The Connecticut River Valley (also called Pioneer Valley) in western Massachusetts is the site of the EARLIEST DISCOVERY OF DINOSAUR FOOTPRINTS known to science. It is here in the East, rather than the West, that the first American dinosaur remains were found in 1835, seven years before the word dinosaur was coined. Scientists thought the tracks had been made by prehistoric birds. The region of track sites follows the river from Northfield through Gill, Greenfield, Montague, Deerfield, Amherst, South Hadley, Chicopee, Northampton, Holyoke, to Springfield.
FOSSIL FUEL FOR THE VALLEY proposes to assess the feasibility of “branding” this region in order to increase tourism through focus on the track sites and their history. Stakeholders include many established players in the local outdoor recreational, artistic, hospitality, museum/historical society, land preservation, and educational economic sectors. The overall planning goal is to coordinate nonprofit and commercial public programs and artistic creation of goods, experiences, annual events, and services that use the tracks as a theme, e.g., permanent and temporary exhibits, films, contests, festivals, get-away weekends, edutours, hike/bike quests or letterboxing, river tours, and locally produced arts, crafts, and specialty food items.
The key figures in the first discovery, collection, study, display, and publication of the tracks—and central to the public controversies around credit for discovery—were from the Pioneer Valley, as were the tracks themselves. Two of the discoverers were Greenfield citizens; another was a farmer in Gill who quarried and sold tracks found on his property; and the fourth was Edward Hitchcock of Amherst College, the first geologist to publish on the tracks. Their stories are a compelling part of the history of science in America. These men supplied specimens to museums in America and Europe and corresponded with such prominent people as Charles Darwin, Charles Lyell, Louis Agassiz, and John Collins Warren. The tracks they collected are still on display at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, the Smithsonian, and other museums.
While many people have seen dinosaur skeletons, the tracks are a fresh enticement to families, students, and dinosaur enthusiasts of all ages, local residents, and visitors who come here as sightseers or for alumni or college activities. A coordinated effort around the tracks can provide increased revenue for existing regional infrastructure: hospitality venues, artists and craftspeople, museums, and outdoor recreational businesses, and perhaps create a few new ventures.
With the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth in 2009, this is an ideal moment to develop educational programs and tourism related to the tracks.
• The region is a hotbed of dinosaur research and fossil collecting.
• There is an existing infrastructure of outdoor sites and public exhibit spaces in place. For example, The Trustees of Reservations has already undertaken plans for a mural and tours of their track site on Rt. 5 in Holyoke.
• Paleontologists actively studying the tracks bring attention to the region through national and special interest media outlets, a continual source of new interest.
• Famous names involved in the history of the tracks’ discovery command attention: Darwin, Thomas Huxley (“Darwin’s bulldog”), Louis Agassiz, and other important figures.
• There are surprising connections to these tracks across disciplines which make for interesting collaborations. Emily Dickinson’s poetry reflects her understanding of zoology, botany, and geology as she learned it through Amherst College President and scientist Edward Hitchcock’s eyes, so even tourists drawn primarily to literature would learn about the tracks.
• Photographers will also be interested, as the first two scientific books to use photographs as illustration were on these dinosaur footprints. One was written with the support of the Smithsonian. The other was by John Collins Warren, best known for being the first physician to perform surgery on an etherized patient, at Mass. General Hospital. The Hallmark School of Photography and the Hallmark Photography Museum in Turners Falls are likely partners in this project.
We have excellent reasons to believe that the tracks would be a highly attractive draw. A travel writer’s enthusiastic review of Turners Falls as an arts community in the Boston Globe (September 2007) led with a description of a local geologist showing the dinosaur footprints collection at GFDC. The Greenfield Recorder has written articles about the tracks, and there have been well-attended talks at the Historical Society of Greenfield, GFDC, Northfield Mountain, Amherst College, and the Hitchcock Center. Visits to the Amherst College Natural History Museum are sharply up since they built their new museum, which prominently features tracks as a centerpiece of their collection, in contrast to the old museum display in a basement where they could be seen only by appointment.
In February 2008 PVMA convened a meeting of potential partners: Springfield Museums, Wistariahurst, Enchanted Circle Theater, Hitchcock Center, Amherst College Natural History Museum, WGBY, Greenfield Recorder, Great Falls Discovery Center (GFDC), Northfield Mountain, and Emily Dickinson Museum (unable to attend at the last minute but interested). In September 2008 PVMA met with scholars in geology, history, history of science, and biology from the Five Colleges. Responses at both meetings were extremely enthusiastic and generated a plethora of ideas. It became clear that the next step requires a structured look at all the possibilities and deliberations over which actions to take.
Discussions were also held with the MCC RiverCulture project, local chambers of commerce and tourism officials, and with aides from the offices of Rep. John Olver and Senator Stan Rosenberg, all resulting in offers of cooperation and assistance.
Our goal is to develop a plan centered on year-round PERMANENT ATTRACTIONS as well as seasonal activities, annual events, and special exhibits. The intention is to build new revenues and jobs by packaging and promoting tourism in the Pioneer Valley through collaboration and linkage. The planning process will:
• determine the feasibility of various possible program components
• research other natural history based projects for possible successful models
• identify organizations and individuals that will commit time and money toward implementation
• determine economic impact of the proposed project
• identify target markets (e.g., local children, traveling families, alumni from local schools, etc.)
• measure local and national media interest for travel articles and other coverage
• define methodology for evaluation
• identify the next steps to be taken should the group decide to apply for implementation