The U.S. Army won’t be opening its own park filled with living dinosaurs any time soon, but it is in possession of a number of long-lost friends who first graced our planet during the Triassic period approximately 230 million years ago.
Created by George Washington during the Revolutionary War and made a permanent body within the U.S. Army in 1802, the Corps of Engineers currently manages more than 8 million acres of land across the United States. It also owns, rather unintentionally, an enormous collection of fossils, including one of the most intact Tyrannosaurus rex skeletons ever found.
“The U.S. Army Corps has collections that span the paleontological record,” Nancy Brighton, a supervisory archaeologist for the Corps, told Atlas Obscura. “Basically anything related to animals and the natural world before humans came onto the scene.”
Life ... uh ... finds a way.
The aforementioned collection received its first boost in 1936 — almost by mistake — when President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed the Flood Control Act, necessitating the construction of dams, levees, and dikes across the country.
Before construction could begin, the Corps was ordered to survey each plot of land, a process that, especially in the case of dam building, often exposed ancient fossil beds.
“I would say the majority of our archaeological [and paleontological] collections have come from the construction of the hydropower and flood control projects that happened in the 50s, 60s, and 70s,” Jen Reardon, an archaeologist with the Corps, told Atlas Obscura.
But it wouldn’t be until 1988 that the Corps would come into possession of one of its greatest artifacts.
That year, on Labor Day morning, Kathy Wankel, a hiker and amateur fossil hunter, was on a trek through Montana’s Fort Peck Reservoir when she caught a glimpse of what looked to be a shoulder blade protruding from the sediment.
“The light was just perfect,” Wankel recalled in a 2019 interview with the Washington Post. “I could even see the webby pattern of the bone marrow.”