Description of the Rust Formation, Trenton Group (Walcott-Rust) Locality

A stream flowing through a forest, leading to a quarry
The stream that first led William Rust and Charles Walcott to the quarry site still runs through the lush forest.

It was back in 1870 that a 20 year-old Charles Doolittle Walcott-- who four decades later would cement his reputation as one of paleontology’s monumental figures with his discovery of the 500 million year old Burgess Shale fauna in British Columbia-- stumbled upon a promising outcrop of Ordovician rock located near Trenton Falls, New York. In all honesty, it wasn’t totally by accident that he found himself exploring this exposed streambed on the land owned by local farmer William Rust. Indeed, Walcott had recently bought a home in the vicinity expressly to facilitate his investigation of the area’s fossil-rich sedimentary layers. 

Walcott had already spent much of his life exploring the Paleozoic strata of his native New York State, assembling a sizable collection of both minerals and fossils before he had even reached his teens. The ambitious young paleontologist had always been captivated by the mysteries inherent in these ancient rocks, and for Walcott each new locale he explored promised additional knowledge, along with potential fame and fortune. By the time he started his own explorations of the Trenton Falls locale, he had become aware that Rust, who had begun excavating his property’s rock strata in 1860 in order to procure building stones, had in the process uncovered a number of fossiliferous layers brimming with trilobites, those ancient arthropods that once dominated the world’s oceans.

It didn’t take long for a professional and personal bond to be formed (strengthened by Walcott marrying Rust’s daughter), and within months of their initial meeting the pair began digging together in the quarry’s 450 million year-old limestone layers. During that initial excavation over a thousand square feet of the hard, fossil-bearing rock was removed by hand and then carefully broken down and examined for the tell-tale signs of partially buried fossils. It was laborious work, enhanced by the delicate and time-consuming final touch required to fully expose the specimens from within their surrounding rock matrix. But their efforts revealed a veritable treasure trove of trilobites… hundreds of complete specimens including such now-recognized species as Ceraurus pleurexanthemus, Isotelus gigas and Bumastoides holei

In fact, within their first two digging seasons 18 distinct trilobite species were uncovered, along with an impressive array of cystoids, crinoids and brachiopods, making the quarry one of the most prolific fossil lagerstatte ever found in North America. As the quantity and quality of their discoveries grew, Walcott also began to realize that there was a promising commercial market for these fossils, especially from museums across the Northeast which eagerly sought to purchase his latest finds. It didn’t take him long to sense that an incredible opportunity-- one with both scientific and financial ramifications-- had fallen his way.    

James Hall, then director of the New York State Museum, was the first to be approached by Walcott about acquiring a comprehensive collection of material from the quarry. Much to Hall’s regret, however, he had to turn down the opportunity due to his institution’s limited funds. Word of the discoveries next reached the ears of Louis Agassiz, then curator of Harvard’s prestigious Museum of Comparative Zoology, and in 1873 he stepped forward to purchase the best of the Walcott-Rust fossil bonanza for $3500— an assemblage highlighted by 325 trilobites, 190 crinoids and six starfish. 

Agassiz was so enamored with both the collection and indications that some of the trilobite specimens actually sported soft-part preservation (antennae, legs, etc.), that he encouraged Walcott to continue his efforts in the quarry, which due to Agassiz’ backing went on virtually non-stop until 1876. During that time Walcott ventured deeper and deeper into the site’s fossil-rich layers. In doing so, he uncovered the first complete trilobite specimens exhibiting an array of previously unknown soft-bodied appendages, news of which rocked the still-nascent paleontological world.  Spurred by his findings, and by Agassiz’ on-going support, the young paleontologist began to realize that he could make a career out of his efforts, and as he kept digging he started writing several scientific papers focusing on trilobite appendages-- the first such works of their kind. 

