The Lonely Dinosaur
A local mini-museum unearths a unique chance for visitors to see the only dinosaur in West Virginia.
Sometime 65 to 67 million years ago, the duckbilled Edmontosaurus perished. We can’t be sure what happened to her, but she proceeded to decompose, lost a few bones along the way, became buried in flooding and, finally, fossilized—only to be discovered in 2003 in her native North Dakota. Today, if you take a walk through the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey’s Mini-Museum of Geology and Natural History in Cheat Lake, you can pause to pay your respects to Hannah—and see something that can’t be seen anywhere else in the state. “It’s an extra treat,” says E. Ray Garton, curator of the museum. “Any museum that wants to attract visitors has to have a dinosaur.”
The Edmontosaurus display may not represent a geological finding from West Virginia, but it does stimulate conversation as to why the museum doesn’t have any hometown dinosaurs. Ray acquired Hannah after erosion revealed fossils in Bowman County, North Dakota. He and colleagues (one of whom leases ranchers’ land where Cretaceous-age rocks are more commonly found) were out on a dig when they found the dinosaur. Ray and his team raised the money to get Hannah to the local museum—donors helping so that she could be extracted, preserved, and moved to Morgantown. Ray says you might see other prehistoric beasts around the museum or elsewhere in the Mountain State, but they are replicas made of materials like fiberglass. The Morgantown museum also has a replica of Archaeopteryx, the first bird, as well as rare glass sponge fossils and trilobite specimens.
As for West Virginia’s own dinosaur fossils—well, there aren’t any. The state’s sedimentary rocks don’t allow for the dinosaurs that once lived here to be extracted. “None of the rocks exposed are of dinosaur-burying age,” Ray says. “The rocks are much too old for that.”
Hannah may be the star of the museum, but the purpose of the facility isn’t just to show her off. The main goal of the mini-museum is education, Ray says. “We’re one of the only dedicated natural history museums in the state.” Particularly, the museum invites schools to see the exhibit, reminding students that beasts like sabertooth cats and woolly mammoths once roamed the grounds. It is also in the museum that visitors find tangible examples and documentation of the state’s geologic history. Amid rocks, fossils, and minerals—as well as historical manuscripts, books, topographic maps, and a seismograph station—the rich lifespan of West Virginia is shown in detail.
Unfortunately, many people have no idea this exists in the area. Ray says, “We’re very poorly known.” Scenic Mont Chateau Road, winding along the woods and waters of Cheat Lake, leads to the building that was once Mont Chateau Lodge. “The hotel was built in 1958 as Mont Chateau State Park,” Ray says. “People I have spoken with best remember coming here for wedding receptions.” Since the 1970s, the space has been home to the West Virginia Geological & Economic Survey and the Mini-Museum of Geology and Natural History, located in the lobby. “The museum represents a great opportunity for people. What kinds of things have been discovered? What kinds of things are found in West Virginia?” He says visitors can have their own findings identified, too. They can even have their artifacts displayed on loan or by donating to the museum.
The museum continues to add new specimens to its exhibit. “We have a very well represented sample of Ice Age animals in West Virginia. We also have some of the best fossil plant specimens in the world,” Ray says.
The museum is open Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. and is free.