cañon City holds the distinction of being one of the important battlefields of the so-called war. Oramel Lucas, a schoolteacher in Garden Park, became part of the history of this war in 1877 when he discovered fossils while hunting deer.

Oramel Lucas was born on December 22, 1849 in Ohio to David and Louise Lucas. He attended Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio but ran out of funds for tuition at the end of his sophomore year. He decided to take a teaching position at the Garden Park School and joined the majority of his family in Fremont County. Heading back from a hunting trip in 1877 he stumbled across what he thought at first were strangely shaped rocks. Upon closer examination he realized he was actually looking at a fossilized bone. Rather than immediately removing the bones, Lucas returned later and carefully extracted them. He measured the bones and described them surprisingly accurately despite the fact that he had no training in paleontology and it was the first time he had encountered fossilized bones. He wrote first to a geology professor at Oberlin who referred Lucas to Othniel Charles Marsh at Yale and Edward Drinker Cope of Philadelphia.

Cope responded to Lucas about the bones he had found and agreed to pay Lucas for the time required to excavate the fossils. Marsh had not responded to Lucas but became interested after more fossils were found in Colorado. After his teaching job ended for the year, Lucas continued to work on fossil excavations for Cope and his brother Ira joined him. With the money Lucas earned from Cope he returned to college and left the running of the quarry to his brother Ira. Both Lucas brothers sent drawings with the fossils and took detailed notes. Lucas returned to the quarry for the summer of 1879 before his final year of his bachelor’s degree. Other family members were likely involved in the quarry including a worker listed as C.H. Lucas, likely his youngest sibling Clarence.

Oramel Lucas graduated from Oberlin College before attending the seminary. After his graduation from the seminary he married Harriet Hitchcock and left Cañon City. The couple had a daughter and then a son who died at a young age. Lucas passed away at the age of 85 in California in 1935. Despite a lack of formal training in paleontology or geology, his work at the Cope-Lucas Quarry was excellent and his contributions to the history of fossil collecting in Garden Park should never be forgotten.

Happy Birthday Oramel Lucas!

Drawing by Lucas
A technical pencil drawing by Oramel Lucas, ca. 1877; Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center Collection
Camarsaurus Bones
Fossil Bones of the Camarasaurus supremus excavated by O.W. Lucas, 1877; Copyright Royal Gorge Regional Museum & History Center

The information presented in this article is compiled using research conducted by the Royal Gorge Regional Museum and History Center.

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