Over the next half-decade, as his paleontological interests began to carry him farther and farther afield (especially after the death of his wife in 1876), Walcott would sporadically return to the quarry, gathering additional material for study and sale, which he then promptly moved to either the MCZ at Harvard or the Peabody Museum at Yale. Despite his brother-in-law’s growing wanderlust, William Rust would continue digging and marketing fossils found in the quarry’s layers for another two decades until his death in 1897. Through these efforts, he eventually unearthed a comprehensive fossil collection then perhaps rivaled only by the efforts of Joachim Barrande in Bohemia (now the Czech Republic) a few decades earlier.

Considering the commercial success and scientific notoriety that their efforts had generated, little could Walcott or Rust have imagined that it would take almost a century before further investigative work would take place within the quarry. After so many decades of disregard and decay, the mere existence of the quarry site was little more than a rumor to many late 20th Century paleontologists. Most showed nothing but a passing interest in this “long lost” spot in central New York State, and those that chose to focus their attentions on the region’s Ordovician trilobites contented themselves with studying the impressive array of material already housed within Harvard’s hallowed walls. 

Then in 1990 things began to change in and around the Walcott-Rust quarry. After extensive research at the MCZ, and a number of get-acquainted visits with the current landowner (who had no lingering relationship with the long departed Rust clan), amateur fossil enthusiast Thomas Whiteley began to actively take steps to rediscover and then reopen the famed fossil locale. Whiteley believed there was still much to learn from the area’s fossil-bearing layers, and that modern excavation and preparation techniques could reveal an exciting new story for the famed quarry’s trilobites. But first he needed to find it.

It didn’t deter Whiteley’s search when he learned that much of the former farm had been converted to a golf course, and that a hydro-electric plant now filled an adjacent gorge that he once considered a potential locale. Once directed to a promising, though now heavily wooded spot by local residents, he immediately noted piles of roughly stacked rocks that he believed might be remnants left over from the original 19th Century dig. He also noticed promising sedimentary outcrops near a stream embankment that had since become overgrown with weeds. Once he removed the undergrowth and saw the clear-cut marks of quarrying, he knew he had found what he had been searching for.

“Finding and then working the quarry was a passion for me,” Whiteley said. “I had recently retired from my job at Eastman Kodak, and had come across the original Walcott-Rust collection while taking some trilobite photos at Harvard’s museum. The preservation of the trilobites amazed me, and knowing that all of the available material had been collected and prepared over 100 years ago without the benefit of any modern machinery convinced me to try and undertake a new dig at the Walcott-Rust site.”

Employing an array of bulldozers, backhoes and other excavation equipment the likes of which Walcott and Rust could only have dreamt about, within months of his initial “discovery” Whiteley set about reopening the quarry. First he had to remove a number of trees along with the lush foliage that had overgrown the property during the preceding century. When that task was completed he began a careful examination of the exposed rock layers in an attempt to determine which were the best candidates to bear fossilierous fruit.  His immediate goal was to find what had become known to Walcott and Rust as the “ceraurus layer”… a thin band of limestone which perfectly preserved a mass assemblage of these exotic trilobites-- often ventrally, and occasionally with their calcified soft-body parts preserved. The results soon began to exceed even Whitely’s wildest expectations. Layer after carefully-excavated layer provided a rich harvest of material, and the trilobites proved to be both abundant and diverse.

His work would carry on for the next 15 years. He estimates that he and his small crew moved in excess of 100 tons of rock overburden during that time in order to get down to the fossil bearing layers… which he then explored with both patience and fastidious care. But the results were well worth such a back-breaking effort. Whiteley found hundreds of complete trilobites during his dig, along with an accompanying array of crinoids, bryzoans, carpoids and other assorted fauna and flora. But finding the material was only the first step in his quest; he also wanted to study this new material to the best of his abilities. Polishing rock cross-sections and acid-etching limestone surfaces revealed never-before-seen aspects of trilobite morphology as well as providing evidence of species density and distribution. He even went back to Harvard to cross-catalog his recent finds with those of his illustrious predecessors. Fittingly, when he completed his work at the quarry in 2005, Whiteley donated virtually all of his finds to the MCZ, greatly expanding the museum’s original collection obtained from Walcott and Rust.

