Tag Archives: George F. Sternberg

In search of live plesiosaurs in Patagonia

Once in Argentina with the CMFPE, Elmer S. Riggs was required to write and submit a fossil collecting permit application to the Minister of Justice and Public Instruction. He then waited more-or-less patiently as the application made its way slowly through bureaucratic channels over the next two weeks. Meanwhile, with his application pending and nothing more pressing to attend to, he enjoyed the sights of Buenos Aires and La Plata, including several “hotly-contested” horse races in Palermo, a “splendid boulevard,” parks “rivaling anything we had seen in the U.S.,” and “splendid monuments.” During this long interval he had “plenty of time to see the city and to become acquainted with the Museums.” Years later Riggs wrote that “there are many attractive places in the parks and plazas of the Argentine capital. The abundance of palms,” and other tropical vegetation added “beauty and luxuriance” to the landscape.

Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer
Clemente Onelli, zoologist and Patagonia explorer

At some point Riggs met with zoologist and Patagonian explorer Clemente Onelli. Their meeting probably took place during a visit to the local zoo, where Onelli was director. Onelli shared a fantastic story with his Chicago visitor. In January 1922, he had received a letter from Martin Sheffield, a native Texan and adventurer then living in Patagonia. Sheffield claimed to have sighted a strange animal swimming in a lake near the remote town of Esquel: “I saw in the middle of the lake an animal with a huge neck like that of a swan, and the movement in the water made me suppose the beast to have a body like that of a crocodile,” he wrote. This, coupled with other, similar reports, brought plesiosaurs to the zoo director’s mind. Intrigued by the possibility of finding a living animal alleged to be extinct in the wilds of Patagonia, Onelli organized a well-publicized expedition aimed at capturing the beast. Armed with elephant guns and dynamite, the expedition set out from Buenos Aires on 23 March 1922. They reached the lake near Esquel, but finding no sign of the plesiosaur, they turned back empty-handed with the onset of winter.

Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries.
Clemente (center) and his expeditionaries. Source: Patagonian Monsters.

An Associated Press story then circulated widely in North American newspapers linking Riggs to the hunt for Patagonian plesiosaurs. According to an article in the Chicago Post, for example, Riggs listened “with interest” to Onelli’s account of the unsuccessful search for the mysterious monster. Riggs could not be tempted away from his fossil expedition, though he toyed with the reporter gamely: “‘If I meet that Plesiosaurus,’ said Prof. Riggs to Prof. Onelli, ‘I’ll put a lariat around his neck and lead him direct to the Buenos Aires zoo.’” Riggs’ American Museum colleague William Diller Matthew read a similar article in New York. “I noted in the newspaper despatches an interview with Dr. Riggs,” Matthew wrote in a letter to George F. Sternberg, “in which he promised to lead the live plesiosaurus home by the tail, evidently refusing to take that story as seriously as the reporter wanted him to.”

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Patagonia has given rise to more than its fair share of fantastic stories of monsters, giant men and lost cities. (For more information on this, see Patagonian Monsters.)  And though Riggs never was distracted by the search for a live plesiosaur, he went on at least one wild goose chase with another Patagonian adventurer named Gerhard Wolf. More on the mysterious Dr. Wolf will appear in a future post.

The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia
The plesiosaur tango was one of several cultural byproducts of the search for plesiosaurs in Patagonia

Establishing camp at Killik Aike

This formal portait shows Carlos Felton (right) as a young man in the early 20th century.
This formal portait shows Carlos Felton (right) as a young man in the early 20th century.

