Tag Archives: Elmer S. Riggs

Auld Lang Syne: Riggs arrives at Rio Gallegos

Elmer S. Riggs riding a donkey in Argentina.
Elmer S. Riggs riding a donkey in Argentina.

Ninety years ago today, Elmer S. Riggs and his small party, including George F. Sternberg and John B. Abbott, arrived at Rio Gallegos, Argentina to begin a long fossil hunting expedition in southern Patagonia. On that day, Riggs wrote one of his longest and most memorable journal entries, most of which is excerpted below:

Riggs and his party traveled on the S.S. Asturiano.
Riggs and his party traveled on the S.S. Asturiano.

Rio Gallegos.
Sunday Dec 31. 1922.

Called by the steward at 6:40 to find that the ship had anchored in the mouth of the river. Great scurrying about and the steward called for our baggage before I was dressed. Gave him the trunks then the hurry was all over and we were told that there was time for breakfast. Packed suit case and bag and then went down for coffee 7 o’clock.

At 8:30 a ships lighter was anchored alongside and hand baggage passed down. Then men were admitted to the gangway. Passengers all lined up along the rail watching the lighter bobbing upon the waves and bumping ship and ladder. Two longshoremen stood at bottom in the lighter and when close enough, pulled and lifted passengers from the ladder to it. As I entered the smaller boat was unable to stand up because of the motion. Some passengers were lying close under the forward decking already seasick while the spray from every wave broke over us. Men, women, and children were pulled and lifted aboard, infants were carried by the sailors. Passengers dropped down on luggage and boxes anywhere.

Then the ships steam launch which had been lying off during the disembarking, came alongside and picked up the lighters hawser and took us in tow not alongside as had been done in quiet waters but with a long tow-line. After twenty minutes of buffeting and liberal of sprinkling from salt water, we ran on the beach a mile from the ship. A miscellaneous crowd lined the shore. As I approached a stack of trunks, boxes, chests, and furniture a tall young man approached and asked, “Is this Mr. Riggs[?]” Receiving my answer in the affirmative he offered a hearty handshake and replied that he was Mr. Coleman of Chicago. Then in quite as genuine a manner he asked “What can I do for you?”

This hearty and friendly greeting did much toward relieving a feeling of strangeness at being dumped ashore in a strange country amid the babble of strange tongues.

Mr. Coleman showed Riggs and his party to the Hotel Argentino in Rio Gallegos.
Mr. Coleman showed Riggs and his party to the Hotel Argentino in Rio Gallegos.

Riggs and his party stayed for several days the Hotel Argentino. Here they acclimated to their new surroundings, which – though strange at first – became more and more familiar with each passing day. In town they shopped, packed and readied their outfit for fieldwork. By the end of the first week of January they were camped on the other side of the river, searching for Santa Cruz fossil mammals along the riverbank and in the sea cliffs north of town.

The cover of Riggs' personal journal.
The cover of Riggs’ personal journal.

Dressed up for a shakedown

In the Field Museum Archives there is a brittle and cracked album full of newspaper clippings yellow with age. During a recent research trip to Chicago, I had the opportunity to thumb through this album – very carefully! – while searching for information about the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expeditions of the 1920s. I found a few gems, including the photograph posted below, which shows Elmer S. Riggs, George Bedford, John B. Abbott, C. Harold Riggs and Anthony Dombrosky smartly dressed and standing on a railroad platform waiting to board a train for western Canada.

E. S. Riggs, G. Bedford, J. B. Abbott, C. H. Riggs and A. Dombrosky waiting on a train
(L to R) E. S. Riggs, G. Bedford, J. B. Abbott, C. H. Riggs and A. Dombrosky waiting on a train

Before they went fossil hunting in southern Patagonia, E. S. Riggs and J. B. Abbott were involved in a shakedown expedition to the Red Deer River region of Alberta, where they tested themselves and their new equipment by collecting late Cretaceous dinosaurs. The Alberta expedition, which lasted from June through early September, 1922 and netted several quality specimens of duck-billed dinosaurs, one juvenile tyrannosaur and an assortment of plants and other fossils, is the subject of an article expected to appear in 2013 in the journal Earth Sciences History. The article is tentatively titled: “Red Deer River shakedown.”

The men in the photograph, looking more like Chicago mobsters than paleontologists, are dressed to the nines in fashionable suits, hats and shoes. When seeing the picture for the first time, a colleague quipped: “Is that the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre?” No, though they certainly look the part. So why is this group of scientists setting out on a fossil-hunting adventure so well dressed? Because they lived in an era when the standards for dress for traveling men (and women) were much, much higher. I sometimes find myself wishing I lived in another time, yet I certainly do not have the wardrobe nor the sense of style appropriate for the 1920s.

The photograph was originally published in the Pittsburgh Chronical Telegraph on 8 June 1922. It is credited to P. & A. Photos, which was a company co-owned by the Chicago Tribune and the New York Daily News that went belly-up in 1930. So far, a search for the original negative has turned up nothing. If there is a reader out there who would like to do some sleuthing for historic photographs, I would be very grateful to get my hands on this one. Let me know what you find.

I also include (below) a photograph taken during a break from fieldwork, lest readers think that Riggs & Co. dressed like this while collecting fossils.

(L to R) G. F. Sternberg, A. Dombrosky, C. H. Riggs, G. Bedford and J. B. Abbott posing in front of their mess tent. Field Museum number CSGEO45139.


What does the “random journal entry” read?

A number of curious readers have asked the obvious question: what does the “random journal entry” shown in my previous post read?

There are actually four entries on the two pages depicted, including 8-9 April 1923 and 5-6 April 1924. The entries for 8-9 April 1923 are the longest and most interesting. The entry for 8 April reads: “A very bad gale last night and today till evening and quite cold[.] went out on tide flat to get a Nesodon skull and lower jaws but tide did not go out far enough to uncover it[.] wind was so strong could not walk against it[.] in Afternoon wrapped specimens.” The next entry reads: “Very rainy until noon and cloudy till about 3 P.M. Prospected tide flat and did some wrapping specimens.”

John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.
John B. Abbott working at the Field Museum soon after the expedition returned home.

This is no tall tale. Abbott was then encamped near the Rio Coyle, on the southeastern coast of Patagonia, and working in the mid-Miocene Santa Cruz beds. Anyone who has worked in this windy place will recognize the difficulties Abbott regales! Elmer S. Riggs, leader of the expedition, describes this weather vividly in an entry in his own journal with no date. He writes: “So strong…was wind pressure that men could not stand against it on the beach. Repeatedly we were dashed against rocks, caps and glasses blown away. Rocks were loosened from the cliffs and endangered our heads in the fall.”

Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.
Abbott and Riggs were working on the tide flat near these cliffs.

Nesodon, now extinct, was a large-bodied notoungulate mammal endemic to South America. It was one of the more common Santa Cruz animals.