A Tale of Two Tourist Traps: the Creation of Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in Colorado

Today’s post was written by Cody White, Archivist at the National Archives at Denver

“We can’t get too much science so am for the park.” And so opened a 1962 letter to the National Park Service from Orson Rice, an Ohio resident who owned a parcel of land near the proposed Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument in central Colorado. Finally established in 1969, the fossil beds that make up the monument were created roughly 34 million years ago when nearby volcanoes erupted and the ensuing ash fall worked to preserve an enormous variety of insects, arachnids, algae, leaves, and even whole trees in what was then a large fresh water lake. Our story starts much later however, in roughly 1952 as documented in the National Park Service (NPS) records held at the National Archives at Denver.

Throughout the history of the NPS there have been many proposals for protected sites and despite the time and money invested in the creation of reports, correspondence, and attempted legislation many of these proposed parks never make it to creation. In the case of the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument it took nearly 50 years and while the NPS still retains the bulk of the historical records relating to the monument, we do have five folders of correspondence, reports, newspaper articles, maps, and photographs that detail the work leading up to the monument’s establishment.

The story begins in the 19th century when survey expeditions discovered and first chronicled the fossil deposits. By 1920 the area was thought of as a possibility for a park but further research was deemed necessary. Twelve years later the Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park, Roger Toll, submitted an “adverse report” concerning the fossil beds park proposal to the NPS director and the idea was shelved until 1952 when Secretary of Interior Oscar Chapman asked for yet another report. In December of that year Edmund Rogers, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent, and Edwin Alberts, Rocky Mountain National Park Naturalist, set out to visit the Florissant area in order to talk to area landowners and visit the two private parks already there; the New/Henderson/Pike Petrified Forest and the Colorado Petrified Forest.

Aerial photograph of the proposed park area with both petrified forest attractions marked.
Aerial photograph of the proposed park area with both petrified forest attractions marked.
Close-up of topographical map also showing proposed park area with both petrified forest attractions marked
Close-up of topographical map also showing proposed park area with both petrified forest attractions marked

Generally speaking, records concerning private tourist attractions are rarely found in the National Archives but much like the insects trapped in the lake so many millennia ago, records of the two privately operated petrified forests are now saved in perpetuity by token of their association with the monument. The Colorado Petrified Forest first opened in 1890 as the Copeland Petrified Forest and in 1926 P.J. Singer purchased the property. Renaming it the Colorado Petrified Forest in 1932, Singer also moved the Midland Railway station from the town of Florissant to his park for use as a museum and office. A half mile away in 1920 the New Petrified Forest, later called the Henderson Petrified Forest, opened. By 1950 the park went through yet another name change to Pike Petrified Forest as it was purchased by T. Dale Miller for around $40,000 (USD).

The section of Rogers and Alberts’ report on the two parks reads in part like a soap opera. Soon after his purchase of Henderson Petrified Forest Miller handed off the operations to John Baird, at which point the feuding between the two parks seems to have escalated with local residents telling the NPS officials it was thought Baird was “trying to develop a nuisance value so that someone will buy him out at an exorbitant price.” The feuding between the similar attractions was noted to include trick signs luring away potential visitors from the other park, high pressure solicitations along area roads, and even lawsuits flying back and forth much to the chagrin of local residents. While gathering these accounts, the NPS officials also duly paid the $0.50 admission at each and documented their visit within their report.

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Rogers and Alberts submitted their findings in January 1953 and once again the fossil beds park idea was dead. The duo recommended no action as they felt there was little active danger to the fossils, the difficulties of park creation with all of the land held in private hands, and that with fossils all over the world this site was about “average interest” and not worth purchase. Singer, owner of the Colorado Petrified Forest, followed up with a letter once again signaling his offer to sell but was rebuffed for the time being.

In the late 1950s interest began once again in the area with more officials and groups changing their perception on preserving the area and so yet another NPS report was ordered. P.J. Singer passed away in 1958 but in 1961, no doubt hearing the rumblings that park creation was back on the table, his widow Agnes began correspondence with the NPS reiterating her willingness to sell.

(NAID 24192501)
Facsimile of letter sent to Secretary of Interior Stewart Udall from Agnes Singer reiterating her late husband’s offer to sell the Colorado Petrified Forest

In April 1962 the newly filed NPS report came to a different conclusion than those compiled within the previous 30 years -the area should be established as a national monument.

(File Unit NAID 24192490)
Section of 1962 NPS report on the proposed monument, showing edits

Requests for copies of the report came in from across the country and spawned letters from a variety of universities and museums agreeing with the conclusion. George Emrick, originally from the area and who had worked as a tour guide at Pike Petrified Forest while a teenager, had since earned a MA in art and even wrote the NPS to offer his design skills for the entrance and markers for the assumed soon to be monument. As a November 1962 editorial headline from the Denver Post stated, the Florissant fossil beds were a “Geological ‘Museum’ Worth Saving” and with housing subdivision soon sprouting up nearby time was of the essence to get the project in gear.

Still bubbling under the surface was the issue that the entire park would need to be acquired from private landowners, a concern seen in a November 1962 letter from Senator Gordon Allot inquiring as to what their reactions were so far. That winter the Regional Chief of Proposed Park Studies and the Rocky Mountain National Park Superintendent travelled back to the Florissant area to meet with all of the landowners and submitted a detailed letter on the meetings. While most of them signaled approval and even enthusiasm for the plan, including Agnes Singer and her son, the one exception was John Baker who along with his parents owned the by then closed Pike Petrified Forest. Described as “somewhat belligerent,” Baker harangued the NPS officials in the four hour meeting over such trivial matters as how he felt the pictures of his attraction in the report were inferior to those of Colorado Petrified Forest. While open to selling, the officials worried the family had an overinflated estimate of the property value and noted that the sale to Walt Disney of a petrified tree stump to be installed in Disneyland several years earlier had given the family a “vision of a goldmine.” In closing they felt “the Bakers will be very hard to do business with” but by March of 1963 the NPS reported that all 13 landowners had signaled “general approval” of the project. There was no mention on how tenuous that approval was.

On the Congressional front things were hitting a snag with Representative Chenoweth asking for yet another study in order to look at shrinking the size of the park. According to correspondence he felt it held little public appeal potential and was too large – but his argument was for naught as he was unseated in the election of 1964 by Frank Evans. Correspondence indicates that NPS officials quickly moved to acquaint Evans with the proposal even before he arrived in Washington, DC in January 1965. By 1966, the monument appears to be nearly a done deal with Representative Evans backing the project enthusiastically and the NPS working on park boundaries and analyzing area visitors, population statistics, hotels, highway plants, and even climate data.

The records in our holdings stop at this point but three years later in 1969 the Florissant Fossil Beds National Monument was established. If you too agree with Mr. Rice in that “we can’t get too much science,” visit their webpage for more information, or visit the monument itself here in Colorful Colorado.

(NAID 24192502) II
Vicinity Map, found on area topographical map

All documents referenced and quotes come from RG 79 Records of the National Park Service, General Correspondence, 1954-1968 (NAID 651777), Accession NRG-079-99-178, Boxes 37-38