After he landed at Rio Gallegos on New Year’s Eve, 1922, Elmer S. Riggs was eager to get to work collecting fossils. In his journal, he recorded the preparations he and his party made, and the help they received from local residents, before finally getting into the field:

The first days at Rio Gallogos [were] marked by the cordiality of the English-speaking residents and their eagerness to lend a helping hand. Scarcely had our party become settled at the Hotel Argentina when Mr. Smith of the Frigorifico (Compania Swift) came in to call and to advise us of police regulations and requirements. Next day we had lunch with him and acting Supt. Whitney who had in the meantime called at the hotel. In the afternoon (Jan. 1) we went with Mr. W. for a drive on the Punta Arenas road to [see] volcanoes…. On this ride we saw our first Guanaco and first rhea. …Two days later Mr. Whitney provided us with an interpreter … to present us to the Governor…. So well was the matter handled that our party had a most cordial reception[.] [We] spent a pleasant half hour and stayed to tea.

Provided with sedulas and a special letter from the Governor, Mr. Whitney again came forward with his car and driver to take us to Killick Aike, the Felton ranch. There we had a cordial reception from Mr. Carlos Felton present owner, and were shown the really wonderful garden of the estate which is known throughout the territory. We visited also the barranca near the house and saw the first fossil in situ, part of a foot of Nesodon. This on Jan. 4. …Abbott and Sternberg remained at the ranch and began active collecting the following day. When I returned on Saturday evening Mr. S. showed [me] a fine skull of Protypotherium which he had found.

A cliff, teeming with fossils, near Killik Aike.
A cliff, teeming with fossils, near Killik Aike.

Riggs went back to Rio Gallegos with the driver the following day to buy supplies and overhaul their field equipment and arranged to have it all taken by truck to Killik Aike. When Riggs returned, the Feltons

…insisted upon my remaining at the ranch home over Sunday and made me quite comfortable. On … Sunday the men established camp at a spring just over a ridge from the house and I spent part of the day there while the family [was] away on other engagements. Monday morning Jan. 8, I moved over to camp and began work on the barranca. A standing invitation was extended for us to dine at the ranch on Saturday evenings. Had birthday dinner there.

This was the expedition's first camp near Killik Aike.
This was the expedition’s first camp near Killik Aike.

The birthday Riggs mentions, his 54th, was 90 years ago today, 23 January 1923. The party remained at Killik Aike for the next three weeks. During that time, the Feltons supplied fresh meat,vegetables, saddle horses when needed and a team of mules to move them away when their work in that locality was finished. In gratitude, Riggs wrote: “We shall not soon forget the courtesy and hospitality of Mr. Felton and the charming hostess, his sister, Mrs. Henstock.”

This ruined wagon was probably left at Killik Aike by a North American fossil hunter.
This ruined wagon was probably left at Killik Aike by a North American fossil hunter.

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.

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(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.

 

An unknown journal turns up!

I needed some background information on the fieldworkers who accompanied the Captain Marshall Field Paleontological Expedition to Argentina and Bolivia (CMFPE), including George F. Sternberg, John B. Abbott and others. I asked one of my volunteers, Dick Webb, an avid genealogist, to search for documentation about these men on-line. He found a site that he claimed was chock full of information about Abbott. When I followed the link he sent me, I found many useful documents and pictures. At the bottom of the page, I found a name and contact information for the person who had posted the pictures – a distant relative of Abbott’s. I wrote to compliment her page. I mentioned my project involving her relative and the part he played on the CMFPE. She wrote back right away with some unexpected good news: she had a diary Abbott kept in Argentina. “Would I like it?” she asked!

The journal arrives.
The journal arrives.

A few days later a package arrived at the museum. Inside I found the original journal in perfect condition. I have been so busy with other things that I’ve hardly had any time to read it over. Every now and then, though, I take it out and read a few pages.

The journal with its original cover.
The journal with its original cover.

From what little I know I can tell readers this: the Abbott journal is now one of the best sources I have on the CMFPE. It’s a first-person, daily account of expedition activities. Many entries are rich with details about the weather, their itinerary, the fossils they discovered, etc.

A random journal entry.
A random journal entry.

I look forward to the opportunity to transcribe this journal and incorporate its contents into my book.

Stay tuned.