“The quarry presented such a unique opportunity for study,” he said. “Unlike those who came before and after me, I didn’t really have much interest in the commercialization of these finds. Nor was I a professional paleontologist who could effectively interpret and disseminate all of the material that was available. But I had incredible assistance from scientists like Carton Brett (then at the University of Cincinnati) who helped immeasurably in turning this from a mere ‘dig’ into a truly meaningful scientific mission.”

The completion of Whiteley’s dig, however, did not signal an end for the rock layers first explored by Charles Walcott and William Rust. In fact, an exciting new chapter was about to unfold for the venerable quarry. Somewhat ironically, during a number of Whiteley’s first ventures to the site in the early ’90s, he had been accompanied by a father-son team of fossil enthusiasts, Dan and Jason Cooper. Both Coopers had gained a great appreciation for the local sedimentary layers while searching for-- and eventually finding-- the equally famed Beecher Beds of Oneida County, New York, where the first Triarthrus eatoni trilobites with preserved soft-body parts had been discovered in 1893. The Coopers also realized the immense potential still housed within the rocks of the Walcott-Rust quarry, and upon the completion of Whiteley’s work, they quickly stepped in with the intent of undertaking a massive commercial trilobite dig.

Eschewing some of the scientifically-inclined subtlety that Whiteley had utilized during his work, in 2008 the Coopers began the most extensive and thorough excavation the quarry had yet experienced. Their goals were clear-- to find, prepare and then sell the best trilobites ever uncovered at the quarry, which they believed would rank in quality with any trilobites found in anyother fossil-bearing strata on earth. They knew their task wouldn’t be an easy one because not only was the limestone rock incredibly hard to dig, it was also incredibly difficult to remove from the trilobites during preparation. But once they mastered the “trick” of masterful prep (which in finished quality far exceeded any previous work done by Walcott or Whiteley) they realized that these indeed were among the best trilobites ever found, anywhere. With their thick black shells, intricate surface ornamentation and incredible 3-D preservation, the trilobites were nothing short of spectacular. Some completed specimens were so lifelike in their fossilized appearance that it seemed all one needed to do was drop them in water and watch them swim off. 

The Coopers admit that they weren’t particularly surprised when their discoveries began making an immediate and dramatic impact on the world’s trilobite market. At leading fossil & mineral shows in Tokyo and Tucson, museum officials and private collectors openly sparred with one another to acquire the biggest, rarest and most perfectly preserved specimens of their Walcott-Rust trilobites. Huge, football shaped examples of Isotelus gigas battled for attention next to pristine displays of Flexicalymene senaria. Especially rare species such as the delicately-spined Apianuruswent directly into the collections at the Smithsonian while other unusual trilo-types such as the bubble-nosed Sphaerocoryphe and the elegant Amphilichas ended up in collections everywhere from Barcelona to New York City to Cancun. 

Such a response is a clear indication that more than a century after Charles Walcott first began his groundbreaking efforts, the material emerging from the Walcott-Rust quarry is in the midst of a world-wide renaissance. Beautiful Ordovician trilobites from the famed locale now fill museum displays as well as the pages of fossil-oriented literature. In addition, renewed scientific focus is being placed upon these specimens, many of which continue to yield new and surprising information about life in our ancient seas. Together, it’s all served to form an apt new chapter for an amazing paleontological tale.

“These trilobites deserve to be seen and appreciated,” Jason Cooper said. “We’re finding many of them in sufficient numbers so that both institutions and collectors can obtain perfect specimens. I think we’re approaching this dig very much in the vein that Walcott intended-- to make sure that key pieces end up in museums, but that everyone is rewarded properly for their efforts.”

The Walcott-Rust quarry in its current state. Layer-by-layer digs are still conducted there each summer with some of the world's best Ordovician trilobites emerging from these efforts.
Left to right: Dan Cooper, Marty Shugar, Andy Secher, Jason Cooper.
Jason Cooper, the quarry's primary excavator, puts some muscle behind his work.
Trilobites are far from abundant in the hard shale, and it takes years of experience, along with an eagle eye, to spot them.
The gray barn where the trilobite fossils from the Walcott Rust Quarry were initially stored.
The barn in which Walcott and Rust originally stored their finds still stands on a neighboring property.