Lucy Smith, 8, wants to be a paleontologist when she grows up.
Her grandpa knew this. So he bought tickets online for Lucy and her family—mom and dad Joe and Esther Smith and brother Sam, 3—to travel from their New Jersey home to Culpeper County so they could participate in the once-a-year fossil hunt at Luck Stone’s quarry off State Route 3 east of town.
“I’m getting some good pictures,” Lucy said, focused on photographing a three-toed dinosaur footprint bigger than a man’s hand. “There are a lot of them! I love dinosaurs.”
Sponsored by the Museum of Culpeper History in partnership with Luck Stone Corp., the Dino Walk on Sept. 11 drew some 850 people, who trekked in hourly groups over five hours that Saturday, driving 250 feet down into a rocky pit with two mirror-still pools that reflected vertical stone walls and puffy clouds in an azure sky.
More than 4,800 dinosaur tracks crisscross the quarry’s floor, left by the creatures 210 million years ago in the mud at the edge of an ancient lake. That makes the Culpeper site among the largest dinosaur-fossil collections in the world.
A quarryman discovered them one day in May 1989.
Bob Clore of Orange County was working in the quarry owned by what was then the Culpeper Stone Co.
“We were starting a new floor, going down further,” Clore said while watching Saturday’s 8 a.m. mix of adults and children as they explored the rock underfoot. To help the kids, circles of blue spray paint now spotlight some of the dinosaur footprints.
“We were pumping the water and the water washed across the new floor, and the sun had evaporated the water on the top layer,” he recalled. “But it was still wet inside the footprints, and I saw 17 of them in a straight line.”
“It’s just siltstone,” Clore said of the quarry rock. “It’s just mud that’s been cooked like a brick.”
He said nearby Pony Mountain, a unique volcanic geological feature known as a monadnock, supplied the heat that baked the mud into rock.
Clore said he went to his manager and told him about the footprints. “Looks like a giant chicken was walking around down here,” Clore told him.
Clore knew they were fossils, knew they were significant.
“But I had no idea what would happen after that,” he said.
His discovery drew thousands of people to the site, including journalists from at least 10 newspapers and six TV networks, he said. A London film studio sent a team to film a documentary about the find, narrated by American newsman Walter Cronkite, who interviewed Clore, the quarryman said.