Nevada, Fossils, and the 1893 World’s Fair

During the course of my day, I look at a lot of photographs, both in print and digital format. Some of them catch my attention more than others. A few weeks ago, I reviewed a photograph, already digitized, titled “Human footprints being removed for World’s Fair.” This image immediately caught my interest. I had to know more about these fossils, their relation to Chicago’s 1893 Columbian Exposition, and Nevada’s relation to the World’s Fair. This is the story I found.

Nevada State Prison Quarry

Nevada State Prison Quarry

The 1893 Columbian Exposition was cause for great excitement and pride not only for Chicago, but the citizens of the United States. Great feats of engineering were accomplished in nearly record time on the hard-to-build terrain along Lake Michigan. States participated in the World’s Fair, including Nevada, with exhibits and exhibitions that best represented the state. Nevada’s contributions spanned a variety of exhibit halls from the Mining Building to the Women’s Building. One of the most fascinating exhibits submitted by Nevada was housed in the Ethnological Building. The exhibit, as described in the 1894 Report of Nevada State Board, World’s Fair Commissioners, “…consisted of the supposed human footprints and fossils from the quarry at the Nevada State Prison, Carson.”

Fossilized footprints of Mylodon harlani with men’s shoes placed for size comparison.]

Fossilized footprints of Mylodon harlani with men’s shoes placed for size comparison.

These prints, originally discovered in 1882, caused great contention among some of the most prominent scientists of the time and sparked what was to become known as the “Carson Footprint War.” This war pitted those who believed the fossils were of human origin against those who believed the footprints were of a four-footed species. It wasn’t until 1917 that the fossils were “unequivocally identified” (Tuohy) as belonging to Mylodon harlani, a species of giant ground sloth (Branham 51, 62).

Although the World’s Columbian Exposition was signed into law by the President in 1891, it wasn’t until 1893 at the 16th Nevada Legislature that Assembly Bill No. 56 was passed to provide funds for the creation of exhibits. Soon after the Bill was passed, J. A. Yerington was appointed to represent the state at the Fair. He, along with the other members of the State Board, was tasked with creating the exhibits for the Fair. This delay in providing funding and appointing a representative left only a little over a month for the exhibits to be created and installed. Goods and materials were gathered from all around the state to be sent by railroad to Chicago.

J. A. Yerington supervising a prisoner removing the fossilized footprints

J. A. Yerington supervising a prisoner removing the fossilized footprints

Despite the short planning period, the Nevada exhibits at the Columbian Exposition were highly acclaimed. One newspaper declared that “The exhibit at the World’s Fair gives the lie to the assertion that Nevada is fit only for cattle range and mining camps.” The New York World described the fossils as “…prehistoric cosmic records of incalculable value” (quoted in Yerington, 1894). The success of the Nevada exhibits at the World’s Fair helped to bring attention to the small state. The mineral and agricultural resources exhibited at the Fair bolstered the idea that Nevada was not just a “territory…not worth living in” as described by newspaperman Alf Doten, but a state with great potential for the future of the American West.

For more information on Nevada’s role in the Columbian Exposition, and the fossils found at the Nevada State Prison quarry, see:

Branham, Stacy L., Images of America: Nevada State Prison. South Carolina: Arcadia Publishing, 2012.

Nevada State Board of World’s Fair Commissioners. Report of Nevada State Board, World’s Fair Commissioners, 1894. Carson City: State of Nevada, 1895.

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