In a remote corner of Washington, 50-million-year-old plants, insects, and even fish are recorded in stone. These vivid fossils also hold clues to the Pacific Northwest’s geologic and biologic past. Learn their story in these pages.
The community of Republic in the Okanogan highlands of northeastern Washington was founded in 1896 as a gold-rush town, and mining has been central to Ferry County ever since. But along with precious metals, its rocks have produced another treasure—the spectacular Stonerose fossil site, where impressions of 50-million-year-old plants, insects, bird feathers, and fish.
The fossils formed where ancient lake beds were periodically blanketed by fine volcanic ash that eventually become shale. These fossils hold important clues to the geologic and biologic past—they record the appearance of new habitats in which major groups of plants, insects, and fish rapidly appeared and diversified.
Stonerose Interpretive Center
You can see remarkable fossils displayed at the Stonerose Interpretive Center in Republic, Washington. And, you can dig for your own fossils at this famous site: for a $8 fee you can spend the day fossil-hunting at the Boot Hill site, right near the Center. Rent a hammer and cold chisel, or bring your own collecting tools. For details on hours, check the Stonerose Interpretive Center web site .
The Stonerose Interpretive Center is an entirely homegrown organization. It began when Wes Wehr, affiliate curator of paleobotany at the Burke Museum, told Republic City Councilman Bert Chadick about the beautiful—and scientifically significant—fossils that lay beneath their feet. Thanks to the tireless work and enthusiasm of these two men the city bought a small house near the fossil site and set up the Stonerose Interpretive Center. Madilane Perry was the first curator and Lisa Barksdale the second person in the post. Catherine Brown now runs the center. From 1977 until his death in 2004 Wes Wehr worked closely with the center, with Republic residents, and with visiting professional and amateur paleobotanists, to amass a noteworthy collection of fossils from Republic: some are housed in Stonerose and some are housed in the Burke Museum. This truly co-operative endeavor has produced a remarkable collection, a distinguished body of scientific literature, with 24 new species described, and pleasure to the many Washingtonians who have visited and dug up their own fossils.
Origins of our forests
Fossil leaves and cones of conifers found at Stonerose include pine, cedar, and spruce—much like the evergreen forests of Washington today. But when these trees were living they were part of a forest that had both conifers and many broadleaf flowering trees such as elm, sycamore, and beech. Why the difference? It was much warmer in this area 50 million years ago, which allowed plants from subtropical climates to thrive here, such as plants of the the banana family, Carolina bay tree, and magnolia. Nearly half the types of fossil conifers found in the Republic area are growing today only in China or Japan.
Further reading and resources
Evolving Earth Foundation
Dedicated to promoting Earth Science–related education and research, this site has a wealth of information.
The entire issue of Washington Geology volume 24, number 2, 1996 is devoted to the fossils, the geology, and mining history of the Republic area. Included in this issue are some historical photos of the old town and the miners at work in 1900.
Maple fruits and seeds:
Wehr, W. C. 1995. Early Tertiary flowers fruits and seeds of Washington state and adjacent areas. Washington Geology, vol. 23, no. 3, pp 3–16.
Wehr, W.C., and H. Schorn. 1992. Current research on Eocene conifers at Republic, Washington. Washington Geology, vol. 20, no. 2, pp 20–23.
Gittlen, W. 1999. Discovered Alive: The Story of the Chinese Redwood, Pierside Publications.
Lewis, S. 1992. Insects of the Klondike Mountain Formation, Republic Washington. Washington Geology, vol. 20, no. 3, pp 15–19.
Identify your leaf fossil:
Wolfe, J.A., and Wehr, W. 1987. Middle Eocene dicotyledonous plants from Republic, northeastern Washington. U.S. Geological Survey Bulletin 1597.
This booklet has also been reprinted by the Stonerose Interpretive Center.